Vive la difference

October 13, 1995

John Gray argues for new ways of political thinking that address the deep cultural diversity of the age and replace the bankrupt ideologies, both Left and Right, of the past.

The public cultures of contemporary western societies are dominated by manifold variations on the thinking of the 18th-century philosophical movement, the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and individualism and its hope of a universal civilisation. Nor is this surprising. Counter-Enlightenment movements in our century have been expressions of atavism, seeking as did Nazism, and as the many varieties of ethnic revanchism and religious fundamentalism are doing to regain the enchanted world that enlightenment cultures have lost. Such a re-enchantment of the world is an impossibility in western cultures which enlightenment rationality has transformed irreversibly. Yet, even as enlightenment rationality has made earlier types of thought and feeling irretrievable, the Enlightenment project has proved to be self-destroying, its foundations eaten away by forms of critical rationality the Enlightenment itself sponsored. Ours are enlightenment cultures not by positive conviction but by default.

This ironic dialectic of enlightenment is well illustrated in the recent history of conservatism. If conservative philosophy ever had anything truly distinctive to express, it was scepticism towards the central Enlightenment project of forging a universal civilisation, in which there would be convergence on a rational morality that owed nothing to tradition, authority or the historical accidents of cultural difference. Whatever its many defects, including its sponsorship of imperialist policies, traditional conservatism preserved a sense of the ironies of progress, and of the truth that the meaning of human life is always a local affair, that prevented the complete triumph of enlightenment rationalism. Yet the New Right project is merely one more variation on the Enlightenment project that which seeks to legitimate the economic inequalities arising from unfettered markets by the construction of new forms of managerial authority and by policies of social engineering designed to reconstitute "traditional" forms of family life. In a late modern context in which traditions are dissolved by the subversive dynamism of global markets only to become the objects of a reactionary and nostalgist public policy, the historical space in which traditional conservative thought and practice can develop has ceased to exist. The contemporary Right is as committed to the Enlightenment project of progress toward a universal civilisation as classical Marxism though it signally lacks Marx's perception of the inherently tragic conflicts which progress entails.

The fragility of western enlightenment cultures has another source, which is best exemplified in liberal thought. Liberalism has ever been dependent on an Enlightenment philosophy of history on conceptions of progress, of civilisation and barbarism, in which Western values and institutions are authoritative for all of humankind which contemporary historical tendencies falsify. Contrary to Francis Fukuyama and his thesis of "the end of history", the enduring significance of the Soviet collapse may well turn out not to be "the universal triumph of the Western idea", but instead the beginning of its retreat, as the westernising, Enlightenment ideology through which Russia vainly pursued modernity is thrown off. If this is so, it will be another mortal blow to the Europocentric philosophy of history that sustains liberalism. That non-Occidental cultures could modernise themselves, by deploying science and technology and adopting urban and industrial modes of life, without thereby westernising themselves, is a prospect ignored, or repressed, in all enlightenment liberalisms but now, in East Asia, and soon perhaps in India, a reality.

In John Stuart Mill, the dependency of liberal philosophy on a Europocentric interpretation of history is candid and explicit. In the Rawlsian liberalisms that have occluded Anglo-American political thought over the past generation, this dependency is present as a subtext, repudiated in the surface discourse of analytical philosophy, but necessary if the principles that are laboriously articulated in liberal theory are to avoid being (what all of them manifestly are) mere distillates of particular, historically contingent, western cultural forms. How else could it be reasonable to adopt a method in political thought which has at its centre a cipher the liberal subject whose only referent in historical reality is the experience of some people in contemporary western individualist cultures, most particularly in the United States?

The form of political thinking that such liberalisms express is a species of legalism, which seeks to specify a fixed set of basic liberties or rights, and insulate them from the contingencies of political discourse and practice. The Americocentric character of this legalist liberalism is manifest. What may be less obvious is the uselessness, even in the US, of a method in political thought whose central category is a historyless cipher. As the problems of US society enter a zone whose very existence the dominant liberal school of US political thought denies the zone of problems insoluble by theories of rights or justice it is perhaps timely that the credentials of all such theories be questioned. In the real world, human beings do not have histories by accident. They belong to particular communities, and they are practitioners of specific ways of life, by which their identities are always largely constituted. The liberal project, as that has been pursued in the US legalist tradition, is in effect a project for the privatisation of these identities, and of the legal disestablishment of their animating cultures. The central objection to the project of liberal legalism is not, ultimately, that the rights it seeks to entrench, and to seal off from political deliberation and decision, are mostly as much a matter of fashion as charm is. It is that the adjudication of "fundamental rights" or "principles of justice" is no way to seek a peaceful modus vivendi in a society that contains an irreducible diversity of distinct communities, traditions and ways of life.

In nearly all its forms, the Left project also remains a series of variations on the Enlightenment project. Incongruously, this is true of much Green theory, and of "postmodernism". In both, humanist ideas conceptions of universal emancipation and of individual self-creation (pursued through the contemporary via negativa of deconstruction) coexist with conceptions in which the primacy of human agency in the world is denied. "Postmodernism" can be understood as a reformulation of the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment but virtually an immanent one, in that it endorses the emancipatory thrust of the Enlightenment, in which history and locality are constraints on human freedom, while claiming to attack its universalism. A more consistent and realistic stance is one which accepts the postmodern condition and its implications for the Enlightenment project. For us, the postmodern predicament, in which what we inherit are fractured and provisional perspectives, is an historical fate, which it is idle to try to conjure away. We will do better if, rather than trying vainly to piece together the fragments that compose our world, and thereby merely trailing in the Enlightenment's wake, we turn to a newer way of thinking, and try to contrive practices and institutions in which we can live peacefully with diversity.

A newer way of political thinking some intimations of which can perhaps be found in the later writings of Heidegger, despite the horrible and never-renounced engagement with Nazism that haunts them would begin by abandoning the conception of human history as a universal narrative in which specific cultures are episodes or phases. It would replace global conceptions of the progress of the species with local ideas of betterment. And it would seek to undermine the conception of the natural world as site for the exercise of human wilfulness, or as a resource for the satisfaction of human purposes, which animates even much environmental thought. Such a newer way of political thinking would break decisively with the impoverished individualism which informed the neoliberal policies of the New Right, in which people were conceived in the terms of vulgar economism as bundles of consumer choices, and conceptions of the common good understood as consumer preferences. It would reject no less firmly the legalist conception of human beings as au fond individual rights-bearers. As communitarian theorists have rightly stressed, we are necessarily social and historical animals, bound up with one another in a frail web of obligations that has been spun across the generations. The political task for us is not only the Hobbesian one of seeking a modus vivendi. It is also building up the rudiments of a common life, and sheltering them against the destructive radicalism of unfettered market forces.

Much communitarian thought has been weakened by nostalgia for forms of family and social life that are irrecoverable (and which in any case are irreconcilable with the contemporary demand for individual autonomy). It has shied away from confrontation with the economic realities that disrupt communities not only long-term unemployment, but the imperative of incessant mobility that is imposed by a deregulated labour market. Such economic realities make a mockery of communitarian ideals of renewing common forms of life. Yet the enduring human needs to which common forms of life answer do not disappear merely because they are not recognised in conventional political theory and mainstream political practice. In some recent communitarian discourse, "community" figures in much the same way as "individual" or "person" does in standard liberal thinking as a cipher, a disabling abstraction whose effect is to obscure the differences and conflicts in the midst of which we actually live.

A newer form of political thinking would acknowledge that the universalist categories of Enlightenment thought have little leverage on an age marked by deep cultural diversity. It would accept that the plurality of communities and social forms to which most of us belong makes the pursuit of an "organis" or conflict-free social solidarity, as that has been undertaken by some on both the Right and the Left, a dangerous distraction. And it would perceive that neither the liberal legalist discourse of rights, nor the neoliberal conception of social life as a vast marketplace, can help us live with our differences that is, with each other in common. That is a political task. Permeated by the pursuit of universal principles which will make the radical collective choices of political life unnecessary, Enlightenment modes of political thinking cannot aid us in this task.

Political thought that is shaped by enlightenment assumptions and expectations about the evanescence of cultural differences, and which is animated by the project of a single universal civilisation, is a poor guide to the world in which we live. It distorts our perception even of law and the market, which are not universals, but particular cultural institutions, whose forms vary considerably. Enlightenment political thought participates in the animating illusion of enlightenment cultures, which is that their particular forms are approximations to a universal model. It is a mark of the newer, nonstandard kind of political thinking we need that it turns away from these hallucinatory universal vistas, back towards the minute particulars of political practice, in which alone peace and common life can be found or lost.

John Gray is a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age by John Gray, published by Routledge on October 19, Pounds 19.99

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