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The end of liberalism and the dawning of a "politics of recognition"
Why the "revolution of respect" is unstoppable, and why the discourse of "liberation" and "oppression" is a dead-end proposition
The current global crisis of liberalism, as we recently observed, is that it was founded on a political theory of “possessive individualism” (in the words of C.B. Macpherson) that in the fractious seventeenth century at the dawn of the modern European age replaced a Christianized vision of natural law with the doctrine of “natural rights”, one which sanctified increasing demands for personal “liberty” in exchange for a conflictual view of human society that would result in wars and revolutionary upheavals throughout the ensuing centuries.
The conflictual history of liberalism is not the issue here. Liberalism has made the modern world, and the die was long ago cast. The English, American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions along with the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century have sealed our planetary fate.
A dark dialectic has taken hold, one in which the liberation of some has gone in hand in glove with the servitude of others. In the latter case we need only ponder the industrialization of thralldom of Africans in the American South after the War of Independence, the impoverishment and “immiseration” of factory workers in urban slums throughout the nineteenth century once capital was “freed” from the mercantile policies of monarchs, the growing global scourge of human trafficking as a kind of “modern day slavery” in the backwash of the sexual revolution.
The global “neoliberal” hegemony of finance, knowledge production, communications, and technological surveillance is not some aberrant side venture, but a fruition of the profound internal logic of liberalism itself across the centuries. Over time the “blessings of liberty” appear to have outstripped the “collateral damage” wrought by its historical machinery. But a final reckoning may be closer than we imagine.
The paradox of liberalism was always that under the revolutionary banner of “liberty” and “equality” the loss of liberty for some accompanied by the growth of massive inequalities for others proceeded apace. Outside the Anglosphere and those Continental European powers that in the modern era adopted some version of it the legacy of liberalism has been decidedly mixed.
The ascendancy of liberal politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not only guaranteed the institutionalization of slavery for obvious economic reasons, according to Domenico Losurdo, but also stampeded the expansion of colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In his classic work published the British economist J.A. Hobson argued that the productive energies of the industrial revolution ignited by liberal demolition of monarchism a century earlier had created an insatiable need for the investment of excess capital and the creation of foreign markets. The result was the renowned “scramble for Africa” as part of the brutal and deliberate exploitation of indigenous peoples by the more economically and technologically sophisticated nations of Europe, which came to be known as “imperlalism”.
Hobson pointed out that the justification for this exploitation was the sanctimonious shibboleth of liberal politicians, constantly referring to their “civilizing mission” toward underdeveloped populations. In truth their “emancipatory” rhetoric, he emphasized, was totally hypocritical. “Upon the vast majority of the populations throughout our Empire we have bestowed no real powers of self-government, nor we have any serious intention of doing so”, Hobson wrote in 1900.
The reason, as critical race theorist Charles Mills would argue at the turn of the millennium, was that liberalism itself must be seen as a “historic system of global white supremacy”, as “a social ontology partitioned, on the basis of qualitative differentials in rationality, between persons and racial subpersons”, the latter of whom happen to be black.
In his book From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism Mills would argue that the same kind of “partitioning” had taken place with gender identity as well. But in critiquing the incapacity of the liberal project to emancipate black bodies he failed to realize that he was inadvertently highlighting its own “original sin”, that is, its own abstract “ontology” that elevates individual self-consciousness over other human beings who persist in a perpetual conflictual relation, the so-called “state of nature”.
It was actually the famed, but obscure German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who in 1807 was the first to diagnose the primal pathology of liberalism and call for an entirely new way of understanding human knowledge and experience.
Having witnessed with horror the violence and chaos unleashed by the French Revolution in the name of “universal liberty” , Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit sought to exorcise the demon of a liberal “self-consciousness” that is “self-equal through the exclusion from itself of everything else.”
In other words, genuine emancipation requires a “knowing of oneself” that cannot be separated from a “knowing of the other”. Liberalism under the guise of what today we dub “identity politics” assumes that knowledge of oneself and the right to self-expression are the ultimate endgame of human evolution.
But liberalism in this format means simply that history itself now becomes the theater of conflict which its grand theory had ascribed to the state of nature, which human beings were supposed to have left in the establishment of civil society. The proliferation of rights entails the boundless multiplication of new grievances and entitlements, whose consequences must be addressed through the further specification of what and whom must function as an “exclusion from itself of everything else.”
In Hegel’s scheme there are no rights without “recognition”. Although the theory of “recognition” has rarely been given the same attention in the development of democratic politics as the theory of rights, it is – especially today – of paramount importance. In fact, it is the only approach that can make sense, according to Simon Thomas, out of the global political scene nowadays. It is a “struggle which a particular group demands that other groups give it public acknowledgement for some feature it possesses, for which it thinks that it deserves recognition.”
Thomas assimilates the idea of recognition for the most part to what we call “identity politics”. But in the view of Francis Fukuyama the struggle for recognition is not so much about particular groups clamoring for recognition as a universal demand for dignity. On that score a true politics of recognition transcends identity politics.
Identity politics, as conventionally understood, belongs within the querulous bequest of classic liberalism insofar as it is concerned largely with who has been excluded, who is justified in resisting their “oppression”, and who has been denied their “rights”. But the politics of recognition, as Fukuyama stresses, focuses instead on an effort to articulate and implement a state of affairs “in which the dignity of every human being [is] recognized.”
That is not only what Hegel meant by “recognition”, it is also the endogenous theme that renders the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights somewhat distinct from the American Declaration of Independence, or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Whereas the latter two eighteenth century documents parade such familiar terms as “liberty” and “sovereignty”, the UN version starts off with a “recognition of the inherent dignity” of all human beings as the foundation of their “inalienable rights”.
Fukuyama suggests that this irrepressible desire for dignity (what the ancient Greeks called thymos) arises from an inner realization that one’s own self is more valuable than others allows it to be. The preoccupation of the late modern, or post-modern, world with what Marxism called “consciousness raising” fuels this attitude. From such a perspective the “inside” of one’s positionality is never commensurate with the “outside”. Thus, Fukuyama writes, “the broadening and universalization of dignity turns the private quest for self into a political project”.
Yet, as Hegel made clear when he broached the topic during the Napoleonic wars, the very notion of “recognition” implies we must achieve some sort of commensurability between how I view myself and how others regard me. I cannot simply scream “look at me” and expect everyone else to respond accordingly. Both dignity and recognition presume that rights have an inextricable reciprocal function within the political order.
In other words, my rights are not exclusive of your rights, and vice versa. Furthermore, contra classic liberalism my rights are inscribed within a structure of mutual responsibility to recognize and respect, even if I do not accept it, the moral position or cognitive formation that defines whom I might be in opposition. Liberalism accounts only for how I see it.
The self-destructive automaton built into the political philosophy of liberalism – Macpherson’s “possessive individualism” – guarantees that one’s “rights” can be regarded as endless, whereas one’s “responsibility to the Other”, as the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called it, are minimal.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the historical momentum of liberalism led to the overthrow of tyrannical monarchial regimes with the same stroke that it codified black chattel slavery through the justification that it was protecting “property”. Similarly, so-called “gender ideology” can simultaneously affirm at a basic level the rights of transgender individuals to be recognized as outside the conventional social binary while in its more divisive manifestation provoke hostile pushback from women who allege an assault on their own dignity and privacy.
The political theory of recognition has gained traction since the turn of the millennium on account of the planetary impact of what I myself have termed the “revolution of respect”. But the revolution requires its own kind of “social ontology” that has heretofore been missing as the crackup of liberalism daily becomes more evident.
That is the subject area to which we shall turn in the next and concluding segment of these reflections.