Hegel’s “Concrete Universal” And The Problem Of Community – The “Citizen Subject” Under The Regime Of Neoliberalism, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series.  The first can be found here.

Žižek, in conversation with Balibar, zeroes in on how the formation of ideologies,  especially fascism, depend on a systematic distortion of the linguistic and collective psychological processes whereby “community” has come to be symbolized and imagined.  Fascism consists of a metastatic kind of metonymy, incorporating “a series of  features in which the exploited majority will be able to recognize its authentic longings.”

Žižek adds that “each hegemonic universality has to incorporate at least two particular contents, the authentic popular content as  well  as  its  distortion  by the relations of domination and exploitation.” “Fascist ideology,” for instance, “manipulates authentic popular longing for true community and social solidarity against fierce competition and exploitation.”(29)   Žižek offers the example of Christianity.  “How did Christianity become the ruling ideology? By incorporating a series of crucial motifs and aspirations of the oppressed – truth is on the side of the suffering and humiliated, power corrupts, and so on-and rearticulating them in such a way that they became compatible with the existing relations of domination.”(30)

Neoliberalism not only exploits, but exacerbates the very identity politics it foments through a differentialist syntactics that breaks down its grids of classification into highly granular, and overly nuanced fractions of the original elements.  For example, the United States Civil Rights Act of 1965 singled out so-called “protected” categories of persons, most of whom had already been stigmatized by a prima facie record of discrimination requiring severe legal remedies.   However, the neoliberal differentialist machinery subjected these classifications to further subdivison within the rhetorical grammar of inclusion and exclusion identifications  (e.g., not just “women”, but “gay women of color”) – a process that eventually came to be associated with the term “intersectionality”.

Likewise, familiar types of religious discrimination (the “profiling” of Muslims after 9/11) were polemically inflated over time to become synonymous with more emotionally charged memes.  As an example, the word “Islamophobia,” referring to a panoply of paranoid suspicions about the motives of  Muslims in general during the George W. Bush administration, now is less likely to be correlated with religious bigotry and more likely in the lexicon of “social justice” champions to be interchangeable with “racism.”

It matters little that Muslims until recently were not considered a racial category at all, unless they were falsely conflated by benighted minds with Arabs, and that many Caucasians, especially in Eastern Europe, happen to be Muslim.  These verbal contortions and varieties of synodic legerdemain do not arise through the evolution of common speech to reflect changing social perceptions about the meaning of alterity, but are well-crafted, hegemonic artifices mirroring Žižek’s own brief about multiculturalism as a tool of domination for the new, ruling “knowledge classes”, who strive to catalyze base-level social and  semantic resources for the manufacture and dissemination of a powerful new ideology that is no longer merely “divide and classify,” but “subdivide and shame into submission.”

Neoliberalism’s own unique brand of trope-mastered totalitarianism, therefore, engineers this regime of domination by orchestrating and enforcing through control of language and the public conscience, and by enlisting whenever possible its acolytes in the corporate media, a sense of infinite personal responsibility for everything they have defined as wrong in the world, maximizing generational guilt, and amplifying among the less educated feelings of profound social and political impotence that only the well-financed political establishment can remedy through action from above.

In the neoliberal Staatsreich that imposes its brave new world of linguistic tyranny dissent becomes equivalent to moral reprobation and political damnation.  How, then,” Žižek asks, “is this multiculturalist ideological poetry embedded in today’s global capitalism?”[3]  In a word, it is – again – the problem of how we conjugate the seemingly indecipherable notion of the “concrete universal”.

Žižek invokes Balibar to begin tackling this dilemma.  He calls on Balibar’s provocative thesis that the deeper dialectic of history depends on an inexorable push to balance out the two poles of what the latter terms “equaliberty” (French= l’égaliberté), the spectrum of identification that is easily reversible from the consciousness of one’s own “freedom” to the demand for “equality” which one perceives to have already attained the former.  This radical – and often insurrectionary – experience of disproportion lies at the heart of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

But, Žižek also suggests, it consists in the essential tension, as characterized by the Hegelian speculative philosophy, within the universal itself which can only have meaning if it contains within itself a force toward concrete and historical realization – in other words, toward the formation of community, which is impossible without the prior transformation of the immediate and seemingly incongruous elements of the social process as a whole.  Such a reading, so far as Balibar himself is concerned, leads to an unanticipated and surprising rapproachment between the “right” and the “left” variants of Hegelianism, including perhaps Marx himself.

Hegel was right, Žižek implies, to emphasize the critical, mediating role of the nation-state in the historical coalescence of the communitarian sense of solidarity (fraternité)  that the universalistic thrust of the formula of “equaliberty” engenders.  The nation-state served throughout the industrial era as an imaginary template for the implementation of the vital process of secondary self-identification in the process through which the modern, self-activating subject was abstracted from the immanent fabric of village, kinship, family, and feudal positionality.

And, as the instinctive fealty of the working classes to their respective nationalities showed at the outbreak of World War I, such a secondary identity was far more deep-seated than Marxist intellectuals could have predicted. Moreover, the appeal of fascism following the Great War was predicated on a conscious effort of a whole new breed of “futurists” and propagandists to leverage the power of the kind of secondary identification ingredient in the symbolic aura of nationalism.

Late capitalism (or neoliberalism), Žižek seems to propose, was only able to reconstitute itself by coming up with its own “postmodern” magic formula, that would break the tendency of workers to identify with the nation-state and become compliant servants of their distant, globalist, economic masters.  The formula was not, as Marxism sought, to emphasize a new, universalistic, proletarian “class consciousness”, transfiguring the quest for community into a tsunami of messianic, revolutionary mass action, but its opposite.

Neoliberalism through the moral cudgel of what Wendy Brown terms “responsibilism” – the inculcation in every subject an deeply internalized ethic of always having to be accountable for the presumed injustices inflicted on others – is able to exploit our collective good intentions and convert our most noble humanitarian sensitivities into an engine of economic production.  We can no longer “identify” with a larger, concrete body of persons with whom we are able to personally identify (such as other “Americans”), but congenitally nurse our feelings of inadequacy for failing to eliminate the sufferings which larger, more impersonal abstract “systems” wreak on other equally abstract classes of people.  We recoil from any kind of real, concrete identification with a larger “we” because it has been shown to be inherently toxic and destructive of others.  Multiculturalism forestalls, as Žižek insists, such secondary identification:

…the unexpected reversal of the passage from primary to secondary identification described by Hegel: in our postmodern’ societies, the ·abstract’ institution of secondary identification is increasingly experienced as an external, purely formal frame that is not really  binding, so that  one  is more and  more  looking  for support   in primordial’, usually smaller (ethnic, religious) forms of identification. Even when these forms of identification are more ·artificial’ than national identification-as is the case with the gay community-they are more ‘immediate’ in the sense of seizing the individual directly and overwhelmingly, in his specific ‘way of life’, thereby restraining the ‘abstract’ freedom he possesses in his capacity as the citizen of a Nation-State.(42)

Neoliberalism as the consummate political form of the multiculturalist logic, therefore, dangles before the new disenfranchised (the term both Hegel and Marx employed was “alienated”) as well as thoroughly “deconstructed” subject a cosmopolitan vision of a merely formalistic inclusivity that substitutes the abstract universalism of guilt and responsibility for the concrete universalism of vital community, one that can only be characterized by the lived experience of mutual recognition and ethical commitment.  The signifier for this species of community, according to Balibar, is the word “citizen”, which goes far beyond its nineteenth century intonation of Bürgerlich (or “bourgeois”) existence.

In his dense, but magisterial   philosophical tome entitled Citizen Subject Balibar seeks to respond decisively to Jean-Luc Nancy’s epochal question from the early 1990s – “Who comes after the subject?”  – which encapsulated at the time a conversation among various famous French philosophers concerning the post-structuralist critique of subjectivity.  Balibar’s larger work builds upon a single piece he contributed to the very same collection of essays.  In his introduction to the collection Nancy framed the question of the “who” in terms of “presence”.  “Who is there? Who is present there?”(7)

For Nancy, the issue of presence is not, as habitually inscribed within the metaphysical tradition, that of a bare “existent.”  The Cartesian cogito, which signifies the opening of the peculiar modern epoch that Heidegger in his critique of modernist metaphysics as one of “subjeticity”, is not reducible to an id.  When it comes to the question of the subject, it must always be fostered in terms of the indefinite personal pronoun, the “who”, the qui, the wer.  The “metaphysical” conundrum of the “I” of the “I think”, as Kant richly discerned, cannot be refracted through the lens of Aristotelian “first principles”.

The “metaphysics” of subjective presence cannot of necessity be carried further without taking once and for the de-ontological measure of what we mean by human “freedom”, which is ultimately both a social and a political question.  Nancy contends that “if existence, as Heidegger insists, exists according to the Jemeinigkeit, the ‘in each case mine’, it is not in the manner of an appropriation by ‘me’ at each moment, of every taking-place.” On the contrary, “freedom is not a quality, nor an operation of the existent: it is her/his/its coming into the presence of existence. If presence is presence to presence and not to self (nor of self) , this is because it is, in each case, presence in common.”  He concludes: “Who thinks, if not the community?”(8)

In his follow-up essay in the same volume entitled “Citizen Subject” Balibar notes appropriately that Descartes employed the term subjectum in the same way it was used both theologically and politically throughout the Middle Ages – namely, to designate one who is “subjected” in the absolutist sense of the word to the sovereign, whether that be God or the monarch.  In his commentary in the first half of the essay on Descartes’ Meditations Balibar does not call attention to the trajectory of the so-called “Cartesian circle” whereby Descartes puts in doubt his earlier certification of the cogito by calling upon God to substantiate it.

While it is this very rhetorical maneuver that admirers of Descartes’ genius usually find puzzling, it betrays nonetheless the philosopher’s own conventional understanding in his own day and age what is meant by the idea of “subjectivity.”  As Balibar rightly observes, it would take Kant’s postulate of a “transcendental” Ich to transpose the theoretical construct of the subjectum into the modern, as contrasted with the Medieval, idiom.

In the Medieval milieu the ego is but an epiphenomenon of an exterior sovereign willfulness.  In the modern setting, which found its climactic expression in German idealism, the transcendental “I” itself is sovereign and constitutive.  In most instances it is godlike.  Who, or “what”, then comes “after” the subject, for Balibar.  “The citizen (defined by his rights and duties) is that “nonsubject” who comes after the subject, and whose constitution and recognition put an end (in principle) to the subjection of the subject.”(38-9)

“Citizenship”, therefore, in the view of Balibar, is not simply a formal or legal attribute of “civic” identification and participation.  It is the concrete and decisively singular, if not personal, affirmation of the emancipatory project that makes visible the true essence of what we mean by “community”.   The composition of community remains inseparable from the ongoing, tensive relationship between the ideals of freedom and equality (“equaliberty”).

In the ancient world, according to Balibar, “citizenship” was founded on the rights of those who are “free” in keeping with a certain “noble” or “excellent” (άριστος) status by birth.   “Equality” was something that did not inhere in the “bare life” (ζωή) of humanity. Slaves, women, and barbarians did not share in the life of the “citizen”, whose unique kind of “life” (βίος) instead was a “political” (πολίτης) one.  They were not free (and thus did not enjoy “rights”), because they were not equal.   However, the theory of “natural rights,” first formulated in the late seventeenth century and brought full term with the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, turned this logic upside down.

As Balibar comments:  

It is now a matter of thinking the inverse: a freedom founded on equality, engendered by the movement of equality. Thus an unlimited or, more precisely,self-limited freedom: having no limits other than those it assigns to itself in orderto respect the rule of equality, that is, to remain in conformity with its principle.In other terms , it is a matter of answering the question: Who is the citizen? and notthe question: Who is a citizen? (or: Who are citizens?). The answer is: The citizen is a man in enjoyment of all his “natural” rights, completely realizing his individual humanity, a free man simply because he is equal to every other man.(45)  

Under the modern paradigm one does not start as a “subject” and is granted “citizenship”.  One is “born free”, as Rousseau makes plain at the opening of the Social Contract, giving him the “natural” right of citizenship, or at least (again in Arendt’s prescription) the “right to have rights.”

If “equality” rather than “freedom” counts as the modern as well as the postmodern a priori for both political classification and the criteriology of belonging, then the emancipatory project itself would seem open-ended.   “Citizenship” would be a given; it would not need to be conferred.  But here Balibar harks back once more to Rousseau (and by implication Kant, who would come after him).

The citizen is not “free” because he or she is no longer a subiectum.   Citizens “subject” themselves to the “law.”   The law functions in both Balibar’s and Rousseau’s account as the transcendental condition of “free” and “equal” political life.  It is the law, and the law alone, that transmutes the “natural liberty” of human beings into what the French revolutionaries proclaimed were the “rights of man.”

By Rousseau’s reckoning it is the law that manifests the “general will” which, in turn, embodies the core principle of an ever expanding and more inclusive democracy that Balibar has defined as “equaliberty”.  It is the realization of freedom through the achievement of equality by dint of the law, rather than the other way around, that makes authentic community possible.

But the Rousseauean recipe for equaliberty becomes more problematic as modernity moves forward, Balibar maintains later on in the book Citizen Subject.  The challenge resides in the manner in which the political formula of equaliberty can historically perform as a vehicle for concretizing the universal tout court.   In contrast with the Rousseauean rubric for the constitution of the politeia, which ultimately recapitulated itself as a transfer of the seat of sovereignty from the autocrat to the populace at large, the modern challenge consists in correlating “equality” with reciprocal recognition.

The task is one of fashioning “an ‘immanent’ community whose principle of unity, going beyond simply adding up the individualities or subjectivities that compose it, does not presuppose the existence of the One, or the incorporation of a transcendent Law; it relies, instead, exclusively upon the reciprocity or mutual recognition, and thus also upon the conflicts among its members.”(126)  The multiculturalist calculus of “adding up” certain demographic sets as preconceived “identities” serves only to lay down barriers to the kind of “universal” community which the Hegelian dialectic roughs out, the Marxist critique of political economy aims to make more substantial, and the theory of mutual recognition endeavors to render visible.

The theory of mutual recognition is not an algorithm by any stretch of the imagination.  It emerges, as Balibar points out, as a portion of “the paradoxical alliance of finitude and infinity inherent to the double representation of the ‘I’ as ‘We’ and the ‘We’ as ‘I’.”(130) The “who” of community persists not merely on a transcendental but on a “spiritual” (in the Hegelian sense) plane of reference.

Yet this “spiritual” relation is constituted by the tension of difference.  It is a universality that can be delineated not so much as “extensive” (a la cosmopolitanism)  as “intensive” (the immanent constriction of self and “other” within an immediate polity such as the neighborhood, the city, or the nation-state).   In short, it is an intensive universality that sublates the familiar and seemingly irreconcilable polarities of our current political debates – monocultural hegemony versus the promotion of diversity, exclusivity versus inclusivity, identitarianism versus communitarianism.

What makes  “citizens”, as opposed to “subjects”, according to Balibar, is that they rightfully demand recognition by others with whom they are inured inside the social matrix.  This demand derives from the understanding that a right to be recognized (which is in the same breath the “right to have rights”) is implicit in the modern concept of the political itself, chiefly because the “universal”, as Hegel for the first time in the history of philosophical thought discerned, does not consist in a mathesis that formally computes various collectivities, sets, and sums, but amounts to a multi-dimensional integration of differences encountered by competing subjectivities.

As Hegel’s Phenomenology makes evident, every singular as well as historical moment of interhuman engagement becomes a “dialectical” occasion for these competing subjectivities to uncover, assert, and in the end enlarge the realm of “freedom” in the form of a mutually respectful and solicitous community animated by the experience of difference.  The formal limitation of “liberty” in the abstract sense through the consent of the citizen to the power and legitimacy of the common  law – the axial point for the Rousseauean rendering of the “social contract” – guarantees that these competing subjectivities will not turn out instead to be occasion for violent insurrection.

There is no democracy without the celebration of difference, so long as differences are not formally pitted against each other as part of a strategy for remedying one form of inequality with another.  The rationale, therefore, becomes straightforward.  The celebration of difference is intended simultaneously to democratize and to humanize, insofar as (in Balibar’s view) the universal is most profoundly expressed through each competing particular, through each positionality, through each intersubjective aporia.

Balibar puts it as follows:

Each anthropological difference as such traverses humanity as a whole; and each represents the universal against utterances that, in attempting to “neutralize” it, end up “communitarizing” it, since such attempts always end up instituting citizenship as a restricted community solely of “normal persons,” “civilized men,” “responsible subjects,” and so on.  This is why such rebel voices evoke, in fine, nothing less than the differential of subjectivity by means of which the universal becomes (or rather becomes anew) a political figure, qualifying a constitutive citizenship that can be neither regulated nor imposed from on high. (282, Emphasis mine)

Balibar, however, argues that the “intensive universality”, which affixes citizenship as the master marker of genuine community, requires a certain “exclusionary” distinction.  Political participation must be defined as something far more substantial than unfettered access to certain social beneficences administered by the state.  Balibar’s concept of community as intrinsically political in this regard thus contrasts decidedly with Foucault’s contention that the latter term has been absorbed from the Enlightenment forward into the biopolitical mold of what the Sozialstaat envisioned by Marx and generations of social democrats.  Balibar adheres doggedly to the classical notion that the “political” as a communal space in which “inclusion” depends on both rights and responsibilities.

What Balibar refers to as the “communitarizing” factor in the political equation is tantamount to the Hegelian self-revelation of the Absolute to itself in an association of finite beings who “recognize” that they belong to, and exist for, one another because of each reciprocal “subject” to intuit the infinite in the subjectivity of both themselves and the mysterious other.  As indicated at the outset, the question of community is at its heart the very ontological predicament of alterity.

In an era when the neoliberal juggernaut of cognitive capitalism continues to grind down the freedom and capacity of human beings within countless social and political horizons for resolving that alterity as a communitas meshed together through mutual respect, recognition, and even love, our “responsibility to the other,” as the philosopher Levinas has famously put it, becomes ever more pronounced.  “Politics” in the sense of what Claude Lefort, drawing on conventional French usage, terms la politique (“politics as usual”, so to speak) has always sought to immanentize the eschaton.

But what he dubs le politique (the transcendental form of “the political”) is sutured to a presence and a power that directs us toward an eschatology that is both immanent and transcendent at the same time.  It is found in the “kingdom” that is simultaneously “here” and “not here”, but always pressing on us the anticipations of its impending parousia.   It is the community that is not a “form” but a mutual facing of faces, a community that is defined by the presence of the infinite in the face of the other.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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