The following is the text of the University Lecture given by New Polis editor Carl Raschke for the University of Denver (DU). According to the DU website, “the University Lecturer Award is given in recognition of superlative creative and scholarly work”. The transcript is published in two parts. The second can be found here.
As we plod more deeply into the new millennium, we are confronted by new hopes and old demons. Unprecedented threats replace ancient anxieties. The passing of the torch from one generation to the next has lifted the gaze of neither young nor old toward remote mountain tops. Think back to Barack Obama’s promise in the 2008 election of “hope and change”. The same autumn Obama sealed his electoral victory with that inspired, yet cliched rallying cry, a monumental financial crisis sent the emergent post-Cold War planetary economy into a tailspin from which many sectors never really recovered.
The beguiling promise from the H.W. Bush era of a “new world order” founded on liberal social values, shaped by democratic capitalism, seasoned with promises of limitless material prosperity for once impoverished global masses, and celebrated with an apocalyptic ferocity by visionaries such as famed political economist Francis Fukuyama -the one who described the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 as the “end of history”, turned up wanting. Like the giant ship Titanic, it blundered into an iceberg and sank precipitously into the murk and maelstrom of the ages.
Now, almost a decade and a half later, we are still drifting about in our flimsy lifeboats without any clear direction as to where the tides might be taking us. A new and militant authoritarianism, both leftward and rightward facing, is on the march on all continents and casts into serious doubt the credibility of the cosmopolitan comity and democratic idealism that engorged the progressive imagination for several decades. For much of the world’s population, and not just in this country, the project of producing engaged, global “citizens” whose loyalties and commitments transcend national boundaries increasingly comes across as pious flimflam.
The idea of a “citizen”, as the French thinker Étienne Balibar reminds us, is one whose subjectivity is saturated with good intentions and real agency. “Citizen-subjects”, as he calls them, are designed to create dynamic communities of difference, communities in which the struggle to make self-conscious and self-confident players inside the public space is made possible only by balancing the three aspects of citizenship. These three aspects are enshrined in the rhetoric of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité, fraternité – or as we should translate them properly – “freedom, equality, and, reciprocal solidarity”.
Balibar says the basis of this reciprocal solidarity is a concerted commitment to both liberty and equality, what he dubs “equaliberty”. But in the planetary context the kind of “equaliberty” vital to any sense of global citizenship has been corrupted and compromised by galloping economic and social inequalities, which so-called democratic capitalism has unleashed. The “end of history” has shown itself to be just another blip on the screen of history. It has turned to be one of the most turbulent periods of history. And the occasion for this turbulence is a certain ubiquitous, but opaque background process that scholars since the Reagan era have come to term “globalization.”
It is not coincidental that the term “globalization” was coined by Theodore Levitt, a professor at the Harvard Business School in a 1983 essay entitled “The Globalization of Markets”. Unlike those international theorists and political pundits who popularized the word throughout the Nineties, Levitt was decidedly uninterested in promoting free trade and democratic elections. Nor did he advocate for the relaxation of restrictions on currency and capital flows, or the strengthening of multilateral treaties and transnational institutions. In that essay he singled out the growing importance of data-aggregation technology and communication networks in the process of global economic integration. Successful businesses utilize this new, rapidly evolving information infrastructure, he wrote, to reach customers on all continents. Levitt drew an epochal distinction between what he called the “multinational” and the “global” corporation. The former strives for market share. The latter aims for what I would term “value share.” Levitt wrote:
The most effective world competitors incorporate superior quality and reliability into their cost structures. They sell in all national markets the same kind of products sold at home or in their largest export market. They compete on the basis of appropriate value—the best combinations of price, quality, reliability, and delivery for products that are globally identical with respect to design, function, and even fashion.
From both a business and an economic standpoint so many of Levitt’s passions and prescriptions now strike us as dated, if not retro. But if forty years later we can begin to unpack what is salvageable from his conceptual time capsule, we uncover a curious insight overlooked by almost all intellectual luminaries concerning what it truly means to be a “global thinker”. That phrase, by the way, is one we rely upon these days to highlight the aims of our common curriculum and the aspirations of our own DU graduates.
The key piece in the Levitt quote, on which I want to dwell now, is that many-splendored word “value”. Levitt is of course talking about a rather vague notion that can be traced back to early modern political economists, in particular Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Smith and Marx effectively manufactured much of the critical political discourse of the last two and a half centuries. Each in their own signature manner, Smith and Marx founded modern political economy. They were also the first to have pondered what today we refer to as the theory of value.
Smith is frequently, but wrongly, considered the grand theorist of capitalism. “Capitalism” is a term which never occurs in his masterwork The Wealth of Nations. Smith, like Marx after him, was less concerned about maximizing the aggregate production of wealth than in demonstrating what he called the “real value” of goods and services, which he distinguished from their “exchange value” or nominal price. Both Smith and Marx, building on the insights of John Locke more in the late seventeenth century, located the source of value in human labor. Smith wrote in volume 1: “Labor alone, therefore, never varying in its own value, is alone the ultimate and real standard by which the value of all commodities can at all times and places be estimated and compared. It is their real price.”
Similarly, Marx in his multi-volume work Capital famously set forth what has come to be known as the “labor theory of value”. And he took it an even one step further ny arguing that capital accumulation amounted to the extortion, or expropriation, of the value of labor from the laborer. Marx offered a rather sophisticated riff on the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s quip that “property is theft”.
My point here is not to rehash modern political economy. Economics nowadays has largely rejected the labor theory of value. But the persistence of the theory of value in its different iterations of what the nineteenth century dubbed the “human sciences” (i.e., the humanities) testifies to its remarkable longevity. For example, whenever a faculty member or student at some venerable bastion of the higher learning goes on Twitter and gains press attention by saying something that outrages a sensitive constituency, the college or university promptly and compliantly issues an official disclaimer that whatever was said does not reflect its “community values”.
Science has always been befuddled by the theory of value. That is in spite of the fact that Plato, the five-hundred pound gorilla of Western philosophy who crafted the first procedural manual for the pursuit of what we term “scientific” knowledge,” labelled his version of ultimate reality with a unique value term. The term he came up with for the absolute name of all things is to agathon, or simply “the good”. Later on Friedrich Nietzsche went so far as to claim there is a covert value content to all forms of scientific reasoning. Values matter, and in fact a baseline human suspicion all along has been that there is no such thing as a “value-free” rationality.
In brief, what Levitt seemed to be saying is that the emergence of something dimly, if not often fancifully, imagined as a “global community” – even a global community preoccupied with commerce and personal consumption – functions best when things are valued in a variety of ways other than as sterile commodities. To restate Marx a bit crudely, a little piece of each of us can be found in all the things we fabricate and use. That is the labor we contribute to their creation in the first place, or “living labor”. Which is why the classical political economists always tried in their attempt to explain collective economic behavior to get the most mileage out of a slippery notion they themselves invented, the idea of “utility”.
The term as it has been used in the literature from Jeremy Bentham to Milton Friedman usually connotes consumer satisfaction. But Fukuyama himself, in one of his more recent books, argues that, if we are ever to shed light on the mysteries of human subjectivity, we must assign to the word “utility” far more profound implications than it has in the literature of politics and economics. Fukuyama today seems to be backtracking on his earlier failed prophecy from the 1990s that the quest for the freedom to pursue wealth and financial security is the very mainstay of democracy. Fukuyama writes:
…modern economic theory is built around the assumption that human beings are rational individuals who all want to maximize their ‘utility’—that is, their material well-being—and that politics is simply an extension of that maximizing behavior. However, if we are ever to properly interpret the behavior of real human beings in the contemporary world, we have to expand our understanding of human motivation beyond this simple economic model that so dominates much of our discourse. (30)
According to Fukuyama, we have neglected to factor in the indomitable human desire for recognition on the part of other human beings, not just our most relevant “significant others” but all those within our global orbit of awareness. The real utility, he insists, is the demand for respect, for an authentic sense of dignity.
According to the Fukuyama, it is the demand for respect and dignity rather than mere satisfaction of keeping ourselves, as well as our stuff, safe from harm, far recognition rather than health or wealth, that is driving the process Levitt dubbed “globalization”. The dictionary defines “respect” as an “estimation of the inherent dignity or excellence of a person.” Recognizing you or me for who we are, individually and corporately, making it clear that I am worthy and that I have value in myself and for myself, are the real “value propositions” that increasingly most people bring to the table. They rely on these values not only when they are making a purchase, but when they are deciding whether something needs to be purchased at all, or even whether they should give away their money.
We can trace the gestation of this kind of thinking in the “socially conscious” investment movement that gained traction in the 1990s and more recently in the phenomenon labelled by the media as The Great Resignation, where not just professionals but blue collars workers are refusing to work in certain jobs that they feel overstresses or demeans them, even if the tradeoff is a serious loss of income. Even Vladmir Putin’s take on the Ukrainian crisis, no matter how warped and cynical it may be, comes down to a complaint that America does not give Russia proper “respect” on the international stage. Constituencies that political parties everywhere once took for granted are clamoring that they need to be respected and are no longer will to be taken for granted no longer.
In other words, the supposedly “scientific” construct of “utility”, as Fukuyama stresses, can no longer be calibrated strictly with material value. It can no longer be reduced to such palpable factors as buying power, long-term financial security, good salaries, or even investment opportunities, the presumed motivations for social behavior around which political economists have formulated what is known as “rational choice theory”.
How we as human subjects navigate our day to day activities within a raging sea of intruding alien subjectivities, how we learn to make crucial distinctions between the sphere of us and the universe of them, how who regularly nurture and support those we include in the space of those we call “our own”, yet remain those who those who have expectations of us and judge us if we fail to live up to such expectations, and how we look upon and constantly refine our own sense of selfhood through this lifelong, process of striving to recognize others, and be recognized as worthy of value and respect, this everyday, all-too-familiar, give and take between ourselves and others confounds the conventional wisdom that human beings are easily predictable, if not programmable. The advent of Big Data and artificial intelligence have unfortunately enabled an addiction to this fantasy. Just give me an inexhaustible amount data points and the right algorithms along with sufficient high-powered machine-learning capabilities, and we can tell you not only what you are thinking, but how you should think.
As computer scientist Erik J. Larson has pointed out in his influential book The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do, this adolescent “broromance” with computation science for its own sake is buttressed by the real revolution in economic productivity and efficiency that machine learning has brought. Yet the fatal flaw lies in this kind of thought, an almost imperceptible fallacy that the philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle termed a “category mistake” once applied to human intelligence. According to Larson, rationality is much more than problem-solving or complex protocols of rule-based inferences. “General intelligence”, as Larson puts it, is the vast, labyrinthine Gestalt of what is actually going on in each of our brains as we jockey and aim to communicate with each other.
The category mistake itself was spotted in the early twentieth century by the celebrated mathematician Kurt Gödel. Gödel discovered that all formal inference, which is what machine learning comprises, are disrupted by something called “self-reference”. Gödel’s illustration was telling. You can prove just about anything in such an inferential system, but what you cannot prove within the system per se is the following proposition: “This statement is not provable within this system.”
Nor can you prove the proposition “the study of mathematics is not worth my time.” That is what we call a “value statement”. In rebuttal someone can argue effectively that not learning mathematics will impair your ability to function in a certain appropriate role within society, but many will prefer for whatever reason to muddle along with what others would consider inadequate skills in numeracy. They may be giving you advice on how might you’re your life, but the sentiment “it’s not worth my time” can never be boiled down to any matter of fact. Their advice simply amounts to a contrarian view of what we mean by “utility”. They want to be valued – or perhaps we should say “esteemed” – even for their refusal to acquire what others would consider minimal math skills. And they want other people’s valuations to match their self-valuation. They are seeking not just the esteem of others, but a confidence in their subjective gesture of self-reference. Their ultimate desire is “self-esteem”.
In philosophy the technical term for the study of values is known as “axiology, from the Greek word axiom, or “worth”. Interestingly, in mathematics an axiom also is something you can’t prove. It is merely the starting point for proofs. It is what Gödel termed an “undecidable”. Undecidables are, according to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, “undeconstructible,” that is, they don’t break down into molecular clumps of fractionated quanta as one scrutinizes them. The view that value-assertions are undecidable has a distinguished lineage that runs all the way back to the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who maintained that moral claims and arguments cannot be adduced from hypothesis and testing, regardless of how much empirical data might be available. The sentiment has been succinctly captured in Kant’s dictum that “one cannot derive ought form is”.
The English philosopher G. E. Moore insisted that the apparent unanalyzability of value statements arises from the fact that they cannot be validated with reference to certain initial conditions or experimental observations. A vegetarian cannot make the case that eating meat is wrong strictly because animals suffer and die. Death and suffering are part of the given order of things, and they have been for eons. Moore called this obsession with finding some kind of scientific justification for moral values the “naturalistic fallacy”.
Even the tendency to conflate the opposition between good and evil with the distinction between pleasure and pain, a position known as eudaemonism that has persisted from the ancient Greeks up through today and is associated with such figures as diverse as Epicurus and John Stuart Mill, collapses with the realization that certain human beings from martyrs to masochists are not at all motivated by the quality of neurological stimuli in their appraisal of the familiar binary or what is good and what is bad.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion 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.