The 20th Century French Empire’s Philosophy Project: Derrida Thinks of Justice in Slavery

Kierkegaard said that, philosophically, it is impossible to escape regret. Alain Botton told this to a Google executive crowd. The point of philosophy, Botton added, is to let people down gently. In the 20th century French Empire, as its elites, consolidated through its elite universities, were mobilizing under the Marshall Plan to direct France through industrialization, winnowing out rivalristic global capitalist champions, its imperial philosophers were tasked with gently letting down democratic aspirations. Democracy, as a logic optimizing the average condition, was profoundly regrettable. It would not be missed. The global restoration of patrimonial capitalism would also be a little regrettable, but there was to be consolation in its privileging justice at the margins.

In Typewriter Ribbon (1998) and Without Alibi, Derrida worked over the possible relation between the singularity and “inorganic, dead universality,” mechanical repetition, the machine. He concluded Without Alibi arguing that the project of his cohort, the mid-20th century French Empire philosophers, was to imagine how singularity and the machine could coexist in a relationship Derrida called differance.

You could also say it like this: In the 20th century, elite-trained empire intellectuals from Philosophy to Economics pursued the long-standing dream of substituting out incorrigible, far-from-incorruptible humanity for an ownable, self-reproducing, perpetual-motion work machine realizing the delegated agency of the sovereign, a True because absolutely-free humanity.

The idea has been that this True Humanity will be liberated from responsibility for engaging the complex, artful/intuitive pleasure ‘calculus’ prescribed by materialist philosophy, by being able to reliably delegate their agency on such a self-reproducing, perpetual-motion work machine. Then it will be free of duress, and able, under the counsel of idealist philosophers, to produce reason deduced from singular interest, and just because attuned to the exception.

Yet it is also clear that repeatedly the global capitalist aristocracy (per Burke) has achieved this state of True Humanity, reducing humans to self-reproducing automatons–economically, a substitution. Most recently, while philosophers (via a “Modest Witness” service ethic) and capitalists’ states (via scientistic positivist service) have effectively reconstructed citizens and other humans into “service workers” within the machine,  realizing automaton self-reproduction, True Humanity has proliferated as an oligarchy of millionaires, billionaires, trillionaires. A wholly-owned world is a world made for the relief of suffering oligarchal. We may never reach the asymptotic transition into perfect utopia, but the world remainder is, percentage-wise, insignificant, not enough to dissipate sovereignty in democracy. As in other slavers’ societies, the idealist utopia is achieved again. A True Humanity is liberated to dispense justice at the margins, at its decisionist discretion, in perfect harmony with its interest.

The empirical problem for idealist philosophy is that their real utopia does not result in liberty or justice, or even in much liberty and justice. It results in empirical ecological devastation and human stunting (though we now conceive of that humanity as a sub-human or non-human machine of delegated agency). Positing positivism as the True extent of science, valorizing the structure of thought, its priesthood, and its justice centering the exception, we can try to retreat from the empirical world into the text or the shadowy thought cave, but, contra Kierkegaard, some forms of decisionism are more regrettable than others. Justice centering the exception and reviling the bulk of humanity can only produce reason in the imagination. It cannot realize it in the world.



Note that this analysis relies on a critical realist-type perspective that does not reduce scientific knowledge to positivism, as for example Canguilhem was not able to dismiss democratic knowledge by using genealogy to relativize physics, but French philosophy had to wait for Foucault to reduce science to professionalized (state-serving) Criminology and Psychology as social science.

Writing Plan:

  1. First refute the reduction of science to positivist scientism.
    1. Recover Toulmin & Goodfield’s historical-comparative account of science.
    2. Go back to Canguilhem?
    3. Then go forward to show how Bourdieuian and critical realist approaches work to transcend positivist reductionism, as an alternative to the reduction of social science to cheap Modest Witness service in a surveillance political economy context.
  2. Redefine positivist science as partial or incomplete scientific method that is historically undertaken when scientists either wish to contribute to a political  Risorgimento or are coerced into it.
    1. Give Perry Anderson’s example of early 20th century Italian communist positivist science, as well as contemporary privatized commercial science.
  3. Prometheus Unbound: Discuss how science escapes its bounds, though the sovereign market tries to tie it down. Use the development of epigenetics from the Human Genome Project as an example.
  4. ipsum lorem

France’s “Socialist Party,” that (like the MB NDP) only had ties between party heads and teachers’ union managers, dissolved into “liberalizers around Fabius for whom Silicon Valley was the model for a modernized tech-driven market society’ old-style social democrats and social Catholics like Delors who drew the lesson that national Keynesianism was dead and the PS should put itself at the head of a renewed project of European integration; and the remnants of the deuxieme gauche for whom the turn to the market could be interpreted as a radical, liberatory break from a statist past” (Howell, 2019, Catalyst).

In which it is clarified that France was run by conservatives, for the advancement of France’s patrimonial oligarchy, for the whole 20th century. They were not liberal. They were not socialist. They were capitalist, but capitalist aristocrats, per Burke. They were conservatives managing continental capitalist catch-up. People, they sponsor and circulate philosophy and theory to support that interest. I think it is time we get really critical about the ways that we ingest that interest.

In England (compare to Bourdieu’s Social Structures of the Economy analysis):

“Hamilton-Paterson sees the destructive impact of the ‘money men’ on industries more clearly. The catastrophic and unnecessary fate of ICI (which broke the hearts of some of my own chemical-engineering relatives) came about as men and women with long shop-floor experience and technical qualifications were pushed out of management by newcomers who claimed to be financial wizards. They weren’t. They played the great corporation for short-term stock-market gains, and they lost.

Hamilton-Paterson adds the example of Network Rail’s bungled electrification of Great Western (its cost rose in two years from £874 million to £2.8 billion). ‘That’s privatisation for you: layers upon layers of managers and accountants who know nothing about railways. The old British Rail alternative was layers upon layers of experienced railwaymen who knew nothing about accountancy but who did know exactly what electrifying a line entailed and simply got on and did it.’ Later in his book, he attacks the notion (‘holy writ’ today) that a college degree in management enrols one in a portable profession in which it hardly matters what a company does.” –Neal Ascherson, “As the toffs began to retreat” LRB 40(22).




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