After “Who Made Me?”

Star Wars: A Democratic-ish but  Patriarchal Discourse on Ethics

I am of life. To exist in (inegalitarian, alienated) human society, I need a guarantor. So, Who made me?

The Star Wars series locates this weird, infantile, alienated, possibly patriarchal question as the root anxiety spurring our ethical and political choices as we grow older; and Star Wars shows the political consequences of how we are able to settle on this (socio-)psychological question–a decision, a judgment we must take responsibility for, we cannot evade, once we recognize the question. Though to be clear, you don’t have to recognize the question. Han Solo doesn’t worry about it.

Well, also, there is a very common way to evade responsibility, see below, but that way dehumanizes you, turns you into part of the war machine, a Stormtrooper to show the cards.

I find the question odd. I don’t know why life needs a guarantor, why this should be the anxiety.  Whose culture is creating this anxiety? To be transparent again, I really suspect it’s an inability, conferred by patriarchy, to accept coming from a female, coming from Earth. The question does give more reason to creepy philosophical efforts to break down the ontological divide between humans and the commodities they produce and which are owned by an elite in an inegalitarian social order. Anyway, I do know why life needs to protect itself from human tyranny. But the anxiety that this should spur is the anxiety over whether you can organize other people.

From orphaned hinterlands farmboy Luke Skywalker to orphaned hinterlands scavenger Rey, the main audience-avatar character walks us through their variable processes of settling the root infantile anxiety with a judgment that commits them to a democratic ethics, and puts them on a democratic political path. Another, side model is Han Solo, a skilled, strategic orphan who doesn’t care about patrimony, but unlike his girlfriend the Mother of Dragons (Qi’ra), is naturally oriented toward cooperation with democratic organizing, a “good guy” as Qi’ra pronounces. We don’t know what is propelling Qi’ra toward the Dark Side. A lack of options path-dependently leading to a lack of democratic confidence, apparently.

We also see in the distance, by contrast, that the para-princes Darth Vadar and Kylo Ren arrive at contrasting decisions upon that root infantile anxiety, a commitment to a contrasting Dark Side political path and ethics. (There’s also some indication that mother-attachment propels the Dark Side ethico-political decision. This can be read as trashy 1970s cultural psychology, or it can be read as a diagnosis of exception-fetishizing conservatism: When the conservative rejects life, he has to create a pocket of exception–typically Mother and Wife–to sustain the advantage of his own nurture.)

Pursuing the freaky, infantile dread-hope, Who Made Me?, down into its dark hole, the protangonists and antagonists can find no father, no parent, no god, no protective, recognized lineage. Just the self. But it is not clear what this means. A decision is required.

We see that the emotional responses to this discovery are variable and consequential; but, contra conservatism, the emotional response flavors–but does not determine the consequent ethical and political judgment. The interpretation of what it means that one does not come from a direct, parental Maker, a protective lineage recognized by all, does determine one’s ethics and politics; and in the Star Wars cosmology, the interpretation is to a large extent a fateful choice of reason.

There are two possible opposing ethical-political interpretations containing judgment: 1) I made me. Man is will to power. This is a conservative insistence that there must be a monadic originator. 2) I make myself. I am (Wo/man is) life, a diverse collective in development/(We are Groot, to borrow another narrative). These opposing interpretations entail judgment, and thus ensuing ethics and politics.

As a sociologist, I would have to point out that the interpretative choice is generally overdetermined by the built social environment. In that sense, interpretation is not usually, really a choice of reason, but a reflex instilled by institutions. Thus, most people slip the responsibility, and hegemonic liberals call this deference virtue.

For example, the Abrahamic religions instill the need for, and so overdetermine the “choice” to reassert an abstract monadic originator, as the alienated, individual, willful self, substitute for God the Father. Thus the Abrahamic religions reproduce inegalitarianism and inegalitarian economies. Because this overdetermined “choice” means no shared space for development, most of us become processed down into dehumanized, violent Stormtroopers, or, in its less-destructive version, sheep. The “Great Men” that end up on the top of the pile dominate and own. Society flinches, genuflects, and reflects upon the Ubermensch the myth of their apotheosis.

The Star Wars narrative doesn’t precisely deny the social, built environment. Rather, it places the responsibility for the interpretation/judgment on the individual because it is interested in the ethical torch carried by a small, beleaguered band of comrades in the long historical moments when institutions do not reproduce the collectivist, democratic, Light Side I am of life judgment.

The Dark Side decision is idealist. In the discovered absence of the mythical consciousness-giving father, as the culturally-foreign, alien-ness of complex, developing life (See also Vanderbeek’s Annihilation) is rejected in favor of the choice to incorporate the mythical God into the individual self, the moment of judgment is fetishized (See Carl Schmitt). All emotion and rationality recoils and wraps around the individual self’s will to power against all else, all others. Because humans are objectively a social (part of) life, the idealist Dark Side decision requires working in tension with that reality, working strategically with other Dark Siders, idealists, enemies all, to kill them when you can, to assert your will, to torture all others into serving as your voice, your idealist self.

By contrast, the Light Side decision reconnects to philosophical materialism. It is oriented to development, and full human expression, including connection, organization, and balancing reason. Understanding that one is not a wanted, recognized projection of a superhuman father into a guaranteed space of existence, but that as life, one becomes onesself, the self is developed, in the materialist approach is foremost recognition that the self is material, existing in a unique interstice, and connected. “You’re not alone,” Rey tries in vain to convert Ren; the Nietzschean idealist is unmoved, and I say, enthralled. The materialist Light Side is a mutualist ethics of creating the space, organizing the infrastructure, relating with others– for life to develop into its own complex, historical, changing self. It foregrounds proliferating and activating full human capacity, working with others, as opposed to imposing one’s self upon, diminishing and obliterating the others.

In the Disney corporation’s hands, it’s hard to say where the Star Wars discourse on ethics will end. They have performed above expectations, particularly in Rogue One, and yet there is much foreshadowing that the Ubermensch and the democrat will be reconciled in some sort of neoliberal alliance between Rey and Ren. Or perhaps, more hopefully, the Light Side Resistance will be taken up by the stableboys and the class conflict will continue and advance.

The great tactic of conservativsm, a la Strauss, is lying to the hoi poloi, the repository of conservatives’ misanthropy. Conservative Austrian tactician and Anglo-American consultant Friedrich von Hayek best formulated this tactic for the modern era, in portraying the elite-owned heap as a porous social formation, full of degrees of freedom putatively for all, while portraying universally-developmentalist democracy as an excessively-demanding ethos and infrastructure, and in that way constricting, a kind of “servitude.” Would it be true to the democratic spirit of the Star Wars discourse on ethics to conclude with some Stormtroopers and stableboys, having observed and suffered the contrasting relations the Sith lords and Rebel Alliance have made (the arguments the philosophers and social scientists have forwarded), casting off the enculturated disposition to Mastery/Servitude, and enjoining the deferred decision to organize a new social space for shared life development? In the 20th century, most philosophers rejected working for democratic development. In the 20th century, most philosophers rejected working with social scientists. As the narrative develops, will the philosophers and Jedi figure out a way to contribute to the liberation, the full human development, the organizational capacity of the stableboy and Stormtrooper class?



Conservative wheelhouse: Assuming the impossibility of mutual recognition

David Graeber summarizes Hegel’s account of human desire for recognition in the Master-slave dialectic as a prime example of conservative theory’s assumption of the impossibility of mutual recognition. Most philosophers and many social theorists playing in the conservative wheelhouse proceed to theorize recognition upon the assumption of highly-unequal, slavery relations as normal, universal human relations. “But it’s one thing to say that the quest for mutual recognition is necessarily going to be tricky, full of pitfalls, with a constant danger of descending into attempts to dominate or even obliterate the other,” Graeber cautions. “It’s another thing to assume from the start that mutual recognition is impossible.”

“As Majeed Yar has pointed out (2001) this assumption has come to dominate almost all subsequent Western thinking on the subject: especially, since Sartre refigured recognition as ‘the gaze’ that, he argued, necessarily pins down, squashes, and objectifies the Other.

As in so much Western theory, when social relations are not simply ignored, they are assumed to be inherently competitive. Todorov notes (2000) that much of this is the result of starting one’s examples with a collection of adult males” (Graeber 2015).

Philosophy rejects collectivist, knowledge-building science, rigorous, collectively-regulated empirical methods to discern the range of –not just probability but also– possibility, including by identifying trends, averages, standard deviations and other summaries of main dynamics in a select place and time, as well as variations within that milieu and in main dynamics across space and time, identifying via theory, correlation, time-order, and comparison together their contributing factors, to systematically refine and correct these descriptive and explanatory frameworks collectively. In science, empirical disconfirmation of theory is maintained as part of the knowledge ideal–thus, the pursuit of scientific knowledge employs a diverse collectivism; one study is not science, nor is uniformity stable in this kind of collectivism (per Kuhn 1962).

Science constructs probable descriptions of what tends to exist or not, how–under specified relations or conditions, within a comparative understanding of the constellation of possibility in complex, often reflexive life relations. Philosophy’s desultory knowledge method, by contrast, tends to rather rely on a few, fetishized “expertly”-chosen cases (Olympe de Gouges!) exclusively confirming elite interests (Social rationality = death!). Philosophy celebrates the exception.

Not theory exactly, but due to its method, in particular philosophy’s (including theory primarily based on philosophy) long-term characteristic problem tends to be importing, as its bed of assumptions, the wisdom of the ruling social segment–classically, property-owning man between the ages of 20 and 50. While we have arrived at a point in global capitalism where such perspective can be readily denounced, the discrediting move tends to issue from within the desultory, antidemocratic-elitist philosophical knowledge project itself, and in the conservative effort to maintain manufactured scarcity across global integration, it tends to be directed at waged workers and science, or rather, commercial scientism qua science tout court. Weber saw doom in the shift from princely state managers to working-class state bureaucracies. Bruno Latour has made a career and academic institute based on showing that white-coated technicians working in commercial labs are irrational. Foucault reified opportunistic, scientistic Psychology as his reduction of science, even while admiring conservative economics. Philosopher GA Cohen argued that in the communist utopia the affront to philosophy that is social science would die, as it contributes nothing to knowledge besides demystification of labor and commodities. With these expert Great Man philosopher selections of cases “demonstrating” that Enlightenment scientific method offers no advantages to knowledge issued by Great Men serving warlords, and many disadvantages (a lack of independent genius, per Nietzsche), philosophers–particularly the French school by way of the German-Catholic idealist philosophy tradition–protect and advance the reputation of philosophical contributions to knowledge, based upon an elitist assumption bed–particularly elite distributions of misanthropy and anthrophilia, elite assumptions about the distribution of sovereignty and rationality, and elites’ recognition failures, in addition to assuming that humanity is reducible to young, elite male experience, including autism and unbound competitiveness. These elitist assumptions provide the foundation for arriving at the philosophy and theory objective, the foregone conservative-wheelhouse conclusion that non-elite human development and democracy are impossible. It is a venerable, neat political ecology.

(For a prime example, see the neo-Hobbesian, French (cum German idealist)-school philosophy of Justin Smith, as his recent contribution to this tradition offers a crystallization of this ancient, antidemocratic Atlantic elite project.)

Elitist Idealism v. Democratic Materialism

Graeber discusses Catholic Europe’s Medieval psychology theory, which started with the proto-Cartesian premise of a human soul divorced from an object world, where a kind of intermediary mucus or film, a “pneuma,” was posited to represent that world like a script or teevee show to the temporarily-embarrassed (separated from Heaven) soul of man. Desiring to apprehend and embrace that world–for example with the human body– was pathological, in Catholic Medieval thought. In its ethics, the externally-imposed passion must be self-managed, via a priest-like, contemplatory orientation to the imagined pneuma.

This baroque and improbable idealist theory set up a few conceptualizations useful for inegalitarian organization in feudalism: 1) Humans are conceived as utterly alien to Earth. This alienation will be useful, from a warlord perspective, in isolating people and extracting and exploiting. 2) As shared sovereignty within human relations is impossible, desire is reduced to unrequited sexual tension. The male adolescent experience is reconceived as the universal human condition, and we all pretend priests don’t molest children. 3) Ethics: The proper business of man is not to organize and engage in collective action with other people, since slavery relations are universal and we cannot share sovereignty. It is to sit alone on the couch and absorb the Pnetflix…er, pneuma, a normative individualism sanctified as a relationship between a man and his imaginary lord. Man is a teenage monk.

Graeber’s genealogy identifies an historical shift from understanding individualist, imaginative desire as erotic, in Medieval Catholic Europe, to understanding it as consumption, eating food, a universal, individualist act of private property destruction and incorporation in global capitalism.

“The ultimate proof that one has (absolute) sovereign power over another human being is one’s ability to have them executed. In a similar fashion, one might argue, the ultimate proof of possession, of one’s personal dominium over a thing, is one’s ability to destroy it—and indeed this remains one of the key legal ways of defining dominium, as a property right, to this day. But there’s an obvious problem here. If one does destroy the object, one may have definitively proved that one owns it; but as a result, one does not own it any more.”

In either the conservative Catholic tradition or the liberal capitalist tradition, desire is propelled, and an inegalitarian social order is perpetuated, by the logical impossibility of an isolated individual simultaneously having a cake (or bang, or slave) and eating it too. These are logical proofs of the impossibility of absolute sovereignty distributed across human individuals. What ho, we’re not gods. The infantile passion imposed by the gulf separating man from consumerist utopia in capitalism is conceived as the proper focus of individualist man. (This is why psychologists classify philosophers as neurotics.) Man’s passion is imposed upon man from outside, above. It is solitary man’s duty to self-manage the imposed passion, and not to judge, decide, and act collectively, not assess and allocate resources to wants and needs over time and across life, as per materialist philosophy. Selecting illustrative cases, philosophers and economists pump out denunciations of such shared, socially-rational use of full human capacity, while conservative Catholic legal authorities forbid it in favor of elite rationality.

Note by contrast what democratic Enlightenment’s scientific approach to knowledge does with the reality that humans are not gods: It devises social knowledge-acquiring methods that both deploy our human capacities and compensate for our human limitations. Not Genius-boy philosophy, tho, based as it is upon a misanthropy that instrumentally excludes the exceptional.

Ideas before Organization

In Graeber’s theory, the origin of capitalism is Medieval Catholic Europe’s individualist idealism, the conceptual requirement for consequent capitalist individualist practice.

“The shift from a conception desire modeled on erotic love to one based on the desire for food (“consumption”) was clearly a shift in the direction of popular discourse; at the same time, though, one might say the innovative aspect of modern, consumeristic theories of desire is to combine the popular materialist emphasis on consumption with the notion of the ephemeral, ungraspable image as the driving force of maximization of production.”

“The idea of human beings as creatures tainted by original sin, and therefore, cursed with infinite wants, who therefore were in an almost natural state of competition with each other, was already fully developed in authors like St. Augustine, and therefore a part of Christian doctrine throughout the Middle Ages… the notion of the maximizing individual existed in theory long before it emerged in practice.” Still in Catholic European Medieval society, “almost any increase in popular wealth was immediately diverted into communal feasts, parades, and collective indulgences. One of the processes that made capitalism possible then was the privatization of desire.”

Distinguishing Making (Unalienated Work and Social Reproduction) from Consumption

Graeber calls for scholarly specification of what we identify and analyze as consumption, limiting consumption to those activities that involve incorporation and destruction (eg. burning fossil fuels) driven by capitalist possessive-individualist desire. He argues that expanding the concept of consumption to encompass all of human life beyond the manufacture of commodities renders absurd moral narratives. “When ‘creative consumption’ is at its most creative, it’s not consumption; when it’s most obviously a form of consumption, it is not creative.” In inflating the concept of consumption to conform with a marketeer’s desiderata, scholars are rendered sub-critical, ridden by the historical, hegemonic metaphor, not scholarly. Scholars of integrity–as opposed to court philosophers–have to be able to distinguish between activities that are really semi-sovereign, unalienated, and creative making (in Scarry’s 1985 sense), and those that are not.

This distinction, however, requires of conservatives and liberals a perhaps-impossible conceptual shift to recognition of non-elites as humans, with a human range of capacities and limitation, capable of human development and making. It forces a conceptual shift in our understanding of sovereignty–not to dispense with the notion, but to shift it from a God-like absolute ideal, jealously monopolized over a dominion, to an alloyed and socially-distributed attribute, fit for a social life on Earth.

By classifying all non-productive activities as consumption, commodified acts of ceremonial destruction making way for more production, we deny all human making (imagination and realization to address a suffering) beyond the capitalist class. Consumption scholars “are categorizing all non-alienated forms of production as consumption, which has the incredibly reactionary political effect of treating almost all every form of unalienated experience we do engage in as somehow a gift granted us by the captains of industry.” Graeber calls for us to replace the (pseudo-) “Marxist” (capitalist) opposition between production and consumption with another understanding of human activity–effectively Marxist social reproduction, what Anthropologists conceive more idealistically as “the sphere of the production of human beings, not just as labor power but as persons, internalized nexes of meaningful social relations.” Human creative activity essential to capitalist value accumulation, because mostly uncommodified and so expropriated.

(Graeber, an anarchist, sometimes is a little sketchy on Marxist theory, or at least prone to viewing the Frankfurt School as a logical extension of Marx, rather than an historical-psychological extension from the Holocaust. Note that while Marxists do analyze consumption as one of several forms of capitalist alienation–commodity fetishism, the Marxist “sphere” distinction is between the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation (not a “sphere of consumption”), and that contrasting-spheres conceptualization serves in Marxist theory to explain capitalist incentive, anxiety to secure the surplus, profit.)

“Insofar as social life is and always has been mainly about the mutual construction of human beings, the ideology of consumption has been endlessly effective in helping us forget this. Most of all it does so by suggesting that: a)human desire is essentially as a matter of a relation between individuals and phantasms; b)our primarily relation with other individuals, then, becomes an endless struggle to establish their sovereignty, or autonomy, by incorporating and destroying aspects of the world around them; (MF: So idealist capitalist phagocytotic desire compels us to revoke others’ sovereignty absolutely.) c) this logic ultimately becomes the basis for ways of imagining the very possibility of relations with other people (the (Sartrean) problem of “the Other”); d) materially, it becomes the basis for imagining society as a gigantic engine of production and destruction in which the only significant human activity is either manufacturing things, or engaging in acts of ceremonial destruction so as to make way for more: a vision which in fact sidelines most (social reproduction) things that real people actually do, and insofar as it is translated into actual economic behavior, is obviously unsustainable.”

“Even as anthropologists and other social theorists directly challenge this view of the world, the (overly-broad,) unreflective use and indeed propagation of terms like ‘consumption’ ends up completely undercutting their efforts and reproducing exactly the tacit ideological logic we would wish to undercut” (Graeber 2015: 30).

…That is if consumption theorists wish to undercut the Catholic-capitalist logic. But it’s not clear that anyone playing in the wheelhouse of conservatism wants to undercut conservatism’s logic. Perhaps all they aspire to do is wittily, pseudo-critically, conservative-ethically coordinate and regulate pneumatic contemplation, prescribe the self-management of the delegated passion, wonder at the creativity–a munificence bestowed by capitalist lords upon the multitudinous bellies, and assert the fatal impossibility of mutual recognition, shared sovereignty,  non-elite development, and democracy.

See also: Post on Star Wars: An Ethics Discourse on Who Made Me?


Elitism & Patronage: The Inegalitarian’s Theory of Justice

Theory literacy & its application

On how theoretical assumptions provide specific foundations producing specific varieties of knowledge:

Methodologically, comparison is a great way of understanding what exists, what is possible, and how alternative approaches and projects function. In the contrasting discipline of Linguistics, theory tends to be based on the distinct philosophical ontological assumption that the knowable world is a projection of human discourse—oral and/or written language. In a world of language, there is no inequality, no violation of shared commonality. There is only difference within language. Thus, in the philosophical linguistic ontology, the diminishment of difference is injustice. Recall Burke from Unit One: Arguing that when democratic Enlightenment theorists reduce inequality, they reduce the beautiful, natural difference that is Excellence, and so they reduce justice, is the conservative social philosophers’ political argument.

Conceiving of injustice as strictly the diminishment of difference, philosophical-linguistic ontology historically emerges from and is built for supporting the reproduction of high-inequality societies. The world-as-text assumption foundation justifies linguists’ disciplinary knowledge, including against the social scientific knowledge that arose within the struggle toward Western Enlightenment.

Social scientific knowledge distinctively assumes that humans exist together in an historical, material, embodied way within a knowable world that exists in but also beyond our linguistic networks. Corrollaries:

  • Social scientific ontology distinctively recognizes inequality, the violation of human commonality, as injustice.
  • Scientific knowledge is not only about what is, but also what can be. Fully specified science is descriptive (identifying trends), predictive (identifying the trajectory of trends), and normative (identifying alternatives we can socially construct).

In linguistic theory, “aporias” are empty spaces, treated as black boxes beyond knowledge, that within language structure the linguistic world, which for linguists is the whole world. Linguistic theory’s “aporias” correspond to the material world in science.

However, in science, the world beyond discourse is not treated as a black box, but is rather the focus of scientific knowledge-seeking. Recall from Marxist historical-materialism: In science, we strive to mobilize across space and time our distinctively human, material capacities to know the world. These capacities include not only our logical and emotional capacities, not only our social communication capacity, but also our hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and proprioreceptor senses as well. With our distinctive human physical manipulation capacity (manual dexterity), we can build technological augmentations for our capacities, to further help us know the world beyond human language networks. Through scientific method employed across the community of shared scholarship to compensate for our human limitations, this aggregate knowledge will be incorporated in theory, in language according to democratic methodology, changing language in a distinct way. We think the virtue of scientific knowledge for democracy is that science is fundamentally built to involve a diversity of people, including a wide range of non-elites, in continually probing and searching for knowledge beyond elite exceptionalist, strategic interests. Scientific findings thus are not transcendental “truth,” but have validity. The ongoing conflict between elitist philosophy and scientific validity, as between inegalitarianism and egaliberte, is which is more just: transcendental truth, perhaps cherry-picking history, but always secured strictly by righteous power and entitlement, or validity, a provisional truth based on methodically apprehending and collectively interpreting aggregations of knowledge across humans.

How do contrasting ontologies, epistemologies,[1] and corresponding theory assumption bases impact the knowledge we produce?

Consider this case of the equivalence Mill (1869, “The Subjection of Women”) was arguing between slavery and patriarchy.

For a disciplinary Linguist, what is important is that slavery involves race, whereas patriarchy is about gender, and these concepts reflect distinct linguistic networks. A discourse theorist would argue that connecting patriarchy to slavery in terms of their function, as Mill did, creates an injustice against racialized people because it erases linguistic difference. Erasing linguistic difference is the ultimate injustice within philosophical-linguistic theory. You might recognize that this is a type of justice philosophy, the elite, conservative justice of the exception, which is oriented to find injustice where solidaristic connections are made between non-elite majorities and non-elite minorities. German idealism, including its Nietzschean, Weberian, and Ordoliberal branches, developed this approach through the German university system, originally dedicated to training the princely managers of European monarchies.

Perhaps ideally, exception-justice theory could be incorporated in democratic knowledge, could correct for science’s focus on aggregating positional knowledges and finding central trends. However, instead, in a capitalist society of manufactured scarcity, exception-justice theory tends to be deployed as a proprietary antithesis to scientific knowledge. In that context, it relies on righteous moralism.

For example, in a 2018 account of the Nazi construction of Asperger’s as a designation allowing for special socialization of sub-social boys into productive German society, a writer, L. Sheffer, married into Silicon Valley tech wealth, links Dr. Asberger’s cruel Nazi treatment of non-Asberger child deviants to the welfare state, in its social coordination functions that impinge on the lives of the exceptional. The conservative logic and morality are structured to support elite interest: opposing state intervention in market power.

For the conservative wealthy mother of a child on the autism spectrum, justice is a state free of democratic redistributive capacity, a social contract that permits economic elites to retain wealth without redistributive taxation or income and wealth compression, while the responsibility is laid upon presumably-brutish sea of Muggles to adjust, like the servants they are, to the autism-spectrum Silicon Valley inheritors of society’s wealth. To market this elite interest requires a moving–emotionally manipulative–story, ostensibly about Asbergers, connecting and reducing the welfare state to shameful, murderous Nazis…who did not kill boys designated with Asbergers. No matter the leaps and strains in the story (this time, putatively about Asbergers). Painting elite interest as moral crusader for the most vulnerable and marginalized is the feminized half of the inegalitarian conservative social order. In place of egaliberte, elites shall gift us a society of patronage (and servitude). Then when conservatives retell another cobbled, holey, moralism-patched account of why everyone should support inegalitarian absolute private property right, the tale is always marketed (as M. Pridmore-Brown did in the March 29, 2019 LRB) with hype around how brilliantly nuanced and complicated the argument is–That is conserva-code for crookedness and emotional manipulation.

To demonstrate the “truth” of exception-justice theory, a Linguist might gesture to a justice-of-the-exception argument forwarded by a community of African-American philosophers, such as the claim that slavery is an exceptional, incomparable experience of difference. This project argues that 99%-solidarity arguments such as Mill’s are injustice, from within the difference morality of the justice-of-the exception paradigm.

By contrast, a Sociological social scientist would be more likely to understand Mill’s argument about the slavery nature of patriarchal relations within the historical-materialist theory of capitalist development, in which capitalist relations (allocating to a small elite exclusive ownership and control over the means of production) repeatedly rely on and reproduce a “sea of appropriated work” (Jason Moore 2014), such as both slavery and patriarchy, among other kinds of expropriation.

Because it is based in a democratic-justice paradigm, does this mean that social science cannot forward a morality argument like a discursive exception-justice paradigm can?

No. Sociologists can gesture to, for example, Du Bois’ democratic justice arguments finding homologies (similarities) between the development of patriarchy, slavery, and racism (among other injustices, like ecological destruction) in the history of capitalist relations. Today, scholars of color including Angela Davis, Sedef Arat Koc, Glenn Coulthard and Leanne Simpson, et al, forward democratic-justice arguments rooted in social science and other (eg. indigenous) historical-materialist paradigms. Likewise, climate scientists have found their moral voice in recent years.

Moralism is a classic crutch propping up inegalitarianism. Although exceptionalist knowledge tends to be especially defended with moral arguments (eg. Burke), moralism is not an exclusive property of any one kind of justice paradigm or political wheelhouse. As the philosophical materialists, and as Dewey, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft maintained, democracy requires moral development, toward a capacity to balance goods (or “pleasures”) over a lifetime and across lives. Yet advancing democratic capacity requires us all to learn theoretical literacy and scientific craft, rather than to lean on moralistic discourse.

Feminist social reproduction theorists JS Mill, M Wollstonecraft, V Woolf, and E Clews-Parsons would argue that education for democratic development requires us to rigorously study the theory and practice the empirical skills to move beyond reproducing an inegalitarian, gender-segregated society disposing feminized people to specialize in the moral regulation of segregated private worlds, as a social-reproductive complement to men disposed to be club conservatives bound to exploitation and imperialism.


Historical context: Social science knowledge v. Social philosophy knowledge

In the 20th century, as part of their neoliberal mobilization to reorient liberalism, as it’s centered on private property right, back toward the conservative wheelhouse of inequality and inegalitarianism, conservatives organized scholars around the claim that scientific, democratic social knowledge is unjust and requires correction–specifically correction with the elite-governed justice-of-the-exception paradigm. To make this claim, some conservative scholars depicted science as nothing more than state-subordinated scientism. Others, such as conservative economists, practiced and proliferated scientism.

Yet arguably, the neoliberal project to demonstrate that the elite-interest-governed justice-of-the-exception best represents the interests of the most marginalized non-elite peoples tends to be a co-optative reaction to democratic justice approaches and projects. Along with scientism, restoring justice-of-the-exception theory is part of a “neoliberal” conservative restoration project explicitly formulated to disrupt, dismantle, and replace democratic knowledge development.

[1] Ontologies: philosophies of what exists. Epistemologies: philosophies of how we know.

Queer-constructionist Political Economy?

Seriously, though, I don’t get the promotional friendship between Melinda Cooper and the US East Coast-networked leftists, their combined attempt to mischaracterize and discredit Nancy Fraser, as if she were an opponent of queer constructionism.

Where Fraser, as a philosopher, did a philosophical analysis of how neoliberalism co-opted the antimarxist liberal and postmodern feminism that developed upon a conservative philosophical tradition, Cooper just appropriates some of the empirical 1990s family sociology and political soc studies on the American right, tosses in a couple superficial gestures to Marx, and tacks it onto a hatchet job on Fraser. Australia has the worst academic production incentives. Maybe it would seem fresh and necessary if you were a Political Scientist and thought queer social constructionism was birthed in the 2016 H. Clinton multijurisdictional campaign. Cooper’s latest is the most manipulative, orchestrated, bad-faith academic work I have seen coming out of the social sciences in recent years. Because the empirical history retelling is so derivative, it seems like it was done just to sell the denunciation, maintain the bipartisan, conservative elite + patronage exception political coalition.

Every time I see a reviewer scratch “Masterful” or “Magesterial” next to Cooper’s cheap appropriation smacked onto a wildly-bad faith denunciation, I grow curiouser and curiouser. Is this about Political Science just co-opting Political Sociology work, and Political Scientists rallying behind that? After all these years, I finally worked out how much the tenured Arts academy (not just commercial science faculty) is a collection of people seeking patronage from (or contributing to the campaigns and interests of) political parties, foreign states and defense industry, banks, etc. Is this a security economy institutions thing–some attempt to hush down the political, antimarxist role of academic poststructuralism in the academy? Why is Cooper so well networked into the Anglo-American Atlantic–to the point where a quick ‘n’ dirty, basic, redundant lit review is hailed as “magesterial”? Usually, Australians are networked into the Commonwealth. Curiouser & curiouser.

Maybe Cooper gets carte blanche for some reason after “Life as Surplus”? Maybe she just earned publishing house-backed credit as someone who can crank out books. Again, quality is at issue.

For obdurate reasons of ontological difference, Queer social constructionism is literally not a logical fit with political economy. Micro constructionism (discursive essentialism) and macro-constructionism (political economy) can make space for each other, but they cannot fuse. All Cooper did to bridge the ontological incompatibility was temporarily fake a shared epistemology–by appropriating it; this is clearly not sustainable, because it required not producing knowledge but stealing the work of and then denouncing all the people who did the epistemological work, the social science social reproduction feminists, whom Cooper dismissed by reducing and subsuming them under their philosophical-interpretive ally,  Fraser. This is not scholarship; it’s gaming. While I understand that ambition’s at play here, it’s really not going to work to demand that older feminists in particular submit like good cis-het girls to queer-careerists humping their leg, because to be a mature female feminist is also to work with being existentially queered, and it always has been. It’s not a choice. It’s not a strategy. It’s not a brand.

For leftists, it is not worth selling out all the socialist feminists who do the social reproduction empirical and theoretical work, have done it since Kollontai (1915), just to try to fake like there’s a viable, hybrid queer-constructionist political economy tradition or agenda. Don’t force it. If you need a queer path to political economy, some slightly-less-mercenary queer careerist can plagiarize Stephanie Coontz and Sarah Diamond (not queer enough 4 U ?) without profoundly disrespecting all the sex-heterogeneous socialist feminists and their work.

By contrast…The great things about Fraser are that as a philosopher she pays attention to the empirical, craft work of feminist social scientists without appropriating it–she does her own work; and b) her work is rigorous, reflective, coalitional and politic, informed by experience, and a reorienting, politically-necessary intellectual intervention that leads ideas. It’s not just a weathered French academicism–pre-scripted, delegated, conservative imperial market-state reproduction strategy, a la Cooper.

Fight Over Freedoms (excerpt)

The post-WWII Anglosphere, to which so many migrated, was full of the notion that whatever redistribution was going on after all that sturm und drang, it must mean an increase in unfreedom, servitude.

We cherish that criticism. Some of those Austrian Empire diaspora thinkers’ ideas were the product of conservative resolve, cast in the cauldron of European class conflict. Others, including Frankfurt School exponents, were moving out of a Marxist background. As Polanyi pointed out in “On Freedom,” “Marx saw still something more, and this constitutes his historic greatness. He understood that capitalist society is not just unjust but also un-free.”
Counter to Marx’s perception of unfreedom in capitalism, the shared conservative conceptualization of freedom arrived again on Anglo-American shores and integrated into the 20th century heart of capitalism, reinforcing slavers’ institutions and culture. Conservatism has always argued that true freedom is absolute sovereignty, based on exceptional masters wrestling for dominance atop a society of bent and broken slaves. The democratic Enlightenment exponents, by stark contrast, pursued materialist philosophy’s ancient insistence that freedom is egaliberte, requiring strong education and other associational institutions socializing citizens –including newcomers, both youth and immigrants–into exchanging ideas, information, and grievances for democratic development.


Democratic Enlightenment exponents argued that it would be possible to build egaliberte, as an inclusive, developmental human freedom distinct from both conservative Herrenvolk freedom and the transitory revolutionary moment of universal absolute sovereignty. But the undertaking would always suffer heavy opposition. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) rightly worried that in the context of the complex society, the democratic alternative to the imperial Hobbesian protection racket would not work if collective action capacity were distributed unevenly, as it is systematically in capitalism, nor if external organizations—such as contemporary trade agreements–could eviscerate the legally-institutionalized decisions arrived at through the democratic General Will.  Adam Smith (1776) recognized that capitalism and capitalists’ states would always excessively organize capitalists’ collective action capacity, and disorganize workers, requiring a welfare state ballast to maintain productive capitalism. Charles Fourier (1808) argued that societies need to replace private property law with law recognizing capitalists as conditional trustees of the social wealth, while Friedrich Hegel (1820) dared to argue briefly for the Right of the Starving Man as a state-protected corrective to private property right in an already-owned world. In the late 19th century, Marx and Engels launched from Hegel, philosophical materialism, and Smith to analyze how capitalism’s hysterical, incomplete recognition of working classes’ human capacities and contributions leads to characteristic economic-incentive breakdown, capitalist crises; they further analyzed how capitalist collective action capacity redirected and extended those crises.  Viriginia Woolf’s private, clandestine, “anonymous and secret Society of Outsiders” formulation (1938) of what egaliberte could look like proposed a cleft habitus of entitlement and feminized dehumanization. Social reproduction feminists, starting with Alexandra Kollontai (1915), pushed states to increasingly protect “social” citizenship rights to balance private property right and might, in an attempt to distribute sovereign agency and supervene the probationary status capitalism had tentatively allowed workers.

Today the post-WWII conservative hybrid reformulation of the egaliberte approach still resonates when we reify revolution, as if wildfire mass organization were pure and final and tending toward freedom, and when we deny all the ways–including their constraints and limitations–that people in different times and places have organized and fought to not just capture but broaden the distribution of recognition, wealth and power, though their victories could be swamped and redirected, more or less aborted.

Revolution is precious and necessary, no doubt. Not just as youthful consumers, we yearn for successful wildfire re-organization, for the overdue break with unfree delegated agency, and for the universal, decisionist assumption of sovereign agency that we assume can, in superhuman speed, break the bulwarks of inegalitarian surveillance, policing, comms, and institutionalized and network-secured compliance incentives. Such revolutions spread the contagion of hope, as Kant observed and Nietzsche condemned. In his 1798 Conflict of the Faculties, Kant argued that the virtue of revolution lies in inducing global recognition that we are all human, and that sovereign agency can be shared. Yet for all the blinding light they emit—universal decisionism!, revolutions do not solve our inherited anxiety over the distribution of sovereignty, nor elite entitlement to exclusive sovereignty and absolute power. Neither can mass killing.  As with Kurtz in the Congo, we carry those problems with us conceptually and emotionally.

Our inherited aestheticization and attachment to the divine moment of absolute decisionism—whether universal as in revolution, or, as in conservatism, sociologically rare and exclusive, has too often convinced us to discount and dismiss the conceptual and materialized footholds, not just the identified traps, aborted egaliberte organization has built. Our societies have started to construct, but we have not usually prioritized or sustained, the institutions and associations required for democratic development. We haven’t been able to. As conservative-liberal thinkers back to Hobbes and Burke have recognized, capitalism, with its vacillating, degenerating recognition of the contribution of labor, is a property structure of elite hyper-capacitation and vast delegated agency, a Shock and Awe organizational machine for dominating and replicating a Hobbesian world.  It proliferates the antithesis of human development.

So revolution and mass killing have not yet proven effective means of durably overcoming elite entitlement and reinforced collective action capacity. Revolution is but a countervailing shocking moment of universal decisionism & sovereign agency. As much as revolution–breaking out of mass delegated agency—has a moderating function and is overdue, the even tougher social change question will continue to be the democratic Enlightenment one: How do people organize away from our habituated conceptualization of freedom as exclusive sovereign agency and decisionism, toward a broadly-distributed sovereign agency and capacity to exchange ideas, information, grievances, and upon that basis rebuild toward universal human development in ecological context?

Our contribution to knowledge of what happened to class, institutions, and politics in the US, from the exceptional era of social liberalism to neoliberalization, the conservative-liberal restoration, will be undergirded by our analysis of the contentious politics of freedom across social fields. Which kind of unfreedom are Americans haunted by, the conservative or the democratic? Is their vision of this unfreedom based on conservative or democratic assumptions, including conservative or democratic distributions of misanthropy and anthrophilia? What role do the knowledge techniques of democratic scientific knowledge v. elitist scientism and decisionist logical abstraction have to play in supporting Americans’ impactful moral economy of freedom?

Why Genealogy is a Decisionist Fave

“If you are searching for your own noble blood, genetic research has both good and bad news for you. If you follow a pedigree, with all its forkings, back to the eighth century, you will trace over a trillion forks—an impossibility, because that is more than the number of people that have ever existed. When Joseph Chang developed the first statistical model of heredity in 1999 to explain the paradox, he established that many forks disappeared if our ancestors were closely related to one another, and that if you go back seven thousand years, “you reach a point in time when all the individuals who have any descendants among living people are ancestors of all living people.” So you might have pharaohs in your ancestry, and possibly caesars and Holy Roman emperors as well. Yet because of the swapping of DNA fragments during sexual reproduction, the DNA of our ancestors becomes diluted very quickly. Only 1 percent or less of an ancestor who lived four centuries ago is present in your DNA.

None of this, of course, was understood before the discovery of DNA in the 1950s. ” –Tim Flannery, 2019. “Our Twisted DNA,” New York Review of Books, March 7.

This is also to say that any story you already want to make about the past v. present, you can make with the pseudo-social science “technique” genealogy. It’s made to subvert the reason of democracy with the reason of Great Men. Just as Nietzsche prescribed. Psychology and Criminology are mostly the refuge of scientistic frauds, and Economics is the discipline of scientistic knavery. Eschewing scientism, Anthropology is mostly dedicated to turning youthful romanticism into a tool for binding the righteousness of the global peasantry under global elite interests. Sociology has put in plenty of effort monitoring poor men of color, and marketing for anti-democratic liberal parties.

But I’m glad we have statisticians and scientists to call bullshit on philosophy, the queen enterprise of hyper-abstracting elite interests.

Making us see

“I truly believe that our societies work by a constant effort to not see reality. There is another scene I often recount: it was when Jean-Luc Godard was receiving an honorary César in the 1980s or in the 1990s, during the Césars ceremony in France. Godard was invited to go on the stage set for the ceremony, in order to receive his César, given that night by Isabelle Huppert. So he went on the stage. All the people in the room, dressed in tuxedos and expensive dresses, were expecting him to deliver a speech in which he would thank his producers, his screenwriters, eventually his mother, as people always do in this kind of situation. But instead, Jean-Luc Godard said, more or less: I would like to thank the telephone operator who works for Gaumont, the cleaning women, etc. And suddenly, the audience laughed. If you thank a screenwriter, everybody thinks it’s moving, but if you thank a cleaning woman, people think it’s funny. Godard was making an important statement about the system that sustains the art milieu; he was underlining the fact that, when you make a piece of art, a movie, there are some people who clean the studio for you, some people who stay ten hours a day in an office to answer the telephone for you.

The situation is the same when you are a writer: you are invited to give a lecture, your publishing house pays for a hotel room for you, and someone in this room cleans your bed, cleans your bathroom. It’s all a system. So when Godard pointed out the way this system works, people laughed as if it was a joke. I saw their laughter as a kind of physical, bodily response in order not to be confronted by what Godard said. Their laughter was a strategy to escape reality, to not see a structurally violent situation.So when I write, I ask myself, How can I prevent people from escaping what I’m trying to show?”
–Édouard Louis



“Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault taught me something very important: that there is no truth without anger. That anger is a key to understand our world(s), that it’s maybe even the most scientific tool human beings invented.

If I take a concrete example, my mother had to face, during all her life, extreme difficulties: poverty, precarity, male domination, and male violence. She wanted to wear make-up but my father didn’t want her to; he would say that make-up was for sluts (sic). During twenty years of her life, she endured this masculine violence, but most of the time, when she was talking about herself, she would say: But my life is OK, it could be worse, I cannot complain. Why so? Because her mother and her grandmother before her, and her daughters endured the same violence. This violence became so systematic, it was so present around her, that she ended up thinking that it was «normal». That’s a tragedy; how can you change the world if violence is so systematic that people end up not seeing it anymore?

Only if you are angry you understand that this violence is not normal. Anger is what allows you to take a step back and to understand the social structure you are stuck in. Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s books are full of rage, and so are my books, I hope.” –Édouard Louis