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Body Politics

Beyond Identity Politics, Part II – On the History of Failed Universalisms

The following is the second of a three-part set of essays.

A week or so ago I wrote about the devolutionary dangers of identity politics that has engulfed America over the past generation, and how the Trump phenomenon (with its tendency to unfurl the banner of white, working class grievances) is simply the latest, albeit counterintuitive, iteration of it.

Meanwhile, I have had several requests from readers to do a follow-up piece on what I mean by a “new universalism” that might be its proper antitoxin.   I am more than happy to fulfill such a request, but first we need to consider seriously the historical background and contemporary cultural context for raising such an issue, and why it so desperately matters in this new age of political liminality and creeping global chaos.

Identity politics is nothing new.  It is as old as the concept of “politics” itself.  The ancient Greeks, who invented the word, understood the word to mean those who are indigenous to the polis, or city, which in turn had evolved “autochtonously” from the ethnic, tribal, ancestral, and linguistic commonality of the people who inhabited it.   Everyone else belonged to the sphere of “otherness”, the barbaroi (whence derives the term “barbarian”).

Starting with Alexander the Great and culminating with the Roman  conquest of the Mediterranean and much of Northern Europe, the idea of the polis was transmuted into a broader and more inclusive commonality based on class and culture.  The vast dominions of Caesar were held together largely by the far-flung might of the imperial legions, but equally important was the ideal of a new kind of commonality founded in Roman law and the values of culture citizenship, summed up in the almost mystical notion of Romanitas (“Romanness”) which transcended the ethnic identity of the peoples who had originally imposed those values.  This concept came to be known as Roman “cosmopolitanism,” i.e., the thought of a “universal” polis.

However, Romanitas (which its adherents instinctively associated with humanitas, or “humanness”) was, even though it was extended to many peoples with different ethnic backgrounds, for the most part practically restricted to those of “noble birth”, implying a certain class, or “caste,” requirements.  In that sense it was somewhat similar to England’s class system of during the nineteenth century when Britannia ruled the waves.   The marginalized could in principle attain this preferred “humane” status through education or achievement, but rarely did.

As French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou in his seminal work Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism underscores, Christianity emerges two thousand years ago as the first true “universalistic” outlook on humanity, because it defined “male and female,” “slave and free”, “Greek and Jew” (Paul’s nomenclature for the full spectrum of ethnicity) as expressions of a single rule of inclusivity without exception.

What Badiou terms the “Christ event” unmasked the false universalism of the Roman empire.  Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed the universal kingship prophesied in the tradition of Jewish messianism, had been executed by crucifixion, the most cruel punishment the Romans could devise to demonstrate that its victim was now excluded from the charmed circle of both “Romanity” and “humanity”.  Yet, as Paul proudly proclaimed, this rejected “stumbling block” of the new Roman cosmopolitan order was now the founding “cornerstone” of a new order for the ages.

As various intellectual historians have pointed out in the late modern era, Christian cosmopolitanism was gradually secularized into the kind of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism which Immanuel Kant touted in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.   If Pauline universalism had been anchored in the mytho-soteriological insight that all human beings are potentially saved and thereby “one in Christ,” Kant envisioned a world where a new “religionless” cosmopolitan religiosity could be forged from the eighteenth century “foundational” tenet that all human beings shared the unique attribute of common reason and thereby required without qualification from each of us both moral commitment and absolute “reverence” (Ehrfurchtung) by virtue of the fact that they are “rational beings.”

The Enlightenment universalism of the sort that Kant meticulously set forth eventually became the linchpin for twentieth century human rights policy and it remains, of course, the juridico-legal framework also for the administration of justice in Western liberal democracies.   One could argue as well that the now much maligned sentiment of American exceptionalism up until the middle of the last century proceeded from the conviction that the United States alone carried the torch of Enlightenment universalism, and that the rest of the world was governed by pre-Enlightenment fidelities to various forms of atavistic, superstitious, ethnocentric, or mystified forms of authoritarianism that reached their darkest apogees with the heyday of fascism between the two World Wars.

Nevertheless, the breakup of the Enlightenment consensus was first shattered in Europe by the barbarity of the Nazi occupation, then later in America with the traumas of the Vietnam war followed by the slow mainstreaming of the perception, at least among many of the educated elites, that the United States was no longer the champion of universal, democratic values, but a hypocritical, neo-colonial empire that plundered other nations and exploited their own domestic minorities for their own cynical advantage.

The latter view, of course, had been the staple of the Marxist critique of Enlightenment universalism throughout the twentieth century.  It argued that the Enlightenment vision of democracy,  grounded in an iron logic of universal norms and the sanctity of rational choice and agency, was a mere “ideology” camouflaging the predatory interests of an expansive global capitalism.  Marx considered the entire notion of “democratic capitalism”, which harked all the way back to Adam Smith and the publication of his Wealth of Nations in 1776,  to be a pious delusion.

Marx’s  own brand of “historical materialism” performed the well-known dialectical somersault of locating the general in a certain privileged particular (in keeping with the Hegelian method of making the abstract concrete), specifically the mass of new industrial workers – or “proleteriat” – which he redefined as the “universal class.”  Marxism further re-inscribed the notion of the universal as the historically voiceless and excluded, as exemplified in the concept advanced by Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of “liberation theology”, that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”

The Marxist assumption that Enlightenment universalism – and the theories of bourgeois, electoral democracy  which it spawned – was always a pernicious abstraction diverting our attention from the harsh realities of systematic exploitation and oppression thus became both the intellectual grist and the motive force for identity politics.  When Jean-François Lyotard in 1979 diagnosed the “postmodern condition” as the end of “grand narratives”, he had not merely Enlightenment universalism, but orthodox Marxism specifically in mind.

In postmodern society the industrial proletariat Marx had earlier identified had now become a vanishing species.  Marxian “class analysis” based on the organization of industrial production was compelled to give way to a new “concrete universalism” of excluded cultural groupings, which fit very well what Frederic Jameson termed the “logic of late capitalism.”   But this latter day version of what Paul Riceour had termed the “hermeneutics of suspicion” gradually and inexorably took on a political cast, especially with the great demographic shifts that followed apace with the aging and distinctive infertility of the Baby Boomers and the massive immigrant influxes marking the end of Communism.

The collapse of grand political narratives, such as Enlightenment universalism and orthodox Marxism, along with the increasingly toxic effects of the identity politics that has filled the vacuum, has sewn the wind and reaped a whirlwind of political turmoil throughout the Western democracies while fomenting a kind of international disorder that the world has not seen since the 1930s.

A new, compelling universalist understanding is desperately required, but where will it come from?  It cannot come from the familiar identitarian calculus of subjective as well as collective interest, advantage, and exclusion (a cheap variant of Carl Schmitt’s definition of politics as based on the “friend-enemy distinction”), which is in many ways nothing more than a monstrous manifestation of global consumer capitalism in its political masquerades).  It can only be derived from a new political theology that is ontologically inclusive in the most radical sense of the term.  We cannot derive this political theology from politics, only from theology per se, but a theology that is radical at is core.

In the third, and forthcoming, installment of this essay I will explore in more detail what such a vision might actually entail.

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