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High Modernism And The Epistemic Origins Of The Crisis Of Neoliberalism

The social is no longer a predicament, but a project.

The following is the first of a series on the emerging crisis of neoliberalism.  Whereas previous articles in this online journal have focused on current events, this multiple-part series delves into the theoretical and politico-theological genesis of the crisis.

The origins of the current crisis of neoliberalism at a planetary level can be traced back to the early modern era.  It is an epistemic crisis.

Just as the nineteenth century was the age of industrialization, the twentieth century can be marked as the period of what James C. Scott calls “high modernism”.  High modernism aimed to make all knowledge not merely “scientific,” but to turn it into a universal, epistemic map that could be utilized not simply for charting and predicting the end points and outcomes of natural processes, but for masterfully explaining and regulating the whole of life, even the life of the human species.

Prior to the twentieth century Descartes’ mathesis universalis was but what the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco José de Goya by the late eighteenth century would term the “dream of reason.” Yet by the first few decades of the twentieth century the dream was well on its way toward becoming a reality.

High modernism – a term that applies to far more than aesthetic trends of the era – was the fruition of this effort to materialize what had hitherto been barely a fantasy.  Turning its back on Immanuel Kant’s claim that we can never know what something is “in itself,” high modernism sought to convert an increasingly complex and sophisticated mathematico-deductive schematics of the world, which had been evolving since the invention of the calculus by Newton and Leibniz simultaneously in the seventeenth century, into the very stuff of existence.

In other words, it aimed to ensure that in the end the map was indeed the territory.  The method of high modernism was, broadly speaking, to assign what Scott dubs a “transformative power” to the twin transactions of abstraction and standardization.

According to Scott,

…this transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map. A private corporation aiming to maximize sustainable timber yields, profit, or production will map its world according to this logic and will use what power it has to ensure that the logic of its map prevails. The state has no monopoly on utilitarian simplifications. What the state does at least aspire to, though, is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. That is surely why, from the seventeenth century until now, the most transformative maps have been those invented and applied by the most powerful institution in society: the state. (87)

Moreover, in Scott’s penetrating analysis totalitarian politics and its glorification of the state, including its principal agents was merely the administrative handmaiden of what at its core was an epistemic transformation.  This transformation did not rest on some dialectic between myth and enlightenment, as the Frankfurt School held.

Nor was it due to some kind of fetishizing of techno-science, as many who who took mind-altering drugs and solemnly participated in the seductive candlelight liturgies of neo-Romantic spirituality first favored by the “hippies” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.   It was by and large the full flowering of tendencies that began with the ambitions of Baroque rulers to gather uncontested power through the rational and systematic control of populations, natural resources, and of course the economy as a whole.

Everything during that century from the exercise of raison d’etat by absolute monarchs to the invention of scientific forestry to mercantilist finance was the first, callow gesture in a trend toward the engineering of entire societies and their livelihoods rather than simply armies and bridges.

Michel Foucault’s models of both “disciplinary” and “biopolitical” ways of governing can be regarded, therefore, within this context not as divergent but rather as continuous markers along the same spectrum.   “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision”, Scott writes.  “Combined with similar observations, an overall, aggregate, synoptic view of a selective reality is achieved, making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation.”(11) The difference comes down, as Max Weber noted in his critique of both positivism and historicism, to what the inquirer  considers relevant in drawing up the schematics of “knowledge” and its application within a specific setting.

Only a narrow segment of such knowledge, so far as Weber was concerned, can be formalized by means of mathematical symbols, logical notations, “covering theories” that purport to serve as all-sufficient explanations , and the kinds of law-like protocols and propositions employed in the natural sciences. The broader range of what we construe as “knowledge” always remains contextual, or site-specific.  What we come to know depends invariably on some kind of “judgment call” for which there is no general rule that can be deployed in every comparable situation, mainly because the number of relevant variables are often incalculable.

In other words, the “facts”, as Nietzsche reminded us, are always subject to interpretation.

Weber writes that “every interpretation attempts to attain clarity and certainty, but no matter how clear an interpretation as such appears to be from the point of view of meaning, it cannot on this account alone claim to be the causally valid interpretation. On this level it must remain only a peculiarly plausible hypothesis.” Furthermore, context is everything. “Even though the situations appear superficially to be very similar we must actually understand them or interpret them as very different; perhaps, in terms of meaning, directly opposed.”(9)

As Scott point out, it is contextualized understanding (what the Greeks called mētis) as opposed to epistêmê (the type of rule-based, rigorously deductive knowledge) that has been the norm for millennia. Mētis is localized and situational, not categorical and all-determinative.   “Knowing how and when to apply the rules of thumb in a concrete situation is the essence of mētis. The subtleties of application are important precisely because mētis is most valuable in settings that are mutable, indeterminant (some facts are unknown), and particular.”(316)

The history of “high modernism” has been the inexorable replacement of mētis with epistêmê.   In Scott’s reading of history the evolution of the modernist epistemology has gone hand in hand with the evolution of techne, a close kinship that can be traced all the way back to the Greeks and constitutes the essence of what Martin Heidegger dubs Seinsvergessenheit, the “forgetting of Being.”  “Where mētis is contextual and particular, techne is universal.”(320)

Scientific universalism – what Kant referred to as “pure reason” – cannot be separated from the quest for global dominion. As Barbara Aneil suggests, the impetus for recasting Medieval theological stipulations concerning “natural law” in terms of the “natural rights” of humanity (specifically, the proprietary right to land and natural resources that became the sacred principle of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in England and eventually the so-called “labor theory of value”) was founded on the actual experience of colonial dispossession of America’s indigenous peoples by British and Dutch merchants with their superior weaponry.

By the late eighteenth century it had also become the scaffolding for international law.  The intimate connection between “reason”, “liberty”, “industry”,  and the “law of nations” was delineated in terms of the success of early colonial trading companies in both subduing refractory populations and streamlining the market for both raw materials and finished goods.

Liberalism, like neoliberalism centuries later, became the new “image of thought” for an unprecedented system of fostering national wealth and commercial efficiencies through the exploitation by ideological as well as military means of certain kinds of human beings.   The legendary eighteenth century figure of the “enlightened despot” such as Frederick the Great, who combines advanced “military science” with the carefully computative administration of the well-being of the citizenry, serves as the apotheosis of the high modernist ethos in this respect.

The aim of an all-encompassing mathesis universalis, however, was not so much the glory of the sovereign as the creation of a new form of human solidarity that would replace, at least in the West, the organismic with a smooth running Baconian orbis terrarum machina (“world machine”), the corpus Christianorum with something like Hobbes’ Leviathan.  The intrinsic rationality of the natural word no longer emanates from divine design, but from the technological genius of human beings themselves, who bring the mathesis to bear on political life itself, as we have in the famous opening lines of Hobbes’ great classic:

 Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that Rationall and most excellent worke of Nature, Man. For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body…

The “Leviathan,” as opposed to the polis, is created by “art” (techne).   Such an “artificial” solidarity which conjures up Golem-like the “life and motion” of the “whole body” derives from what Kant would later come to characterize as “pure practical reason”.  Pure practical reason is mētis stripped of its contextual (or what Kant calls “sensible”) elements.  It is “categorical” because as a “command” of pure reason one has no choice, or discretion, whether to follow along with it.

As the only true “moral” order of society, it cannot be justified in terms of custom, precedent, or even the habitual and instinctual bonds of human solidarity we associate with parenting, family, cultural heritage, and of course ethnic commonality.  The social is no longer a predicament, but a project.

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 Critical Theology (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).  He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.

Kant, Hayek, And The “Truth” Of The Market

Morality can never have as its aim anything besides what is right in its own right regardless of the incentives or consequences.

High Modernism And The Epistemic Origins Of The Crisis Of Neoliberalism

The social is no longer a predicament, but a project.

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