I haven’t lived up to the title of this blog.
Answering Mark Hudson’s question about Marx’s relativism took much longer and many more words than I anticipated. And it involved a long excursis into abstraction. If you still care, you probably wonder: what practical implications does all this talk about relativism actually have?
(And why do I keep putting the verb “to be”, selectively, in strike-through text? But that, dear readers, will have to wait for another day.)
The social relativity of truth doesn’t, by itself, imply any particular ethical consequences. Let’s clear that up right away.
The great imperialists of the nineteenth century and many nation-builders of the twentieth, including right here in Canada, used ideas about the universality of Reason to justify the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples. The cultural anthropologists used relativism to oppose this. But the Nazis used relativism to justify their own genocide.
Whether relativism justifies genocide or tolerance depends on your values. More deeply than that, it depends on what you give your love to: your own nation, your own people, your own Volk, or something broader — humanity as a whole, say, or all life on this Earth.
The Nazis used a form of relativism to justify genocide, as I recognize in my book. Liberals like Karl Popper saw this and proposed a universalistic rationalism as the antidote to the totalitarianisms of Hitler and of Stalin.
Oddly enough (or not), twentieth-century Western Marxists also proposed universal rationality as the foundation for revolutionary socialist struggle, criticizing the irrationalities of capitalism. It shows up in Habermas’s work, his vehement criticisms of Foucault and his defense of modernity, and in contemporary Marxists’ even more vehement attacks on postmodernism.
The dominant Marxist strategy has been to say, yes, we need modernity, we need Enlightenment, we need rationality — rather than reconsider these things, we just need more of them. Modified rationality, for sure, not just the short-sighted and inhuman instrumental rationality of capitalists, but a more pure rationality, unsullied by petty self-interest. And for their part, champions of social democracy have claimed that some such form of rationality, implemented by a democratic state, can overcome capitalism’s irrational distribution of wealth and poverty.
Behind these various deployments of the ideal of universal reason lies a conviction that to bring about the good society we can and must use reason, innate to human nature, to produce a unified consciousness which can serve as the foundation for that good society.
I think this strategic investment in rationality has led the Left into a dead end.
The relativity of truth implies that reason can only take us so far.
It implies that we cannot actually separate reason from our mundane interests, from our embodiment, from our emotions, or from power. We can only pretend to do so.
It implies that what will seem reasonable to any group of people will depend on non-rational factors, and that to ignore or marginalize the non-rational in the name of reason functions only to conceal the material relations that give reason its efficacy, its seeming universality. In the name of pure and universal reason we conceal our desires, our fears, we conceal the use of force on which reason depends, we conceal the violence required to make people reason in a common way.
We expect reason to lead us to consensus — to a free, uncoerced consensus. And sometimes it can. But what happens when it doesn’t? What do we do when a reasonable conversation fails to reconcile our differences?
is to attempt to outdo the reasoning of the other, to play the game of reason and win, to triumph over our opponent through the superior use of reason. This counts as one form of what I call, in my book, deferentiation: the process of establishing a relationship of dominance and deference through symbolic means.
If that doesn’t work, we can accuse the other of not reasoning properly, of ‘being irrational’, in order to disqualify what they say. We can try to say, “we will not listen to you when you talk like that; for us to listen, you must talk in this way”. Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, called this ‘terrorism’; I prefer to call it a form of symbolic violence.
Perhaps sometimes we have to struggle for dominance; perhaps sometimes we have to use violence, symbolic or otherwise, to oppose the violence of our oppressors. It works well enough for certain purposes. But it always comes with a cost: the alienation of the other.
No free person would choose to let others dominate or silence them. For this reason I don’t think we can build a radically free, egalitarian society on a foundation of reason. We can use reason towards that end in specific, limited ways, but we need other tools.
What do these tools look like?
Materialist relativism tells us that if we wish to relate nonviolently with others we need to learn, understand, and accept the material factors that shape the truth of their experience. If we love the Other, we need to accept that their location in social relations may differ from ours. That their embodiment may differ from ours. That their logic and perceptions may differ from ours. That their needs and interests, their fears and desires, may differ from ours. And to accept these things, not as static entities that will never change (because all things change continually), but as operating in the present moment. As neither good nor evil in themselves, but as bearing good or evil qualities only in relation to our own desires and interests. To observe with mindful acceptance the irreducibility particularity, the Otherness, of the Other.
And this means accepting the material factors that shape the truth of our own experience, accepting our own irreducible non-universality.