The political implications of relativism

I think that relativism, by itself, does not have one particular set of ethical or political implications. Relativism as I understand it is not a stance or a position; it operates as a toolkit, a way of doing things. What it implies for ethics or for politics depends on what aims you direct it to.

If one aims to establish or perpetuate relations of domination, relativism can help with that, unfortunately.

But I also believe that if one aims to establish relations of equality, reciprocity, mutual accountability, and so on, relativism can help with that too.

My desire for a social movement that is inclusive of cultural and epistemological difference comes from my notion of socialism, not from relativism per se. Relativism only helps me articulate that desire and imagine its implications in particular ways that I that find fruitful.

Indeed, one can very well pursue the inclusion of cultural and epistemological difference using essentialist intellectual tools – along Habermasian lines, for example. Inevitably we encounter contradictions and problems by doing this. But then again, we encounter problems using relativist tools also.

I think we choose an intellectual framework as much for its problems as for its solutions. Which set of problems do you find more interesting, more fruitful to work on, more likely to take you in the directions you want to go?

A position in which any move or decision will result in problems.

7 thoughts on “The political implications of relativism

  1. “Which set of problems do you find more interesting, more fruitful to work on, more likely to take you in the directions you want to go?””

    The problem of authority, above all the State.


    • Do you mean, the problem of getting it to work properly, getting the State to fulfill its necessary function of societal regulation without overstepping its bounds, that sort of thing? As opposed to the anarachist problem of abolishing the State, i.e. the problem of figuring out how to live together without need for the State?


  2. Both of those things, taken together, add up to a pretty good formal definition of the problem of authority as I see it. They are interpenetrating questions. To the extent that people can police themselves, they have no need for the State. To the extent that they can’t, then they do (and, I contend, they always do). But the State, for its part, risks degenerating into tyranny exactly to the extent that people can’t police themselves, or lose the ability to do so. Hence the problem of authority is also the problem of civic virtue. For what it’s worth, I’ve come to agree with the classical tradition of civic pessimism which holds that, over time, citizens of any State inevitably lose their capacity for self-policing, and the State accordingly and inevitably degenerates into tyranny (although I think that in modernity this process will play itself out very differently than in the classical world, and for a very different set of reasons).

    With respects to the main thrust of your post (the importance of the intellectual problematic): I think this has important implications for your project of dialogic (e.g. “everyday relativism”). The problematic, as Althusser said, determines the field of possible vision of the mind’s eye. I think that one of the reasons so many things degenerate into shouting matches is that people operating with different problematics get so used to seeing the things their respective problematic lets them see that, over time they come to think that what they see is self-evidently obvious, and that everybody else should be just automatically able to see it, too. Indeed, notwithstanding the continuity of self, I find myself at once wondering just how I myself arrived at certain insights, and kicking myself for not having arrived at others, back when I was looking at things from a very different theoretical and ethical problematic than now. (Wilhelm Dilthey was right: you have to practice hermeneutics on yourself if you want to recall just what it was you were thinking ten years ago).


    • Your comments about ‘the problematic’ resonate with me (in fact, I’ve been reading For Marx just recently). Yes, too often we treat others’ statements as originating from within the same problematic as our own, which makes those statements seem combative, or perverse. Recognizing the importance of problematics or other meta-communicative frameworks is helpful, maybe crucial, for accepting difference.

      I find your notion that the two problems of authority interpenetrate really interesting, because I hadn’t thought of that. I was assuming they pull in entirely different directions, but I can see the usefulness of your combining them.

      Speaking just for myself, I have been orienting my work more entirely towards the second, anarchistic, problem: how to abolish the need for the state. Where I differ from (some?) anarchists is that I don’t think of the state as a pure parasite. To me the state is a “solution” or the resolution of the general problem of the organization of physical force in society (think of “solution” in non-evaluative terms as you can, more like the solution of an equation than the solution of a moral problem). Given our capacity for physical violence towards one another, what form will the use of violence take? Feudalism or warlordism is one resolution, empires another, sovereign nation-states another, and so on. When we try to abolish the state in our everyday lives, we immediately run into problems of how to deal with difference, practico-moral problems that the state had “solved” for us, and that we need new solutions to if we are to operate without the state. In a sense, the point of my book is to begin to chip away at this.

      If I was to operate in terms of your problematic, though, I would ask: why is it that citizens of any State inevitably lose their capacity for self-policing, and the State accordingly and inevitably degenerates into tyranny? What mechanisms are at work? Can we develop a knowledge that could help us to steer away from this developmental path?


  3. Pingback: Moral Relativism Is Dead. What’s Next? » iPandora

  4. Can you please help me with this question? Argue the relevance or irrelevance of ethical relativism on the national election. Please. Thank you.


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