The Paradox of Universalism

Samir Amin passed away on August 12th this year, at the age of 86.  Amin’s 1989 book Eurocentrism proposes a simple and useful distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’ universalism.

Amin’s comments are addressed to Marxist theory, but the spirit of them applies to liberalism also. Marxism is a universalist theory in two senses. First, on an explanatory level, it aims to provide a universal model of the fundamental dynamics that drive all hitherto existing societies. Second, on a normative level, it aims to help produce a society in which all human beings can be free and equal. But Amin criticizes some of his fellow Marxists for a false universalism. He does this in order to improve Marxism and make it more truly universalist.

On a descriptive level, the false universalism consists of treating European history as if it were the history of all humanity. One obvious example of this is assuming that all human societies must pass through the same stages of development that unfolded in Europe. In particular, the process by which European societies transformed from feudalism to capitalism is not simply being repeated, with a slight delay, everywhere else in the world.  The process of commodification and capitalization of production has been happening in different ways in different parts of the world.

Another example is treating Europe’s historical development as the result only of its own internal dynamics, ignoring the colonial relations between Europe and the rest of the world which have been crucial to modern capitalism from its beginning. A truer universalism de-centers the European experience, situating it within a wider relational context.

On a normative level, true universalism involves recognizing that, even though workers’ struggles in different parts of the world are all interrelated, those struggles necessarily take on very different forms for which there is not single universal template. This requires recognizing that when workers in, say, Egypt adopt different goals and strategies than workers in, say, France, it’s not because Egyptian workers suffer from false consciousness, but because they face different material conditions.

Amin’s point is this: in order to achieve a true universality, we have to recognize the particularity of the conditions that different people face based on their location in the overarching social system. That’s the paradox: the path to universality is through  particularity.

The same logic extends to other kinds of social difference, including sex/gender, race, sexuality, and so on. Treating the struggles of white male heteronormative workers as a universal template while ignoring or de-centering the struggles of workers who occupy other subject positions is false universalism. True universalism requires a polycentric recognition of the particular intersecting oppressions of all workers.

Recognizing these particularities while still pursuing universalism poses a couple of different challenges.

The most obvious challenge is the sheer complexity of the multidimensional matrix of oppression and the variable subject positions it generates. It’s not completely for nothing that some socialists worry about identity politics degenerating into a kind of reactionary narcissism. This is an area where better tools for complex system thinking could have an immediately useful practical application.

The more interesting challenge is has to do with the goal of universalistic struggle.

For some, universal emancipation implies a flattening out, not just of social inequalities, but of all social differences, a subsuming of all social and cultural particularities within a single universal subject.  But not only would this entail a tremendous and sad loss of human diversity, it doesn’t seem to be very realistic.

Instead, the more that people become free and equal, the more different we become. As heternormative patriarchy weakens, gender identities proliferate. As institutional white supremacy slackens, however slightly and unevenly, racialized identities appear reinvigorated while taking on ever more complex forms.

This is not just a symptom of some decadent liberal-bourgeois individualism; it’s a manifestation of the generally divergent character of evolution. In the absence of constraint, forms tend to diversify. This is true in the physical evolution of species of lifeforms, and also of the evolution of social practices, including identities. The diversification of social particularities is a symptom of the success, not failure, of egalitarian movements.

What thoughts do you have?

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