What Can Liberty Do? For Political Regime Change, First Change the Regime of Critical Thought

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was experienced as closing an historic period, that of revolutions inspired by the communist utopia, and marking the entry into the era of ‘natural capitalism’ and of the ‘self-regulating market.’ Naturalization of the current mode of production and exploitation and of the exchange system is the direct consequence of the revocation of history. From now on, we would live under a historically permanent regime which only authorizes technological or management-related modifications.

Thus, it is not so much the absence of alternatives which paralyzes critical, intellectual and political activity, as the impossibility of articulating some sort of an alternative solution for a present which only admits its permanence.What isparalyzed is truly a certain form of critical thinking which allowed itself too much scope in particular, that of  ‘revolutionary subject,’ of intrinsically-revolutionary-proletarian-subject. In this regime of critical thought, only the presupposition of socio-economic determinism conferred on each one a possible being which he or she could return to and achieve under certain conditions: a metaphysical condition which would allow us to surround human history with a philosophy of history, that is to say a progressive ideology, for which the future is always already there and which leaves no room for any creativity; and a political condition according to which the candidate subject for revolution is both exploited and alienated. The exploitation that he suffers furnishes him the motivation to revolt while alienation keeps him in his present state. Also, the liberator, the ‘friend of humanity’, has to intervene in the role of an avant-garde party, so that the possible being of the one oppressed can achieve his full potential.

To escape the mentoringrequired by the logic of emancipation and dareto try self-empowerment, in Kantian terms, we contend that critical thought must renounce all essentialism—whichencourages all possible facilities—and posit anti-essentialism as one of the decisive conditions, if not thedecisive condition, for critical thought. Anti-essentialism, in fact, is not one opinion among others, but the core principle of the analysis.

Why Accord This Privileged Status to Anti-essentialism?

Because this is an epistemological principle which offers the possibility of access to a much richer reality than is possible with essentialism. If we go back to the example of the revolutionary subject, it seems that essentialism restricts it to only the revolutionary vocation deduced from its possible being, defined in a unidimensional manner.

This possible being is heterodetermined both by the historic moment, fixed by a philosophy of history, and the subject’s position in the socio-economic order. This twofold spatiotemporal heterodetermination creates a “context”—much like decor—which defines the possibilities for the achievement of a given historical subject’s mission. This notion of context must be evaluated as a link in the essentialist conceptual network, contrary to the way a number of theoreticians or social science practitioners, in particular, historians, use it. When the latter refer to the necessary contextualization, they are persuaded to proceed with a legitimate temporalization which forbids, for example, projecting on sixteenth century men the ways of being, believing, and thinking of contemporary men. Yet for both contemporary men and sixteenth century men, there is truly little doubt, because the principle of temporalization is embedded in the conditions in which they are plunged and determines who they are. Drawing upon temporalization, such an analysis concludes with a relativization which only allows for a simple juxtaposition of moments or periods without being able to explain their connection.

Now Hegelian-Marxist philosophy of history easily resolves this question of connection by referring to ‘a sense of history,’ a sense  which is embedded in a transcendent order, and whose ordering efficacy was supposed to always overcome the contingency of historical progression. To do so, it was necessary to distinguish the order of the sense from the order of the activity of ‘subjects’ in such a fashion that the meaning remained, despite the worried excitement  and disorder of subjects’ activities, comprehensible by an overarching rationality. Also, the direction was given, once and for all, by some particular regime of domination, it’s not important which one, and unfailingly imposed itself on the subjects, in the same way as Smith’s “invisible hand” and Hegel’s “ruse of reason.”

The difficulty of such a stance is to explain how this sense, which operates outside of ‘subjects,’ makes sense for them. A sense which would not make sense for one or a number of subjects would obviously have neither validity nor efficacy. The being of sense is of the order of being for oneself, not of being in oneself (Sartre). Now, the distinction that we are examining relegates sense to the order of being for oneself, constituting it as an object knowable through scientific rationality, while rendering it foreign to subjects for whom it is announced. For this sense to make sense, or to become a norm, for the subjects for whom it is envisaged, one must suppose that the latter are submissive to a determinism which steeps them in this normativity. Such is the purpose of invoking social determinism: transform (mechanically and not existentially) from sense of oneself to a sense for the subjects. The subjects which incorporate this sense are, therefore, determined subjects, the efficacy of sense being then conceived in terms of causality. On one hand, there is the fanciful illusory sense, that the subjects give themselves and, on the other hand, the sense which is given by social determinism, the only truly efficient one, because it is not conscious, and has an effect on the subjects’ activity. The former serves the latter in that it holds or deflects the subjects’ attention, making them available to the determining action of the latter.

The Condition of Political Possibility of Social Determinism

Social determinism can only operate if relayed by determinable subjects, that is, subjects previously fashioned, prefabricated, to be ‘completely naturally’ inserted into the anticipated structure of this discourse. The order designated by social determinism is never the initial one, contrary to what the sociologizing illusion would have one think; it is logically preceded by the political order of the domination which creates these determinable subjects. This notion of determination, as we know, is part of the famous antinomy of determinism and of liberty: for determination to prove its efficacy, it’s important that it affect a free being, but the latter, for this reason, will then not fail to escape the determining process. Now the resolution of the antinomy rests in the reduction of libertyand of will: will not entering into play until after the free affirmation of a project on the horizon of organizing the means required to achieve this project—Sartre’s central thesis—thisreduction is a decisive element in subjects’ determinability. Faced with such a devitalized liberty, determination may readily display its power and reveal its superiority.

Social determinism, thus, seems to be an instrument of political domination. While sociologizing discourse often considers it as an explanatory principle, this is because it is deceived by what determinism confers on the social order—that is, its ideologicalvocation—coherence and autonomy, while such an order is ‘second’ in terms of a political order which has always already determined the domination. In writing ‘second,’ we do not refer to the chronological dimension of this term, but wish to indicate that political domination is a cornerstone of the organization of the social order, which would, thus, not be considered self-sufficient.

The mantra of Marxist critique interprets politics as the expression or emanation of the social order, itself conceived as entirely determined by economics. Marxist orthodoxy has been seduced by the economicist illusion depicting relations between people as objective characteristics. This is why it reacts so aggressively to the feminist critique of the 1970s which, however, renews the materialist analysis by rediscovering its initial inspiration, that of a philosophy of liberty. Asking herself questions about how men treat women, Simone de Beauvoir scrupulously tracks domination: the one who takes the initiative in the relationship with others, who is capable of shaping the regime of alterity, dominates. Also, the one who has taken the initiative in the relationship with others is ensured the mastery of material resources. Against the economicist illusion which leads to thinking that the appropriation of wealth provides the means of domination, one must object that the relationship of power precedes—logically—access to resources: the scarcity is first rarity of front power than to borrow an economic form. It is in confining women to an absolute alterity, categorizing them as Other, that men establish a situation of oppression and impose a formidable domination. This amounts to saying that the oppressors are in a position to manipulate the significance of a situation once they determine the conditions of the relationship. They keep the oppressed in the state of being in itself and refuse them access to the world, access to being for oneself, access to existence. Now, a situation only takes on meaning in the light of what it will be through the project of a collective liberty. It is not an oppressive situation in itself, or then it would have to be resolved by characterizing it as necessary, and, thus, insurmountable. A situation is only oppressive for a collective liberty when it anticipates a situation that will no longer occur, or that will be less than expected.

Therefore, what must be denounced, is this idea of a completed social whole, of a self-sufficient social order, in the sense that it operates both as a unique situation and explanatory principle, without it being necessary to refer to a pre-existing political order, to a system of oppression, to account for this. This famous autonomous social order corresponds very precisely to what Sartre calls a ‘hyperorganism’ when he undertakes analysis of the notion of a group: ‘The group is haunted by organicist significations because it is subject to this rigid law: if it were to achieve organic unity (which is impossible) it would therefore be a hyper-organism (because it would be an organism which produced itself in accordance with a practical law which excluded contingency); but since this it is strictly forbidden this statute, it remains atotalisation,and a being which is subsidiary to the practical organism, and one of its products.[1]’ In this regard, he warns us that the dialectic he unveils in Critique of Dialectical Reasonopens up processes of totalisation, which could only be grasped with the help of this so-called dialectic taken in its totality? This is always already given, and its sole vocation is to encourage the attainment of some possibilities which contain this entirety (hyperorganism, ‘because it would be an organism which produced itself in accordance with a practical law which excluded contingency’). This ‘contingency’ necessitates our being attentive to historical depth, to historicity, and invites us to oppose this disembodied dialectic of totality which ‘dialectical materialism,’ advances, which only requires an essentialized subject, entirely shaped by the hyperorganism, a simple foil in its self-development. It is not intrinsic that the oppressed push forward to various possibilities; only the oppressed in revolttear apart the horizon which earlier seemed narrowly defined.

Rethinking the Plebeian Experience

Indeed, it is these rebelling oppressed peoples who are experiencing and bring to life what Martin Breaugh calls ‘the plebeian experience,’[2]the historical and philosophical thread which he finds in the first and second part while, in the third part, he brings out the new political organization which this experience projects in opposition to the ‘dominant political configuration of modernity.’ The model of this experience is provided by the first plebeian secession in Rome, in 494 B.C., which Titus-Livius recounts in Volume II, Chapters 32-33, of hisRoman History. The plebeians, that is those who could not participate in the life of the city, were relegated to an infra-politics, were burdened with debt and risked being reduced to slavery while, as soldiers, they were defending the liberty of Rome against foreign invasions. The flagrant injustice of this fed the plebeians’ hatred of the patricians and led them to withdraw to Mount Aventine to establish a camp “with no leader,” from which they launched no attack against Rome and where they suffered no offensive from the patricians. This secession, which deprived Rome of manpower and defenders, worried the patricians who, through the Senate, sent Menenius Agrippa as an ambassador to the plebeians entrenched on the mountain, with the mission of bringing them back to Rome. He told them the fable of the stomach and its parts: while harmony did not yet reign in the body, as is the case today, the parties were indignant about what they procured for the stomach, all the pleasures without any hint of compensation in return. Also, they seceded and refused to feed the stomach. Thus, they were brought to realize that in weakening the stomach, they were weakening themselves, and they had to recognize that the stomach was not a parasite but participated in the vitality of the body. The meaning of the parable is clear: the patricianstomach being the vital principle of Rome, the plebeianparties in seceding, were harming themselves. The existence of orders and their cooperation are, therefore, essential to Rome’s functioning. In this sense, the patrician spokesperson to the secessionists extolled the organicist (hyper-organicist) merits, in terms which are ours, of the social order, so that the plebeians would agree to reintegrate into society. Nevertheless, their status changed somewhat, to the extent that they secured the creation of truly plebeian judicial authorities; which allowed them to gain a sort of political and religious recognition.

From this initial plebeian lesson, Breaugh has discerned two characteristic traits: the political character of the conflict and the affirmation of a radical equality. This means that such an experience carves out a path below the social order to highlight the primacy of politics, of liberty over will, always on our own terms, and, from the outset, characterizes the condition of political possibility once its primacy, that is, equality, is revealed. This is a condition which implies that the political field is only really deployed if the greatest number have access to it. Organizing a camp with no leader on Mount Aventine is shifting the division between the “elite” and the “people” to an “apolitical,” or “social” issue. Of course, Breaugh stresses the tragic nature of such an experience, in that its temporality is that of an opening and not permanent; nonetheless, the opening was not closed and leaves its mark.

Obviously, therefore, the key political question, both theoretical and of practical significance, is to know whether the plebeian experience is necessarily committed to spontaneity, discontinuity, while recurring, repeating itself, from time to time, or whether it may be envisaged over time, all while preserving its special character, its originality.

We Are Not in a Democracy

We sincerely hope that these significant, although only allusive, observations allow for the organization of a confrontation with ‘the dominant political configuration of modernity’ which Breaugh established, stemming from three congruent phenomena: the establishment of representative government; the political party system; and the development of large bureaucracies; to which could be added the autonomization, or naturalization, of the economic field. To the extent that representation serves to select the most enlightened men, according to the wish formulated by Montesquieu, we may conclude from this that representative government is a distinct political form of democracy, an ‘aristocratic’ form. The selection of magistrates, through the electoral process, provides the means of installing an aristocratic political form and, let us add, of confining political activity to a voluntarist model. (Isn’t the election presented as the expression of the popular will?) Furthermore, it provides the ideological bias through which the representative government can lay claim to popular approval. Concerning political parties, we refer to Robert Michels‘ classic analyses[3]denouncing their “oligarchical tendencies.” Finally, over time, the bureaucracy allows representative government to bring to fruition its social project. This picture should be completed with the naturalization of the economy to the degree that liberty, like will, a simple manipulator of means, would be deprived of its ends. An economy organized according to laws of nature could fill this gap: the political will has to obey the imperative that such a necessity seems to harbour, and forces him to be managerial.

So many very common propositions and brought forward so many times! Where is the urgency in repeating them once again?  It is so that they encourage us to decide to start thinking of a new regime of critical thought: no longer using the term “democracy” to characterize the political regime of our societies. This matter of words weighs heavily on our way of reflecting on the theoretical and practical political question.

The expression “representative democracy” hampers our analytical capacity in that it compels us to argue from this so-called democratic reality and, at best, to seek to improve it in terms of expanding its degree of democracy. From this, for example, stems the false debate between formal democracy and real democracy, which first agrees to adopt the framework of “formal democracy” to then achieve the conditions of a socio-economic equality to fully meet democratic exigencies, while making the distinction brings us back to a recognition that so-called formal democracy accepts inequalities and is, therefore, anti-democratic. Neither is it our intention to proceed to a deepening of democracy but rather to open up a breach to give democracy a chance. At the end of these remarks, we have gained (and perhaps shared) a certainty, that which assures us that political ambition can only be maintained on the condition of building upon the integrated system of equality and liberty. A number of local actions occurring each day offer proof of the rich promise of this integrated system.


[1]Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London-New York: Verso, 2004) 539

[2]Martin Breaugh, The Plebeian Experience. A Discontinuous History of Political Freedom, trans. Lazer Lederhendler, foreword Dick Howard (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013)

[3]Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchial Tendancies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York: The Free Press, 2016)


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1