27 February 2015

The perpetual Enlightenment machine

Cross-posted from Ethika Politika:

In a recent article for Tablet magazine, Todd Gitlin in his vociferous and sweeping defence of the ‘Enlightenment project’ levels some flippant dismissals against ‘climate-change-denying cranks’ and ‘perpetual-motion machine designers’.

Normally I wouldn’t linger too long on such dismissals, for two reasons. First, for what it’s worth, these aren’t hills worth shedding blood on—I’m not one to lend much credence to people who deny the validity of facts from reliable and authoritative sources, for reasons that are ultimately self-serving and self-interested. Second, such dismissals have the purpose of getting people on board with one’s argument without too much critical thought—drawing lines in the sand helps people understand on what side of the conflict they stand. After all, what right-thinking American progressive wants to be cast into the outer darkness with the climate-change deniers and other such quacks? The not-so-subtle tribal subtext seems to be that, either you’re with us—the courageous, virtuous, rational defenders of Enlightenment—or you’re with them.

Not so fast, on second thought.

Gitlin, just after dismissing as irrational cranks (and rightly so!) the purveyors of perpetual motion machines, then goes on to display his own idea of the perpetual motion machine. The patent isn’t under his own name, of course. But he makes it clear: ‘it’s not an end-point, it’s a journey’. The punchline for his sales pitch is a strident, Promethean defiance of the second law of thermodynamics: ‘It’s dreadfully intertwined with a dominant growth fixation that overheats the atmosphere and melts the icecaps to such a degree as to threaten human civilization. And also—it’s the same scientific revolution that provides the tools to record the damage and clamor for a restart.’ In other words, the machine might overheat a little, but we have to have faith that it can solve that problem on its own.

Gitlin describes the ‘Enlightenment project’ in much the same way as perpetual motion machine purveyors do. Once started, this intellectual ‘force-field’ contains within its own closed system everything necessary to sustain and correct itself. Gitlin begins by loudly disavowing any claims to perfection, but this sounds a little bit too perfect, a little bit too pat, for my tastes. Are all of the people and movements that corrected the Enlightenment in its bloodiest and most brutal historical excesses to be explained from within the framework of the Enlightenment itself? This is not a reasoned or empirical claim, and it could use a fair bit of scrutiny.

Even from the beginning, the Enlightenment had its opponents, and these opponents by and large were those who held to the idea that a certain degree of axiomatic authority existed outside the realms of one’s own reasoning. The early abolitionist sentiment held by Dr. Samuel Johnson did not rest on the basis of an independently reasoned conviction in the equality and brotherhood of man, but on the basis of his religious conviction that black and white were alike created in the image of God, a conviction that his ‘Enlightened’ (and pro-slavery) biographer Boswell thought to be ‘zeal without knowledge’. The biting satire of Rev. Jonathan Swift was motivated not by the smug self-assurance that drove François-Marie Arouet to put pen to paper, but instead by a profound Tory traditionalism that favored the works of classicists over the ‘new learning’ of the ‘Enlightened’ Baconians and the political economists of his time. In Russia, abolition of serfdom was emphatically supported, not by the ‘Enlightened’ despots like Catherine the Great (who indeed expanded and consolidated the practice), but instead by the traditionalist, communitarian Slavophils led by Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Konstantin Aksakov, and Yuri Samarin, all of whom were equally insistent on monarchical rule and a society founded on the traditional values of the Russian Orthodox Church. In Western Europe and America, it makes absolutely no sense to talk about the labour movement without mentioning Rerum Novarum and the subsequent involvement of the Catholic Church in the labour movement. The Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council understood itself as irreconcilably opposed to Enlightenment thinking, but not to its liberatory aims.

In the global south of the 19th century, the opium trade in China was supported and encouraged even at gunpoint by the proponents of economic liberalism and free trade, and was left to be opposed by Confucian classicists and scholar-officials like Lin Zexu; even today, questions about China’s problems with economic inequality and political corruption are addressed with the greatest urgency and moral clarity not by the pragmatist or liberal children of the Enlightenment, but by Confucian thinkers like Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, and by idiosyncratic leftists like Wang Hui and Gan Yang. Criticism of 20th-century African colonialism drew heavily upon nationalist and postcolonial ideas (for example, those of Abbé Alexis Kagame and Dr. Henry Odera Oruka) which defended specifically Tutsi and Luo ways of life and emphasised a specifically African way of doing politics and approaching the humanistic questions, even as they made common cause with Christianity and the study of the Western classics. Even when Gitlin acknowledges a ‘partial exception’ in Mohandas Gandhi, he claims that it doesn’t matter because Gandhi was assassinated for his anti-clericism. True though this is, it would be arguing in bad faith to ignore the traditionalist dimension of home rule, and the independence of India that constitutes the main point of Gandhi’s legacy.

Thus we can see part of the way in which Gitlin’s perpetual motion machine works. The people who fought for the inclusion of the marginalised, the rights of the enslaved, and the rights of the colonised, can all be explained away in Gitlin’s thinking as fighting for ‘Inclusive Enlightenment’ over ‘Fraudulent Enlightenment’: In this way the ‘self-correcting’ mechanism of the Enlightenment machine draws upon the energy inputs of the people who either explicitly oppose it, or understand themselves to be outside it. But there is a flaw: The thinkers, activists and institutions mentioned above simply cannot be thought of merely in terms of their ‘courage to use [their] own reason’, for the simple fact that the reason they used was not their own to begin with. In each and every case highlighted above—the English Tory moralists, the Russian Slavophils, the Catholic workingmen’s associations, the political Confucians, the Chinese New Left, the African post-colonial theorists, the followers of Gandhi’s swaraj—the moral drive for the activism originates not in the power of individual reason, but in some form of transcendent or culturally situated authority.

This is not to deny, of course, that the Enlightenment had, and continues to have, its own internal critics. But it does seem a remarkable sleight-of-hand for Gitlin to refer to the critics of Enlightenment across the board as ‘tendentious’, particularly when he is so eager to claim credit for such critics as Gandhi on the Enlightenment’s behalf. Every contraption has its flaws; but the contraption has not yet been seen that can be counted on to fix itself under its own power, every time it goes wrong.

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