Saturday, May 17, 2008

"Poverty in Philosophy"

Saturated in much Western political philosophy, popular culture and consciousness is this conception of the "Individual" standing against some collective and faceless horde which is attempting to stamp it out. It demonstrates the annoying symptoms of a centuries old classical education that has inculcated the arrogant belief that Western civilization sprung from Greece, whose individuality and pluckiness faced down the Persian hordes. I won't even go into this ridiculous notion, but that some people internalise this perspective unflinchingly annoys me to no end - not just with regards to Lebanon's political crisis but in relations to China as well. That people may feel this way about strangers or "others" is not surprising, that it is enshrined as so central to much Western political thought is. This is what makes reading anyone the likes of Mill or Rawls so annoying, their repackaging of the completely obvious and mundane into something exclusive and exceptional - what they advocate is akin to freezing society at the emotional age of a six year old. Below is a short extract of an essay I had written on Mill which got me thinking about this post and what I was trying to say.

*Continuation - just for Abu Fares*

Mill presents us with an amusing narrative as a backdrop, arguing that human history has been marked by the struggle between Liberty and Authority. Writing from what he believes is the civilised part of the world, Mill claims that in the course of this struggle, the relationship between ruler and ruled has undergone three distinct stages of development, the last of which sets the context for his liberty principle. In the first and second stages, the interests of government are opposed to those of the people and most energy is spent on limiting the scope of the ruler in the first stage and making the government accountable to them in the second. In the third and final stage however, a problem emerges. The interests of the government and the people who have elected it are said to have merged to the point where no meaningful distinction can be made between the two, "The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.", or is there? According to Mill, an elected government did not necessarily mean that it represented all the people, only that part of the population which was most politically active would have done so. As such, should a minority exist and which finds itself in disagreement with the majority; government and society (meaning the majority) impose limitations on the liberty of the minority either through imposing norms, custom or morality. The result is a social tyranny which "enslaves the soul". For Mill, the prime concern should be how to safeguard the liberty of this minority and prevent the suppression of their individuality by "the tyranny of the majority". The individual must be sovereign over themselves, their bodies and their minds and society may expect things from them or impose punishments only when the conduct of the individual will harm others. So far so good right for Mill, in our present day what he is saying sounds almost like a truism and many people, without realising Mill's influence on them, actually live their lives precisely along such lines.

Yet ultimately there is a problem with this morality. It is the morality I see around me permeating throughout liberal societies, the morality of no morality. It is mixed with more ideas associated with modernisation, the creation of "spheres" in a persons life, like they can be different people in different spheres and should be judged accordingly. Essentially the "Individual" is so central, so sacred and apparently unique to Western civilisation. An individual may at times be called upon to perform a duty to society if their lack of involvement may cause more harm (such as jury service) but towards themselves the Individual has no duty. This is in sharp contrast with older Eastern societies where the individual is inculcated from childhood with a sense of duty to themselves, their family and the society in which they live. When the two moralities or senses of identity meet, there is usually a clash. This obsession in Western political thought with the Liberty of the individual from government and it's control, Isaiah Berlin's "negative freedom", confused me. We hear constantly how Western societies are free, how they hold the Individual sacred and how much better off we would be if we followed their form of political organisation. It is not until you live in these countries that you realise the price that has come with their development, the state is capable, and in fact does exercise, but ever so subtly, the most incredible interference with not only the individuals life, but also the development of their thought. From cradle to grave the state imposes it's morality on acceptable and unacceptable areas of outrage or discourse. In many ways, I understand what Mill is on about, but what even he couldn't realise was the outrageous implementation of his liberty principle to maintain a society of people trapped by their desires. Guilt free and with a compartmentalised life for work and play, the status quo of society is maintained as people get on with their lives in anyway they see fit, as long as they conform to the dictates and needs of Capital. The Individual of Western society is unique, just like everybody else, and is a cog in a complex machine.

Yaman had recently written a post analysing Iron Man and the way that perceptions of the Other are perpetuated and presented to the audiences. At the time I didn't think that his expending such effort and analysis on the story of a comic book superhero was wise, yet in hindsight, there is something we are being told here. In much Western discourse, there is a paranoia and deep rooted terror of the faceless hordes always amassing and plotting their destruction. It is not new, it is old, for even Mill refers to the more advanced Asian societies as peoples with "no history". Mill was educated from an early age in Greek and Latin literature and philosophy. Here it is easy to see where the tradition for 300 would have come from, the free tribes of individuals, heroically defending themselves against the faceless, corrupt and perverse "empire". The barbarians coming to destroy their "way of life", we see parallels with the so called War on Terror and some of the speeches given by Bush. Yet if you look at the popular cultures in any other societies in Asia, Africa or the Arab world, this is missing in spite of the massive damage inflicted by European colonialism. Past or present, yes there is the fear of barbarians and outside invasion - but such deep seated and perpetual fear of the faceless menace? I can't seem to think of any examples though admit I might be catastrophically wrong.

My trip last year to Syria made me realise something. I saw loud, noisy and boisterous people in Syria who refuse to adhere to any regulations, to political correctness and always with an opinion about anything. Arguing and struggling throughout their lives, yet living and living well. True representations of Eudaimonia if ever there was one singled out and pointed to. That political freedoms in Syria leave much to be desired is, I admit, true. But it is in the incompetence and weakness of "The State", as a Western form of political organisation, implanted on our organic Arab society, which allows to exist that very thing angrily demarcated here in "Modern" societies, the Individual. That so many people don't realise the folly of Western political thought as relevant and unique only to a small part of the world called Europe is absurd. That they don't realise the beauty and strength which is inherent within themselves culturally and as individuals is tragic.


abufares said...

Just when I started enjoying your discourse and appreciating your line of thought, you cut it short.
Write again when you have the time and energy and please expand on a very fascinating deliberation.

Wassim said...

Hi AbuFares,
Wallah I'd love nothing more than to elaborate but I was burning the midnight oil when I typed this and just wanted to finish enough reading before falling unconscious. I'm studying for exams now but I'll come back to this :)

Lirun said...

hey wassim

what are you studying?

Wassim said...


abufares said...

Way to go Wassim
Thank you for being so obliging.
The East/West dichotomy is one of many we have come to live by without actually scratching the veneer surface. As history was and is still being written by the winners of wars, philosophy, sociology, psychology and other behavioral sciences of course follows suit.
All previous generations went through our same dilemma. At a certain point, a way of thinking prevails and takes precedence over "obsolete" ideas. But in the long run, the western idolization of the individual will reach the same fate and would be disposed of as vagrant and absurd.
What we are suffering from at the moment in our East is the individual's conviction of his inertia, that any form of struggle is futile. Therefore any resistance, any attempt to change is mostly initiated by religious/theological catalysts.

yaman said...

This is interesting, but I think there is an additional complexity: while there are some continuities regarding the Other, I think there are some critical differences. Was the goal of empires of ancient times to conquer or to rule? My immediate intuition, though I admit it's based on intuition and not familiarity with historical texts, is that the Otherness we know today has a double-sense that may not have been around in those ancient conceptions.

Thinking of Iron Man, for example, there are two images of the Other which must exist to make the colonial/imperialist narrative sensical: that of the barbarian (which you've noted), but also that of the powerless, helpless victim. Without the latter, the narrative of imperial liberation would lose its purpose. The fear is as necessary as the "hope" to liberate is. This duality, I find extremely interesting and I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.

Wassim said...

Abu Fares,
I think that in the pursuit of justice, a number of beliefs can act as catalysts for change and empowerment. When Islam first began it was remarkably empowering and the seeds for this empowerment remain within it, I sometimes contrast this with the secular ideologies which have all but burned themselves out and retain none of their original vigour.

Wassim said...

That's actually crucial. If you read history you notice how Western Europe was always enthralled with "the East". From there they obtained their religion, a centre of gravity, and for a long time, much of their culture and technology. If this causes resentment, as with the case of the Muslims, then eventually a creation of a new set of values antithetical to those of the "Other" emerge. I think Nietzsche called this "ressentiment". From these new values, Western Europe starts to imagine it is superior to those who previously frightened and captured her imagination. Of course, the rape of South America and superior weapons also helped in this massive boost at a time when Mongols and the plague had decimated those former centres of culture.

Lirun said...

wassim - i think contrasting between a secular society and the embrionic stages of islam would indeed be interesting..

i can only imagine that the teachings of islam and the society surrounding those teachings as they were authored would have been extremely adapted with high degrees of relevance.. almost as connected as enlightened secular people - for sake of argument peace activists and environmentalists may see their theories in the context of modern times..

otherwise i think you're view of the sanctity of the individual is probably slightly stretched.. modern society does market a sense of complete and unchallengable liberty however in reality whether one is a slave to a mortgage.. fashion.. society.. parental pressures.. marital frameworks.. etc - liberty tends to have little to do with one's rights and obligations and more to do with the ability to make choices that accord with your self selected ideals..

one may successfuly argue that based on these principles the majority of people both in islamic states as well as western states probably have little room to maneuvre..


this argument would fail insofar as it ignores the fact that in the west and in modern "states" one can choose the framework (even if it results in the deprivation of freedoms) on their own without the loss of substantive political freedoms..

in reality of course this is constrained by the social sanctions that may follow including discrimination and outcasting.. however.. people are entitled to self-appoint themselves as factors of change that can alter the perceptions of the majority through their private activisim..

in other words.. in the west you are entitled to seek to improve the majority even though the majority may disagree with you..

inevitably the majority will test your goals to the extreme however it is still your political right..

i think the beauty of this assumption is that the wisest minds may yet lie outside the mainstream..

taking into account that so many of the great achievers of the world dropped out of popular frameworks - i think this is a wonderful thing..


Thank you for dropping by Wassim, stay close!

I love your blog :)

Peace and Unity.

- Jnoubiyeh

Hazar Nesimi said...

Truth well spoken to the last word. History confirmed Said's idea that the West was and never interested in Orient for its own sake, but only to justify the fear. The Individual against the horde, the Spartan warrior against the faceless dark skinned Persians. The West is Honesty, the Orient is Treachery and thievery. THe West is Bravery, the East is mindless submission. The Light is White and Darkness is, well... dark. The fear that is older than Islam and that which will outlive all current wars.

Lirun said...

ok so let me ask you this - which parts of the world do "you" not aspire to turn into a caliphate..

Lirun said...

btw would be keen to hear ur thoughts on the peace talks between our countries..