A Way Out of the Modernistic Cultural Malaise

Neoliberalist economics promotes market-based values, identities, and forms of agency.  Its aim, via state controls, is to privatize, deregulate, economize, and subject all working institutions and social relations to the dictates of privatization, efficiency, deregulation, and commodification.  I will call neoliberalism’s cultural influence ‘modernistic’.

Modernistic thinking, I believe, encourages certain behaviors, for example, defenses of inequality, patriarchal masculinity and exercise of a selfishly reactive social mentality. Its captive thinkers may even tout modernistic developments as politically induced cultural outcomes in harmony with the given, natural order.

Accordingly, modernistic thinking can curtail an evolving (Darwinian) sense of political agency by epitomizing, even reifying, values that have already failed society. Postmodern theory may have long since found those values to be humanly inadequate.  In short, neoliberalism’s modernistic ethos is either failing to understand or ignoring promising postmodern critiques, one of which follows.

Discontents within modernistic social structures can result from a pervasive, yet scarcely recognized form of domination.  Structurally sourced dominations, of course, deserve special focus for those concerned with social progress.  Some of their recognizable characteristics and suggested eliminations are outlined below.

Socially structured dominations are typically justified via a set of essentialist foundationalisms.  They are institutionally honed in the form of capital ‘T’ Truths, typically supplied by public education, corporatist media, religions, and conventional party politics.  Capital ‘T’ Truths seemingly persist beyond voluntary decision making because universal, out-there immutables as in (all capitalized) God, Reason, and Nature.

In an early version of the essentialist approach, Richard Rorty observes how knowledge was gained by gradually recognizing the elementary truths that lay deep within us.  All minds supposedly had the same shape per some memory of Plato’s ideal forms. As a result, knowing was more about discovery of given structures than interpretive modeling.

Philosophers eventually transformed ‘ideal forms’ into ‘universal reason’–a human faculty for penetrating through appearances to reality. Argument then converted reality into understanding and we became knowers through rational enlightenment.

Such Reason seeks to uncover all relevant truths by converging on the objective revelations of a preexisting reality.  It is a morally inconsequential, right reason that yields a precise knowledge of the world.  Capital ‘R’ Reason reveals the world’s essences.

From this perspective, absolute, true, and real things are said to be found or discovered features of a given world.  Rorty notes such a Rationality amounts to a distinction between the absolute and relative, the found and made, object and subject, nature and convention, reality and appearance.   Reality becomes a culturally independent finding upon which to build Centering Truths.

Centering Truths, however, form a basis for power-centered society. Here are a few examples: The essentialism behind our political model of ‘democracy’ holds that Naturally selfish/aggressive humans logically require ordering via a higher or central will. Patriarchal Reasoning holds that women are so irrational (hysterical?), they need oversight by men.  Blacks, being inferior, Naturally end up subservient to the lighter skinned.  Religion’s ‘original sin’ attributes to followers a depraved personhood in need of God’s redemptive caretaking.

Notice the pattern in these logics of domination:  certain ‘natures’ are ‘right-rationally’ determined to be so ‘essentially’ deficient they entail corrective, will-over controls.

Arguably, there is no such a thing as Platonic memory or a universal Reason that penetrates to Reality. An entity’s intrinsic nature or essence is not something we can uncover.

Our success in coping with the world is largely a matter of finding, through successive forms of modeling, increasingly more profitable descriptions. A priori knowledge is a fiction.  Accordingly, in interactions with objects it is more reflective to talk of information rather than knowledge.

Humans can be modeled as having heritable dispositions, such as an innate morality.  Such morality’s social agency, however, would be ambivalent because individually felt (Zygmunt Bauman).  As a heritable disposition, morality could be cultivated, but not accumulated like knowledge.  So-called ‘moral wisdom’ must actually be about ethics–a rule-based, rationalized knowledge that can, presumably, be gathered and universalized.

It takes the ‘essentialist trickery’ of Truth-dominations, to infringe our gift of individual morality, thus reach to our very personhoods and cause our deepest social discontents. The exclusive effectiveness of Truth-structuring crumbles, however, once understood as just one of the many rather arbitrary, hopeful constructions of modeling.

Humans, it seems, actually live by language-based modeling.  Language, however, only relates things to each other—does not provide the fixed references of essences and absolutes.  Thus, our models, being cultural interpretations, are relative; not an essentialist mirroring of ‘how-the-world-really-is’ (reality).  Put differently, being language dependent knowers, we have no way to arrive at ‘pre-existents’ as things in themselves, even if such exists.

But that is not debilitating, relative modeling frees us up to actualize our world in life-centered ways.  We can make our surroundings the product of consciously developing interconnections rather than the inevitable outcomes of pre-given structures.  Of course, we can’t intentionally model more arbitrarily then palpable experience allows—simply dream-model.  Also, social models, adequate to one era, have scarcely sufficed for the next.

In this Darwinian way of approaching our world, progress can be thought of in terms of our imaginative powers, and concern can shift from pre-given Truths to creating the comforting, intimate relationships of an ecological whole.

For Relational social modeling, presumed here, humans have a spiritual morality that is an aesthetically creative, conscience-like gift of animal inheritance.  It prompts social outreach with a sense of appropriateness derived imaginatively, extra-rationally, and inspirationally.  This morality is distinct from the rationalized closures of right conduct called ethics. The innovative adaptations of this individual morality are, ultimately, our only raw material for social guidance, even though ethically uncertain and diverse (Bauman). They set the stage for rational consolidations of presumed sufficiency.

Accordingly, purely rational exits from the models of a reigning rationality do not exist because rationality is paradigm dependent—can not transcend its premises.  It takes spontaneous, democratically accepted, enspirited moral agencies to instigate adaptive change. Independent, self-representing moral input gives democratic deliberation its creative input, variety, and scope; qualities missing from a rationally herded mentality.

A basic tenet of this morally guided (Relational) approach is: Language-based, thus inherently social, modeling provides our only conceptual access to the world.  All we ever cognitively contact are culturally situated, language-constructed webs of relations.  A priori knowledge is not humanly available.

It is hardly controversial that social constructions that infringe our individual moralities, thus affront our very personhoods, will cause deep discontents.  And, who doubts that social structures accomplished via mutual process are generally the most satisfying.

Power-overs are rationally conceived and justified.  While they may accomplish selfishly, their overall or net social outcome is socially destructive.  Power’s presumptive controls of Rational sufficiency, deny morally initiated inputs.  The result is stunted moral development, thus a crippling of our primary means for guarding against infringed personhoods.  Dominations cause a diminished relational autonomy that manifests as a social discontent.  Relational (morally initiated) process, however, augurs against power’s social destructions because it sets the moral agenda within which rationality must work.  Power-overs must always be interrogated for their legitimacy, and only reluctantly justified, for example, as in the parenting of dependent children.

The politically unique feature of Relationality is its ideal acceptance of each individual’s moral agency as an a priori inviolable.  For acceptance of moral inviolability to hold politically, it must engage, unthinkingly, thus prior to all rationalizing social interactions.  This political accomplishment is asking no more than the West’s rather smooth adoption of Immanuel Kant’s inspired invention of autonomy.

Consider Marxism.  It is an intellectual product of political modernism.  As such, it presumes a univocal rationality that leads to universal Truth.  This sets a political agenda for right-ethics.  Marxism can, therefore, proceed as rationally sufficient, as in ‘re-al poli-tick’.  After all, what ethical needs are not met by Truth?  Historically, the rationalist ethic inherent to Marxism has drifted into dominations.  Relationality’s pre-rational contribution of moral input and renewal is largely bypassed.  The solid moral content in Marxism’s critique of capitalism, however, has retained merit.

The popular activist slogan, ‘speaking Truth to power’, to Relationalists, is understood as ‘speaking power to power’.  This is because power is a weasel word. Its redeeming definition, ‘the ability to get things done’, is better described by the word enablement, thereby leaving power to simply mean power-over.

Power must be opposed, given its negative social implications.  The notion that political function is restricted to the realm of power is a conditioned acceptance.  It underlies the above slogan’s desire to replace existing power with activist’s good power. The popular ethical prospect of ‘community’, for example, is conceptually diminished if conceivable only as more broadly shared power.

Ethics, being a product of reflective rationality, is entirely distinct from morality’s pre-reflective impulse.  Moral impulses issue spontaneously (without rational deliberation).  This means our discontents from moral infringements incurred from socially structured dominations cannot be fully cognized for remedy by ethics (rationality) alone.  Because moral agency comforts our brain at a depth-level that rationalizations can never reach, paradigmatically rationalized rights, ultimately fail social satisfaction.

As indicated above, morality is not a direct knowing, for example, by intuition.  Knowing, of any kind, is presumptive in a way that pre-rational and uncertain morality can never be.  Even the term ‘moral reaction’ will be unclear if used rational-reflectively instead of reflexive-impulsively.  Cultivation of moral agency happens via Relational experiences, beginning with our innate mother-child attachment, expanding through Relationally functioning families, and finally within authentic community.

Since Kant, progressive Western societies have incorporated the idea of human dignity-cum-individual autonomy as a warrant for each person’s social worth.  This potential advantage of a Relational (morally initiated) society, however, will be obscured by human rights structured only in a rational context.

Richard Rorty has pointed out that singular rights tend to ignore mutual responsibilities.  Also, rights too easily stagnate at the humanly incomplete level of ethical imperatives.  Expressed as cold rationalizations, rights remedies will lack a comprehensive ecology’s requisite sympathy.  Indeed, human objectifications via rights can lead most anywhere.

The point is, rights have not proved capable of eradicating dominations.  Conceived in the context of political modernism, rights retain the inherently power-centered quality of right-rationality.

To Relationalists, rationalized ethical codes (creeds, laws, and so on) are inescapably situated in language, thus are culturally relative–not the universal, capital ‘T’ Truth-products of right-reason.  Consequently, to secure our inherently human satisfaction of deep freedom (non-infringed, self-representing and democratically accepted input), our rationality must be complemented by our moral gift.

Deep freedom nurtures authentic selves, thus relationally individuated, socially active people, as opposed to dominated, selfishly reactive, structural cogs.  Relationality thereby effects a considerable economy in modeling since one begins with deep freedom’s sanctioned non-infringements instead of hoping to end up there (Drucilla Cornell), for example, via conventional structure’s labored collections of mere partial freedoms such as the power-administered grant-backs known as rights.

Relationalists understand that social structuring by Truths eventually results in estrangements such as denigrated out-groups, environmental detachments, and arrested individuations.  Such Relational breaches result in social discontinuities, for example, religious war, ecological disruption, and even cultural collapse.  Simply put, power-centered models ultimately result in destructive detachments instead of ecological wholes. Once Rationality’s supposed universals can be viewed as inadequate rally-rounds, Relational practice can engage politically with ecological restructuring.

The Relational approach of Second Wave feminism, for example, put millennia of patriarchal rationalizations in rapid decline within a few generations.   It epitomized  a morally inspired justness effort, as opposed to a legal/ethical justice movement.

The following example demonstrates the dramatic difference between feminism’s direct-justness (moral) agency and an internalized-justice (ethical) agency. Asked about women’s liberation, one woman asserted, “When I feel rights are being infringed upon, I have a responsibility to speak up”. Another said, “Why do I have to honor, accept, and listen to sexism when it is in exact opposition to who I am in my very being?”

Both women are reacting to infringed relational autonomy. The first, however, is thinking of external authority, as though recourse were limited to power’s official, formal grants.  Her reaction seems to be contained by what others have already ordained for her.

The second woman’s response, however, goes directly to sexism as a violation of her Relational personhood. She authors that sense of violation as an unauthorized response—one flowing from her clear, directly invoked moral agency.

Both women had sensed sexism as a heartfelt violation, but the first had sought recourse only via her rule-bound inurement to an ethics of rights. Since even in the ‘land of the free’ rights haven’t satisfactorily dealt with sexism, the first woman’s approach is scarcely adequate to justness.

The second woman had acted directly out of her greater sensitivity to justness. Her moral approach urged abandonment of sexism everywhere—saw gender equality as an evolving deep freedom.

A lesson of this example:   We can easily end up condoning a hurtful practice, say of sexism. The reasoning:  Since no absolute standards exist for judging cultures, even sexist cultures are respectable. Such an interpretation, because it goes no deeper than a rationalized multiculturalism, is ecologically inferior to a model that settles for nothing less than the deep freedom (moral upholding) that people popularly crave.  Deep freedom fosters non-infringed, individual moralities as the democratic authors of society. That is an important distinction we can now make.  Political correctness remains power-centered.

Ethics (the socially right things to do), as sovereign rationalizations, potentially drift into justifying monstrous things because they never reach the deep freedom level of moral initiatives. Sociologists, for example, still talk of ‘socializing’ initiatives–ethics .to ‘make social’.  That smacks of the hegemonizing verb, to civil-ize  Say what? We are already inherently social–morally launched.  What remains is a delimiting of our ethical errors via democracy’s relational  swarm savvy.

Morally authored community can be practically accomplished.  First some background.  State propaganda accompanied by a subtle threat of force has established a pervasive power-centered culture in America. Its manufactured consents are a cause of major social discontent among nearly every social grouping.

Social groups that exhibit a consistent external appearance, for example an identity in clothing, ideology, or heritage, get tagged as ‘communities’ although they exhibit none of the functional characteristics of authentic community, such as mutual aid, moral cultivations, or unities of purpose. Autonomous moral inputs, worked democratically until they manifest rooted, fulfilling shared values, are completely missing in today’s use of the word community.

No wonder conceptions of authentic community are having little influence on today’s social thought.  Indeed, communal function has so faded in imaginations it may no longer invoke meaningful social reference. Aspirations to voluntary community are further chilled by central government’s police-response to any potentially disrupting alternatives to currently rationalized social structuring.

Occupy 2011, however, did resurrect a Relational social moment.  Its fairness vision prompted constructive social disruptions by encouraging the population’s economically disfranchised 99% to reject a wealth-controlling 1% as unjust.  The hegemonic elite reacted, of course, with the usual repressions and power-centered justifications.

Ruling authorities, through their captive media, persistently asked of Occupy, “What are your specific demands?” The question feigned genuine concern for inclusive participation. When Occupy refused to answer paradigmatically, authorities proclaimed it ‘without merit–just a bunch of anarchic disrupters doing some crazy, irrational thing.’

The received message was: Legitimate challenges to the system come only in the form of power contests, say via election demands.  This is a convenient and safe dismissive of Relational challenge, given that deep state correctness maintains a monopoly on power through threat of violence.  Occupy, like second wave feminism, realized that concessions to power’s political psychology undermine all hope of a satisfying society.

For Occupy, its evolving ethos was not an ethic of right-thought representable by doctrinal demands.  Occupy’s developing moral initiatives were holding open a chance to realize one’s own social vision in structure.  Its morally active occupations were seminally modeled demonstrations whose goal was to influence political seeing and knowing in brain-satisfying ways.  Power-seeking demands would do nothing to remedy power’s psychology hence its social inequities.  Occupy hoped to begin with democratically offered, individual moralities as the author of society, not with Truth against Truth contestations.

The take-away: Morally initiated social process seeks inputs in response to adaptively needed social changes.  Evolving we-groups listen carefully to enthusiastic social critiques from situated members.  All concerned weigh in on the more intriguing presentations.  During this process, some initial ideas fall away and others gain support. Beneficial possibilities from the various, independent inputs narrow and preferences converge, much as in the game of Twenty Questions.

An agreement is finally reached without authoritative intervention.  Failures of power politics, such as narrowly informed, inherited dictates, are avoided.  Morally authored democracies can even function at the group-level without formal elections. Innovative, individual inputs need only maintain their independence, variety and breadth of scope, but not so fiercely that convergence is precluded.  Relational practice’s freely offered, individual moral agency thus circumvents the herd mentalities of a legitimated party system.

If participants have interacted independently (exercised their own moral agencies) a scarcely noticed collective guidance eventually materializes. It arrives without parse, as a fair, joint accomplishment. Thus, the Relational practice of moral authoring develops little ‘t’ working truths to live by.  When tried historically, they have provided enough structure to ensure health, safety, due recognitions and economic security through we-group modeling.   Hunter-gatherers arrived at this process during the first 99% (100,000s of years) of our cultural existence.  It yields pragmatic, satisfying results.

The above wager on the guidance of our enspirited morality comes down to a belief that our humanity is too rich in its social implications for rationality, alone, to harmonize.  If our moral gift’s contributions had ever been thoroughly omitted from social structuring, humans probably would not have survived.

Moral agency socially initiates freshly, because pre-reflectively and conscience-like, then requires rationality’s pragmatic, democratic work.  Bees have conducted their hive decisions Relationally, not Queenly, for millions of years (see “Swarm Savvy”, Science, April 24, 2009).  Surely, humans can do it!

Potential authors of society begin to ‘get it’ when terms like Reality, Truth, Right and Fact smack of power-talk.  They further advance once focused on the justness issues of each social activity.  Contrast this with abdicating to power’s top-down meting out of justice.  Social authors more fully arrive once they can ask: “Does it infringe anyone’s morally based relational autonomy, politically understood as deep freedom?”  This simple question generically culls out logics of domination—sexism, racism, homophobic discrimination, xenophobic othering, civil-ization, the market, God dictates, ecological transcendence—all of them.