Social Theory in the Age of Catastrophes: Engaging Seyla Benhabib

Born in 1948, Seyla Benhabib is decidedly one of the most astute Critical Theorists alive. She moves easily in the turbulent intellectual currents of Hegel, Marx and Habermas – and addresses contemporary themes and issues with verve and savvy. We are living, in my view, in catastrophic times. So many damn things crash in our us that it is hard to keep one’s head above the water, let alone think clearly. In a masterful essay, “Below the asphalt lies the beach,” Boston Review, October 9, 2018, she argues that the “task of critique is interminable; it needs to confront ever-new forms of injustice, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization. Emancipation means not only liberation from such injustices, exploitation, exclusion, and marginalization but also having the courage to build a new world in which freedom can be housed.”

Benhabib informs us that she has not given up hoping. The famous slogan of the German student movement in the 1960s was “below the asphalt lies the beach.” She is still looking for it. The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote about the “courage to be” in the late 1950s. Today a new slogan is required: the “courage to critique” and “courage to keep on keeping on.”  Our age of catastrophe is knocking the stuffing out of us. It itself seems interminable, the challenges new, we’re tired. Are our conceptual resources (located in the Critical Theory tradition) up to the new-present-before-us?

In a recent article, “Democracy, science and the state: reflections on the disaster(s) of our times, Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 47(4), 2021, the intrepid Benhabib ventures onto the terrain of a world radically disrupted by the global Covid-19 pandemic and damages inflicted upon by the Anthropocene on earth. She begins her meditative essay by asking whether humankind is facing a unique historical kairos moment when a monumental transformation is occurring within global civilization.

Well, it is occurring—the virus is everywhere, the world has shrunk, we are all confined to private spaces, nations have pulled up drawbridges, locked themselves down, fortified themselves against refugees, guests and friends. The media giants dominate communication and information, the public square is emptied out, movie theatres and concert halls emptied, churches worship on Zoom, and parliaments debate whether they can deliberate and hold votes over Zoom.

We are tossed into a mighty roiling sea and have little idea where it might lead. Benhabib cuts to the heart of the crisis of everyday life. Until recently, the line between work and home life was reasonably defined. Now, it is radically blurred as the private sphere expands exponentially. Once again, the private sphere reunites productive and reproductive functions. “One of the main characteristics of modern societies, which is the separation of exchange and production spheres from the familial and intimate ones, is being reversed and care for the body, the daily needs of life and the raising and nurture of children are increasingly taking place in the same space as the work office at home.”

Does “emancipatory potential” reside within these transformations? Benhabib thinks not: the rise of the virtual workplace does not seem “to change the gender-based division of care, nurture for the body and the young towards a more equitable distribution of the gender-specific division of labour.” Rather, working mums and young women are doubly burdened: forced into tight quarters, they must somehow manage burdens of work and duties of home. Everydayness becomes bumpy, jittery, cranky and tough to negotiate. Tears flow, tempers rage, we lash out. Our mental health falls apart. Social solidarity groans and cracks.

Catastrophes break-in upon us, often unexpectedly. Like an electric lightning storm illuminating a dark sky, Benhabib states that Covid-19 has “pulled aside the curtain which had partially covered enormous class, race, ethnic and gender cleavages still existent in our societies.” Ripped aside, we see the “dialectic of interdependence and fragmentation” at play: one more time we see the “internal fractures and fissures in our societies between rich and poor, intellectual and manual workers, Anglo, European and American elites versus Black, Hispanic and other ‘racialized’ working minorities (who have been subject to much higher contagion and mortality rates in ways that are unimaginable).”

A critical question urges itself into our limited attention space: movements of racial justice (Black Lives Matter or Indigenous Rights groups) take place against the backdrop of  “racial socio-economic disparities and police brutality. Can one ever recover a common sense of citizenship and belonging after these conditions? Can one ever recover a sense of renewed global solidarity, after nation-states have seized on the pandemic to further militarize their borders, restrict travel, shut out refugees and asylum seekers and demonize foreigners and strangers who live among them? Will ‘vaccine nationalism’ be the way of the future or will the nations of the globe move towards more intelligent forms of solidarity and sharing?”  These questions burn their way through the carapace that may be blocking our thinking.

Catastrophes surprise us, crashing in or creeping quietly in upon us, revealing and startling us at how some of we humans behave. Benhabib expresses what many of us on the humanist left believe: the “growing hostility towards science and the resistance towards administrative state measures basing themselves on the authority of science.” She states: “Mistrust against science and suspicion of governmental authorities that acted in its name has not been restricted to anarchist circles [who protested lockdowns in Berlin and Amsterdam] and Jewish believers [orthodox believers who chased police away from preventing gatherings in synagogues].” How to make sense of this?

Benhabib reminds her readers that historically “faith in scientific progress, economic well-being and political peace formed a holy trinity for the centuries to follow until the mid-19th-century scepticism of Nietzsche gave way to the nihilism of the early 20th century.” Critical Theory aficionados will recall that Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment heaped scorn on the dream of “scientifically driven technological growth of instrumental power in modern societies.” That was over 75 years ago.

The “modern social contract” – articulated by Hobbes in the 17th century – that the sovereign state promised to protect people and guarantee a “commodious existence” through the pursuit of market exchanges has unravelled. Pursuing higher goods – such as the good life of ethics and politics (defended by Aristotle) or a living a life of freedom as equals under the rule of law (defended by the Roman civic republican tradition), irrelevant to Hobbes, are increasingly important for global sanity. Benhabib demonstrates the significance of the transformations within the evolution of science (and its technological outcomes) that impact the authority of science in shaping our lives and demanding our loyalties.

First, the old mechanistic and reductionist concept of science has been replaced “by a model of epistemic interdependence.” Bodies do not stand isolated in space; their presence to each other “alters their properties.” Second, humankind’s arduous journey to master our external environment has “given way to a new and dangerous era for humans on earth—the Anthropocene.” Our imprint on earth is so profound that “it is too late to reverse significant climate change.” One tries to let this sink in to one’s consciousness. Third, our limitless pursuit of “commodious existence which has now covered the globe with infinite supply and demand chains serves not only the satisfaction of desires but also acts such as the transmission belt for deadly viruses, of which Covid-19 is only the latest and not by any means the last version: remember AIDS, SARS and Ebola. We are the beneficiaries as well as the victims of our global greed and consumerism.” Fourth, global economic expansion has confronted humanity “with the choice between economic growth and prosperity on the one hand and our health and safety on the other.” This fateful choice was intensely evident at the COP26 gathering. Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau exemplifies the divided consciousness: he speaks publicly of how nicely Canada is doing in cutting GHG emissions and privately pours billions into subsidizing fossil fuel production.

“Fateful contradictions”: humankind could go back to pre-pandemic prosperity and growth and risk the flare-up of the virus. We could choose safety and common sense and “suffer through a paralysis of social relations as well as unemployment. This cruel virus thrives on human contact and presents us with the impossible choice between human sociability and maintaining one’s health.” Benhabib doubts very much that our world will “deglobalize”. So do I. We are just too interdependent. Now, here is the knock-out punch. “Under these conditions, the state is neither the guarantor of life against death [as Hobbes promised] nor of an expanding economy.” Alas! Max Weber’s old dualism of “facts” and “values” rears its troubling head.

During the Pandemic days, we are used to talking heads from Health agencies and research centres telling us incessantly “about the infection rate, the mortality rate or the rate at which infections are progressing—but science cannot tell us what level , what percentage or which rates of infection are acceptable or tolerable for various human communities from an ethical and political standpoint.” Thus, the gap between citizen subjective judgments and state policy-formation widens. In fact, state policy often seems arbitrary, with lockdown impositions seeming to favour some and not others.

Then, too, in Canada and elsewhere science cannot tell us “what kinds of ethical considerations should govern triage decisions in emergency rooms: preserve the life of the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions or care for the life of the young and productive members of society?” “The global pandemic,” Benhabib argues, “has increased our reliance on scientific rationality while revealing its ethical limits. Responsible political leadership must admit that there is no silver bullet to help us resolve the unavoidable and painful trade-offs between work and health, opening the economy and avoiding the spread of the pandemic.” Room exists in citizen psyches for considerable anger and rage against perceived authoritarian decision-making.

Hobbes imagined that human beings were like mushrooms who could reach maturity “without all kind of engagement with each other.” But mushrooms are connected under the earth by a system of tubular roots. For me, this is the Neo-liberal social imagination—the “ideal of autonomy without attachment, freedom without mutuality.” The vision of autonomy as self-sufficiency has a vice-like grip on the present moment. Neo-liberal ideology has created the social-psychological conditions for ego-centred individualism and authoritarian politics. We have now reached the question of the future of our bewildered democracy in our broken times.

Benhabib concludes her article by identifying pressing challenges for democracies. Wild speculation out there suggests some are already discussing the “death of democracy” or “how democracies end.” For one thing, we must be on the alert to “distinguish between legitimate public health concerns and illicit grabs of power through manufactured states of emergency.” It seems to me that “conspiracy theories” feed off the reality that authoritarian states do manufacture crises to clamp down on the citizenry. Some fear that “states of exception” will become normalized. Indeed, Benhabib reminds us that in the dying days of the Trump administration the language used to describe quarantining oneself as “sheltering in place was “infused with a vocabulary of securitization and quasi-militarism. Who are we sheltering ourselves from?” Perhaps the Chinese, our new enemy.

Secondly, Benhabib points out that: “Climate change denialists and anti-authoritarian anarchists find themselves in a strange alliance: whereas the first deny scientific truth to enable the capitalist rape of the natural environment, the second deny the authority that science provides to government to limit civil liberties and freedoms.” We must ask what “kinds of limits are acceptable for democracies?” While we do need to accept restrictions on our liberties during this pandemic, we also need to be vigilant “against public safety measures that are passed without sunset clauses.”

Thirdly, we must be “attentive to the abuse of surveillance technology such as the use of cell phones and other devices to track individuals.” Our potential loss of freedom in the name of fighting the virus is scary. Lastly, we “must mobilize against the culture of death and fear that has spread all around us and has begun to demonize Asian people as virus carriers—a culture that has also stigmatized refugees and asylum seekers who are already suffering from the militarization and closure of national borders, as dangerous virus spreaders.”

Benhabib ends with this question: “Is the Covid-19 pandemic then a fateful event signalling the end of our scientific-technical and consumption-driven capitalism in all its social democratic, statist of free-market varieties?” “We need a science in the service of reversing the damages inflicted by the Anthropocene on the earth; we need economic production in the service of human equality and dignity, and we need a state in which the alliance between big pharma, big capital and big data is harnessed for a new green deal rather than serving corporate greed.”

Benhabib still believes the beach may still lie beneath the asphalt.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.