GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 6, 2013

Notes on Equality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:01 pm

“The Muslim position is a powerful attraction for the marginal (collectively and individually) and the disaffected. What it lacks, in its obliteration of the anthropological connection between God and humanity, is a way of theorizing the deferred equality inherent in firstness. The Islamist insistence on Sharia is a clear demonstration of the non-reciprocal nature of Islam. Sharia demands submission; ‘Islam’ means submission. We have all heard conservative complaints that feminists in the West find every straw in our own eyes but ignore the beam in that of Islamic societies. But there is a reason beyond political expediency for the difficulty in attacking, for example, Islam’s unequal treatment of women. Whatever the disparities in Islamic society between men and women, or even free persons and slaves, they exist on a base of firstness-free equality. Sharia is ‘the same for everyone,’ as though Islam effectively imposed the ‘veil of ignorance’ that defines John Rawls’ ‘original position.’ Sharia’s defender might well say: ‘Yes, Sharia distinguishes between men and women. But we all obey it equally. I obey Sharia as a man, but if I were a woman, I would submit to its rules in the same manner.’” Eric Gans, “Abraham’s Three Firsts,” Chronicle 435

Effacing the deferred equality inherent in firstness produces equality in the face of Sharia, which is to say, equality in the face of the destruction of deferred equality. With regard to both deferred equality and its demolition, there is a kind of inequality: in the first case, an inequality compared to the equality yet to come; in the second case, an inequality due to the arbitrary nature of the rules needed to abolish deferred equality. The equality, in both cases, though, is not an “objective” one, based upon some (which?) universally shared measure (the impossibility of which cannot, I think, be demonstrated any more effectively than Marx does in his Critique of the Gotha Program)—rather, in each case, equality means equality before God, or, more generally, some sacred center. This equality is reciprocally constitutive with whatever inequality it seeks to mitigate or reframe. Think of how easy it would be, in Gans’s example, to replace “men” and “women” with “king” and “subject,” or “master” and “slave”—given the right sacred center, these could also be seen as instances of equality—“I obey as a master, but if I were a slave I would submit to its rules in the same manner.” Master and slave, monarch and subject, would, indeed, be equal, if the sacred center established so as to defer some more terrible violence decreed the necessity of such positions. Any affirmation of equality singles out that feature which positions each one equidistant from some sacred center (with the measuring rod being a product of the center itself), and that form of equality defers the violence implicit in the remaining inequalities by providing some kind of access to some fundamental social good and meaning—including on the originary scene, where relations of leadership of some kind or another will be generated out of the results of the scene. That is why what often look to us like astonishing inequalities are enshrined in religious doctrines and rituals predicated upon equality before God without any sense of incongruity (even if such always exists somewhere o the margin)—what some mode of “framing” presents as inequities must be reframed as instances of the central equality. Otherwise, would good would that mode of equality be doing?

The first conclusion I see following from this formulation of (in)equality is that the modern notion of equality, which seeks equality outside of and even against any sacred center is both incoherent and insatiable. It will always be possible to identify some new form of inequality and render it intolerable, and there is no reason to assume that a corresponding and mitigating form of equality will always be imaginable. It might be simpler to say that the modern view of equality is simply insane. The American, not quite modern, understanding of equality in classical Christian and Judaic terms, as all men being created equal by God, is far less so, but the boundary separating equality before God from unbounded equality is not all that thick. All men (and women) can only be equal before the God who displaces a global (at least in principle) imperial center: without some God-man claiming a right to the lives, possessions and devotion of his subjects the one God before whom we are equal evaporates, and with it our equality. All modernity did is take the anti-imperialism of Judaism and Christianity seriously and direct its attention to overthrowing emperors. But the unanimous anti-imperialism (in the broader sense of anti-state) constitutive of revolutionary modernity requires a new empire, a more terrible empire claiming the right to shape its subjects and eliminate the misfits who unsettle that unanimity. All political talk now, on the left and the right, presupposes such a unanimous rejection of some form of tyranny with which the opposing party is complicit—the notion that liberal democracy has ushered in a new era of decision by open discussion is not only an illusion but conceptually incoherent because, in the end, one is modern or not, democratic or not, free or not. Liberal democracy absorbed the civil wars constitutive of the entrance into modernity and is now dissolving back into them—anyone who listens closely to even the more moderate Democrats and Republicans, and even when they are speaking to the center, can see that in the end neither side can really grant the legitimacy of the other. You can’t enter a discussion with those who will not change their views via that discussion, or who believe that the discussion itself is not decisive, and presenting your opponents as those who fit precisely that profile has proven irresistible and, ultimately, reasonable. The fit between democracy and the rule of law was always a rough one at best, but in the end why should the people accept the rule of law if it interferes with their desires?

The only sane alternative is to say that we are equal with those whom we reciprocally treat as equals. Each of us is then equal with many others, in many different senses, and at many different levels—I am equal with the friend with whom I share confidences, his and mine; I am equal with my children insofar as I fulfill the role of “father,” in which I deposit a certain sacrality that binds me to them as “children”; I am equal to my coworkers insofar as we all expect more or less defined fair treatment from our employer, who will not treat any of us as either slaves or cronies; I am equal to the vendor on the street from whom I buy a giant pretzel insofar as we each part with something we desire less for something we desire more and thereby better each other’s condition; and, beyond that, I feel a kind of liminal, potential equality with anyone whom I might someday encounter and try to engage in some way. Anyone can embrace a democratic spirit and seek to expand the circles of equality in which one participates, and the intensity of the equalities one already enjoys, but to pretend to equality beyond those circles, where there is no shared center, is utopian, savage, or both. Sometimes equality emerges out of the clash of incommensurables, and/or the decisive defeat of one by the other, as has happened with the warring parties of WWII, but that doesn’t mean one can elevate that possibility into a rule or method.

Once one form of equality is established, it is likely that others will be forthcoming—economic exchange can lead to political alliance and vice versa. But it is just as likely that one form of equality will reveal barriers to further engagement. At any rate, there is a problem of inequality, but it lies in some violation of the rules articulating all in relation to the shared center. Inequality is essentially a question of cheating—the rules are the “deferred equality inherent in firstness.” In that case, though, the solution is to rework the rules and/or their enforcement, or to accept that that particular form of association has been exhausted; it is also the case, then, that to foreground inequality as such as the problem is to poison the rules because then the rules become nothing more than a means to reduce or eliminate inequality, which is to say that the rules become nothing more than a weapon used by one side against the other, which is by definition outside of the rules.

The only possible politics in the ongoing self-dismantling of modernity is one that seeks to clarify the rules according to which we are playing. If the rules can’t be clarified in a way that satisfies all parties, then there is no “game” and the only reasonable and honorable alternative is to leave. The other side will do what they can to you and you will do what you can to stop them. I would be very curious to hear anyone try to clarify the rules according to which our federal government currently plays—I don’t think it can be done. The government simply rewards its friends and, if they are lucky, ignores its enemies, like any powerful patron or protection racket. Referring to the rules, like the law or constitutional principles, is futile because all of those rules have been weaponized. All that can be done is to avoid drawing the attention of the state, and, more importantly, to maintain the games one plays and the rules they rely upon, while preserving as much of their autonomy from state and society as possible. Study those rules, and divine the tacit agreements in which they are embedded—those tacit agreements, our idioms, will in turn reveal other possible agreements. One’s chosen equalities with others is simply external to the state—seeking to use them as levers to overthrow the state would reinstate the same totalitarian anti-imperialism that has brought us here. The state has not usurped some position of originary justice which it is now up to the people to retrieve and restore—the state is just the largest property owner, like the kings were, and even if it now invites a few citizens to help in the management of that property that doesn’t change the fact that your property is ultimately on loan from the state and that you are equal until it’s your property that the state sets its eyes on. Getting rid of the people presently managing the common realm will not solve the problem of how to manage or distribute it afterward. It’s better to prepare for that time when it might be possible to buy up bits and pieces of the state, maybe at bargain prices, when it starts to fall into pieces. Nothing, that is, prevents us from creating alternatives to the state, much less picking up the pieces of the relationships it destroys. And there will be a lot of pieces.

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