GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 2, 2017

(Im)morality and (In)equality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:49 am

I’d like to work with a few passages from Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle of Love & Resentment (#549) to address some critical questions regarding morality and equality in originary thinking. Needless to say, I share Gans’s “pessimism” regarding the future of Western liberal democracies while seeing (unlike Gans) such pessimism for liberal democracy as optimism for humanity.

What kind of state-level government is feasible in the Middle East?—and one could certainly include large areas of Africa in the question. The fact that we have no clear response suggests that the end of colonialism, however morally legitimate we may find it, did not resolve the difficulty to which colonization, both hypocritically and sincerely, had attempted to respond: how to integrate into the global economy of technologically advanced nation states those societies that remain at what we cannot avoid judging as a lower level of social organization.

So, the end of colonialism is morally legitimate, even though it has left vast swathes of large areas of the world increasingly ungovernable, and made it impossible to integrate them into the global economy. What kind of morality is this, then—what does it consider more important than maintaining a livable social order? A note of doubt is introduced here, though: “we may find” this to be morally legitimate, but presumably we may not. There is some straining against the anti-colonialist morality here. The morality that we may or may not consider legitimate, I assume is that of judging some forms of social organization as lower than others. But what makes refraining from this judgment moral? Colonialism involved governing others according to norms different than those according to which the home country was governed, but unless we assume that this governing was done in the interests of the colonizer and against the interests of the colonized, and could only be so, the moral problem is not clear. These assumptions therefore get introduced into discussions of the colonial relation, but since those assumptions are as arbitrary regarding this form of governance as any other, there’s clearly something else going on.

There is no “racism” here; on the contrary, by assuming that all human beings have fundamentally the same abilities, and that we owe a certain prima facie respect to any social order that is not, like Nazism, altogether pathological, we cannot help but note that some societies are less able than others to integrate the scientific and technological advances of modernity. Thus health crises in Africa continue to be dealt with in what can only be called a “neocolonial” fashion, however unprofitable it may be for the former colonizers, who send doctors, medicine, medical equipment, and food aid to nations suffering from epidemics of Aids or Ebola, or starving from drought or crop failure—or rebuilding from earthquakes, as in Haiti.

The most moral gestures of the modern West are, it seems, its most colonial ones. And what could more disastrously interfere with this moral impulse that the assumption that “all human beings have fundamentally the same capabilities”? That assumption forces you to look for dysfunctions on a sociological and historical level—one must conclude it is colonialism itself that is responsible for the disasters of the undeveloped world. But if that is your assumption, you can only behave morally—i.e., actually treat other people as needing your help—by finding some roundabout way of claiming that that is not what you’re doing. That’s the best case scenario—the worst case is that you keep attacking the “remnants” of colonialism itself, even if they are the most functional part of the social order. Morality and immorality seem to have switched places.

For if we have indeed entered the “digital” age, implying an inalterable premium for symbol manipulation and hence IQ-type intelligence, then the liberal-democratic faith in the originary equality of all is no longer compatible with economic reality. Hence the liberal political system, as seems to be increasingly the case today, cannot simply continue to correct the excesses of the market and provide a safety net for the less able. Increasingly the market system seems to have only two political alternatives. It can be openly subordinated to an authoritarian elite, and in the best cases, as in China, achieve generally positive economic results. Or else, as seems to be happening throughout the West, it is fated to erect ever more preposterous victimary myths to maintain the fiction of universal political equality, rendering itself all but impotent against the “post-colonial” forces of radical Islam.

If vast inequalities based in part upon natural differences in ability is incompatible with the liberal democratic faith in the originary equality of all than that faith was always a delusion. Some are arguing that the inequalities opening up now over the digital divide are the most massive ever, but who can really know? What are our criteria—are today’s differences greater than those between medieval lords and serfs, or between 19th century industrialists and day laborers paid by piecework? There’s no common measure, but every civilized society has highly significant inequalities and today’s is not qualitatively different in that regard. Perhaps there is now less hope that the inequalities can someday be overcome or lessened, but that hope is itself just a manifestation of liberal-democratic faith, so we are going in a circle. It would be more economical to see that loss of faith as an increase in clarity. But what does the increasing or more intractable inequality have to do with the diminishing legitimacy function of the welfare state—is it that the rich no longer have enough money to support it or the less able are no longer willing to accept the bribe (or have figured out that the bribe will continue even if legitimacy is denied)? The choice between an authoritarian China-style solution and the preposterous victimary imaginary of the West seems clear, but why be downcast about it? If China is the “best case” so far, presumably there can be yet better cases. Obviously creating myths so as to maintain fictions is unsustainable—what next, legends to preserve the myths that maintain the fiction?—and it might be a relief to engage reality. (In fact, if the welfare state no longer serves a legitimating function, that may be because yet another—let’s just call it a—lie has been exposed, that of endless upward mobility and generational status upgrades.) But does not the discarding of lies and fantasies and the apprehension of reality represent greater morality, rather than immorality?


Victimary thinking is an ugly and dangerous business, but the inhabitants of advanced economies in their “crowd-sourced” wisdom appear to have determined so far that it is the lesser evil compared to naked hierarchy. The “transnational elite” imposes its own de facto hierarchy, but masks it by victimary virtue-signaling, more or less keeping the peace, while at the same time in Europe and even here fostering a growing insecurity.

We have the “crowd-sourced” wisdom of the inhabitants, but then the “transnational elite” and its hierarchy makes an immediate entrance. Has that elite not been placing its finger on the outsourcing scale (so to speak)? Through which—through whose—sign exchange systems has the wisdom been crowd sourced? So, let’s translate: the transnational elite masks its hierarchy by imposing victimary virtue-signaling, but is now running into diminishing returns—the very method that has more or less kept the peace now generates insecurity. It remains only to add that the elites don’t seem to have a Plan B, and appear to be determined to autistically continue to double down on their masking and signaling.

But as the economy becomes ever more symbol-driven, these expedients are unlikely to remain sufficient. It would seem that unless science can find an effective way of increasing human intelligence across the board, with all the unpredictable results that would bring about (including no doubt ever higher levels of cybercrime), the liberal-democratic model will perforce follow the bellwether universities into an ever higher level of thought control, and ultimately of tyrannical victimocracy. At which point the “final conflict” will indeed be engaged, perhaps with nuclear weapons, between the self-flagellating victimary West and a backward but determined Third World animated by Islamic resentment…

Or not. Perhaps the exemplary conflict between Western-Judeo-Christian-modern-national-Israeli and Middle-Eastern-Islamic-traditional-tribal-Palestinian can be resolved, and global humanity brought slowly into harmony. Or perhaps the whole West will decline along with its periphery and our great-grandchildren will grow up peacefully speaking Chinese.


But is the China model exclusive to China? Can we not, in a moment of humility, study the China model, and the way it retrieves ancient Chinese traditions from the wreckage of communism? And, in a renewal of characteristic Western pride, adapt and improve upon the Chinese model? This would require a return to school regarding our own traditions, subjecting them to an unrestrained scrutiny that even its most stringent critics (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida…) could never have imagined. But what’s the point of a revolutionary and revelatory theory like GA if not to do exactly that? But the first question to take up would have to be…


Human language was the originary source of human equality, and if our hypothesis is correct, it arose in contrast to the might-makes-right ethos of the animal pecking-order system. The irony would seem to be that the discovery of the vast new resources of human representation made possible in the digital age is in the process of reversing the residue of this originary utopia more definitively than all the tyrannies of the past. Indeed, we may now find in the transparent immorality of these tyrannies a model to envy, because it provided a fairly clear path to the “progress” that would one day overturn them. Whereas for the moment, no such “enlightened” path to the future can be seen.


That of the relation between morality and equality. This is the heart of the matter. Human equality is utopian, but then it couldn’t be at the origin, because the origin couldn’t be utopian. Morality has nothing, absolutely nothing, literally nothing, to do with equality. We should reverse the entire frame here and say there is no equality, except as designated for very specific circumstances using very specific measuring implements. It’s an ontological question: deciding to call the capacity to speak with one another an instance of “equality” is to import liberal ontology into a mode of anthropological inquiry that must suspend liberal “faith” if it is to ask whether that faith is justified. We can then ask which description is better—people talking to each other as “equal” or people talking to each other as engaged in fine tuning and testing the direction each wants to lead the other. Which description will provide more powerful insights into human interactions and social order? Determining that “equality” must be the starting assumption just leads you to ignore all features of the interaction that interfere with that assumption, which means it leads you to ignore everything that makes it an interaction—which, interestingly, in practice leads to all kinds of atrocities. What seems like equality is just an oscillation of hierarchies, within a broader hierarchy. In a conversation, the person speaking is for the moment in charge; in 30 seconds, the other person will be in charge. It would be silly to call this “inequality,” even in its more permanent forms (like teacher and student), because it’s simply devotion to the center—whoever can show the way to manifest this devotion points the way to others. And that’s morality—showing others how to manifest devotion to the center. Nothing could more completely overturn the animal pecking order—a peasant can show a king how to manifest devotion to the center, but the king is still the king because he shows lots of other people how to do it, in lots of situations well beyond the experience and capability of the peasant. Morality involves reciprocity and reciprocity not only has nothing to do with equality, but is positively undermined by equality. There can only be reciprocity within accepted roles. Most of us don’t go around slaughtering our fellow citizens, but that’s not reciprocity because such acts are unlawful and these laws at least are seriously enforced and, moreover, most of us don’t want to do anything like that. When a worker performs his job competently and conscientiously, and the manager rewards the worker with steady pay increases, a promise of continued employment and safe, clean working conditions—that’s reciprocity. Friends can engage in reciprocity with each other without any explicit hierarchy, but here we’re talking about a gift economy with all kinds of implicit hierarchies. I wouldn’t deny all reciprocity to market exchanges (overwhelmingly between gigantic corporations and individuals), but this kind of reciprocity is minimal and, as we can see, hardly sufficient to stake a social order on. Language makes it possible for us to all participate in social order, but inclusive participation is also not equality, nor is recognition or acknowledgement. In other words, morality (recognition, acknowledgement, reciprocity), yes; equality, no. Forget equality. What, exactly, made those old tyrannies immoral, or even “tyrannies,” other than (tautologically) their failure to recognize equality?—their successes and our capacity to shape those models in new ways should not be disheartening. If there must be hierarchies and central power, then those things cannot be immoral, any more than hunger can be immoral. Morality enters into our engagement with these realities.

1 Comment »

  1. […] that the GASC meeting is behind us, I would like to respond to Adam Katz’s argument in his June 2 blog “(Im)morality and (In)equality” that, to reduce his point to what appears to me its essence, […]

    Pingback by The Moral Model — Chronicles of Love and Resentment — September 5, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

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