False Narratives

That the Modern Liberal West is quickly becoming an Emperor shedding his clothes (or already has?) can best be seen perhaps in a couple of essays by two very different thinkers. Or, are they that different? Slavoj Zizek is an atheist and a Marxist, although he doesn’t fall into either category smoothly. John Milbank is an Anglican theologian/philosopher (Radical Orthodoxy) who is certainly orthodox but, similarly, not in a conventional sense. Both have brought hammers to the foundations of western modernity (The Secular), especially in its economic aspects.

Zizek’s essay is here. An interesting conclusion:

According to Kant, as I have already mentioned, the mechanisms which will bring about social peace are independent of the will of individuals as well as of their merits: “The guarantee of perpetual peace is nothing less than that great artist, nature (natura daedala rerum). In her mechanical course we see that her aim is to produce a harmony among men, against their will and indeed through their discord.”

And this is ideology at its purest. One can claim that the notion of ideology only became possible in the liberal universe, with its founding distinction between ordinary people immersed in their worlds of meaning – of (what appears from the properly modern perspective) the confusion between facts and values – and the cold, rational observers who are able to perceive the world the way it is, without moralistic prejudices, as a mechanism regulated by laws (of passions) like any other natural mechanism.

It is only in this modern universe that society appears as an object of a possible experiment, as a chaotic field on which one can (and should) apply a value-free theory or science given in advance – a political “geometry of passions,” or economy, or racist science.

Only this modern position of a value-free scientist approaching society in the same way as a natural scientist approaches nature, is ideology proper, not the spontaneous attitude of the meaningful experience of life dismissed by the scientist as a set of superstitious prejudices – it is ideology because it imitates the form of natural sciences without really being one.

Milbank’s essay is here. Some interesting quotes:

The “modernity” of liberalism has only delivered mass poverty, inequality, erosion of freely associating bodies beneath the level of the State and ecological dereliction of the earth – and now, without the compensating threat of communism, it has abolished the rights and dignity of the worker, ensured that women are workplace as well as domestic and erotic slaves, and finally started to remove the ancient rights of the individual which long precede the creed of liberalism itself (such as habeas corpus in Anglo-Saxon law)…

…Only such measures can correct the mistake of our current politics: namely to suppose that the free market is a given, which should be either extended or inhibited and regulated. For if the upshots of the free-market are intrinsically unjust, then “correcting” its abuses through yet another welfare economy is little more than a form of resignation. Moreover, any such corrections are the first to suffer with the onset of every new economic downturn.

I’ve been arguing that we need a different sort of market, which would require that in every economic exchange of labour or commodity there is always a negotiation of ethical value at issue. Indeed, economic value should only be ethical value, emerging from the supply and demand of intrinsic gifts of excellence.

What is interesting to me though is how both those on the Right and those on the Left seem unable to see the symbiotic relationship they have created. The reason they are unable to perceive it is because they both buy into the presuppositions of modernity as understood and explicated by the Enlightenment. Thus, they do see much of our current politics as “givens” or that things are the way they are, because, well…that’s “just the way things are.”

Of course, things are never “just the way they are.” We weave narratives that become the reigning paradigms of meaning that tell us this is the way things “should be.” But, there can be false narratives. People who believe that things are just “givens” are usually those who buy into the reigning narrative without even knowing it. They have never examined the underlying presuppositions of that narrative. They have a sort of “well, everyone knows that is true…” type of take on these questions. It is only when we are forced to examine those presuppositions and justify them that we can begin to see the cracks or even the outright falsity of the foundations. When we have two such differing figures telling us that Modern Western Liberalism may be a false narrative, perhaps it’s time to listen.

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2 Responses to False Narratives

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    If you are looking for underlying presuppositions to examine, I have a suggestion. Markets exist and are very effective tools for many needs. But they are not some universal solvent of goodness, as we both appreciate.

    On the other hand, you may be harboring presuppositions about things that don't exist at all, which never have existed, and whose narrative is not just skewed, ideological, or oppressive, but completely and utterly false with no reality tucked underneath whatsoever.

    However, happy Thanksgiving! Or as someone else in the blogosphere recommended, “Blamegiving” … for whatever we have been delivered of or suffered from must have arisen from some source as well, probably the very same source that some give thanks to, for all the good bits!

    Paul Krugman had a funny video link on the matter, if tangentially.


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Sorry.. wrong link… here is the right one.


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