My comment in the previous post on how voting for McCain is evil drew a lot of negative respnse, both in the comments here and in those on Jodi’s blog. This led to Jodi’s own explicit comments on evil in politics, to which, I think, I need to add my own. Like Jodi, though perhaps for different reasons, I am not in general prone to use moral categories to address political issues. I think that the leap from the political to the moral register often leads to the effacement of contextual complexities, through the simplistic imposition of absolute, transcendent modes of judgment. In Deleuze’s terms, the appeal to moral categories is a way of evading the difficult work of developing immanent perspectives and immanent criteria, by simply imposing judgment from outside. It’s a policing action, short-circuiting both political economy and aesthetics.
Nonetheless, there are times when such a judgment seems necessary. At the risk of being excessively pedantic, I want to point out that my use of the term “evil” in the previous posting was quite precise in its reference to Kant — rather than just generally using it as a means of rhetorical posturing. In particular, I was referring to Kant’s essay “An Old Question Raised Again: Is the Human Race Constantly Progressing?”, which forms one part of the late (post-Critical) book The Conflict of the Faculties. I think that this essay deserves a contemporary rethinking and “updating” — in much the same spirit in which Foucault rethought and “updated” Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”.Foucault rejects the way that, in the hands of Habermas and others, Kant’s Enlightenment principles have become the basis for what Foucault “like[s] to call the ‘blackmail’ of the Enlightenment.” Foucault says that it is ridiculous to demand “that one has to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Enlightenment.” For “the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and complex historical processes,” rather than a permanent set of values to be identified with “rationality” or “humanism” tout court. Indeed, for Foucault it is precisely in refusing this for-or-against “blackmail” that one can most truly remain faithful to the Kantian task of a continued “historico-critical investigation” of our own assumptions and presuppositions, including precisely and especially the ones that seem to us to be most self-evidently “rational” and “humanistic.”
With regard to “An Old Question Raised Again,” similarly, we might do well to rethink Kant’s interrogation of the possibility of “progress,” precisely because we now find ourselves in a world where nobody can believe any longer in “progress” in the sense that Kant meant it. Lyotard wrote in the 1980s that nobody could believe in “grand narratives” (like the Enlightenment and Marxist one of progressive human emancipation) any longer; Francis Fukuyama wrote in the 1990s that the perpetuity of neoliberal capitalism was the only “end of history” that we could ever hope to attain. Today, in 2008, we are if anything even more cynical, as years of booms and busts in the market — with the biggest bust of all currently looming over us — have all the more firmly established capital accumulation, with its concomitant technological improvements, as the only form of “progress” that we can at all believe in.
But it is precisely in this context that Kant’s essay speaks to us with a new relevance. “An Old Question Raised Again” makes the point that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to maintain the proposition that the human race is progressing — by which Kant means morally progressing, to a state of emancipation instead of slavery, mutual respect (treating all human beings as means, rather than just as ends) instead of subordination and hierarchy, and cosmopolitan peace instead of strife and war. (In other words, Kant is implicitly referring to the three watchwords of the French Revolution — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — though we might well want to replace the last one with “cosmopolitanism,” to avoid the gendered connotations of “fraternity”). There is no empirical way to assert that humanity is progressing in these terms, rather than regressing or merely remaining at the same point. (It is worth maintaining this Kantian point against all those fatuous attempts to claim that the USA is benevolently improving the lot of the rest of the world, or somehow standing up for “freedom” and “democracy,” when in fact it is exporting the imperious demands of neoliberal capital, whether by outright war or by other forms of influence or coercion, to other parts of the world).
However — and this is the real crux of Kant’s argument — although there is no empirical evidence in favor of the proposition that “progress” has taken place, there is a reason, or an empirical ground, for us to believe in progress, to hope for it, and even to work for it — rejecting the cynicism that tells us that any such hope or belief is deluded or “utopian” (this latter word is most often used pejoratively, in the form of the claim that any attempt to make human life better, such as all the efforts of the Left in the 19th and 20th centuries, inevitably has “unintended consequences” that end up making things worse). This ground is the occurrence of certain events — for Kant, the French Revolution — whose sheer occurrence, in itself, however badly these events miscarried subsequently, “demonstrates a character of the human race at large and all at once… a moral character of humanity, at least in its predisposition, a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress in so far as its capacity is sufficient for the present.” Humanity hasn’t actually gotten any better, but its active ability to imagine and project betterment, on a social and cosmopolitan scale, is itself evidence that a “predisposition” to betterment does in fact exist.
Now, I left out a couple of phrases in the citation above; the entire sentence actually reads: “Owing to its universality, this mode of thinking demonstrates a character of the human race at large and all at once; owing to its disinteredness, a moral character of humanity, at least in its predisposition, a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress in so far as its capacity is sufficient for the present.” The two key terms here are universality and disinterestedness. Kant is not merely praising enthusiasm and fervor. He is almost oppressively aware that enthusiasm and fervor guarantee nothing, and that they have propelled many of the worst happenings and the worst movements in human history — something that is all the more evident today, after the horrors of the twentieth century. Nothing that is narrowly drawn, chauvanistic, nationalistic, etc., can stand as evidence for a predisposition towards betterment.
But beyond that: Kant is not saying that the French Revolution in itself is the evidence of a human predisposition to betterment. He is saying, rather, that the “universal yet disinterested sympathy” that “spectators” from afar felt for the French Revolution is such evidence. Our “moral predisposition” for betterment is revealed in the way that “all spectators (who are not engaged in this game themselves” feel a “sympathy,” or “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm,” for the distant revolutionary events of which they are the witnesses. Such sympathy-from-afar can be “dangerous,” Kant warns us; but it is genuine evidence for the potentiality or “predisposition” toward improvement of the human condition — at least to the extent that it is “universal” (rather than being partial, chauvinistic, or favoring one “nation” or “race” against another — as fascist enthusiasm always is), and that it is “disinterested” (not motivated by any expectation of personal gain; an aesthetic concern rather than a merely self-aggrandizing one). (I think that, for example, Foucault’s enthusiasm from afar for the Iranian revolution can be regarded in the same way as Kant’s enthusiasm from afar for the French revolution; in both cases, the bad outcomes of these revolutions does not disqualify the reasons for which Kant and Foucault found themseves in sympathy with them; and this is why such events, and such expressions of sympathy, must be radically distinguished from the enthusiasm for fascism that consumed so many early-20th-century artists and intellectuals).
I suppose that, genealogically, all this is Kant’s secular-Enlightenment updating of the old Christian virtue of hope. But it locates what is hoped for in this life, this world, rather than in an afterlife, or in some sort of post-apocalyptic recovery (in this way, it is actually more secular, and less mystical and religious, than, say, Walter Benjamin’s messianism; and although it refers, or defers, to an as-yet-unaccomplished future, it is more materially and empirically grounded than, say, Derrida’s “democracy to come.” Benjamin and Derrida must both be honored as true descendants of Kant, yet arguably they have both diminished him). The human predisposition towards betterment already exists in the here and now, even if its fulfillment does not. Quoting Kant again:
For such a phenomenon in human history is not to be forgotten, because it has revealed a tendency and faculty in human nature for improvement such that no politician, affecting wisdom, might have conjured out of the course of things hitherto existing, and one which nature and freedom alone, united in the human race in conformity with inner principles of right, could have promised. But so far as time is concerned, it can promise this only indefinitely and as a contingent event.
Human improvement depends upon happening that have not yet taken place, and that in fact may never take place — it requires a “contingent event” in order to be realized. But nonetheless, the “phenomenon” of a capacity towards such improvement is in itself perfectly and altogethe real. In Deleuze’s terms, a “predisposition” is something virtual. Our predisposition towards improvement exists virtually, even if it has not been actualized in our social, political, and economic systems. It is for this reason that the denial of our potential or predisposition towards improvement is a secular version of what the Christians call a “sin against the Holy Spirit” — in Kant’s terms, such a denial is “radical evil”, in that it negates the very potentiality that makes any sort of moral choice thinkable in the first place. (Hence, Kant insists that human beings have a predisposition towards betterment in precisely the same way, and for the same reasons, that we all also have a “propensity to evil” or depravity).
In the grander scheme of things, this means that we must reject, on Kantian grounds, all ideologies that declare that humanity is incapable of betterment because human beings are inherently limited and imperfect (such is the tenor of the anti-“utopian” rejections of anything that goes beyond the limits of contemporary predatory capitalism), and all ideologies that declare that the narrow self-interested maximizing behavior of Homo oeconomicus cannot ever be transcended, as well as all ideologies that limit the prospects of emancipation to any particular group, nation, religion, etc. And in the narrow, tawdry limits of contemporary US politics — to move from great things to small — this is why the boundless cynicism of the Republican Party must be rejected as evil. The Democrats may well be playing games with our hopes for betterment, hypocritically encouraging those hopes only the better to betray them, etc., etc.; but at least they represent a world in which such hopes stil exist.