The Self-Deconstruction of the Liberal Order

In grad school, I was always suspect of John Rawls and the entire school of utilitarian liberalism.  Yes, I know that Rawls is not a neatly symmetrical “utilitarian,” but that is a matter of debate.  But why do I dislike Ralws?  At the time, about three or so years ago, I thought that it had to do with psychoanalysis.

For starters, I was interested in how the death drive as a function for subjects in social orders made subjects somehow impervious to thought experiments and rational or autonomous action.  It had to do with the nature of desire itself, with a theory of desire that these schools of thought seemed to misappropriate and completely ignore.  In Badiou’s Logics of Worlds, utilitarians would fall under the obscure subject to the event of psychoanalysis.

Secondly, I knew that the liberal reliance upon a theory of inter-subjectivity was naive.  But admittedly, much of this was speculation and not grounded in any real cross-school analysis.  Note that “cross-school” is different from cross-disciplinary, because in philosophy, like say in extended families, sometimes silence between immediate members and members outside of one’s immediate family (school) can go on ad infinitum.

Thirdly, I was convinced that communication is a tool not of rational speech acts and communicative reason and I felt that the entire system depended upon a view of autonomy that somehow felt too idealistic.  After all, the discourse of post structuralism discusses the utter impossibility of constituting autonomy for human subjects.

In short, I was another problematizer.  Yes, in academe, many people simply write and think to provoke and problematize.  This is completely fine with me, and I say we need more of it!  But as you can see, for the longest time, I found no clear support for this position that I intuitively knew I supported.

And then I discovered Jean-Pierre Dupuy and a world of cross school thought began to open.  Dupuy is a French sociologist who has sought to create a sort of bridge of understanding between the French school of structuralism and post structuralism and Anglo-American pragmatism/analytic philosophy.   Dupuy’s blend of sociology feels very different than the overly-specialized and often anti-intellectual (or at least anti-theory) sociology that I learned in college.  Dupuy is interested in understanding how a theory of desire that Lacan and the post-structuralists have developed, specifically an idea that he and colleague René Girard call “distributive desire” functions.   Distributive desire is fairly simple, but not simplistic.

It might be best to describe it by way of an analogy.  Dupuy pulls from a common stock of philosophical concepts and problems in his construction of desire.  One example is what he calls the neglected third party.  The third part is the clue to the problem of intersubjectivity and social cognition.  Against the pragmatist notion of usefulness and utility, Dupuy posits that desire is what brings up all of the problems we face when trying to ascertain a stable theory of intersubjectivity and autonomy.  Desire, or the third party is filled with craziness, irrationality and most importantly, it is triangular.  It is mediated, imitated on someone else’s desire.  The triangle includes the mediator, the subject and the object.  It is a structural mode of intersubjectivity.

Pulling from Game Theory, Dupuy develops a critique of the American pragmatist and liberal utilitarian schools of thought by bringing in Lacan’s imaginary, symbolic and real.  In game theory the very point of the game is to put oneself in the shoes of another person, presenting the person with a series of imaginary identifications.  Second, Game Theory shows that when individuals thought to be rational and free are allowed to interact within a given structure, a world of necessary laws emerges.  This is similar to what Lacan has in mind as the law of the Other that situates the symbolic.

Within Game Theory, the problem of Common Knowledge (CK) emerges.  CK is the problem located in Lacan’s imaginary field.  It is also tied to what Dupuy calls the “specular problem.”  CK corresponds to an infinite series of successive steps of “I think that you think that he thinks that I think…”  there is thus a discontinuity when we reach the infinite plane of specularity.  CK is different from shared knowledge (everyone knows P) because it is infinite.

Common knowledge is that which breaks with speculative knowledge.  In common knowledge, you know that the others know, and the others know that you know and ad infinitum.  The formula is this: the Other knows P if and only if P is CK.  It follows that the subject knows P if and only if everyone knows that the Other knows that P.  In a situation of CK, everyone can discover the truth about themselves because they all know that the Other knows.

Each Other only relates to the Other through the mediation of the Other that establishes the CK.  The Other is then the symbolic instance.  But for French post-structuralists, the symbolic transcends the imaginary.  But the game of CK in this instance does not apply to post structuralism because the players have created imaginary speculations that has developed the symbolic.  This is what Dupuy refers to as a “tangled hierarchy.”

Limitless specularity comes into play when you seek to prefigure CK, because each agent is seeking to predict what the other would do in advance.  To envision this think of two people lost in a shopping mall.  They never decided upon a common point to meet in the even they got lost from one another.  They are thus left to play a game of putting themselves in the shoes of the other, of always assuming where the other might likely go – and onto infinity.  There is no common knowledge produced here.

The American philosopher David Lewis argues that in such a situation, we have a common convention develop.  He argues that “what unifies and totalizes a set of radically separate consciousnesses is CK, with its movement towards infinity.”  This view of the establishment of CK through imitation is crucial for thinkers such as John Keynes, the economist of the great depression whom we are still turning to today in times of crisis.  In Keynes’ “rational conduct view,” he argues that the only rational thing to do is to imitate the others.  Everything hinges on outguessing the crowd in the Keynesian model.  Keynes’ point is that the specular mechanisms that lead to crisis are the same mechanisms that permit its resolution.  By copying the others’ leads, this leads to a convention for Keynes.

What stabilizes the solution or convention is the group’s misrecognition and not CK.  The convention totally blocks the play of specularity.  This mode of generalized imitation has the ability to create worlds that are perfectly disconnected from reality: at once orderly, stable and totally illusory.  In Keynes’ view, what he refers to as the rational conduct view, which argues that the only rational thing to do is to imitate all of the others, everything hinges on outguessing the crowd.  Keynes’ point is that the specular mechanisms (play of imaginary actions one might perform in a group) that lead to crisis are the same mechanisms that permit its resolution.  By copying the others’ leads, this leads to a “convention”.  But this convention is a bit of a paradox because what stabilizes the solution or the convention from going into crisis is the group’s mis-recognition.  The convention totally blocks the play of specularity, or the free association of imaginary relations.

Quoting Keynes:

In a situation of radical uncertainty, such as the one prevailing in a financial market in crisis, the only rational form of conduct is to imitate others.  Knowing that our own individual judgment is worthless, we endeavor to fall back on the judgment of the rest of the world which is perhaps better informed.  That is, we endeavor to conform with the behavior of the majority or the average. (Keynes, “The General Theory of Employment” Quarterly Journal of Economics vol 51, no 2, Feb 1937, p. 214.)

One can’t help but notice an affinity to Adam Smith’s great work of moral philosophy, Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In this book, which many cite as a blatant contradiction to his later and more well known work, The Wealth of Nations, Smith attacks Bernard de Mandville’s Fable of the Bees, which argued “private vices” produce “public benefits.”  Smith was seeking to liberate the passions:  luxury, pride, and vanity.  For Smith, the love of praise is ultimately what make it possible for a well-ordered and stable society to function.  But he says the love of praise is only true within limits.  For Smith, the love of virtue, and the love of true glory are the best passions in human nature, and these are what we want to see in the other person if one were an “impartial spectator.”

Smith, trained by Francis Hutchenson believed, unlike the cynics, that there was a universal benevolence, and there is a sense of compassion that drives all virtues.  Smith argued that the moral world hinges upon sympathy.  The problem comes into play because in the Wealth of Nations, Smith puts forward a theory of self-love that is tied to the invisible hand argument of the market.  The way that people have solved this problem is that there is a division between private morality (where sympathy reigns) and the market, (where self-love reigns).

For Smith, we love each other only to the extent to which the other person loves us.  It is the actor who imitates the spectator.  The actor, not having access to the real sentiments of the spectator, puts himself in the latter’s place via his imagination.  In Smith’s view, we love ourselves only to the extent the “Other” (the impartial spectator) loves us, or, to the extent that we can sympathize with the fact that “he” sympathizes with us.  Self-love is a stoic virtue of self-command, of controlling one’s passions in such a way as to win the sympathy of the “man within.”

But the presence of the other is not enough to turn virtue into vice.  The “man within” desires to be deserving of being praised, but Dupuy points out that what if the man is actually a “man without” who is more desirous of being praised without deserving it?  What if the man within is after self-love without any inner virtuous self-restraint?

Self-love here takes the form of self-interest in the form of economic motivations to increase ones wealth.  But Smith is clear that the collection of wealth in and of itself is not a matter of self-love, but the amassing of wealth enables one to generate sympathy as a result of attracting sympathy by those who do not have wealth.  It is this asymmetry with basing sympathy on the collection of wealth that haunted Smith his entire life and it is that which led to a great moral imbalance in the economy.

Importantly, Smith added a chapter to the Theory of Moral Sentiments upon his death entitled, “Of the corruption of our moral sentiments,” which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and the great, to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition.”  Here self-love is reflexive sympathy turned back upon itself.  It states that “I only judge an object desirable insofar as the man without judges it so; in order to desire this object, I need to display it to attract the desire of others.  I succeed thereby in garnering sympathy from my spectators (and in feeding my self-love) but this sympathy cannot be distinguished from its opposite: envy.

In the sphere of moral sentiments, sympathy is the fundamental principle, envy its negation, is born out of a deviation of this principle, when the attention directed towards other people goes beyond its proper bounds.  In the economic sphere, the hierarchy is reversed, and envy is the dominant principle.  But the economic sphere is still governed by the principle of sympathy.  So Smith reversed the tangled hierarchy and put the sphere of the economy at the top.

What ultimately corrupts Smith’s theory is hierarchy itself.  Pulling from a deconstructionist view of hierarchy, Dupuy points out that hierarchy is the relation that links an encompassing level (the social totality) to an encompassed level (the individuals who make up this totality).  Hierarchical societies give priority to the whole over its constituents.  A hierarchy is always reversed within itself – to say that the hierarchical order deconstructs itself is to say that it contains the crisis that undermines it within itself.  There is no difference on this point between religious societies and liberal societies. Disorder is contained within order.

The very idea of an “impartial spectator” which drives both Smith’s and Keyne’s political philosophy is thus undermined by the third party and desire.  Both of their systems are furthermore auto-deconstructed by their tangled hierarchy.  In this hierarchy, these thinkers seek to posit an independent subject that is supposed to be influenced by his peers.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, he argues that philosophy can only access truth through writing in opposition to Socrates’ argument that truth is written in the soul of the learner.  Derrida challenges this by claiming that there is a “logic of the supplement” that escapes every attempt to grasp logos.

Formally, the figures embodied in the supplement are violence, envy, fascination, and resentment.  But Dupuy claims that deconstruction is not simply about vengeance for literature over philosophy.  But deconstruction is not about destroying hierarchy, but about showing it’s reversals, and rivals.  But before there is any deconstruction, there is a self-deconstruction.

In closing, we find that the tradition of Anglo-Saxon liberalism conceptualizes the social order founded on the market as if it were never far from decomposition into disorder and panic.  At the moment that these thinkers identify the self-sufficiency of civil society, they cannot help referring to that which undermines the order from within.  They do this through denial, which has the same logic of the supplement in Derrida’s theory of deconstruction.  In other words, self-deconstruction is at the heart of the liberal order.

2 thoughts on “The Self-Deconstruction of the Liberal Order

  1. Societies need order to persist, that’s why dictarorships emerge when anarchy is prevalent. It’s a social need to create hierarchies, as it’s social to look for ways to circumvent the same when these turn oppressive.

    Hierarchies can be useful for creating order in society, and in the case of Smith for enabling market relations. Liberal thinkers such as Rawls are interested in creating social orders that encourage compassion instead of market values. I think there is a place for many of these systems to work together cooperatively or competitively.

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