I have to confess something before I continue. I have to confess something awful. I have to confess this before I write anything more… I’m something weird… something not widely understood… I’m (and this is, literally, hard to say)… I’m a Parametric Universalist. I hope my mum’s not reading this. She’ll be [even more] ashamed. Perhaps my friends were correct to abandon me. My damnation slumbereth not.
Parametric Universalism is an ethical account which claims there is a universally valid, normative standard, but argues that the particular results generated by this standard vary across different types of individuals. So, one might think (and I do) that there are features constitutive of agency. A constitutive feature denotes an instance of agency such that if it is absent, then so is agency. Parametric Universalism claims that there are different ways of expressing this agency that remain structurally identical. That is, there are different ways of maximally expressing the realization of this [constitutive] feature.
“Agency is inescapable”
What this constitutive feature is (or if there even is such a feature) is a hotly debated topic – hotly debated (mostly) by me and anyone who’ll listen (the kind and the polite, usually). But the macro claim is controversial in itself, namely, that there is a constitutive feature of agency that is necessarily present in all instances of it (self-determined action, or whatever) and this feature is sufficiently determinate to generate normative standards of success. Good actions are those that manifest this feature sufficiently well, bad actions are those that fail to manifest this feature sufficiently well. Clearly, good and bad are scalar concepts here.
What’s this got to do with anything?
Well, I want to claim that agency might have structural features that denotes an action as an instance of action (and not mere ‘bodily happenings’ – any serious account of action must be able to distinguish between my falling in front of a bus, and my jumping in front of a bus). Further, I want to claim that this structure can be expressed differently, across agents. Let’s take an example:
Let’s assume (for the sake of argument and also because it's correct) that the constitutive feature of agency is freedom (defined as rational, self-referential, self-determination). Lachlan can express his freedom in a variety of ways, and some of these ways will better instantiate his freedom than others. Now let’s say that Lachlan has a robust understanding of who and what he is, and, with this knowledge, Lachlan determines that he should participate in a variety of projects including, perhaps, developing his chess game, developing his musical composition skills, learning to make a good cup of coffee, etc.
Now let’s assume the same constitutive feature of action/agency is shared by Ruaridh (this feature is ‘universal’). Ruaridh also has a robust understanding of who and what he is and has decided that his freedom is also best expressed by participating in a variety of projects – however, Ruaridh choses different projects and a different ‘mode’ of being – Ruaridh prefers to make wine and take photographs, go running and make tables, get tattoos and drink a glass of melted cheese. Ruaridh’s concept of the good life does not conform to Lachlan’s concept of the good life – but both, provided that they are instantiating their freedom sufficiently well, act as good [moral] agents.
The normative standard here rules out certain modes of being (e.g. slavery) as necessarily ill-conducive to agency as such. At the same time, it allows for – and indeed, suggests - a plurality of values and a plurality of ways of living (all of which share the same fundamental structure of ‘freedom’).
Anarchism, for me, entails three things that conform to, compliment, and may even be entailed by my Parametric Universalism.
1. There is no ‘one way’ of living that suits everyone. A ‘one-life-fits-all’ approach is stifling and does great violence to the flourishing of agency. The state imposes such a mode on the agent. Removing the state structure, and accompanying hegemony, will enable people to self-determine more fully. 2. Removing the capitalist mode of exchange which, ultimately, determines the nature of our social interactions will allow agents to determine for themselves the nature of their social interactions. Such determination cannot be achieved unless participants in the anarchist communities are sufficiently competent. Competency is developed through a process of education. 3. The primary responsibility of the anarchist community is to educate those who participate in society such that they recognize the type of thing they are, that is to say, the type of thing agency is. This responsibility is personal and social. It is also fundamentally moral. Persons who have not been educated in this way will find it difficult to understand the sort of thing they are. This will have a huge, warping, effect on their ability to self-determine. I’m sure this is why our current system of education is crippling. It is, at root, prescriptive. It tells one how to live while not making any reference to the sort of thing one is. It is training (in the pejorative sense of the word), not education.
“Education is the art of making man ethical”
Coming to understand what we are, and understanding what freedom is (one and the same thing, really – in my view), is a formative part of the education process. One comes to learn that freedom necessarily requires intersubjective, reciprocal recognition. We injure ourselves profoundly when we do not recognize the personhood of the other. Slavery is an ‘in itself’ evil: it habituates, in the citizens of the communities that permit this practice, a system of un-personing, of non-recognition of ‘the other’. It is necessarily imperialistic. It is a structural feature of capitalism. Capitalism is not only the private ownership of the means of production, it is also the private ownership of the means of life itself. It aims to sledgehammer its values onto everything, and it aims to dominate all aspects of life.
As well as slavery, one might think that capitalist societies might threaten to undermine one’s understanding of oneself. If we understand ourselves as consumers, we have misunderstood our ‘world creating capacity’ – we shut off certain modes of being. We tether ourselves to one mode of being only. We, eventually, lose the capacity to determine who we are by only practicing what capitalism tells us we are. It narrows our worldview. It makes idiots of us all.
Both capitalism and slavery perpetuate systems of de-personing and un-personing (respectively). It is a form of hatred of otherness, and this hatred is most prevalent, today, on the front pages of our newspapers.
Hatred is to deny another the status of ‘person’, it is to deny their personhood. The hater suffers from the incapacity to recognize the inherent dignity of another human being. The hated suffers both spiritually (by not being recognized as the kind of thing she is) and materially. By refusing to acknowledge the basic humanity of an other we fail exercise our own humanity to those unlike - or merely, dissimilar to - ourselves. It is this habituation of hostility to otherness that has led today’s society to engage openly with hate-speech of all sorts.
Of course, the modern media encourages hatefulness by ‘othering’, ‘de-personing’, and verminizing all non-white, non-cis-gendered, non-middle-class, non-men. David Cameron’s ‘first term’ fired-up aggressive rhetoric of ‘benefit scroungers’, the ‘work-shy’, the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor. Those crushed by the economic circumstances over which they had no control were vilified by those who determined the economic circumstances in which the poor found themselves. Broadcast media became replete with stories of feckless scroungers with massive televisions and a plantation-a-day cigarette habit. Representing those at the bottom as lazy (and thus pretending that those at the bottom have more agency than they do), those at the top could pretend that they were there by merit. ‘Sure, there are folk at the bottom of the pile. Were they only to work harder they could have a white Landrover too! I have my white Landrover because I worked for it. All me – no-one helped. There were no external factors determining my having these things. None.’
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”
This narrative has migrated to migrants. The form of hatred remains the same. Un-personing persons leads, necessarily, to fascism and never in the history of the UK has fascism been such a plausible threat.
We look to our newspapers and all we see is the reinforcement of a sterile worldview. We see a totalizing culture. We see outright hostility to otherness. We see harm inflicted on those who personify otherness. We tell refugees to ‘go home’ – a somewhat insensitive comment given that they are refugees because they have no home.
Migrant-bashing is the most recent embodiment of the slave-owning society. We are threatened by migrants because they de-stabilize our western, neo-liberal, worldview, they physically personify a fact about the world that we find uncomfortable – that circumstances are not always in our control, the world is not a meritocracy, that maybe your having a white Landrover is parasitic on someone else’s well-being.
Xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, &c. are all ways of expressing a fascist mind-set. A mind-set that is threatened by the existence of something other than itself, something other than the dominant hegemony. It aims to dehumanize and denigrate, to make ridiculous, to reduce-to-absurdity. It permits and, often encourages, physical violence: If such-and-such a community is not populated by persons, then it doesn’t matter how we treat them…
The will-to-racism is the will-to-slavery is the will-to-fascism is the will-to-cruelty.
While communities cannot be founded on love, they can be founded on mutual respect. The will-to-respect is the will-to-freedom.