bodies and liberal publics in the 20th century and today

by Sebastian Benthall

I finally figured something out, philosophically, that has escaped me for a long time. I feel a little ashamed that it’s taken me so long to get there, since it’s something I’ve been told in one way or another many times before.

Here is the set up: liberalism is justified by universal equivalence between people. This is based in the Enlightenment idea that all people have something in common that makes them part of the same moral order. Recognizing this commonality is an accomplishment of reason and education. Whether this shows up in Habermasian discourse ethics, according to which people may not reason about politics from their personal individual situation, or in the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’, in which moral precepts are intuitively defended under the presumption that one does not know who or where one will be, liberal ideals always require that people leave something out, something that is particular to them. What gets left out is people’s bodies–meaning both their physical characteristics and more broadly their place in lived history. Liberalism was in many ways a challenge to a moral order explicitly based on the body, one that took ancestry and heredity very seriously. So much a part of aristocratic regime was about birthright and, literally, “good breeding”. The bourgeois class, relatively self-made, used liberalism to level the moral playing field with the aristocrats.

The Enlightenment was followed by a period of severe theological and scientific racism that was obsessed with establishing differences between people based on their bodies. Institutions that were internally based on liberalism could then subjugate others, by creating an Other that was outside the moral order. Equivalently, sexism too.
Social Darwinism was a threat to liberalism because it threatened to bring back a much older notion of aristocracy. In WWII, the Nazis rallied behind such an ideology and were defeated in the West by a liberal alliance, which then established the liberal international order.

I’ve got to leave out the Cold War and Communism here for a minute, sorry.

Late modern challenges to the liberal ethos gained prominence in activist circles and the American academy during and following the Civil Rights Movement. These were and continue to be challenges because they were trying to bring bodies back into the conversation. The problem is that a rules-based order that is premised on the erasure of differences in bodies is going to be unable to deal with the political tensions that precisely do come from those bodily differences. Because the moral order of the rules was blind to those differences, the rules did not govern them. For many people, that’s an inadequate circumstance.

So here’s where things get murky for me. In recent years, you have had a tension between the liberal center and the progressive left. The progressive left reasserts the political importance of the body (“Black Lives Matter”), and assertions of liberal commonality (“All Lives Matter”) are first “pushed” to the right, but then bump into white supremacy, which is also a reassertion of the political importance of the body, on the far right. It’s worth mention Piketty, here, I think, because to some extent that also exposed how under liberal regimes the body has secretly been the organizing principle of wealth through the inheritance of private property.

So what has been undone is the sense, necessary for liberalism, that there is something that everybody has in common which is the basis for moral order. Now everybody is talking about their bodily differences.

That is on the one hand good because people do have bodily differences and those differences are definitely important. But it is bad because if everybody is questioning the moral order it’s hard to say that there really is one. We have today, I submit, a political nihilism crisis due to our inability to philosophically imagine a moral order that accounts for bodily difference.

This is about the Internet too!

Under liberalism, you had an idea that a public was a place people could come to agree on the rules. Some people thought that the Internet would become a gigantic public where everybody could get together and discuss the rules. Instead what happened was that the Internet became a place where everybody could discuss each other’s bodies. People with similar bodies could form counterpublics and realize their shared interests as body-classes. (This piece by David Weinberger critiquing the idea of an ‘echo chamber’ is inspiring.) Within these body-based counterpublics each form their own internal moral order whose purpose is to mobilize their body-interests against other kinds of bodies. I’m talking about both black lives matter and white supremacists here, radical feminists and MRA’s. They are all buffeting liberalism with their body interests.

I can’t say whether this is “good” or “bad” because the moral order is in flux. There is apparently no such thing as neutrality in a world of pervasive body agonism. That may be its finest criticism: body agonism is politically unstable. Body agonism leads to body anarchy.

I’ll conclude with two points. The first is that the Enlightenment view of people having something in common (their personhood, their rationality, etc.) which put them in the same moral order was an intellectual and institutional accomplishment. People do not naturally get outside themselves and put themselves in other people’s shoes; they have to be educated to do it. Perhaps there is a kernal of truth here about what moral education is that transcends liberal education. We have to ask whether today’s body agonism is an enlightened state relative to moral liberalism because it acknowledges a previously hidden descriptive reality of body difference and is no longer so naive, or if body agonism is a kind of ethical regress because it undoes moral education, reducing us to a more selfish state of nature, of body conflict, albeit in a world full of institutions based on something else entirely.

The second point is that there is an alternative to liberal order which appears to be alive and well in many places. This is an order that is not based on individual attitudes for legitimacy, but rather is more about the endurance of institutions for their own sake. I’m referring of course to authoritarianism. Without the pretense of individual equality, authoritarian regimes can focus on maintaining power on their own terms. Authoritarian regimes do not need to govern through moral order. U.S. foreign policy used to be based on the idea that such amoral governance would be shunned. But if body agonism has replaced the U.S. international moral order, we no longer have an ideology to export or enforce abroad.