The European political enlightenment


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THERE is a worthy intellectual project that has been pursued in recent years of characterizing alternative theoretical elaborations of political modernity and the ‘Enlightenment’. In the West, this has taken to stressing the thought of such thinkers as Toland and Spinoza over Locke. I think it is a good exercise to supplement and calibrate such an alternative conceptualization coming from dissenting and heterodox ideas in Europe with how the orthodoxies of ‘modernity’ and of the Enlightenment look like from the perspective of the South, that is to say from the perspective of folk and spiritual traditions in once colonized parts of the world, a perspective in which the cognitive and cultural understanding of society and politics remained relatively uncontaminated by the intellectual pressures of the metropole that colonization inevitably placed upon these distant lands.

To do this, one needs to first look from this perspective at certain developments of the outlook of modernity in the West (or North) with a critical eye, and then suggest some rudimentary alternative to it in one or other aspect of political and social life.

A good place to begin, it would seem, would be to look, from the perspective of the South, at the most central political ideals that define the modern period of the North, the ideals of liberty and equality. How do these seem from such a conceptual distance, a distance at which those ideals have never really had a distinct centrality, at any rate not in these explicit terms? The first thing that would come into view I think is a bizarre development. Virtually as soon as these ideals were first articulated, they began to be elaborated in theoretical and methodological developments in such a way that they were chronically (and acutely) at odds with one another. Why, one would ask, if one was not oneself in the midst of the outlook, does an outlook, describing itself with such self-congratulatory terms as ‘The Enlightenment’ declare and (rightly) cherish two remarkable ideals and yet immediately come to understand them so that they are in a sort of zero sum tension with one another, such that increasing one seems always to be accompanied by the necessity to decrease the other. A distant observer would notice this peculiar phenomenon entrenched everywhere in the philosophical and political arguments, with the politics and rhetoric of cold war disputation as only a very late and very crude manifestation of the tension that has existed between these two ideals for well over two and half centuries.

So, I repeat: why should a tradition of political thought theoretically frame its two chief ideals in such a way that they are pitted against each other? That is a question which cannot possibly get an answer that leaves out the much larger context of the sort of political economy that had developed in Europe and the effect it had on political thinking in and since the Enlightenment. I cannot pursue that context and its effect in a brief essay whose main theme lies elsewhere. I cannot, in fact, do much more than mention one or two features of the political theorizing that produce this tension between its two ideals and convey how, given the deep roots that these features have taken in our sensibility and our practice, we have come to see it as virtually impossible to question these features without seeming to be pursuing quite unintuitive or outdated lines of thought.


One feature is far too well known and well mined to bear much more than the most minimal mention, and that is the linking of the notion of property to a notion of personal liberty which its ownership bestows on one, a liberty that is carried in a ‘right’ and, therefore, enshrined in the law of the land. How the possession of private property, when seen in these terms of liberty, undermines equality in the economic sphere (and therefore in other spheres) has been the subject of extensive commentary, and Marx was, of course, only its most famous and most powerful critic.

Less explicitly theorized is another feature, which I will call the ‘incentivization of talent’. It seems to us the most natural thing in the world to think that someone’s talent should be acknowledged as hers and that it is she who should be praised and rewarded for it. We think it a failure to respect someone’s individuality to fail to do so. Take any example of a poem or a scientific discovery or a fine test century. We praise individuals for such things and other such products of individual talent and expect them to be rewarded, whether it is a poet or a scientist or a batsman or… We don’t simply admire the zeitgeist for such productions, we admire the particular individuals and we think the rewards they get for it are deserved.


Notions such as ‘dessert’ thus also get linked to one, among other, rights possessed by individuals. This goes so deep in our thinking that it is likely to be considered an hysterical egalitarian ideologue’s artifice to deny it. Denying it seems to fly in the face of our intuitive understanding of what it is to be an individual (rather than just a symptom of the zeitgeist in embodied human form), it violates what we conceive to be the liberty of an individual to reap the rewards of the exercise and efforts of his talents, not to mention the liberty of others to enjoy the productions of these efforts at their most excellent because they are incentivized in these ways to be as excellent as they can be. But, like the liberty attaching to possession of property, this way of thinking of liberty as attaching to talent, also promotes social and economic inequality. This feature is less structurally central to our culture than the liberty that is tied to property, but it perhaps goes even deeper psychologically and the dichotomy it generates with equality is, therefore, more subtly troubling; and it seems just as impossible to overcome.

I mention these two sources of the tension only to give a completely familiar sense of how far such thinking has gone into our sensibility, how entrenched it is in the very way we deploy these terms, and how, therefore, it would seem almost to change the semantics of the terms if we were to think that the tension could be removed or resolved. That is to say, if we managed, per impossibile, to see them as not being in tension, it would only be because, as Thomas Kuhn might have put it, we have changed the meanings of the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, not because we have produced an improved theory or politics within the framework of the Enlightenment. Within that framework things are, on this score, unimprovable. In other words, what I mean by framework here is perhaps one of the (diverse) things that Kuhn meant by his term ‘paradigm’ and, if so, clearly we need to shift to another framework if we are ever going to remove the tension between these two notions. In such a new framework, neither ‘liberty’ nor ‘equality’ would mean what they mean in the framework of Enlightenment thought, no more than ‘mass’ in Einstein’s physics meant what it meant in Newtonian mechanics, if Kuhn is right.


How might such a shift in framework be sought? To do so directly, by brutely redefining the terms or announcing a new term (Balibar’s neologism ‘equaliberty’, for instance) might come off more as a valiant act of semantic stipulation. But the worry is that it may be an act in vain. This sort of wilful dictation of nomenclature seldom works, except perhaps in purely classificatory exercises, which don’t pretend to theory. To say: ‘From now on, I will use the word ‘…’ as follows…’ with a view to presenting an alternative theory is to place the cart ahead of the horse. Discourse about human concerns should be posterior to, a natural outgrowth of, a prior conceptual understanding; it can’t by itself declare new forms of understanding into existence. What makes language so central to our human concerns is not that it can in itself dictate how we think but that it is the repository of how we think and how we have thought. So new frameworks for thought must be constructed first and this may then have the effect of revising the meanings of terms by situating them in a new conceptual framework.


In keeping with this obvious suggestion, here is what I propose. There is no improving our understanding of these notions of liberty and equality – as they stand – so as to resolve the tension between them. So let’s, as a start, usher them off stage entirely. If this is to disinherit the entire tradition of liberal thought of the Enlightenment, so be it. Once these are exeunt, we need to replace them on centre stage with a third, more primitive, concept; that is to say, a concept more fundamental to our social and political life than even liberty and equality. And this is to be done with the idea that ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ may subsequently be introduced once again – by the back door, as it were – but now merely as necessary conditions for the achievement of this more basic ideal that occupies the central position. So reintroduced, there is reason to think that these terms may have undergone substantial revision in their meaning, and thus may not any longer express concepts that are at odds with one another.

We need, then, to fasten on an appropriately more fundamental concept. To be more fundamental than concepts such as liberty and equality which have been so central to our theoretical understanding of politics, it would have to track something not necessarily older and more traditional in our political understanding so much as something that speaks more immediately to our experience and our ordinary lives. And here, if we continue to keep firmly in mind that we are engaged in an exercise finding a view from the South that has not been wholly dominated by the metropolitan frameworks, the folk and spiritual and popular traditions of the South outside the orbits of that framework, the concept and ideal that is most naturally on offer is the concept of an ‘unalienated life’.

In a short essay, I cannot do much more than gesture at what such an ideal looks like from the point of view of these traditions, an elementary philosophical statement intended merely as the opening (a mere chink) that would have to be developed at much greater length in another essay, if not a whole book. So, then, a highly sloganized conception of the unalienated life as it may be found in local traditions of life in the South, and seeking to address the critical dialectic of the ideals of the political Enlightenment that I have articulated, might read crudely as something like this (and Gandhi came close to formulating it): What we aspire to, when we seek a socially unalienated life with one another, is the realization of the ideal that nobody in society is well off if someone is badly off.


Someone might think that this just is the idea of equality, so why was I so keen on saying at the outset that I would construct a framework in which equality would not be on centre stage but a necessary condition for some other ideal that was on centre stage such as the ideal of the unalienated life. All I have done, it might be said, is simply equated the social aspects of being unalienated with the idea of equality. I have not done the more complex thing that I had set out to do.

This response misses what the slogan is seeking to convey. What it misses is that the entire point of the slogan was to assert the importance of equality only at second remove. In a situation where some are well off and others are not, the idea of the slogan is not merely to say that this is a bad thing (as an assertion of the importance of equality that is not once removed would), but rather to say that even those who in a situation of inequality are well off are in fact not so. Subtle though the distinction is, it makes all the difference, it establishes the deep contrast between the idea of equality and the idea of a socially unalienated life, with the former now merely a condition for the latter (even if an indispensable condition).


There is a further analytical clarification to be made. It might seem that what this ideal of being socially unalienated articulates is that those who are well off should not be unconcerned about those who are not well off. So, being unalienated from one another in this social sense is to be infused with a sense of social concern about others who are not well off. It is a mentality, a cast of mind in which concern for others less well off is central and the ideal of the collective is dependent on the existence of this mentality in individuals. Much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s stress on ‘sympathy’ was about this form of mentality. It is also the sort of thing that Rousseau stressed when he said that ‘pity’ (less condescendingly termed, ‘compassion’, I think) was basic to human mentality until it was undermined in the trajectory he traced by which inequality was created in society through the emergence of self-love or amour propre.

But this too is a mistaken reading of what the slogan is reaching for. If it were merely reaching for this, I would have begun this paper by saying that the more fundamental ideal that should replace liberty and equality on centre stage, should be the third ideal in that celebrated trio: fraternity. This kind of concern for others is merely the subjective basis of fraternal relations, as the Enlightenment understood it. And though fraternity is much to be desired, it does not dig as deep as the ideal of an unalienated life is meant to.

My slogan was reaching for a much more ambitious ideal. It is not merely claiming that we should feel this form of concern for others though, as I said, it would certainly not deny that it is a good thing to do so. Now, this is not to say that mentality or subjectivity is not involved in this ideal as the slogan presents it. It is indeed involved and is central to the slogan’s meaning. What, then, is this mentality? One can identify it by first identifying the offending experience or mentality that it is defined against such that one is unalienated only when that offending experience or state of mind is absent.


I have said the important thing to emphasize when discussing this ideal is not the feeling of concern that the well off person might feel for those not well off. Rather what one should be initially emphasizing is the fact that the person who is well off in fact also suffers or experientially partakes of a kind of malaise, when others are not well off. It is that malaise which is alienation. It is a generalized unease of the mind or, as metaphysicians like to say, of being, which affects all social relations. In a society where some are not well off, all feel and partake of this alienation, even those who are well off. Often people don’t know the cause or the grounds of the malaise as having its roots in a society characterized by discrepancies in well-offness. Yet the malaise is manifest in a variety of different behaviour of theirs. Thus it is a subjective state of felt experience that can be said to have an objective presence in the minds of people whenever they live in societies with such discrepancies. Though I won’t try and present it here, the empirical correlation between such discrepancies and the behaviour that reflects this malaise is extremely well established. Of course, the behaviour which reflects the malaise is bound to be very different in those who are well off than it is in those who are not, and it takes some careful psychological integration of theory and evidence to show how these are both symptoms of the same malaise; but that ought not to be an insuperable difficulty.1


Where does all this leave us with how to think of the slogan’s ideal of an unalienated life? To put it in a word, what the ideal expresses is just the kind or form of mentality in which this kind of malaise is entirely absent. Such an ideal – of all failing to be well off if anyone is not well off – would, I believe, be quite impossible to conceive without also conceiving as achieved, some of the basic liberties and forms of equality that we have come to regard as essential. But it would do so without generating any internal tension between them. For liberties now are liberties that cannot be elaborated in ways that lead to basic inequalities (in the way that the liberties tied to incentivized talent and to privatized property do) since they have been reconfigured in a framework quite different from the Enlightenment’s framework for them. In the new framework, the social effects of those specific liberties, understood in the ways that they were elaborated in the earlier framework, would be a major source of the malaise that I identified above as alienation because they would fall afoul of both ideals that I presented in my encapsulated slogan.


There is much more to be said by way of elaboration of this aspect of the unalienated life that I cannot do in a short essay. Gandhi spoke with some depth on what it would take to achieve such an ideal and Marx in a great deal of his writing focused both on the forms of proletarian solidarity that would pre-figure this ideal in a society that might ultimately be achieved were one to transcend the tyrannies of capital. Both their ideas would need to be adapted to a variety of developments in social life since the time of their writing. I can think of no more important theoretical project in the social sciences than to creatively seek such an adaptation in some detail.



1. Just to take the most obvious examples: on the side of the badly off, the familiar sentiments of resentment and envy, as well as the attitudes of resignation and pacification are all symptom of the malaise. On the side of the well off, the tendency to cut themselves off from the worse off (consider the appeal that ‘gated communities’), though very different from the alienated pathologies of the badly off, is an example of a recognizable symptom of the same malaise. Katherine Boo in her Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Granta) tries to capture some of these symptoms of the same malaise in contemporary Mumbai:

‘Asha had by now seen past the obvious truth – that Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition – to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slum-dwellers of making the city filthy and unliveable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low. Slum-dwellers complained about the obstacles the powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbours. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatised, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators – human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world’s largest cities.’

But, eloquent and gripping though her book is, even these, like the ones I myself mentioned earlier in this footnote, are the most obvious and hackneyed symptoms. This is a subject on which social psychology needs to keep a constantly alert eye for the changing (and more diverse and subtle) forms in which alienation surfaces in the behaviour of groups and individuals in contemporary forms of unequal societies where, as Boo says above, traditional ‘group identities’ that might have once provided a given framework of life for avoiding the malaise, have become ‘attenuated’ and ‘privatised’.