As it stands, we have advanced towards a more complete formulation of depoliticization as a philosophical concept. We are aware of its ontological aspects and the tensions with ethics these potentially produce. The purpose of this post is to formulate them in such a way that they fit our purposes and leave behind some of their original contexts (e.g. reacting to right-wing populism, addressing the influence of Rawlsians).

First, we have to resist the moralization of politics, which according to Mouffe is the process of establishing a cordon sanitaire that gives identity to the moralizing group and projects their enemies as a moral disease, thus depoliticizing the relationship between ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’. In other words, moralization entails a reification of self-other relationships. Second, Rancière urges us to resist ethics conceived as a domain of indistinction, that assimilates norm to fact and reduces politics to police as the final limit of consensual non-politics. Assimilation of this kind entails a reification of part of the political community, and also of ethics itself, which is completely reduced to empirical fact. Third and finally, we have to resist a moral grounding or moral finality of politics, which consists in a circle drawn between features of the human condition and the ends that are deduced from these features: for instance, a drive towards sociability as the grounding of politics and peaceful co-existence as its finality. This tension between the ontological aspect of depoliticization critique and ethics entails a reification of the connection between human nature of politics, and finally of politics itself. It is also derived from Rancière’s work.

The way we relate to political others, the ‘invisible’ part of our society, ethics, politics and its connection to human nature. These are not forgivable casualties: ethics will have to take such a shape that it avoids these pitfalls. But what are the pitfalls and what kind of ethics would be needed to avoid them?

Taking the three tensions in order, moralization is the complete ‘othering’ of evil, accompanied by the cleansing of one’s own hands. This already suggests a method by which we can avoid the problem altogether: accepting that our own hands are sometimes politically dirty. The locus classicus for the so-called problem of dirty hands is Michael Walzer (1973), but Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1969 [1947]) beat him to it by a quarter of a century. Walzer himself was not impressed, ‘footnoting’ Merleau-Ponty while denying the moral relevance of his book and casting him as an apologist for “the commission of the most terrible crimes”. Because of the significant role history plays in Merleau-Ponty’s eyes, Walzer styles his predecessor’s position “a kind of delayed utilitarianism”, according to which a decision under uncertain conditions (accompanied by “the anxiety of the gambler”) is justified by the subsequent course of history (Walzer 1973, 172n). Remarkably, in the very version of Humanism and Terror that Walzer references, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that he is not in the business of abstractly justifying anything:

We have never said that any policy which succeeds is good. We said that in order to be good a policy must succeed. We have never said that success justifies everything. We said that failure is a fault  and in politics one does not have the right to make errors and that only success can turn what was at first audacity and faith into solid reason.The curse of politics is precisely that it must translate values into the order of facts. At the level of action, every desire is as good as foresight and, reciprocally, every prognostic is a kind of complicity. A policy therefore cannot be grounded in principle, it must also comprehend the facts of the situation.” Merleau‐Ponty 1969, xxxiv‐xxxv

The point here is not just that policy can only be ‘good’ after it has been successful, but also that full justification cannot be attained. For both Merleau-Ponty and Walzer, there are objective constraints on many political situations that we cannot move beyond, and these constraints lead to moral faults or remainders. This non-attainment of full justification and is further compromised by the fact that we are subject to a realm of contingency that lies entirely beyond our control. Again, the source of this realization is in Merleau-Ponty: “Does not every action involve us in a game which we cannot entirely control? Is there not a sort of evil in collective life?” (ibid,  xxxvii-xxxviii)

This means, to put it briefly, that evil cannot be exteriorized. Political action is volatile on both sides of a political dispute. An ethics that takes account of this notion will thus have to be an ethics that explicitly theorizes remainders. We will consider what this implies in detail when we attempt to develop an account of ethics that can begin to combat depoliticization. The first implication is that most mainstream ethical theories are in trouble: Kantian (or as Walzer puts it, absolutist) and utilitarian ethics consider the right thing to do as necessarily fully justified. For a utilitarian, the remorse one feels may be wholesome in its consequences and in that sense ‘a good thing’, but it does not reflect any real fault on the part of the acting subject that chose the optimal course of action.

The other two tensions are relatively straightforward to address. Rancière conceptualizes an ethics of indistinction and seems to oppose a more politically wholesome notion of morality that is internally divided and recognizes the fact-value distinction (see previous post for discussion on what this means). Our eventual notion of ethics will have to reflect these feature of division in order to avoid assimilating itself to the prevailing order. The third tension likewise calls for division: this time between ethical principles of ground and finality on the one hand and politics itself on the other hand. This can be addressed by making ethics compatible with the post-foundationalist ontology that is, as we have seen, one of the aspects of generalized depoliticization critique itself. While living up to both of these standards may prove difficult, it is at least clear what the standards are.

We can now start to consider the ethical aspect of depoliticization, so that we can decide how to respond to the puzzle with which we began our formulation of depoliticization as a philosophical concept; the apparent tension between two of its aspects, ontological and ethical.


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