Modern Democracy and Bare Life
Modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjugation…Today politics knows no value (and, consequently, no nonvalue) other than life, and until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism – which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle – will remain stubbornly with us.
For the past few days I wrote about things that have no apparent connection to my prostate cancer battle. This is attributable to two factors. First, my highly successful robotic radical prostatectomy along with the fact that there was no metastasis to either the lymph nodes or the bone makes any further therapy moot unless, of course, the cancer returns. Secondly, the bout with prostate cancer allowed me to focus on things that I find important, to reflect on my life past and my life connecting me to the absolute infinity of death. It is the latter I wish to concentrate on for the time being. Of course, there are side-effects to the surgery that are troublesome and I’ll surely write about those; for now, I want to concentrate on the ethics of the fundamental ethical obligation and the implications attached to following a life connected to being of service for others.
So today, I take up the banner of ethics and ‘bare life.’ First, I think it wise to define the notion of ‘bare life’ in Agamben’s terms. In modern democracies, human beings are no longer considered the object of political power, rather, they become the subject of that political power. The sovereign, the governing authority, establishes rules for belonging to and being excluded from the body politic. While these are two extremes on a continuum (there are degrees of exclusion), it is important that one understands that even in nuanced layers of belonging, a form of marginalization, the one excluded by decree is absolutely marginalized, there is no nuance about it. To be excluded by decree is not unique to the Jews of Nazi Germany; right here in the United States groups are and have been historically excluded from the body politic. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was a phrase that ruled Westward expansion in the 19th century. Slaves, excluded by law, were nuanced for political purposes becoming three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the census, thereby adding political power to slave holding states. Even today, political arguments abound about what to do with undocumented foreign nationals in the United States. Proposals range from deportation to amnesty as a road to citizenship and the debate is heated, often turning ugly.
It is easy to think one is safe when belonging is taken for granted but everything can turn based on a political decree. Jacques Derrida, in The Monlingualism of the Other, makes a bold claim when he writes, “I only have one language: it is not mine.” Born to a Jewish family in French occupied Algeria, Derrida speaks French as his first language. He is, in fact, not monolingual because he also speaks English, yet his first language is the one he feels most comfortable with. In the book he writes about the fragility of citizenship embedded in his own experience of going to school one day as a French citizen; upon returning home, however, he no longer was a Frenchman, rather he was a Jew in Vichy France with no rights or obligations to the state. Full and complete exclusion by decree; no longer able to go to school, participate in activities with other children he was friendly with; the devastation of the bare life of exclusion by fiat is difficult. Then, as suddenly as he was deprived of his status as a French citizen, that citizenship was reinstated without fanfare, rather, by the decree of the governing authority to which Derrida now owed allegiance. Derrida questions what it really means to be a citizen, how citizenship is earned and, because it is so fragile, how it is not easily defined.
In modern democracies the governing authority surrenders much of its power to the bureaucracy upon which it depends to administer the legitimate and illegitimate decrees and laws of the state. Without the bureaucracy, the state simply cannot function. Yet it is this very apparatus, fully removed from the sunshine of accountability that the forces of exclusion operate without regard to those who are marginalized or fully excluded from society. The bureaucracy is amoral, functioning without ethical values, being accountable, from the lowest clerk to the highest official, only to the level of supervision one grade ahead of one’s station. This practice makes bureaucratic decisions that are geared at protecting the job rather than protecting the social order. The amoral begins here, subject to nothing more than the drive for efficiency and economy. Wrong-headed decisions are difficult to overturn thereby allowing the process of continuing down a road to self-destruction.
This brief essay presents an outline of the failings of the late modern democracies. Yet, unlike the angst of the existentialists, who preached the idea of personal responsibility, of integrity if you will, because the world is absurd, some post-modernists, especially Levinas, sees hope in the very notion of responsibility. Levinas’s fundamental ethical obligation is an act of responsibility and integrity involving the self to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. This dyad, the face-to-face that is required of the self and the other, is the foundation of ethics without ontology, morals without having to address notions of being. The fact that I exist is proof enough that I exist. The fact that the material world exists and that I can interact with the objects of the material world is proof enough for the existence of the material world. The fact that there is an Absolute Infinity that I will, of necessity, transition into is proof enough that there is an unknowable eternity awaiting me, an Absolute Other that I can only approximate by and through my social relationships with the other in this world.
- Modernity and Ethical Engagement (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- The Reduction of Self into the Same: Modernity Exposed (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)