Category Archives: ethics

Nathan J. Robinson: ‘Why Property Destruction Isn’t “Violence”’

‘More than simply being a definitional quibble about a particular term, defining violence carefully is about making sure “what happens to people” is placed at the center of our analysis. What happened to George Floyd is not the same as what happens to a looted Target, and while there are those who will want to say the protesters are “as bad as” the thing they are protesting against, that will only be the case when the protesters start pinning innocent, peaceful people to the ground and squeezing the life out of them. We need to keep the moral differences clear.’

Asad Haider: “Pessimism of the Will”

“Optimism of the intellect, because we have to start by recognizing that all people are capable of thought, that they are able to not only form conceptions of the world but also to experiment with new possibilities. … But pessimism of the will, because we know that the will has to take a material organizational form, and that across the history of revolutionary politics the classical form assumed by the young Gramsci is no longer available to us. We lack the concrete basis for organizations on the model of the twentieth century revolutions, and we know from the history which followed these revolutions that the emancipatory potential of the party seizing the state has been exhausted. … Our subjective horizon is the optimism of the intellect; our objective, structuring condition is pessimism of the will. Without optimism of the intellect, we have the party without the people. Without pessimism of the will, we have the illusion of power. Until we recognize this there is no path for action.”

Tomás Ibáñez: “Anarchism as a way of life”

‘The adoption of a lifestyle antagonistic to that promoted by the established system, and the refusal to assume its norms and values, constitute a form of struggle which undermines, at the base, its pretensions to exercise “the ideological hegemony” necessary for its proper functioning, and which creates social conflicts with often unpredictable and sometimes significant consequences.’

Dietrich Hoss: “What can, what must keep us standing: About revolutionary ethics”

“Everywhere it has become clear to many people something that we have learned with difficulty: there is nothing and no one to trust; neither the laws of history, nor party-churches. We can only trust ourselves; we can only hold on alone, with accomplices, on the basis of revolutionary ethics. In the face of the external and internal enemy, never give up, no conciliation or accommodation; identify positions and maneuvers, and gain self-control as one tries to conquer places outside.”

Julius Gavroche: “Song is a weapon: For José Mário Branco (1942-2019)”

“If his music reflects a particular history which may seem dated to some, his art is a rare example of ethical-political engagement for a world without oppression. Below, we share songs (most with lyrics translated), interviews and a lecture.”

Alex Press: “The Conscience of a Revolutionary: Victor Serge’s commitment to the individual as collective hero”

Serge is committed “to the individual seen as a collective hero and the product of generations of struggle. … If people, not just revolutions, are centuries in the making, bearing the traces of prior social relations, of political domination and uprisings, it’s important to chronicle them as flesh and blood.”

Crimethinc: “Against the Logic of the Guillotine: Why the Paris Commune Burned the Guillotine—and we should too”

“Even when we are engaged in pitched physical struggle with our adversaries, we ought to maintain a profound faith in their potential, for we hope to live in different relations with them one day. As aspiring revolutionaries, this hope is our most precious resource, the foundation of everything we do. If revolutionary change is to spread throughout society and across the world, those we fight today will have to be fighting alongside us tomorrow.”

Tasos Theofilou: ‘“I am not innocent”: Writings from a Greek prison’

“Theofilou gives testimony on the brutality of prison life, and its centrality in contemporary capitalism, through a blur of memoir, social commentary and free verse. His work centers on exposing the conditions of widespread exploitation and social struggle that persist in Greece as a result of the debt crisis — in prisons as well as in mainstream society.”

George Monbiot: “Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse”

“No one is coming to save us. Mass civil disobedience is essential to force a political response.”

Kant’s ethics of autonomous obedience

I find it puzzling that, while there is a huge bibliography on Kant’s notion of freedom/autonomy, there is next to nothing on his notion of obedience/subordination even though the two notions are inextricably connected in both his ethics and his politics in a “profound paradox” (Paul Guyer: Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness, 2000, p. 1).  Freedom, which is only moral freedom, refers to free will under moral law, that is, will obeying its own law.  The exercise of freedom involves practices of obedience. Yet, studies of Kantian freedom focus on autonomy and have very little to say about forms of obedience because they see freedom as liberating and enabling rather than regulating and restricting.

Kant distinguishes between two uses of reason, the free public use and the autonomous private one.  While public reason is unfettered, private reason is obedient to its self-imposed moral law, a practice of “free submission” of the will to moral law for its own sake. Reason disciplines and controls the subject, not the citizen.  Autonomy is a duty and a submission:  The proper way for individuals to be free is to autonomously prescribe for themselves the duty of autonomy, which (duty) is the free submission of their morally self-legislative will to its own law.

I see Kantian autonomy is a kind of “government” that exercises power by “guiding the possibility of conduct,” structuring “the possible field of action” of individuals (Foucault:  “The Subject and Power,” in Dreyfus & Rabinow, Michel Foucault, pp. 220-21).  What makes possible this particular kind of modern government is freedom. Individuals are governed by being required to become self-governed subjects.  “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (221).

Foucault is interested in these askeses of autonomous obedience, “the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself” (“Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, 19).  He raises this question: “Which kind of political techniques, which technology of government, has been put to work and used and developed in the general framework of the reason of state in order to make of the individual a significant element for the state?” (“The Political Technology of Individuals,” 153)  I suggest that a major political technique of government is Kantian autonomy, the obedience of those “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault:  18).

In all his three discussions of Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment” Foucault stresses that obedience is practiced not in public discussion (where citizens may openly express any views they have) but in private government (where subjects learn to police themselves), thus guaranteeing that thoughts of resistance and revolution will be internally suppressed and forbidden. Here are three quotes from these discussions.

In Kant’s view, critique tells knowledge: “Do you know up to what point you can know?  Reason as much as you want, but do you really know up to what point you can reason without it becoming dangerous?  Critique will say, in short, that it is not so much a matter of what we are undertaking, more or less courageously, than it is the idea we have of our knowledge and its limits.  Our liberty is at stake and consequently, instead of letting someone else say ‘obey,’ it is at this point, once one has gotten an adequate idea of one’s own knowledge and its limits, that the principle of autonomy can be discovered. One will then no longer have to hear the obey; or rather, the obeywill be founded on autonomy itself” (Foucault, “What is Critique?” 195).

Kant distinguishes between “on the one hand, a government of self which will develop in the form of the universal (as public discussion, public reasoning, and the public use of understanding) and, on the other, the obedience to which all those who are part of a given society, state, or administration will be constrained” (38).  Subjects obey on their own free will.  “The more you allow freedom to thought, the more sure you will be that the people’s mind will be shaped to obedience” (The Government of Self and Others, 38).

The question regarding Enlightenment as a political problem “is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible.  And Kant … proposes to Frederick II … what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free reason:  the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason” (“What is Enlightenment?” 37).  In short, Kant believes that “reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its private use” (36).   Hence the well-known command that he envisioned Frederick as a truly enlightened monarch addressing to his subjects: “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey” (The Government of Self and Others, 40). “Far from rejecting obedience to sovereignty, it was Kant’s unique achievement to have grounded obedience on the concept of autonomy.  Critique is a play of power and truth that gives the subject the power to govern itself, a power that is not necessarily opposed to obedience to sovereigns” (Schmidt & Wartenberg: “Foucault’s Enlightenment,” in Kelly:  Critique & Power, 1994, 290).

Autonomist and anarchist thought have not developed any systematic interest in ideas of freedom in Kantian liberalism.  The sources for radical self-institution and self-rule must be sought elsewhere.

February 20, 2019