Friday, July 22, 2016

Against the revolution

In theory and practice, I believe we should emphasize and privilege the particular over the general, the concrete over the abstract. We must often speak in general or abstract terms, but in doing so we should take our speech to be an approximation or simplification of a much too complex account of all the individuals we are talking about. What I mean is that when we talk about humanity, for instance, we are using a handy way to talk about billions of individuals and not talking about some thing over and above those individuals.Since we can’t make a statement about all the individuals, we abstract away from the particular. In so doing, we lose not only particularity, but a good deal of accuracy. It’s easy to forget this, but it’s important not to lose the individuals for the crowd. (I know that sometimes it is the crowd and its effects on the individuals that matters, too.)

In matters of ethics and politics—for those who wrongly assume that there are two spheres of concern here—an emphasis on the particular means an emphasis on humans. You might think that it’s obvious that humans matter ethically and politically, but many people place their emphasis on humanity. And, “humanity” and “humans” often don't mean the same thing. Consider the way that millions of humans were sacrificed in order to bring about homo sovieticus or his Maoist counterpart or consider the way that fascists are willing to sacrifice millions to bring about their utopia. Yes, the sacrificers here were wrong about what would be good for humanity. Of that there should be no doubt, but they are exemplars of a way of thinking. This way of thinking privileges humanity over humans, and it is a way of thinking that is present in almost all revolutionary thinking.

The revolutionary—here my thought is inspired by Camus in The Rebel—has an idea of an ideal utopian future. This utopia might be a religious paradise, a republic of reason of the sort imagined by the Jacobins, a workers’ paradise, or some other version. The belief is that the utopia is the right, the best, the only correct environment for humanity. Because of the great value of this ideal, sacrifices must be made. I don’t doubt that sometimes lives must be lost in the pursuit of justice, but the brilliance of a utopia means that almost any sacrifice can be justified for this great boon to humanity. In other words, innumerable humans will have to die so that humanity will be better off.The world will burn but how much better things will be after the purifying fire!

The revolutionary is an anti-human humanitarian. If that seems paradoxical, you should think more about it. It is very, very easy to love humanity. The difficult thing is to love one’s neighbors. It’s easy to think that we ought to do something about the suffering of the homeless or the refugee or the victim of racial or sexual or … discrimination or violence; it is hard to treat the homeless woman sleeping in a doorway as deserving of my hospitality, to welcome the refugee into my home, to comfort the victims of discrimination or violence or give up some of my privilege that they may live better.

Talk of revolution is talk of universal morality or a political ideal, whatever the cost. That cost is always borne by real, living, breathing humans. I prefer the humans. That’s why talk of revolution is always terrifying to me; that’s why I think it is always, at best, irresponsible. It’s also why I am a kind of conservative. I believe that human beings are the most valuable—not the only valuable, but the most valuable—beings in my world. Thus, we must do what we can to preserve and conserve them and their lives. That demands justice and it demands change and progress, but not a justice and change and progress that can say, “Let’s tear the world down and start again.”

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