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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 174 | Enero 1996



A Society With Room for Everyone

Class struggle did not disappear. Rather today it has a victor that meets no real resistance. But such a power falls into the impotence of omnipotence and carries us all towards collective suicide. How to free ourselves from this power? The Zapatistas capture in a single phrase the meaning of their project: a society where all have a place. Who do we reach such a goal?

Franz J. Hinkelammert

A conviction predominated in the 1950s and 1960s that the First World was showing the Third World what its future would be. Today we see the opposite; the Third World is showing the First World its own future. What the western world imposed on the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s through its support of "national security" dictatorships and a structural adjustment dictated by the International Monetary Fund is now revealed as the future of the First World itself:

* Destruction of the social welfare state and the population's growing impoverishment, exclusion and precariousness.

* Unemployment and labor contract roll backs.

Can We Afford that Luxury?

"The police state frees, the social state enslaves," seemed to be the unstated motto of the national security dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America. In fact, this motto is present everywhere. When a law cutting a substantial part of social aid was approved in the United States in March 1995, congressional leader Newt Gingrich asked this question: "Why should those who paid taxes give aid to single mothers under 18?" Gingrich celebrated the vote result as the end of a system which, according to him, had "enslaved" the recipients of this aid, most of which are black women.

The same motto can also be proffered in today's Germany. The expulsion and preventive jailing (Abschiebehaft) of foreigners euphemisms for deportation and internment camps are now part of daily life. Germany even appears in Amnesty International lists since the high number of prisoners who suffer mistreatment above all foreigners makes it difficult to believe that they are isolated cases. The country's government and parties reacted to the Amnesty accusations with verbal formulations that suspiciously resemble those used by national security dictatorships from Chile to Guatemala to reject similar accusations by human rights organizations.

We all know the slogans resulting from these policies: We cannot afford the luxury of paying salaries as in the past. We cannot afford the luxury of full employment. We cannot afford the luxury of adequate professional training for our youth. We cannot afford the luxury of continuing to pay for social aid to protect the poorest from abject poverty. We cannot afford the luxury of a housing construction policy to reduce renters.

Such slogans, arising from the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement, led some Canadian churches to launch the following campaign: "We cannot afford the luxury of maintaining the rich." Can we really afford the luxury of maintaining so much wealth concentrated in so few hands if we want to guarantee human dignity in current times? Max Weber
speaks of "that 'ownerless slavery' in which capitalism envelops workers or debtors (with mortgages)." What can we do given this "ownerless slavery"? And what does this slavery mean? I offer some ideas in response.

With No Universally Valid Principles

First Thesis: Any liberation project today must include a society with room for everyone, excluding no one.

A concept of a new society and new justice clearly distinguished from previous concepts is emerging in Latin America today, linked to new forms of social praxis.

When some journalists asked the Zapatista rebels from the Mexican province of Chiapas what project they envisioned for Mexico, they answered, "A society where everyone fits." Such a project type implies a universal ethic, but does not dictate universally valid ethical principles.

The fact that a liberation movement defines itself this way signifies something new. Early movements defined themselves by universalist principles or by new, predetermined and universally valid production relations. Socialist movements in particular defined their project by what they called "socialist relations of production." These were understood as a set definition of society, based above all on public property and central planning. In this sense they were very similar to bourgeois movements, which based their societal projects on the universalist principle of private property and the market. In both cases, the social project is marked by universally valid principles of order.

In the social theories of both projects, these principles are derived or deduced in a foregone manner. For example, individual autonomy is postulated a priori, as is sociability. These universalist principles are passed off as "eternal." The "end of history" is declared in their name, as are the laws of history that determine this end as necessary. We are seeing today, in the celebration of world globalization through the market and its eternal principles, the latest example of historical laws of this type, with their conclusion that we have reached the end of history.

No Promises of a Rose Garden

If, as the Zapatistas proclaim, a societal project is appearing in Latin America today that is not based on universalist and eternal principles of society, this is something new in the context of existing political movements, not just liberation movements. Requiring a society in which everyone fits implies a negative. It does not claim to know what form of society is the only correct one. Nor does it claim to know how to make human beings happy. While both the market and planning promise paradise, this project does not. Faced with universalist principles of society, the requirement of a society in which everyone fits is a universally valid criterion rather than the validation of universalist principles of society.

Universalist principles of society the market and private property or planning and social property are questioned as valid criteria. This implies denying their universalist validity a priori, but does not deny their validity a priori. Rather, it places them in a framework of possible validity. They are valid, or can be, insofar as they are compatible with a society in which everyone fits. They lose that validity if their imposition assumes the exclusion of entire parts of society. However, since such an exclusion is the essence of universalist principles when they are totalized, they can only be relatively valid.

Live and Let Live

Such a position implies a new relation with political praxis. The Zapatistas are better understood as resistance by having no definitive positive project that tries to impose new principles on society and demand government power in the name of that imposition. Subcomandante Marcos has declared that the Zapatistas do not want to take power, and so far their behavior makes this claim credible. What they do claim to be is a resistance power to force the government to create new relations of production that allow the emergence of a society with enough room for everyone. This implies the need to relativize any principle of society so that production relations can be flexible enough to accomplish this goal.

In this sense, we are dealing with a categorical imperative of practical reason. That is to say, of concrete action. But it differs from the Kantian imperative, which attempts to derive universal norms and a principle of society bourgeois society purely from principles. As regards the validity of these norms, Kant is extremely rigorous, so his categorical imperative is of abstract action.

There is something new in the Zapatista project. As with all new ideas of this type, it is rooted in a long tradition of human thinking about justice and the orientations of just action.

Such a categorical imperative of concrete action can be found in ancient Jewish tradition. "Thou shalt not kill," is understood in the prophetic tradition to imply that "you should not seek the good life in any way that takes away the possibility of others to live." Thus, exclusion can be considered theft in the Jewish tradition. A similar thought is present in the Aristotle Thomas tradition of natural rights, which finds its orientation in the maxim that one person's good life should not make someone else's life impossible. There are also important antecedents in modern thinking. In his critique of Soviet socialism, Sartre described free society as one in which "the only impossibility is the impossibility of living."

What Marx Thought

We also find the categorical imperative for concrete action in the writings of the young Marx. He speaks of "the categorical imperative of breaking down all relations in which man is humiliated, subjugated, abandoned and scorned." The young Marx does not yet link this categorical imperative to any principle based deduction of any of the so called "socialist relations of production" which, like capitalist relations of production, claim eternal value. In consequence, Marx defines communism as "production of the form of change itself," meaning by "form of change" what he will later call "social relations of production." He sees the problem that social relations of production that try to pass as eternal and universally valid principles of society are flexible and relative.

Marx later moved progressively away from this starting point, though he never completely abandoned it. I think the reason is found in his idea of being able to definitively renounce institutionalized relations of production and institutionally affirmed formal norms. Inversely, this idea leads to creating eternally valid social relations of socialist production deduced from some principles of society. But the root of Marx's vision is anarchist. The Stalinist reaction to this anarchism led to investing Marx's position with the constitution of "socialist relations of production."

After the failure of a socialism based on supposedly eternal and universally valid principles, after the failure of the societies of historic socialism, it is understandable that ideas of a new society are appearing today that conceive of mediation between the categorical imperative of concrete action with universal criteria and universalist principles of society. This mediation conceives of flexible social relations of production as a condition for building a society in which everyone fits.

Its Expensive to Buy Cheap

Second Thesis: The logic of exclusion underlying modern society can be understood as a result of the totalizing of universalist social principles. In capitalism these are the laws of the market and their totalization (globalization).

I do not speak of totalizing for arbitrary reasons. Today the world capitalist system is presenting itself as total. Henri Lepage, a French journalist who has been the main promoter of neoliberalism in France for many years, speaks of the "total market." Milton Friedman, one of the creators of neoliberalism in the United States, spoke of "total capitalism" in an interview with Guy Sorman. "Total" has become a dominant word in Latin America and the United States. Even Colgate toothpaste is marketed as "Total Colgate." In Germany, the "total toothbrush" is offered. New production and sales strategies refer to "total quality." Fujimori talks about "total pacification." Even the Pope says he wants priests with "total faith." And a shoe repairman in San José has had great success by calling his tiny stall "the total cobbler." This "total capitalism" makes itself felt as globalization and homogenization, as the totalization of the market and the privatization of public functions in the name of private property.

Some years ago, on a flight from Santiago, Chile, I sat next to a Chilean businessman. During the conversation I spoke about structural adjustment in Latin America, the growing destruction of the environment and the resulting expulsion and impoverishment of a growing part of its population. His answer was, "That's all true, but you can't deny that economic efficiency and rationality have increased."

These words reveal the problem of economic rationality in our time, and not only in Latin America. We are witnessing a destructive process that subverts the fundamentals of our life and yet we celebrate the efficiency and rationality with which this is happening. As a result we cannot even enter into a discussion about the basis of that efficiency. We are in a competition in which everyone is sawing off the branch the other person is sitting on. The most efficient person will be the one left at the end, the last one to fall into the abyss. Although convinced of the contrary, that person will have cut the very branch he or she is sitting on. Is this kind of efficiency efficient? Is this rationality rational?
The inside of our houses is ever cleaner, while its surroundings are dirtier and dirtier. Businesses reach ever higher work productivity in relation to the number of effectively employed workers. But if we measure this product in terms of available workers including the excluded population and also assess the external costs of business activities, we may well conclude that work productivity is dropping. And although some houses are cleaner, the planet is getting dirtier. Hence, the total dirt is increasing.

What for a long time has been and still appears to be technical progress is now turning into simple movement in a vacuum. We buy ever cheaper products in the name of efficiency and competition without realizing that doing so may be the most expensive way to buy, because by buying cheaply we cheapen human beings and the environment. We are incurring costs that go far beyond what we profit from buying more cheaply.

This is the problem with the means end calculation. Efficiency gets measured exclusively in particular terms with particular ends. The question of whether it is rational to cut a branch is now looked at only in terms of whether the saw is sharp, if it is used correctly, if it is cutting in the right place, etc. But whether or not someone is sitting on the branch being cut does not appear as a problem of either efficiency or economic rationality. It is considered a value concern about which science cannot judge. Such an attitude becomes an ethic if the rationality calculation is done as a formal money calculation. It is a functional market ethic, which reduces ethics to purely procedural demands guaranteeing property and demanding contract fulfillment, for example.

In this ethic's response to the market, means end rationality is simply transformed into a rigorous ethic and the rationality of action no longer has anything to do with the consequences of action. Thus Hayek, one of current neoliberalism's most important idealogies, can conceive of justice in the following terms: "Justice is not, of course, an issue of an action's objectives but of its obedience to the rules to which it is subject." All possibility of an ethic of responsibility is thus lost and a purely irresponsible ethic is founded in the name of efficiency.

The "Rational" Thing Is to Go Mad

The problem is the irrationality of the rationalized. The rationalization itself becomes the source of rationality. A business oriented by money and earnings calculations rationalizes its procedures, but this rationalization is the origin of an irrational process of destroying human beings and nature.

It is something like the following tale: a witch poisoned the town's well, from which everyone drank water. Everyone went mad, except the king, who had not drunk any water. The people suspected him and sought him out to kill him. The king, desperate, also drank the water and went crazy. Everyone celebrated, because he finally made sense.

Kindleberger, a US economist who has exhaustively researched the stock market panics and collapses, summarizes the result we are left with: "When everyone goes crazy, the rational thing to do is to go crazy too."

This rationality that resembles madness testifies to the irrationality of the rationalized and rests on effects that are outside business calculations. This formal rational calculation is blind to the irrationalities it produces. The irrationalities trigger effects unintended by business's means end rationality. But business actions do not worry about this. The same goes for still dominant rational action theory, particularly as formulated by Max Weber. This action is just as blind to the irrationalities of the rationalized as business calculations are. Whether or not someone is seated on the branch being cut is also irrelevant to this theory. The action is considered rational, independent of the fact that someone may be sitting on the branch. Distinguishing the two cases seems impossible for empirical scientists. It is considered a value judgment or an ethic of conviction, unreconcilable with any ethic of responsibility. In reality, however, a destructive process that is the unintended product of the formal rational action appears and can be scientifically and objectively analyzed.

This dominant theory of rational action is the appropriate way to think with reference to business calculations, as long as one wants to consider it rational in itself. In this case, a maxim like the following cannot rationally be considered: "One should not cut a branch that someone is sitting on." In reality, Max Weber cannot establish it either. When forced, he treats it at the level of judgments of taste. As a consequence, he also cannot resolve this paradox, which we could term the paradox of the enterprising person: "Life is so expensive; I'm going to shoot myself to save the little I have." This person makes a perfect means end calculation. Nonetheless, only Weber's rational action theory considers it a paradox. Going beyond that theory, it is no longer a paradox, but simply an absurdity.

The total dominance of means end calculation and its corresponding efficiency and competitiveness makes globalization a formal means end circuit. What from one point of view is the end, is from another the means. Rationalization of the means leads to a formal rationalization of the ends. When this circuit is completed and globalized, human beings and nature are turned into simple appendices of a movement with no end. The irrationality of the rationalized transforms them into objects of a destructive process, itself transformed into a compulsive force of actions. It is precisely the blind pursuit of efficiency through the competition mechanism that creates this compulsive force of actions, that absolutizes the destruction process.

Competition Creates Compulsion

Third Thesis: The efficiency underlying the competition mechanism creates compulsive forces that absolutize the destruction mechanism. The competition mechanism becomes destructive because it destroys the foundations of life on earth. But, transformed into omnipotence, it imposes itself on the whole world. No one can live without joining it and thus participating in the very destruction of these foundations of life. There is a new saying in Latin America: "It is bad to be exploited by the multinationals. But it is worse not to be exploited by them." The labor force transformed into a piece of merchandise has become ever less salable, so it can no longer set conditions.

This competition mechanism has now achieved omnipotence in the name of efficiency. The class struggle has not disappeared, but now there is a winner. It won from above, as had already occurred in the societies of historic socialism. A power has emerged that encounters no relevant resistance, But a power that manages to defeat any resistance falls into the impotence of omnipotence. It cuts the branch where everyone is seated, and does not have the power not to do so. This omnipotence is the ability to put the means end calculation before any rationality of reproducing human life. A system with this capacity has appeared, and it cannot renounce that capacity. It is under the power of its own omnipotence and cannot guide the process. The dominating class does not dominate; it derives its power from submitting to the compulsive force of actions.

A German magazine describes this impotence of omnipotence. Under the title, "The Globe Must Wait," it states, "When in 1990 Klaus Topfer, Germany's then Minister of the Environment, proposed an energy tax in the form of a national tax on carbon dioxide production, he was told that unilateral German action would damage the national economy, because it would give advantages to competitors. So Topfer tried to impose a general carbon dioxide production tax at the European Union level. He was given the same argument there: if the European Union taxed energy, it would give competitive advantages to the United States and Japan. For their part, these two countries only wanted to participate if the developing Asian countries would also accept the measure. The final result was the same as whenever all must participate: zero."

Thus is formed a Jurassic Park whose dinosaurs are Mercedes Benz, Shell, IBM, and Toyota. But these dinosaurs are not restricted to the park; they are demolishing the entire world, human beings and all of nature beneath their huge claws. They are dinosaurs that cannot be stopped because they have absolute power over the earth. They are prisoners of the compulsive force of actions they themselves have created. And there is no last helicopter in which all the good guys can escape.

The omnipotence of power is condensed into an empty race for power that destroys everything. The "Toyotism" being imposed today is just that. It works like an exercise bicycle, going nowhere at high speeds. It is the perfect medium for learning about the paranoia of empty movement, a total "Fitness Center." Thus one learns to enter this rationality: "When everyone goes crazy, the rational thing to do is to go crazy too."

Today, Murder is Suicide

Kindelberger magisterially summarized the logic of suicide that results from the compulsive force of actions at the behest of a totalized competition, from this empty movement: "Each participant in the market, by trying to save oneself, helps all others to fall into ruin." By helping ruin all others, one also helps ruin oneself. If one destroys all, one destroys oneself as well. This is the logic of collective suicide implied in the totalization of competitiveness. The assassin ends up being a suicide.

We are faced with the logic of collective suicide resulting from the compulsive force of actions. Such logic, however, is not the exclusive result of either technical progress or capitalist modernity. It belongs rather to the imagery of humanity. In German culture, this imagery is developed in one of the first literary works: The Song of the Niebelungs. The Song narrates the journey to death, which owes its flight to the heroism of collective suicide. Today we are all involved in a deadly trip of this type. What is new in modernity is that there are now compulsive forces of action that impose this journey on us. Walter Benjamin commented on this: "Marx says that revolutions are the motor force of world history. But it might possibly be totally different. Maybe revolutions are the effort that the humanity traveling on this train makes to pull the emergency brake."

If we want to detain the deadly journey, we must speak of the compulsive force of actions. The question is: how do we free ourselves from this compulsive force? The question is also: to what degree will this be possible? Because the irrationality of the rationalized is a result of this compulsive force, the question cannot be reduced to a problem of theology, philosophy or morality. We are faced with a question that must also be asked of the empirical sciences, which today, almost without exception, evade this problem of decisive relevance for them.

It is precisely this evasion that leads to utopianizing the empirical sciences in the name of the total market. The realization of utopia is promised in the name of rationalization. And to guarantee this realization, any critique of the irrationality of the rationalized must be denounced. Thus, rationalization promises a heaven that hides the hell produced by the irrationality of the rationalized. As it is now said, "All the West is the Wild West." This, in contemporary form, is Max Weber's "ownerless slavery."

Neither Suicide Nor Skeptic

Fourth Thesis: It is impossible to overcome the irrationality of the rationalized, except through solidarity action that dissolves the compulsive force of actions dominating us.

An attempt must be made to find a rational response to the irrationality of the rationalized. But the arguments of means end rationality cannot transmit the rationality needed for this response. The issue is precisely to intervene in the Jurassic Park that has arisen from this rationality to keep the branch we are all seated on from being sawed off. But this response cannot be only theoretical. There must also be joint action to dissolve the compulsive force of actions. The root of joint action is resistance to the destructive effects this force unleash.

That is why the adversary of today's rational arguments cannot be the skeptic, but only the suicide. But one can no longer argue with a successful suicide; he/she is dead. The suicidal person who has not yet committed suicide, however, can argue cynically against the means end circuit and the compulsive forces it produces. As a cynic, this person negates the irrationality of the rationalized. But this negation is the condition for the destruction process to continue forward. The cynic affirms humanity's collective suicide, but believes that, as an individual, one can escape its consequences, at least while remaining alive. This calculation might even be correct, at least insofar as the cynic conceives of him/herself as an isolated individual.

This cynic is narcissistic and the problem is arguing with such an individual. Japanese comics reflect an extreme form of this type of narcissism. They speak of a world dominated by the paranoia of the omnipotence of total narcissism. One story shows children with the faces of old men. Akira is the omnipotent one, and his power is demonstrated in the fact that, with one pure act of will, he manages to totally destroy Tokyo. He becomes a Messiah, one of the "illuminated" who promises no Messianic reign. "Illuminated" because no one has power equal to his. Others try to bring him down, but only to take his place. Solidarity does not exist so everyone evaporates in mutual destruction.

What to Tell a Suicidal Person?

The argument to use with a narcissist cynic could be that murder is suicide. But that is no argument for someone already decided on suicide. It may be an attempt to lead them to the option of not committing suicide, but it is not an ethical option. The option of not committing suicide rather underpins any possible ethic, thus it also does not follow out of a value judgment. It is the condition of possibility of all value judgments. The option not to commit suicide circumscribes the variation framework of all ethics and all possible value judgments, and thus is not itself an ethical option or a value judgment.

For those who affirm suicide as a possibility, everything is licit. If Dostoyevski affirms that everything is licit for those who do not believe in God, he affirms something that is not true in this framework. Christian fundamentalism, for example as it has emerged in the United States today and as it is proclaimed worldwide, contains an image of God that promotes and propagates precisely our current deadly journey of the Niebelungs, presenting it as an apocalypse. It is a god idol in whose name everything is licit, even humanity's collective suicide. One of the most well known fundamentalists in the United States, Hal Lindsay, states in his book on the possibility of nuclear war, The Agony of the Great Planet Earth, "When the Battle of Armageddon reaches its terrible culmination and it seems that all earthly existence will be destroyed, at that very moment the Lord Jesus Christ will appear and prevent total annihilation. To the degree that history is pushing towards that moment, let me ask the reader some questions. Do you feel fear or the hope of liberation? Your answer to this question will determine your spiritual condition." For Lindsay there is nothing disturbing in the destruction, because it will bring with it "the restoration of paradise."

US theologian Michael Novak, director of the Theology Department of the American Enterprise Institute, the think tank of the country's multinationals, affirms in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, "Nature is not something consummated, complete, finished; Creation is inconclusive. There are still tasks for human beings. Surprises await us. We will have to confront horrors such as have always occurred but God is with us. Perhaps the future will not be an uphill road, except that of Golgotha, which should be that way."

In the name of faith in this God, everything is licit. A God of life that is not an idol can be conceived of and believed only as the overcoming of this mystic of collective suicide, although suicides also happen in God's name.

Only With Solidarity

We return to the beginning: the problem only can be resolved in a society with room for everyone. This includes nature, because there is only room in this society for everyone if there is an environment to give them space. The rationality of the means end analysis cannot create the conditions for this society. A solution can only come as a response to the irrationality of the rationalized, the result of the means end calculation and its totality. The rationality that responds to the irrationality of the rationalized can only be the rationality of life for all, and this can only be based on solidarity among all human beings.

Solidarity is the means that can dissolve the compulsive force of actions. This force, which today imposes on us the destruction of people and the environment, are not invariable natural laws. They emerge from human actions and are thus beyond the reach and discernment of the actors, insofar as they exclusively submit their actions to a means end calculation and act ignoring the results. And the more an action submits to a totality of means end action, oriented ever more in exclusive form because of competition, the more this compulsive force of action dominates us, with the irremediable result being the destruction of people and the environment.

This compulsive force is an indicator of the absence of solidarity. The more joint action becomes impossible, the more this force imposes itself. The omnipotence of those who have the power to make any joint action impossible transforms into impotent omnipotence. They must submit unconditionally to the compulsive force of actions.

But this force is not a necessity for those with no option but to submit themselves. Where this compulsive force apparent or real appears, one must ask about the conditions of the dissolution and the way of satisfying them. The answer to this question is, normally, that the conditions of dissolution are connected to the promotion of solidarity action structures.

Solidarity is the condition to dissolve this compulsive force. Resistance to it does not result from a lack of realism. It is the only possible expression to confront the irrationality of the rationalized. Unconditional submission is no type of realism. It is the denial of realism intimately connected to the acceptance of humanity's collective suicide.

The supposed absence of utopias in our world is nothing more than the celebration of this submission to the compulsive force of actions. In contrast, the sense of resistance lies in the ability to build solidarity action structures that can intervene in the totalizing process of the means end calculation, and submit it to the needs of human life reproduction, which always includes the life of nature as a condition of possibility.

We Must Resist

To create a society where everyone fits assumes dissolving that compulsive force of actions that ends up imposing a society where no one fits. Just as the society of the compulsive force of actions rests on the market ethic guaranteeing property and fulfilling contracts dissolving this force rests on a solidarity ethic. A society with room for everyone can only appear if there is a median between these two poles that submits the market ethic to the solidarity ethic. Solidarity has been transformed into a condition of the possibility of human survival. Thus, it is also a condition of the possibility of rational action.

This reality is revealed in the Zapatista rebellion. Mexico's membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement was justified in the name of the compulsive force of actions, seeking the totalization of Mexico's market. The Zapatista rebellion seeks the dissolution of this compulsive force.

Even in the extreme case in which no viable alternative appears yet, this is no reason to sing the hymn of humanity's collective suicide. We have to resist even when no visible solution is yet on the horizon. It is always possible to do something. And it is better to do something than to do nothing.

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