by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer
I was sitting in Rising Star Roasters in Ohio City, Cleveland, Ohio when two loud-mouthed millennials sat next to me. They filled the whole room with their discussion of a building they are making to house yoga, a workout room and other things. It was as if they couldn’t find their worth unless the whole room saw it reflected in their access to property and investment.
I was reading and so mostly shut out the discussion that followed of skylights, boiler systems, and ducting -the latter two of which I often find really interesting, given that I love to think about how we can build homes intricately, solidly and sustainably. What if I had read out loud, very loud, my chapter, “Compassion: tragic predicaments” so that the whole room filled with the words of Martha Nussbaum? (I should do that sometime, the next time a person shouts into a cell phone -go up next to them and start reading REALLY LOUDLY.)
But there came a point where my mind told me I should be listening. The builder said to the client, back-pedaling from some difficulty the client faced and which would possibly cause moral problems for the builder: “This conversation never happened.” He implied that they can just act as if he had never heard the difficulty.
The problem is, the conversation did happen. That’s the truth. The builder went on blithely through the remaining minutes. I couldn’t figure out what had been avoided, but he seemed happy. The client went to the bathroom, and the builder bounced around the place with a CAVS hat on until they both left. No problem. The conversation happened, and they will suppress it if accountability ever arises.
Need I say that this is our society now? “This conversation never happened” is a cliché you can speak loudly in public space while you are trying to vacuum some money away from people’s pockets.
We live in an arbitrary society. Our president is an arbitrarian –he is accountable to no rule. Major “news” sources are increasingly arbitrarian -they drive people who have served our country to leave in protest due to their disregard of truth. Even good educational institutions will say that they value X in education -say, “ethics”- but unintentionally omit structured ethical learning and moral education across the university educational experience. Mission statements seem to be mere fluff, and the faculty that should have helped create them irrelevant -the space of the university, then: arbitrary.
But look. This conversation did happen. You are a liar to say it did not. Mr. President, you are accountable to uphold the laws of the land, including the spirit of the laws. You are un-American if you do not. A news outlet should report conscientiously on the facts as best they can discern them. They are shams and corruption if they do not. Universities must have missions in order to be accredited, and they are adrift if they aren’t accountable to them. A university that does not seek truth is a rudderless ship producing fools.
Arbitrarianism is, I think, the new “ism” of our time, one not yet fully noticed or addressed. The President of the United States of America is, of course, an arbitrarian incarnate, as many conservative commentators have noted (“Trump. Has. No. Convictions.”). But I first came across arbitrarianism trying to wrap my head around protest over the election of the President. I had to account for how protesters standing, they claimed, for equality and respect for all, could treat those with whom they disagreed with disrespect and as objects that must be manipulated. Eventually, I decided that core aspects of neo-liberal rationality had seeped into protest, namely, the dissolution of an ideal of democracy as a collective and of the conviction that principles should structure safe, human relations, rather than strategies. I then realized that American vice has a new name: the arbitrary. Do what you want.
Of course, th0ugh, “do what you want” is early modern. It is Hobbes’s view of freedom, as Isaiah Berlin showed so succinctly in his “Two Concepts of Liberty.” It is also colonialist: the ideology of the “Wild West,” i.e. the land ethnically cleansed, invaded, tricked-out, and dominated by European settler colonialists in the first century of the United States of America. The idea that an arbitrary will is the center of one’s own freedom is as least as old as early America, hidden, one might think, alongside and inside racism and other ideologies designed to allow hypocrites to forget their officially espoused religious and civic republican views.
This realization led me to consider a new one: perhaps what we are seeing today is the expression of our colonialist origins. Perhaps arbitrarianism is the expression of the origin of American crime -not just one of neoliberalism’s symptoms, not just Marx and Engel’s “everything substantial dissolving into air,” but a specific form of authoritarian will that was found in the origin and especially first century of our country when slavery came to a head and Westward expansion metastasized. If we were to work through our past, we would have to work through it.
The conversation that never happened would be about it, and it would be a national one -or, rather, an international one. For there are many nations historically located inside the United States of America that are older than this nation.
The core idea in arbitarianism is, I believe, a perversion of self-possession. This is what makes it distinctively American, although self-ownership is an early modern political idea. Arbitrarianism is self-possession in the face of norms. Self-ownership as an early capitalist idea implies that there are norms of trade. But self-possession as an arbitrarian assumption implies that no norm may lay claim on me unless I want it to do so. I do not have to be accountable to anyone or anything. Levinas, quoting Pascal, at the opening of his most mature work, said (I paraphrase), “Here is my place in the sun! -This is the beginning of the world’s overthrow.” Unlike self-ownership, which implies an exchange economy around property and hence a set of rules protecting property and exchange, arbitrarianism’s self-possession implies that the self has no authority over it. I. Have. Myself.
If that feels uncomfortably close to some elements of progressive discourse, you can begin to see how thoroughly arbitrarianism might be a part of American life. There are times when the anarchist feels oddly like the cowboy, the New Ager like the capitalist. I often think that they are.
But there are distinctions to be made. Take someone who does whatever they want in defiance of oppressive norms. That person is being arbitrary as a way to regain some space and to show that no one owns people. Someone who has themselves is not someone else’s plaything. To have my people, and not yours, can be the first steps out of domination and into a space of justice. But only the first. There is no denying the wound that defines such a situation. What has been lost long ago is the trustworthy experience of human relationships. The question is, should a social movement be defined around their absence?
So, last year, I began some “explorations” that were not colonialist. In one, I asked what it would be to unwork the ideology of self-possession from a society of colonialist possession. My answer was that it would be to reconstruct everything from the primacy of interpersonal relationships. Interestingly, it wasn’t the rule that checked arbitrarianism, but relationship, for any rule would be arbitrary if it were not one we could share. Using a tradition of philosophical exercise rooted in the Stoics but modified by Romanticism, socialism, communitarianism, intersubjective phenomenology and psychoanalysis, feminism, moral philosophy, and indigenous writing, I explored what would happen to my sense of academic philosophy if it were conceived through relationship first. Vulnerability led, becoming the opening to connection, thence to sharing; theory, meanwhile, became thoughtfulness; and practical life became circumspect, born from consideration of a shared world. And then, what fell away were the arbitrary figures that had dominated previously: distrust, superior judgment, and strategy. Philosophy, the university, society felt differently.
In another exploration, I asked, “What would it be to conceive of democracy as a relationship?” I began with protest and with socially engaged art, returning to the problem of protesting the 2016 election. But this project is only beginning. I am heading toward something more basic, a way of conceiving of the conditions of democratic life from out of collective relationship, ironically (given the outset of this editorial), in a book I am writing that begins with the role of wonder in Martha Nussbaum’s thought.
People grow up by learning to speak to themselves and by learning to speak with each other. In my interpretation of American life today, arbitrarianism interferes with our ability to speak with each other: “I don’t have to listen to you.” The root cause is a failure of accountability so profound no one trusts in it. This failure is not just the failure of a classist and racist government to account for its killing of brown bodies or the failure of institution after institution to bring its sexual predators to justice. It is a failure that blankets white privileged and misogynistic America distrustful of any governmental norm. It is a failure that affects social life generally in the fear that no one is safe and that no rule is trustworthy. The failure appears to be of accountability as a norm. But this is to open up the social field to only arbitrarianism.
The obvious answer is not, as some might think and others might fear, to first have accountable governments, alth0ugh they must be obtained in time. Democratic governments begin with us. So that is where the answer must arise. We should restore accountable relationships wherever we can, starting with and from ourselves, anywhere we go, anywhere we work, and anywhere we protest. We should begin with our families and our friends, where it can be so easy -my millennial friends tell me- to avoid the uncomfortable discussion because it feels unsafe.
You see, the deeper problem is that of not being able to speak to oneself, to trust in oneself. Arbitrarianism is insidious. Accountability begins inside. “I don’t want to listen to you” can also be applied within me, whenever I do not want to account to myself or be in relationship to the profound loss that has made life so distrustful that I think that only what I want to do here and now matters. The dismissal of each other is linked to the sense that there is no justice, safety, healing or hope to be had for the damage that we do to each other and which has been -or could be- done to us.
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Jeremy Bendik-Keymer works as the Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics and as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author, most recently, of Solar Calendar, and Other Ways of Marking Time and previously of The Ecological Life: Discovering Citizenship and a Sense of Humanity