(The Art of the Possible, 03 Sep 2013)
Maja Falkentoft ·
Everyday, I witness events wherein people all over the world occupy streets, parks and pavements. And as spaces, media, and even people are being taken hostage, it is hard not to notice how the power to define the rules atis lay — this sovereign power — seems to have trickled long down from ideas of divinity and monarchy. As such, the recent increase and subsequent legitimization of uprisings and civil disobedience tells me a story about how the power to define has hit the streets and found a place in the people. It is a story about how questions of ‘what is possible’ and ‘what should be’ have been pluralized and democratized. However, as the consequences of this story are still unfolding – and as the end results seem yet to be defined – I allow myself to make a small appeal directed towards those with the power to define: namely you.
I am convinced that impressions and questions of social change are — now more than ever — not only in the hands ‘professionals’ or students of politics alone. We are entering a new century, wherein the world has become increasingly tightened and interconnected, wherein the media facilitates the spread of information and the means of communication. These developments result in the normality of one knowing more about ethnic conflicts in Syria than one’s own neighbor. We are all becoming ever more aware and knowing, and whilst being aware and knowing might not initiate immediate action, it does initiate the construction of a more globally-inspired consciousness and, subsequently, wider moral ideas of right and wrong.
As we all find ourselves reflecting upon the great challenges of the world — through revolutionary Twitter statements, shared Facebook updates, and YouTube revelations — one could imagine that what is possible would get expanded by these new means of representation and communication. One could imagine that political solutions and possibilities would proliferate through the increased compositions of common public spaces and debate forums. These are after all, considered central to any political development and creation of consensus. Whilst it has often been hoped that this processes of increased globalization and interconnectedness would lead to a more homogenous world community of moral consensus, this seems, well into the 21st century, not to have been the immediate outcome. Rather, interconnecting the world - both vertically and horizontally — seems to have shun light upon a human palette of contrasting beliefs and opinions.
Increasingly laying our eyes on processes of social change and in some places revolution (expressed through media, art and politics, initiated by the new power: the people) we also increasingly lay our eyes on religious, political and social tensions and uprisings at local, domestic and international levels. What I would always prefer to interpret as the beautiful diversity of humanity has in places where change is fought for also led to confusion, and even oppression. Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Greece stand out as recent examples of places where people have decided to act in the belief of what should be — whether this entailed the promotion of something new or merely the rebellion against something existing — but have also been characterized by a certain truism of our time; moral disagreement, contested principles and confusion about how to handle.
Moral ideas are tied to ideas of right and wrong. They are based on value judgments believed to be inherently right. As such, morality is central to any act deeming something unjust, which in turn motivates change. But as morality is also normative and subjective, the externalization of such inner beliefs often carries a fine line between providing and imposing ‘good’, a line which has often been blurred throughout history. Whilst this may come in handy when dealing with existential challenges, even initiatives such as peace treaties may — through their purpose to sustain a set of principles — become infringing. Central is, that whether provided or imposed, the ‘good’ itself poses a problem. So far, we have no uncontroversial method to judge whether one moral belief of good is more correct than another; we cannot through ‘natural’ inner feelings of morality decide how to handle moral disagreement. The Kantian absolute conception of moral principles, proposing them as universal claims (subsequently turning all actions of a certain category wrong) shows how even immoral principles can in theory be held universal. So what has maybe become a newfound pride in fundamental values of our time — the right to freedom, self-determination, and expression — hence also constitutes one of the biggest challenges: can we, in an interconnected global world fragmented by differing beliefs and contrasting moral ideas (where no one holds the right to enhance one moral answer over another) discuss differing moral questions ‘rationally’ and reach consensus about important questions?
Fragmentation and diversification are to me not negative parts of the present globalized time. Rather, it seems to me that politics has re-found its moral origins. In the aftermath of a century where states and state ideologies held privilege — and where questions of social change were often privileged for those holding or studying power — several differing logics and ideas now increasingly interact and contest one another. These logics defy homogeneity and show humanity through a palette of emotions, values and moral ideas. Resistance and disobedience are healthy signs for any democracy. Still, facing a growing amount of transnational and global issues, it is inevitable not to contemplate upon how people locally and internationally can reach solutions and new possibilities without necessarily agreeing. The task of defining morality in diversity is not an easy one. In the acceptance of democracy and subsequently the recognition of differing moral ideas, universally valid and unquestionable principles certainly seem redundant. However, is it thinkable that any overall means or principles could be employed to lead moral disagreement away from realms of confusion and distrust, towards a realm of cooperation?
Whilst it would be an easy solution to take the standpoint of moral particularism — arguing that we are all culturally and morally different, that no general moral principles are defensible, and that any aim of consensus is one of utopia — I believe that it is possible to witness everyday people from different nationalities, ethnicities or religious belongings succeeding in working together for the same goals. Without arguing that this is the proof of some fundamental rational principles acting as causes of everything (which tends to make rationality divine), I do believe that general principles can serve as foundations to reason, though still with respect of diversity and plurality.
This belief came to me while studying international politics. I have been taught how the principles of international relations were founded to accommodate a ‘solution’ to the very question of whether differing moral ideas and values can be discussed rationally and whether we can reach rational outcomes, enable peaceful cooperation, and avoid war. As one of the highest examples of such a wish to obtain liberty and peaceful cooperation through the respect of plurality stands the United Nations Charter. Herein no world ideology or general principle has been formulated, other than one based on minimal codes of conduct. Rather than enforcing rules, these principles protect against infringement: completely dependent on principles of mutual recognition and respect of integrity, the international sphere is characterized by an absolute lack of any sovereign power.
The field of international relations has often been understood through the analogy of basic human relationships. However, in the question of which principles one should apply to obtain cooperation in a context of diversity, I find that one can also turn the analogy around and look at which principles of international relations, normally confined to states, could be drawn to obtain more general principles for all social actors. For whilst the idea of respecting pluralism through the organizing principles of equal rights and self-determination – in other words, sovereignty – has theoretically long been held high by the international society, the right to integrity and self-determination of peoples within such states exists internationally only in effect of the state. Nonetheless today, when sovereignty seems to have trickled down, could one not be inspired to look at whether international principles of cooperation could do so too?
Whilst the UN Charter is often frowned upon for only enhancing principles of conduct and its assumed inability to enforce rules and bring about salvation, I argue that this is exactly what should be cherished. As processes of social change and revolution seems to be exploding around the world, so do ideas of ends and overall principles. I do not believe that social life is the result of any definite principle or beginning essence. In the social sciences, no principle should act as a final cause or finality: not only does any finality of social principles remain normative and rather unprovable, but it also tends to legitimize doubtable means, smelling of imposition and lock-step consensus. As has been said wisely before, the messiah of humanity has often seemed not to be one of simply redemption, but instead one of redemption of salvation. In fleeing or refusing the diversity and humaneness of social life, we can become subjects to exceptional dimensions of law and imposing regimes and ideologies. But by making principles means rather than finalities, we can define social life by its possible power of transformation rather than its inherent, principal or eternal state of nature.
I am not suggesting an abandonment of all general ideas or authority (and authorities do certainly exist in international realms as well), but rather just that we could draw inspiration from international norms to refocus on using principles as guiding norms of cooperation, legitimating ends rather than the opposite. Hence, principles — acting externally — should do nothing more than protecting different morals. And in this respect, the protection of different morals and hence, moral ‘rights’ such as political equality, arguably overrides the respect of legal authority. Although it might seem naive, an appeal of adherence to principles of conduct rather than to such of belief can lead into safe realms of coordination and predictable expectations and as such, if not promoting consensus, at least increased trust through predictability.
Hence, it should be clear that principles are here argued to be functioning best when they are far removed from being only universal laws or ends, but rather that they should formulate minimal codes of conduct through respect of self-determination and equal rights of all social actors: the duty of respecting these through the respect of integrity, and the principle of maintaining order through diplomacy rather than violence.
Returning to the questions of how to approach ‘what should be’ and ‘what could be’ in a time characterized by moral disagreement and contestation, I find that any finality is often also one resulting in an end of potentiality. As such, what carries the possibility of good is to me – and as Walter Benjamin proposed it – that which is not yet defined; that which can seize the possibilities of a moment and represent progress and rupture with reproductive and dominating logics. And what is bad is that which dissolves and constrains possibilities under the rule of law and already defined ideas and ideologies.o when
So asking which talents humans must master in order to achieve the most possible, I answer that the most possible lies in realizing humanity through the abandonment of any pre-defined concept of good, best or divine. In a time like this, it seems highly relevant to remind ourselves that we may not need to search to rescue people by making them exist in effect of a higher cause, power or ideology. Humans act and interact all the time. Constraints and compromises are set naturally in the constant interaction between social, political and natural forces and actors. As such, the art of the possible lies in the mere social existence - as existing is something naturally positive; something entailing constant action and production in itself.
I have attempted to argue that outmost of possibilities lie in the moment of a rupture with the past and before the future is defined. What this moment includes is hence for those living it – perhaps you – to decide. To retain is only that we can make anything possible - although this possibility will sometimes be as undefined, different, radical and violent in its impression as art; materializing and projecting how the dreams and productive possibilities of humanity seems to be ever-surprising and often at best, existing in resistance.