Alain Caillé, honorary president of the ICA, emeritus professor of sociology at the university Paris-ouest-Nanterre. He is the founding director of La Revue du MAUSS (Anti-utilitarian movement in the Social sciences).
Here is more or less where we find ourselves. In France, as in a growing number of countries, such as the United States for example, no one listens to or believes in anyone outside their reference groups any more. These reference groups are also belief groups. Each of these groups has its own preferred channels of information and discussion, mostly social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. It is only these that are supposed to tell the truth. Other reference and belief groups, as well as the national public media in general, are increasingly ignored or hated. Groups of belonging and belief are thus transformed into groups of shared anger and loathing.
This coalescence of groups of belonging, belief and detestation is not only the making of so-called popular classes, or what are just as easily called ‘conspiracy theorists’, facing the ‘elites’; nor is it just a matter of gangs of young people who fight each other, sometimes to the point of death, for a yes, for a no, for the sole pleasure of appearing heroic on social networks. Be it among intellectuals, people in showbiz or political partisans (the confrontation between Trump and Biden supporters was exemplary from this point of view), the tone and violence rise day after day. Everywhere, and increasingly, one exists only by participating in the denunciation and stigmatization of opponents who are often largely imaginary and invented to serve the cause (but who of course, then actually come into being). How long can democracies survive this multidimensional dislocation of the public space?
Where does it come from? There could be endless analyses of the causes of this explosion of a world which in principle should be common to at least all the inhabitants of a single country. For my part, I see two main sets of causes, which are also closely and paradoxically intertwined.
The first is the now global hegemony of neoliberalism. This is based on the postulate that society does not exist (“there is no such thing as society,” as Margaret Thatcher so sharply put it, “there are individual men and women and there are families”) and that the only possible and desirable mode of relationship is one of generalized competition of all against all. This postulate has become the universal norm. It plunges the individuals in question, thus in principle de-socialized, into a bottomless state of distress or disarray, for whom the only remedy is to take refuge in the family and groups of belonging. These groups are themselves in competition with all the others, and also becoming vectors of hatred.
The second set of causes is both the result of the first and the outcome of the irresistible democratic dynamics so well analyzed by Tocqueville in On Democracy in America. Everyone wants to be (at least) equal to everyone else. No one can stand the slightest inferiority, nor therefore the slightest superiority. Societies fall apart and with them all inherited hierarchies. Past dominations, inequalities, contempt, exploitation, colonization, stigmatizations that seemed yesterday legitimate, natural, self-evident or at least tolerable, now appear for what they are: intolerable. After #MeToo and after the wave (the tsunami rather) of multiple cases of sexual harassment in all rungs of society, male domination will never again appear bearable. Every day, we discover new victims of incest or pedophilia. What remained hidden and silenced until yesterday, is no longer hidden today. Racism is unbearable. Colonial crimes, even ancient ones, starting with slavery, can no longer be passed over in silence.
This liberation of speech, this awareness of violence, of the multiple forms of violence, which have woven the fabric of the common history of humanity, cannot be seen otherwise than as gigantic progress of the human spirit and of its moral capacity. It is necessary to protect this progress from the perverse effects that it may cause. It must be protected, of course, from a backlash, which could result in the return of machismo, racism, authoritarian regimes or religious fundamentalism. But it must also be protected, and this is the most difficult to understand, from the reinforcement of the neoliberal hegemony which this liberation risks feeding – despite its intentions. By pretending to see only individuals without qualities, sex, color of skin, or defined social insertion, neoliberalism can indeed present itself advantageously as the great liberator and the great universal equalizer, even though it only equalizes by multiplying inequalities, and only liberates by sending each person back to his or her solitude, his or her powerlessness, and ultimately, his or her alienation.
The great challenge we are now facing is thus to relearn how to talk to each other and to debate while loosening the grip of neoliberalism and the ideology of a rentier capitalism. Our societies, our pasts, are full of violence. So much is now evident. Yet should we wipe the slate clean, keep nothing of it, at the great risk of existing only on and through the world market, which cheerfully destroys nature and our solidarities? On the contrary, the question is: will we be able to rebuild a common world, to live together (while preserving our natural environment), to look at each other and to listen to each other instead of remaining each in our own cocoon of hatred?
To do this, it is important above all to understand the infinite complexity of the social formations that have succeeded one another in time and space, all or almost all of which were carriers of injustice, though, it must be said, many were also carriers of the arts of living and meaning. It is also important to understand the infinite complexity of processes of liberation. It is not enough to denounce dominations to find oneself automatically on the side of the true and the just, immune to any eventual desire of domination. With the permanent acceleration of our ways of life, so well brought to light by the sociologist-philosopher Hartmut Rosa, nobody really lives in the same social and historical space-time anymore. Thus, for example, Muslim feminists hardly recognize themselves in western feminism, because, while suffering more than western women from the weight of machismo, they do not intend to renounce the art of living that has been forged over the centuries within the framework of Islam, nor to participate in the stigmatization of their fathers or brothers. In the same way, western feminists of a certain age who had more or less succeeded in rebalancing relations with their male contemporaries, find it difficult to recognize themselves in the symbolic substitution of “gender” for “sex,” and to abjure the difference between the sexes. Or again, the colonized of yesterday who aspired to the recognition of colonizers, hardly accept the rejection of republican values by those of their children or their grandchildren who prefer the jihad to them. And so on.
Between all these points of view, between all these so different ways of relating to time and space, there is no overarching point of view from which one could decree for certain which one is the most just. But it is clear which ones are certainly not right and must therefore be fought as such: it is precisely those who believe they hold the truth and who, strengthened by this certainty, refuse to listen to others and grant them the slightest value or relevance. All those who absolutize and hypostasize their opponent: Islam, the West, men, women, populism, the political class, etc. Or, to refer to current debates, the point of view of people who want to ban from speaking or writing those who do not have the right gender, the right sexuality, the right skin color – in short, ‘cancel culture’. Or again, those who believe they see leftists, communists or Islamists everywhere, or those who, conversely, refuse, or fear to speak out against cancel culture and the banning of those we don’t like from expressing themselves in public. Those who allow themselves to advocate such bans believe they are at the forefront of the struggle for emancipation. They are only at the forefront of the struggle for an alienation even worse than the one they are fighting.
It is in this context that we absolutely need to develop and defend what I propose to call a radical moderationism, or a moderationist radicalism. A well-tempered radicalism, if you like. We need radicality to reveal and make intolerable all dominations and injustices. But we also need this radicality to be moderate enough to not tip over into its opposite and fail dramatically by revealing itself as more oppressive than liberating. This is a difficult objective to think through and to achieve, especially for young people who need an adversary within reach, clearly identifiable. Yet it is essential if we want to rebuild our societies that have been dismantled by almost half a century of neoliberalism. What is required, in a way, is the introduction into the field of ideas of a strategy of intellectual non-violence. This non-violence has nothing to do with passivity or cowardice, quite the contrary. That it is not cowardice but courage will quickly become apparent when we see the outcry that it can provoke. What do you mean? Tolerating the infamous (those who don’t think like me)? That’s infamous!
For a convivialist ethics of discussion
Let us now sketch out what a strategy of radical moderationism implies in the field of social thought. It implies what I will call a convivialist ethics of discussion. The very idea of discourse ethics comes, as we know, from the German philosophers Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas who saw in it, at least for a time, the way to find a rational discursive basis of social norms. The norms upon which interlocutors of good faith would agree (however opposed they might have been at the outset) if placed in a situation of ideal discussion – that is to say, not distorted by irrepressible passions or antisocial interests – would be universalizable.
The ambitions of this Habermasian discourse ethics are without question excessive. Nothing proves that it is possible to define universal standards without reference to ultimate values and thus to put an end in rational terms, through discussion, to that which Max Weber called “the war of Gods.” Not to mention that one sometimes has the impression that the ideal interlocutors of Apel and Habermas, far from being typical humans, are supposed to master the entire history of political and moral philosophy before being admitted to the debating table; to be, in fact, German philosophers. Rather than such an unrealistic ethic of rational discussion, we need an ethics of decent, i.e. moderationist discussion.
The rationale is provided by a formula of Marcel Mauss. At the end of his famous essay, The Gift, Mauss (2002 ) writes,
“Societies have progressed in so far as they themselves, their subgroups, and lastly, the individuals in them, have succeeded in stabilizing relationships, giving, receiving, and finally, giving in return. Thus, the clan, the tribe, and peoples have learnt how to oppose and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves to one another. This is what tomorrow, in our so-called civilized world, classes and nations and individuals also, must learn” (pp. 105–106).
To learn to oppose one another without sacrificing themselves. This formula takes on meaning when we pause and consider the first part. We have to learn to oppose one another, thus we have to oppose, which implies that opposition and conflict are part of life. We are very far indeed from the hope of consensus that animates the Habermasian ethic of discussion. It is not simply that opposition among humans is inevitable; rather, it is inevitable because the interests and points of view necessarily diverge between superiors and subordinates, the young and the old, men and women, the strong and the weak, and so on. Beyond this factual finding, the idea that is reflected in the statement that people “must learn to oppose one another” is that opposition is not only inevitable, it is also desirable. It is opposition that feeds ‘fertile disagreements.’ Opposition is the creator of life and of meaning. It is through opposition that diversity emerges; a diversity which has value in itself.
This is not to say, however, that all opposition is desirable and legitimate. The only desirable one is the opposition between adversaries in pursuit of an alliance with those who subscribe to the dynamic of giving, receiving, and returning, rather than of taking-refusing-keeping. An alliance for life and creativity. Or, to put it another way, all forms of social collectivity are desirable and legitimate when they favor the greatest diversity within themselves which is compatible with their own maintenance and development — development in pursuit of the greatest creativity (others would say capabilities) for all. Anything that is inspired by this rule is welcome and admissible in the discussion.
This dynamic of giving, receiving, and returning is inspired by a wager of trust. A risky wager, to be sure. For it cannot be ignored that partners in the discussion, behind displays of big principles and virtuous proclamations, may well hide the most unpalatable interests. These may be purely narcissistic, as is frequently the case, but are also no less frequently based on material interest or power. These form the basic elements of a necessary critical approach that we cannot ignore. Moreover, whether we look at Marx, Freud or anyone else, distrust is often based on the double grounds that interests are unconscious and that subjects lie to themselves. Which is doing them too little honor. Very often the calculations of interests are much more conscious, and hypocrisy, deception, and desire to harm quite deliberate.
The principles of dialogical charity
Nevertheless, what radical moderationism is betting on — that which must inspire an ethics of decent discussion — is that until it is proved otherwise, all participants in a debate must be supposed to be (a) of good faith, (b) intelligent, and (c) concerned about the common good. To put it another way, the rule that must preside over listening and reading the statements of those with whom we disagree is to apply the principle of dialogical charity. Thus, between several possible readings of a text or statement, it is preferable to choose the one that puts the adversary in the most favorable light, to systematically privilege that which seems to be the most intelligent and moral. In a word, a Maussian radical moderationist will celebrate, not fear, an opponent’s intelligence and dignity. Respect for this simple, seemingly innocuous rule would avoid most petty intentions and false quarrels that pollute public debate. This implies forbidding the use of any offensive or depreciative designation — not to mention name-calling — and any imputation of the fundamental immorality of the opponent. In other words, the reductio ad Hitlerum or ad Stalinum, a priori or more or less mechanical charges of fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, populism, conspiracy, communitarianism, secularism, nationalism, self-imposed cosmopolitanism, rightism, leftism, born-againism, or even Bourdieuism, and so on are no longer tolerated. Unless proven otherwise — since a simple suspicion no longer suffices to disqualify adversaries — we must refrain from expressing any suspicion publicly until it is more solidly supported.
The appeal to the principle of dialogical charity — the hypothesis that an adversary is highly intelligent, honest, and respectable — does not merely have a diplomatic function. And not even principally. In reality, it would be completely counterproductive if it were a matter of hiding one’s face so as not to confront real enemies and effectively condemn their unacceptable positions. This would merely be cowardice and pusillanimity. No. Its main use is to oblige us to be even more intelligent, honest, and respectable than those who we intend to criticize, and not to excuse ourselves from having to produce evidence for criticism.
But if those whom we oppose are deemed by us to be highly intelligent, honest, and respectable, why oppose them at all? It can only be because we are inspired by irreconcilable values, and/or because it seems to us that they have not fully appreciated the complexity of the problem. Even in the case of discussions between those claiming to be radical or Maussian moderationists, it is not possible to dismiss the first hypothesis because, if the agreement on the Maussian ethics of discussion acts as an a priori agreement on ultimate values, it does not prevent the dialogue between those who privilege different ideologies, such as communism, socialism, anarchism, or liberalism, for example.
Let us put this a bit differently. In the majority of debates one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding and incomprehension comes from the fact that the protagonists differ — often without knowing it — on the identity of the legitimate subject, or the most legitimate, in whose name they speak and for whom they make themselves spokesperson. Everyone worries about the common weal, and is thus respectable, but not everyone localizes it in the same way. Who must be accorded respect and recognition in the first case? Which of the possible subjects must be the source of law? Is it the individual, considered as such, the one who only gives (herself) to herself, and, perhaps, to the society of individuals? Is it the person, who gives (herself) to her relations in the context of a community of personalized knowledge, and so receives in return? Is it the citizen, or the believer, the member of a large political and/or religious community, who gives herself to it and so receives in return from it? Is it the generic human being? Each of these points of view — or points of departure — is a priori legitimate, as long as the fact that the others are equally so is not ignored. Which is why it is inappropriate to attack anyone a priori. According to the accepted point of view, everyone will reason according to different scales, and because today the inherited spatiotemporal scales dislocate or deform at breakneck speed, we see ample material for dissensus. The difficulty, in effect, is to know how to combine and concretely articulate the four great modern ideologies (liberalism, socialism, anarchism, communism) whose heirs we are, or the four types of subject of preferential rights. They do not complement each other more spontaneously, harmoniously, or easily than liberty, equality or fraternity, for example. The goal of a radically moderationist discussion is to achieve consensus on the best possible combination — or the least bad — in any given context or situation, knowing that everyone is confused by the loss of inherited landmarks.
However, we cannot escape from some lingering doubt. Is not the ethics of the Maussian discussion, of which we tried to sketch the main features despite our insistence on possible divergences and on the value of opposition, ultimately too consensual? Perhaps too kindly? Does it not process in some way as if everyone were beautiful and nice?
To avoid this risk, we must now specify who does not have the right to enter the circle of the Maussian discussion, or to stay there, and why. And this is actually a great many people:
- Those who do not respect the principle of discursive charity, who do not understand the plurality of legitimate points of departure, who replace arguments with insults ad hominem, and who imagine they are constantly surrounded by enemies to be destroyed (what better way to miss real enemies?) cannot be described as radical moderationists.
- Of course, those caught in the act of lying, who are compulsive narcissists, who seek improper personal interests, or who breezily say one thing and then its opposite, also cannot benefit from dialogical charity.
- Above all, those who do not understand the necessity of preserving and developing the forms of social unity that permit the expression of the greatest diversity possible that does not endanger the unity that allows for diversity (which allows unity, etc.) — they are without doubt not worthy of a charitable dialogue.
But all this can be better formulated if we start from the second part of the sentence by Mauss that we placed at the center of the present reflection. “They must learn to oppose one another,” writes Mauss, but adds right away: “and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves.” The most obvious and immediately accurate reading of this second clause is to see in it a critique of the invocation to an altruism that easily turns into its opposite. When ready to sacrifice oneself for a cause, one quickly feels authorized to sacrifice those who do not share our beliefs, or not enough in any case. Let us not forget that Mauss wrote The Gift the same year as A Sociological Assessment of Bolshevism, and precisely to criticize the eagerness to make others happy against their will. But let us go a bit beyond the explicit contents of Mauss’ formula. Applied to radical moderationists, “to give without sacrificing oneself” means that they are fully engaged in what they do and believe, that they give themselves wholly to this, but that they are not made prisoners to their engagement. They are not ready to sacrifice everything — to the point of not seeing that others are just as legitimately engaged in other causes. In other words, they are all the more engaged because they know how to disengage. It is the faculty of disengaging oneself that makes their engagement worth it. Those who fail to disengage are en route to fanaticism, not to radical moderationism.
Radical moderationism can seem at first as too kind and consensual; in fact, we can see that it has many potential detractors. Indeed, its tendency toward moderation borders on the most intransigent radicalism. But a genuine radicalism, not one of fakers and blowhards. Returning for a while to politics, let us observe, in support of this position and in conclusion, that the great modern political leaders who have been able to lead their countries on the right track – Gandhi, of course, but also Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, or, in his own way, Lula in Brazil – have been inspired by one form or another of non-violence i.e. of radical moderationism. But when war is declared (against Hitler, for example), one must also choose how to fight. This can also be the case in the context of a revolutionary process or a revolt against dictators. What means should be used then? Certainly not all means. Not all means are good. The absolute counterexample is the argument put forward by Trotsky in his frightening “Their Morals and Ours,” which sought to justify the most violent methods in the name of their supposed effectiveness in achieving an intrinsically pure and radiant goal. One hundred years later, Russia has still not recovered. The same can be said of all terrorism, and especially today of al-Qaeda or Daesh. No, the end does not justify the means. Rather, it is the means employed that bear witness to the end that is actually being pursued: domination.
So, let us conclude: radical moderationism is an incentive to unmask the will to dominate (to “wield the whip,” as George Orwell used to say) that masks itself behind a number of noble causes.
Of course, I force the line, but the tendency is there, very real and always more current.
Yet what gives us hope is that the current young generations are very demanding about democracy and pluralism.
The question arises differently in the fields of politics, aesthetics or morality.
I will use the terms ‘a Maussian ethics of discussion’ or ‘a radically moderationist ethics of discussion’ interchangeably.
Mauss, M. 2002 . The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Abingdon: Routledge.