Nearly a half-century ago, the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute described our postwar era as l’ère du soupçon–the age of suspicion. Discourse, particularly narrative discourse, could no longer be taken at face value: it had to be demystified. The horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima led to the extension of the demystifying techniques of Marx and Freud to all social relations, and to the political, judicial, religious, or literary discourses that, directly or indirectly, justified them.
One of the central themes of originary thinking is that we can go beyond the rhetoric of demystification toward a less sacrificial one founded on our originary intuition of the human. This is still something of a visionary claim; the rhetorical change that accompanies a new way of thinking is not easily brought about, and I am sure that my own writing still bears traces of the old polemics. But there is reason to believe that the age of suspicion is nearing its end.
In the postwar era, it was urgent to denounce the openly discriminatory structures and practices that still flourished nearly undisturbed at the war’s end. On the maps of the world I knew as a child, British colonies in red and French colonies in blue covered most of Africa and a good part of Asia. As late as the early 1960s, when I was a graduate student in Baltimore–barely south of the Mason-Dixon line–blacks were not permitted in “white” restaurants or movie theaters. Nous avons changé tout cela.
As feminism took up the torch from the civil rights movement, suspicion was cast on the apparently natural sexual division of labor, then on the still more apparently natural distinction between normal and perverse sexual orientations. But the clarity of the antisacrificial focus began to blur. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment was not merely political; it reflected a new skepticism about the automatic application of the victimary model to human difference. A similar phenomenon is occurring today with respect to homosexuality; although the general public opposes discrimination for sexual orientation, it has not bought the argument that denying marriage to same-sex couples is discriminatory. Partisans may argue that resistance to these ideas is of the same type as that of old-line segregationists or misogynists, but I do not agree. Like Thomas Kuhn‘s scientific paradigms, social models and the rhetorics that go with them become problematic as they are extended to new areas ever farther from their original domain.
When new models replace old ones, the opposition between them is never one of horizontal symmetry. Hegel‘s historical dialectic has been abandoned by metaphysics, but it makes a great deal of sense as anthropology. The end of the age of suspicion does not mean the return to previous modes of discrimination and social domination, but the addition of a new layer of reflection that transforms the binary persecutor-victim model into a subtler, more interactive one.
Let us take a step back to the original meaning of liberalism in the nineteenth century, one still current in continental Europe: that of laissez-faire social Darwinism. As a political view, this apparently coherent doctrine runs up against the paradox of what Derrida calls the supplement: if the economic market really sufficed to govern the society as a whole, there wouldn’t be any need for a political forum in which to affirm it. The very fact that politics exists in addition to the exchange system refutes the politics that we don’t need anything but the exchange system. Like the Sabbath, the market was created for man and not man for the market.
The victimary politics of the twentieth century cuts a far wider swath than liberalism, but the amelioristic liberalism that flourished in the postwar era is the most benign form of victimary thinking. Rejecting the utopian attempts to transcend the market system that lead only to more virulent forms of victimage, the liberal attempts to make this system less sacrificial by interpreting as victims those unable to participate in it successfully. The modern liberal is a dialectical improvement on the laissez-faire liberal.
But now that we have seen the limits of the victimary model, how do we deal with the human failures of the market system? Granted, these are not “victims” in some obscure sacrificial sense. The wealth created by the market does not depend on their poverty, as the zero-sum Weltanschauung still shared by many intellectuals would have it.(Permit me a digression on this subject. What is zero-sum in human relations is rank; in a linear ranking system, my gain is your loss. But this truism does not carry over to material wealth, or even to the domains of prestige, respect, and recognition. In Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the slave’s recognition of the master, coming from one whom the latter considers less than fully human, is no recognition at all. In a society where all are prosperous and creative, all can have prestige in their own domain and respect in general even if ranking them by income would leave just as many in each percentile as before. Only through the eyes of resentment does my neighbor’s prosperity diminish my own.)
A sign that we are leaving the victimary era is that our policies are beginning to take into account the paradoxical structure of human interaction in order to defer as much as possible the perverse incentives they create. This does not necessarily mean spending less money, but it means making it as difficult as possible to act in anticipation of entitled benefits.
The most obvious way to eliminate perverse incentives is simply to eliminate the benefits that foster them. But claiming that the cold turkey approach might work (but that we are too “soft” to administer it) is not merely callous but naive. In human affairs, the end of eliminating sacrificial behavior–the production of victims–can’t justify the means, because the distinction between ends and means in human interaction is what defines sacrificial behavior. We have heard enough from both right and left in this century about final solutions. What is necessary is to create the effect of the cold turkey cure without actually administering it.
This is, I think, what recent attempts at welfare reform through workfare, benefit cuts, threats of cutoffs, refusal to pay for second children, etc. are reaching for. Whether or not benefits will really be taken away in 2 or 5 years is less important than making the recipient aware that they could be taken away because the very purpose of these benefits is to help their beneficiaries enter or return to the job market.
My point is not that such programs are bound to succeed, but that they incarnate a post-liberal viewpoint that is not a simple return to social Darwinism. I think the adoption in essence by both parties of this new attitude, which I would call neoconservative, but others might like to call neoliberal, represents a new stage in the political dialectic of market society that marks the waning of the victimary thinking of the age of suspicion.