Firstness has been since the beginning both an essential and a problematic human characteristic. The originary hypothesis begins the human story with the abandonment of the Alpha-Beta pecking order that determined precedence, if not leadership, among our primate ancestors. The rejection of this hierarchical structure is exemplified by the fact that the first example of human firstness—the discovery/invention of the sign as the communicative function of the aborted gesture of appropriation, which, as Adam Katz pointed out, should not be understood as a spontaneous revelation to the group, but an idea that first arose in the mind of one or more individuals—was not, indeed, could not be retained by the new human social organization, given that the latter was initiated by means of the reciprocal, “equal” exchange of the originary sign.
This moral model of reciprocity, as first manifested in the unanimous emission and reception of the sign, is the primary model of human interaction, the ultimate source of Kant’s categorical imperative. Yet, at the same time, human firstness, whose field of application the cultural deferral of instinct vastly expands beyond its animal equivalent, is the unique source of human progress; it can be suppressed only up to a point. Indeed, since the institution of social hierarchy, only the most stringent isolation can maintain the integrity of either primitive or modern societies that seek to extend the moral model to all aspects of material life.
The Yin and Yang of moral equality and firstness have been in tension since the first moment of human history. The (ec)static moment of mutuality postulated in the originary scene is unstable; the moral model, which inspired Rousseau to understand the “state of nature” in terms so different from those of Hobbes, was not magically extended over the whole of society by virtue of the replacement of primate serial hierarchy by primitive egalitarianism. As anthropological field researchers have pointed out, these hunter-gatherer societies are as a rule far more violent than stratified hierarchical societies, because they have no way of effectively integrating human firstness into their social structure. Marshall Sahlins’ “big-man” was not a fat cat, but a Stakhanovite over-producer, and although the Athenians chose their magistrates by lot, that is certainly not how Achilles—or Pericles—got his job.
To define firstness as humanity’s primary moral problem is not to provide a solution, but I think present circumstances require that we confront the implications of this definition in radical, that is, originary terms. The current language, not merely of the left but of everyday respectable Geplapper (Heidegger’s term strikes me as well-suited to the occasion), is that firstness in Western society remains overwhelmingly associated with white (male) privilege, which alone suffices to explain the “disparate impact” of modern socio-economic conditions on the various racial/ethnic groups.
It suffices to compare the language used by officials of various levels in expressing their regret for the unfortunate and apparently culpable death of George Floyd with previous statements of the same kind to demonstrate, not that this was a greater outrage than previous acts of (apparent) police brutality, but that the formerly “liberal” wing of American politics is increasingly dominated by a degree of White Guilt that is tantamount to a cultural death-wish.
Schoolchildren are commonly taught today that the US is a racist nation founded on slavery and genocide; expressions of traditional patriotism are increasingly stigmatized. The anti-discrimination legislation of the past decades has only scratched the surface, discrepancies between blacks and other groups in everything from examination scores to annual income are all but entirely attributable to the residual racism with which our society remains infested. Statistical analyses, such as those by Heather MacDonald (see, for example, https://www.manhattan-institute.org/the-myth-of-systemic-police-racism), are simply ignored, as well as the real problem of black crime, which disproportionately affects other blacks.
Nearly the whole white professional class expends ever more energy in virtue-signaling activities that can only be described as motivated, not by a rational judgment about racial discrimination, but by a felt need for apotropaic gestures, doing penance for one’s “privilege,” whose relation to any kind of objective merit must be denied in principle, while reserving one’s wrath for those unwilling to proclaim their moral abjection.
No analysis of the socio-political developments leading up to the present situation strikes me as sharper than the “plantation” phenomenon diagnosed by Dinesh D’Souza in Death of a Nation (Macmillan, 2018). But I think that by now we have gone beyond the point where any such analysis can suffice; fundamental anthropological questions have been raised, and these can be dealt with only in fundamental, that is, in generative terms.
For it is becoming clear that Western culture’s increasing rejection of its hitherto dominant role, in the US but also in Europe, is rapidly reaching a point of crisis, whose outcome will decide in the coming decades whether our liberal-democratic system will remain the world’s exemplary social order, or whether its place will be taken by totalitarian autocracy, whether on the Chinese or another model. Crises, as they say, are opportunities not to be wasted, which from our perspective means opportunities to make the world aware of human truths that in less troubled times it prefers to ignore.
This crux may perhaps be most simply expressed as our need to come to grips in human terms with what in Genesis is described as the “fall of man”—or in our terminology, the necessity of dealing with firstness—the human usurpation of the sacred center—in the context of our fundamental intuition of human moral equality.
If Marxism was in its day a plausible ideology, and Mussolini and Hitler’s national socialisms not only “got the trains running on time” but succeeded in conquering most of Europe, the current left has no practical ideology at all. Nonsense like the Green New Deal, even if it could be implemented, would provide no benefits to the surplus elites. It would have to be coupled with free tuition, student loan forgiveness, and a “guaranteed annual income” that would replace Mommy and Daddy in financing their child’s residence in the basement—all supplied from the bottomless well of American productivity, only using energy from windmills and sunlight rather than fossil fuels. This is not even utopia; it is fairyland.
Hence I will not attempt to add my own analysis to those of social critics such as Peter Turchin (“How ‘elite overproduction’ and ‘lawyer glut’ could ruin the U.S.; https://nationalpost.com/opinion/peter-turchin-how-elite-overproduction-and-lawyer-glut-could-ruin-the-u-s ), none of which conflict with my judgment that the digital age presents a watershed that, by removing the last bit of plausibility from Marx’s Labor Theory of Value, makes inevitable something like Charles Murray’s “coming apart” of the postwar American middle class, and the consequent breakdown of traditional two-party governance.
I will focus my discussion on two points:
(1) the increasing functional detachment of the epistemology of resentment, the motivational force of “modernity” and revolution since 1789, from economic reality, which makes increasingly inescapable the coming to consciousness of the fundamental tension between morality and firstness, an anthropological dialectic that must be grasped in originary terms before it can be dealt with in practice; and
(2) the likely consequences of the current crisis for Western Civilization, and above all for the United States as its principal mainstay, in relation to China and the rest of the world.
It increasingly appears that Francis Fukuyama’s happy equation of what has clearly been the freest social system and, ceteris paribus, the most productive, with the “fittest” in the long term was, to say the least, premature. We might remind ourselves of such events as the Fall of Constantinople, whose 567th anniversary we commemorated two weeks ago.
To be continued…