Anthony Paul Smith has written a post on a debate that has cropped up within his forthcoming edited volume, After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion. The debate, therein represented by Michael Burns and Alex Andrews, is over whether political primacy should be afforded (respectively) to the ideal of justice or the insurance of survival. I haven’t read either paper yet, but I have had many conversations with Michael about it. The debate is apparently a consequence of the challenge introduced into political philosophy by Martin Hägglund. To oversimplify a bit, Hägglund’s work claims not that survival should be an ideal that takes precedence over all others, but that it is the latent end of all actual human activity, whatever the stated aim or ideal might be. Survival is simply what it sounds like: the desire to continue living, to persist in some form after death. This desire is primary, and results from life’s definitive ongoing struggle with its mortal finitude, such that every goal life sets for itself is intended to cope with this condition, to struggle against disappearance.
According to Hägglund (who derives his position from Derrida), notions of God, immortality, glory, and even more secular ideals like national pride, justice, etc, are ultimately disguises for the desire to live on, to persist. This is obvious in the case of God, but in the secular case it would involve the desire that one’s memory and one’s loved ones persist, ultimately culminating in a utopian ideal of indefinite perpetuation of a prosperous society. Hägglund claims that all such ideas, be they secular or theistic, become entangled in contradiction because they involve a desire to finally overcome finitude, to insulate oneself against mortality, and thus to destroy the very condition that made them possible in the first place. The argument is too complex to repeat here, but his basic claim is that we must no longer undermine the de facto struggle for survival by misperceiving it in terms of ideals that deny its primary status, ideals that strive for something beyond finitude even though finitude is the necessary condition for all human activity.
The problem with this argument, at least superficially, is that it neglects the necessarily qualified character of life, and the sense in which the political status of life is always a matter of the kinds of life worth living. The question of in what the political body consists is not simply a matter of life, but of whom determines the worthiness of qualified forms of life. Now in traditional liberalism, it is taken for granted that oneself alone can legitimately determine the worthiness of one’s way of living, so long as this form of life does not impede upon the same liberty of others. This has logically culminated in a politics in which no form of life is specifically championed, where the object of political concern is not the form of life but of life itself, abstracted from the form it has taken: biopolitics. (It is strange that, while Agamben’s work is often derided for its oversimplifying distinction between bios and zoe, his point is precisely that this blunt distinction is a problem in reality, not an analytic tool to be adopted. The Greek distinction is only an imprecise precursor or prefiguration of the biopolitical subtraction of a pure, formal condition for living. The goal of his research is precisely to think a way out of this distinction.)
While the ostensible intent of this shift is commendable, seeking to protect individual liberty from heteronomous determination as far as possible, the protection of the formal condition for individual liberty dissimulates an equal, if not more fundamental, political concern: equality. While all may enjoy the formal equality of individual liberty to determine their own forms of life, they by no means share a materially equal means of doing so. Some are more equal than others, more capable of leading a life the deem worthy than others. Freedom is, for the majority, only an abstract freedom, a freedom to determine what they value in thought, but not necessarily to obtain what they value in actuality.
Beyond mere survival as condition for individual liberty, the concern would be for a just distribution of the means of living. Yet this brings us to the same series of problems Anthony identifies: doesn’t this account restrict itself to human life alone, neglecting not only other animal and vegetal forms of life, but also the ecological, extra-human conditions of human life in the first place? Isn’t the critique of a politics of mere survival guilty of restricting itself to human survival at the expense of ecosystemic survival?
Yet I think we still need a certain form of humanism here. (My reasoning is, as far as I can tell, very close to Pete’s Brandomian account of the ethical status of animals.) To an extent, it would be absurd to bemoan non-human creatures being deprived of an equal share in the means of living, not because animal life is somehow intrinsically unequal to human life, but because we have no way of knowing whether, and if so, how animals evaluate the worthiness of possible forms of living. This is not to exclude the likelihood that animals do prefer certain ways of life to others. (Indeed, its seems equally certain that living things struggle to survive, and that they strive for certain forms of survival over others.) Yet such an inward determination is not a political concern. One’s commitment to a certain evaluation only becomes a political concern when it can be articulated to others, and hence when one becomes committed not only to this evaluation, but to others insofar as a bond of trust has been established. What is at stake is no longer the evaluation itself, but the social bond that makes the collective recognition of this evaluation possible.
Now, in a Derridean sense, we can allow that no living thing is excluded a priori from the possibility of committing oneself to others through a statement; but if such commitments are not articulated, then the status of possible evaluations on the part of non-human life is wholly derivative of the community of rational (mutually committed) agents. We can only imagine, hypothesize, or speculate about what forms of life an animal might value, and while these hypotheses might be appropriate in broad strokes, they can only go so far. Because of this limitation, non-human life-forms are in fact excluded from being political agents, insofar as they cannot be said to determine what forms of life they find worthy without this claim being made by human beings. This does not mean they should not be of concern, but only that they are incapable of voicing their own concerns, and hence of being counted as a political agent in the strict sense.
So while there may be a broader sense of justice tied to a kind of ecosystemic survival, it wouldn’t be of the same kind as the political sense of justice. Again, this is not to lessen the importance of former, which very well may be a necessary condition of the latter (I tend to think so, and I believe Anthony does as well). But political justice is not reducible to the intra-political status of survival (biopolitics), nor to the meta-political status of survival (ecology).