Thursday, January 20, 2022

the dialectic of humiliation

a second post regarding Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
and the dialectic of humiliation (read the first post here):

I’ve read on to the point where Sartre embarks on a critical evaluation of Martin Heidegger’s discussion of the possibility of mitsein – ‘we-being’ or ‘being-with’ – existing alongside individual being. Once again, Sartre points to humiliation as the root way in which we experience other individuals in the world:

We should note in the first place, that the we-object throws us into the world; we experience it through shame, as a communal alienation. This is illustrated by that significant episode in which the galley slaves are choked with anger and shame because a beautiful woman dressed in finery comes to visit their ship and sees their rags, their labor, and their wretchedness. This is clearly a case of collective shame and collective alienation.

This yields many questions:

  • Say what? Did Sartre really believe this tableau was a typical snapshot of human interactions?
  • why is it cast as “that significant episode”?
  • why is it the female viewpoint that is enshrined as privileged? Couldn’t it have just as well been a fancy man walking through a mansion and looking disdainfully at the kitchen help? And, anyway, why does the woman’s beauty matter?
  • isn’t Sartre’s example shot through with issues that may spring, not from universal sources, but from his personal humiliations? I have never really believed that philosophy is entirely autobiography, but here we have female v. male, riches v. poverty, designer outfits v. scavenged rags, independence v. servitude, leisure v. labor, beauty v. the beast. Don't all these dichotomies tell us the tale of a humiliated and bullied young man raised to believe appearance and money were everything and that women were an alien and judgmental species? Hasn’t Sartre engaged in bad faith by proffering his own bourgeois particularity as a false universal?

Sartre doesn't pause here. Rather, he bulldozes forward. Mitsein, he argues, cannot exist without a third party that recognizes it (this is what would give it reality as a being in the world) but that recognition simultaneously destroys it. If I, along with many others, change trains in the subway or wait on the platform for an oncoming local, I may see myself as allied and in solidarity with all my fellow straphangers. But, Sartre argues, the identity of this group can only be confirmed by a person looking at all of us – and to that person, I am simply part of a mass, equivalent and non-individual, and this perspective annuls the convivial ‘we,’ rendering it a dead collectivity. Our solidarity collapses, exposed as an emotion, not a being or even a state of consciousness. And this returns us to Sartre's original claim: that the 'we' feeling stems from “an experience of humiliation and powerlessness. In sum, he writes: The essence of relations between consciousnesses is not Mitsein; it is conflict.

How soft community must be if it can never recover from even the most trivial totalization. How feeble that every nascent social grouping can so easily be pulverized. Sartre's conception makes existence with others a wasteland of futility, not freedom. Perhaps Sartre really meant it when he wrote (in his play No Exit) hell is other people.

The Critique of Dialectical Reason
, published in 1960, 17 years after Being and Nothingness, can be seen as Sartre’s attempt to retrieve his outlook from this shriveled prospect. The book, which unfortunately reads as if Sartre was talking it out to himself in a kind of private jargon, is an attempt to restore socially committed action to its rightful place as the redeeming feature of life. He writes:

everyone, even if he turns his back on the Others, and is unaware of their number and their appearance, knows that they exist as a finite indeterminate plurality of which he is a part.

In this analysis, Sartre gets a bit more specific about the assemblages created in the world -- and makes a fundamental distinction between collectives and groups:

the group is defined by its undertaking and by the constant movement of integration which tends to turn it into pure praxis [which he has earlier defined as free transcendence positing itself as an indeterminate possibility of transcending everything in the translucence of creative action] by trying to eliminate all forms of inertia from it; the collective is defined by its being, that is to say ... it is a material inorganic object in the practico-inert field ... a passive synthesis

He sees solidarity among people on the subway, for instance, as a serial collective, forged simply by the accident of doing the same thing in the same place at the same time. And he sets a new category – the fused group – to describe a greater form of solidarity: the 'we' consciousness melded through shared perspectives and the reciprocity and responsibility each member of the group feels for every other member.

This reciprocity and responsibility implies ethics. Yet, Sartre doesn’t discuss this in the text itself. Rather, he banishes it to lengthy footnote halfway through the book, in which he notes that praxis is the sole ethical relation between people. As the small print sprawls on, he takes the reader on the roller coaster journey involved in the construction of an ethical point of view:

Every system of values rests on exploitation and oppression; every system of values effectively negates exploitation and oppression (even aristocratic systems, if not explicitly at least in their internal logic); every system of values confirms exploitation and oppression (even systems constructed by oppressed classes, if not in intention, at least in so far as they are systems); every system of values, in so far as it is based on a social practices, contributes directly or indirectly to establishing devices and apparatuses which, when the time comes (for example, on the basis of a revolution in techniques and tools) will allow this particular oppression and exploitation to be negated; every system of values, at the moment of its revolutionary efficacity, ceases to be a system, and values cease to be values; their character was due to the fact that they could not be transcended; and circumstances, overthrowing structures, institutions and exigencies, transform them into transcended significations: systems are reabsorbed into the organizations which they have created and the organizations, transformed by the overthrow of the social field, integrate themselves into new collective actions, carried out in the context of the new exigencies; and they disclose new values.

The way forward in the world, he seems to be saying, the way to transcend the dialectic of humiliation he outlined in Being and Nothingness, is through collective struggle to create community in the face of third party pulverization. Struggle is ethics, struggle is morality, struggle is integrity.

Which may all be true. But then the crushing question emerges: is struggle enough?

Friday, January 07, 2022

the bully and the bullied


I was reading Sarah Richmond’s new translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness when it occurred to me: the book can be read as a schoolboy's self-punishment fantasy: 

There I am, bent over the keyhole; suddenly I hear some steps. A shudder runs though me … someone is looking at me

… the anger of the object-Other—as it is manifested through his shouting, his foot stamping , and his threatening gestures … his hand in his pocket where he has a weapon, his finger poised on the electric bell to alert the guardhouse …

… the dark corner, in the corridor, transmitted back to me the possibility of hiding as a simple potential quality of its shadows, like an invitation from its darkness …

… this distraught running across the brambles, or the heavy fall onto the stones of the path …

… that immediate and burning presence of the other’s look … not the feeling of being this or that reprehensible object but, in general, of being an object, i.e., of recognizing myself in that degraded, dependent, and frozen being that I am for the other … shame is the revelation of the Other …

… Fear is nothing but a magical behavior, which aims to eliminate, by incantation, the terrifying objects that we are unable to hold at a distance … I live myself as frozen in the midst of the world, in danger, irremediable …

Sartre’s descriptions sound as if they have been transcribed from an interview with a kid being bullied: being spied upon (while spying upon others), being exposed as a fraud, being excluded, being made to feel incapable, being punished, running away, and accepting all this as normal, as fundamental to life.

Decades later, in Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre remains in this paradigm. He describes himself looking out a window at a road repairman and a gardener separated by a wall with broken glass cemented on top of it, a coating that serves to protect the hotel where he is staying from intruders. Here’s how he frames the scene:

“They have no knowledge at all of each other’s presence … [and] neither of them even bothers to wonder whether there is anybody on the other side … I can see them without being seen … I am ‘taking a holiday,’ in a hotel; and in my inertia as witness, I realize myself as a petty bourgeois intellectual … My initial relation to the two workers is negative: I do not belong to their class, I do not know their trades, I would not know how to do what they are doing, and I do not share their worries.”

Sartre's shame freezes him out of their reality, and he cannot conjure how they do what they do or imagine what they worry about. At the same time, his shame pins the workers to their labor – making them stick figures who have no lives outside their work nor any capacity to imagine each other. The world bullies us and, in our acceptance of our shame and our incompetence, we bully the world.

At the end of Being and Nothingness, Sartre offers an aspirational set of questions about the possible actions of free people in the world:

A freedom that wills itself as freedom is effectively a being-that-is-not-what-it-is and that-is-what-it-is-not which chooses, as being’s ideal, to be-what-it-is-not and to not-be-what-it-is. It does not therefore choose to reclaim itself but to flee from itself, not to coincide with itself but always to be at a distance from itself. How should we understand this being, whose wish is to stay at arm’s length, to be at fundamental distance from itself? Is this a case of bad faith, or of some other fundamental attitude? And can this new aspect of being be lived? In particular, will freedom, by taking itself as an end, escape from every situation. Or will it, on the contrary, remain situated? Or will it become situated all the more precisely and individually by virtue of projecting itself more fully into anguish, as freedom’s condition, and by laying greater claim to responsibility, as the existent through whom the world comes to being? All of these questions refer us to pure, and not complicit, reflection.

The problem is, there is no pure reflection. We are all complicit from the moment of our birth. We are both the bully and the bullied. 

We are free to remain complicit. Or we can step into the challenge of trying to break that cycle and to emerge, with others, into something new, more equal and empathetic, non-bullying. If life can be said to have a meaning, that’s probably pretty close to it.

Monday, July 19, 2021

What's government interference got to do with it?

When I was reporting from the street markets of Lagos, Nigeria, every merchant I spoke with bad-mouthed the government. It was exploitative and corrupt. It was hindering trade. It was threatening to demolish their stalls. They washed their hands of any allegiance to it. "The government has failed," auto parts dealer Sir Israel C. Okonkwo told me. "There is no government as far as Nigeria is concerned."

As I read Shelby Grossman's provocative new book, The Politics of Order in Informal Markets, I wondered how Sir Israel might respond. For Grossman has concluded that government's punitive actions actually benefit street markets. Indeed, she says, the threat of local political interventions in the markets -- no matter how harsh -- improves the work of the merchant associations that control those outposts of trade.

"Informal institutions perform better under the shadow of government, and worse in the absence of government interference," she writes. Indeed, she suggests, this counterintuitive effect happens because market associations need the support of all their members if they are to ward off the unwanted political intrusion. "When the government keeps its hands off the economy, group leaders extort. Yet if the government threatens to intervene, leaders organize."

Her granular work provides a vital snapshot of trade in the Nigerian megacity. More than 1,000 market vendors participated in her surveys and half of them reported that they import goods directly from overseas. The average merchant she interviewed paid more than $2,000 in rent each year. And, remarkably, while much of the country still relies on old-fashioned stick phones, 80 percent of the merchants she queried reported using a smartphone for business.

Among the other intriguing implications Grossman points to:

  • specialized markets -- trading zones that gather businesses in one field only -- are less likely to see better governance as as result of government interference (this, she concludes, is likely a result of the difficulty of getting traders to unify when they are in competition with one another.) As some of the biggest Lagos markets are also some of the least diversified -- I'm thinking of Ladipo and ASPAMDA (the Auto Spare Parts and Machine Dealers Association), which deal in auto parts and repair, Computer Village (the name makes its concentration obvious) and Alaba International (which concentrates on consumer electronics and household appliances), there's room here for a solid study on how these mega-markets govern themselves and interact with the political sphere.
  • though common sense would suggest that well-run markets would be better for business, Grossman's research shows this is not true. Having better market associations may make life somewhat better, but it doesn't seem to make business better. This, she notes, "is an exciting area for further research."
  • And in another fascinating finding, Grossman suggests that the solidarity implicit in ethnic homogeneity -- for instance, when most merchants in a market are from the same tribe -- does not ensure that market associations are transparent and fair, though it is somewhat linked to better policies. "Homogeneity may not be sufficient for good governance," she suggests, but "it is associated with better private governance." 

Grossman conducted surveys in street markets identified by LAWMA, the Lagos State Waste Management Authority -- and this initial reach into officialdom might have skewed her findings a bit. 

What's more, as her book is an academic monograph, Grossman seems to want the dividing line between good market associations and bad to be quite strict. "By definition," she writes, "extortion or predatory fee collection is inconsistent with good governance." My experience in the markets of Lagos was a little less binary. I found some market associations that extorted high fees from members also provided services like running arbitration courts to resolve market disputes. The idea that local market associations can both profiteer from and provide service to vendors might bear further study.

Also, perhaps because Grossman wants to keep the focus on government meddling in the markets, she steers clear of a variety of other complicated questions. For instance, though the majority of the vendors Grossman surveyed were Igbo, she avoids considering whether tribal traditions yield different market norms and structures. The Igbo make up at most 20 percent of the population of Nigeria but they are renowned as the country's "market-dominant minority." People from all backgrounds will regale you with stories about how the Igbo are super-sharks. Even Igbos push this storyline. As one friend counseled, citing an old joke: "If you go anywhere in the world and you don't find an Igbo man -- leave, because there's no business to be done." Many Igbo markets operate according to a unique customary apprenticeship system that doubles as a venture capital pool -- and this could explain their relative success in the informal ecosystem. At the same time, as a minority tribe -- the Hausa and Yoruba are the dominant groups in the country -- the Igbo have good reason not to trust government, and this might also explain a tradition of resisting government interference. It would be worth inquiring into Yoruba and Hausa markets to see if there are differences in how they are treated by the government.

In addition, over the past few years, the Lagos State government has demolished a number of markets. What explains the inability of these markets to resist? Were the associations simply too extortionist to turn around and organize? Or were pressures to use the land differently too hard to overcome? Also, I'd love to know if some market associations have started dabbling in politics -- funding parties or even putting up candidates themselves. The merchants have been quick to become savvy in business. I wonder if they can operate similarly in the political world.

Finally, a small stylistic plaint: Grossman sometimes lapses into academic jargon -- for instance using the verb 'predate.' She writes:

  • "The government could be interfering in order to predate."
  • "Group leaders who share the ethnicity of group members may feel more affinity toward them and be less likely to predate.
  • "Private associations will predate without public institutions that force them to behave otherwise."

If you're like me, you understand the verb 'predate' to mean "pre-date," or "to come before." 

But, of course, that's not the meaning here. 'Predate' is a back-formation -- a verb created from the noun 'predation' to produce a word related to the adjective 'predatory.' So 'to predate' means "to behave in a predatory manner."

Making verbs from nouns is common in specialized fields -- workers in high-end restaurants, for instance, talk about 'plating' food -- but there are lots of common words that could have replaced 'predate.' Extort, intervene, meddle, profiteer, interfere, or just "act in a predatory way" all would have been less obscure.

Still, this slim volume is stuffed full of insights into the real life of System D. 

A decade ago or so, when I was writing Stealth of Nations, I concluded that, despite the widespread disdain for government, the street markets had to find a way to work with the politicians in a kind of shotgun wedding. The Politics of Order in Informal Markets shows that, despite the tough words from merchants like Sir Israel, the engagement has already been announced and its impact is being felt in unexpected ways.