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What is emancipatory politics?

From the relatively early development of the modern era onwards, the dynamism of modern institutions has stimulated, and to some extent has been promoted by, ideas of human emancipation. In the first place this was emancipation from the dogmatic imperatives of tradition and religion. Through the application of methods of rational understanding, not just to the areas of science and technology, but to human social life itself, human activity was to become free from pre-existing constraints.

If, with appropriate qualifications to cover over-simplification, we recognise three overall approaches within modern politics -- radicalism (including Marxism in this category), liberalism and conservatism -- we can say that emancipatory politics has dominated all of them, although in rather differing ways. Liberal political thinkers, like radicals, have sought to free individuals and the conditions of social life more generally from the constraints of pre-existing practices and prejudices. Liberty is to be achieved through the progressive emancipation of the individual, in conjunction with the liberal state, rather than through a projected process of revolutionary upheaval. `Conservatism', the third category, almost by definition takes a more jaundiced view of the emancipatory possibilities of modernity. But conservative thought only exists as a reaction to emancipation: conservatism has developed as a rejection of radical and liberal thought, and as a critique of the disembedding tendencies of modernity.

I define emancipatory politics as a generic outlook concerned above all with liberating individuals and groups from constraints which adversely affect their life chances. Emancipatory politics

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involves two main elements: the effort to shed shackles of the past, thereby permitting a transformative attitude towards the future; and the aim of overcoming the illegitimate domination of some individuals or groups by others. The first of these objectives fosters the positive dynamic impetus of modernity. The break-away from fixed practices of the past allows human beings to secure increasing social control over their life circumstances. Of course, major philosophical differences have arisen over how this aim is to be achieved. Some have supposed that the emancipatory drive is governed by causal conditions which, in social life, operate in much the same way as physical causation. For others -- and this is surely more valid -- the relation is a reflexive one. Human beings are able reflexively to `use history to make history'. 2

The liberating of human beings from traditional constraints has little `content' save for the fact that it reflects the characteristic orientation of modernity -- the subjection to human control of features of the social and natural worlds that previously determined human activities. Emancipatory politics only achieves a more substantive content when it is focused on divisions between human beings. It is essentially a politics of `others'. For Marx, of course, class was the agency of emancipation as well as the driving force of history. The general emancipation of humanity was to be achieved through the emergence of a classless order. For non-Marxist authors, emancipatory politics gives more farreaching importance to other divisions: divisions of ethnicity and gender, divisions between ruling and subordinate groups, rich and poor nations, current and future generations. But in all cases the objective of emancipatory politics is either to release underprivileged groups from their unhappy condition, or to eliminate the relative differences between them.

Emancipatory politics works with a hierarchical notion of power: power is understood as the capability of an individual or group to exert its will over others. Several key concepts and orienting aims tend to be especially characteristic of this vision of politics. Emancipatory politics is concerned to reduce or eliminate exploitation, inequality and oppression. Naturally, these are defined variously by different authors, and since the main concern of this chapter is not in fact with the nature of emancipatory

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politics, I shall not try to chart them in a systematic way. Exploitation in general presumes that one group -- say, upper as compared to working classes, whites as compared to blacks, or men as compared to women -- illegitimately monopolises resources or desired goods to which the exploited group is denied access. Inequalities can refer to any variations in scarce resources, but differential access to material rewards has often been given prime importance. Unlike inequalities in genetic inheritance, for instance, differential access to material rewards forms part of the generative mechanisms of modernity, and hence can in principle (not, of course, in practice) be transformed to any desired degree. Oppression is directly a matter of differential power, applied by one group to limit the life chances of another. Like other aspects of emancipatory politics, the aim to liberate people from situations of oppression implies the adoption of moral values. `Justifiable authority' can defend itself against the charge of oppression only where differential power can be shown to be morally illegitimate.

Emancipatory politics makes primary the imperatives of justice, equality and participation. In a general way these correspond to the three types of power division just mentioned. All have many variant formulations and can overlap more or less substantially.

Norms of justice define what counts as exploitation and, conversely, when an exploitative relation becomes one of morally defensible authority. A limiting case here would be anarchism, in so far as this doctrine holds that a social order is feasible in which not just exploitation, but authority as such, no longer exists. The fostering of equality, in some schools of thought, is held to be a prime value in itself, and occasionally is seen the overriding aim of emancipatory politics. Most forms of radical and liberal thought, however, regard certain kinds of inequality as legitimate and even desirable -- as where material inequalities are justified because they provide economic incentives which generate efficient production. Participation, the third imperative, stands opposed to oppression since it permits individuals or groups to influence decisions that would otherwise be arbitrarily imposed on them. Again ideals of democratic involvement have to specify levels of participation, as hierarchical power is not inevitably

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oppressive any more than all authority is inherently exploitative.

Since emancipatory politics is concerned above all with overcoming exploitative, unequal or oppressive social relations, its main orientation tends to be `away from' rather than `towards'. In other words, the actual nature of emancipation is given little flesh, save as the capacity of individuals or groups to develop their potentialities within limiting frameworks of communal constraint. The reluctance of most progressivist thinkers since the Enlightenment to think in Utopian terms (although there are many exceptions) is one expression of this orientation. Marx's writings provide a characteristically resolute example. `Utopian socialism' is to be avoided because it gives concrete form to the sought-after society. We cannot legislate in advance as to how people will live in such a social order: this must be left to them, when it actually comes into being.

If there is a mobilising principle of behaviour behind most versions of emancipatory politics it could be called the principle of autonomy. 3 Emancipation means that collective life is organised in such a way that the individual is capable -- in some sense or another -- of free and independent action in the environments of her social life. Freedom and responsibility here stand in some kind of balance. The individual is liberated from constraints placed on her behaviour as a result of exploitative, unequal or oppressive conditions; but she is not thereby rendered free in any absolute sense. Freedom presumes acting responsibly in relation to others and recognising that collective obligations are involved. Rawls's theory of justice forms a prominent example of a version of emancipatory politics. 4 The basic conditions governing autonomy of action are worked out in terms of a thematic of justice; Rawls provides a case for justice as an organising ambition of emancipation. Yet how individuals and groups in a just order will actually behave is left open.

Much the same could be said of Habermas's attempt to develop a framework for emancipatory politics in terms of a theory of communication. 5 The ideal-speech situation, held to be immanent in all language use, provides an energising vision of emancipation. The more social circumstances approximate to an idealspeech situation, the more a social order based on the autonomous action of free and equal individuals will emerge. Individuals

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will be free to make informed choices about their activities; so will humanity on a collective level. Yet little or no indication is given about what those choices will actually be.

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 4957

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