The Desire for Social Unity: Levinas and Berdyaev

By Harold, Philip | Philosophy Today, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Desire for Social Unity: Levinas and Berdyaev


Harold, Philip, Philosophy Today


If such a thing as a "postmodern" perspective on politics exists, it can only be understood through its relation to something called a "modern" perspective. Politically, modernity is many things, but there are two types perhaps which are emblematic of a particularly modern approach to politics: the bureaucrat and the revolutionary.

The bureaucrat is a modern man. Rule by knowledge, the domination of experts who act in their areas of specialization according to objective criteria, bureaucratic rationality subsumes cases under norms and weighs ends and means. An abstract way of thinking, it strives to eliminate all consideration of persons. While by duty upholding professional standards, bureaucrats have no personal interest in their administration (being salaried officials, they do not personally own the organization they run) and do not operate under personal motives. The rule of bureaucracy is regular, matter-of-fact, according to fixed rules which can be learnt, and exercised by officials who make it their career and have private lives of their own. Bureaucratization expands the rule of law and formal equality, and meets the demands for greater security and order.1

The revolutionary is also a modern man. Doubting the inevitability of poverty and suffering, the revolutionary wants to begin anew in history. Preoccupied with establishing a permanent foundation for politics, he seeks more than just restoring civil rights, but of obtaining a new freedom, admission to the public sphere. The bureaucrat rules by the application of specialized knowledge; the revolutionary likewise wants to apply what he has learned through study and reflection.2 The revolutionary is a thinker. Motivated by ideas, he passionately believes that a perfect secular order - not just a new government - will emerge by destroying traditional authority. Lacking an interest in and understanding formed by the study of history, the revolutionary treats history "prophetically as a kind of unfolding morality play."3 History is the story of progress, the expansion of rationality, which revolution can only further. Revolution has "history on its side." But that which the revolutionary desires is only "the simple, almost banal aims of modern secular man generally"4 which are pursued with great intensity.

Modern politics is about solving problems through reason or through revolution. If reason cannot prevail on a social level it is because freedom is being obstructed by the dominant class, a blockage which can only be removed through the alliance offeree with reason, overturning the false order of society through revolution.

When problems are not solved by modern reason and revolution, when they seem to deepen rather than dissipate, when new problems are created by the blunt, impersonal technique of bureaucracies, or when the cruelties of revolution, rather than being temporary, are propagated and multiplied, and the revolution itself peters out, the rationality of each is exposed as a ruse, a dogma which justifies the exploitation of some over others. If reason is only a tactic to justify a partial and in no way universal interest, this must be explained and dealt with by rethinking reason to find space for that which is left out of the scheme of progress. This rethinking is performed by existentialism, which, as exemplified by the thought of Nicholas Berdyaev, opposes both bureaucratic rationality and revolutionary action. In Berdyaev's case, as for others, this is done by speaking a language of "values."

The logic of the language of values, however, is not one of outright repudiation of the two forms modern rationality can take: bureaucratic instrumental reason and revolutionary faith in reason. Rather, it allows them to supplement each other. Bureaucracy can supplement itself with revolutionary jargon by making it "part of the conventional phraseology of political Philistines and banausic technicians,"5 through values-speak. …

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