Kant suggests it is part of human nature that in societies friction emerges inevitably as each individual seeks her own ends. This friction is offset by the claim that no single lifetime could feasibly accommodate the complete realisation of all of human beings’ capacities. So, Kant supposes, the entire history of humanity is the arena wherein human beings’ potential can be realised. This being so, politics is a necessary condition for human progress per se as it is politics that mediates the friction between the individual’s plans and the progress of the community of all humanity.
In the context of an unfolding of humanity (of progress) and the necessity to act consistently with one’s being an agent, one ought to do all one can to maximise the extent to which one can act and be unthwarted. From a historical point of view, social acting, on public reasons, is very important. Kant makes this point about law and freedom in terms of public and private reason, describing it as follows: Privately we must obey law, but always be ready publicly to challenge it.
At its most general, the importance of careful reasoning in terms of the public draws upon Kant’s view on ‘sensus communis’. This isn’t ‘common sense’ as it would be known most widely, but rather is an a priori faculty of reasoning the denial of which would amount to a contradiction of agency in any given reasoner:
…under the sensus communis we must include the Idea of a communal sense, i.e. of a faculty of judgement, which in its reflection takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of all other men [sic] in thought; in order as it were to compare its judgement with the collective Reason of humanity, and thus to escape the illusion arising from the private conditions that could be so easily taken for objective, which would injuriously affect the judgement. This is done by comparing our judgement with the possible rather than the actual judgements of others, and by putting ourselves in the place of any other man, by abstracting from the limitations which contingently attach to our own judgement. (Kritik of Judgement, §40)
The sensus communis is a form of individual judgement that takes into account one others’ partial, bounded ways of representing matters. The point of this is to scrutinise particular judgements in this light of general human reasoning. This should avoid the individual, partial perspectives on matters that although personally compelling, could in general have a detrimental effect on any judgment made. From this constitutive principle of judgements in agents per se springs a motivation for taking an interest in public (or social) matters, taking care in that interest, and hoping others do likewise.
The hope in the value of sensus communis can be strained by various social realities. Jürgen Habermas highlights some of these in his analyses of social structures in relation to market-capitalist structures, and how the basis for types of social structure are eroded by the evolution of such structures:
[A] conflict (within capitalist society) has the following form: on the one hand, the priorities set under economic imperatives cannot be allowed to depend upon a discursive formation of the public will – therefore politics today assumes the appearance of a technocracy. On the other hand, the exclusion of consequential practical questions from discussion by the depoliticized public becomes extremely difficult as a result of the long-term erosion of the cultural tradition which had regulated conduct and which, until now, could be presupposed as a tacit boundary condition of the political system. Because of this, a chronic need for legitimation is developing today. (Theory and Practice, p.5)
A widely discussed notion is that those of a generation ago (whatever that means) leveraged their socio-economic status to secure that very status would last, at the expense of future generations. The idea is that baby-boomers sold out the millennials. The cultural erosion between these groups, despite the sharing of a prima facie similar way of life, looks like a prime candidate for legitimation crisis. The ‘prima facie similar way of life’ is western democratic consumer capitalism. By focussing on the consumption element, I want to follow a line of thought that may ring true in some important respects, and represents a flight from sensus communis, as well as corroborating the Habermasian dilemma just quoted.
Consumerist social groups have tendencies like those Habermas postulates. They aspire toward aims that erode the basis from which the possibility of consumerist societies arose in the first place. Consumption of goods and services, predicated on a complex of working to save to buy to possess permits the development of an economy based on these sorts of stages. This provides a skeletal framework that allows producers, markets, and consumers to regulate their mutual interactions. This is a kind of culture that represents a boundary condition for consumerism.
Where this kind of framework is precipitated out by some set of circumstances, and consumerism becomes consumption for its own sake, the ties upon the producer, market, and consumer are loosened, the culture eroded.
More acutely, where consumption becomes consumption for its own sake, and itself joins the set of things consumed as a symbol of status, serious dysfunction emerges. Where the aims of a consumerist social group include conspicuous consumption itself, the generative background to the value of that consumed disintegrates from the social group.
Suddenly, the group is no more, and only the aim remains: consume. This is the value that remains, in a void where a social structure used to reside.
In a final self-cannibalism, the consumer as symbol of their own consumption must find that which no other can consume in order to recover a vestige of value beyond this deracinated imperative ‘consume’. That which no other can in principle possess is oneself, and so oneself must be commodified. The value of this commodity is that no one else can be it. But the cost is ceaseless advertisement.
Oneself as commodity un-consumable by another, hence valuable beyond consumerism per se, requires that this incomparability be continually displayed. What value would an unknown unattainable be? The Pegasus-self must be lit in neon. The value comes from producing, from performing, and yet withholding the self as commodity. It is both an absorption, and a negation, of the generative basis for consumerism. Consumption itself becomes internalised, and then embodied, but without the values that led to its inception.
A pathological syndrome of self-abstraction, absorption, and performance becomes the limit of consumerist sociality. This is self-serving in two senses: the serving of oneself as commodity, in order to serve up to oneself advantage in a distorted public game of value-seeking without foundation.
Losing our sensus
Where the boundary conditions represented by a cultural foundation for a consumerist society wane, the consumers themselves lose connection between work, consumption, possession. They internalise the ideas of consumerism, but without the foundation and in so doing, become parodic commodities themselves, constantly in need of advertisement to retain a semblance of value. Evidence of this tendency can be seen in the dominance of expressive media such as Twitter over (potentially) reflective media such as ‘the dead trees press’, or in the pseudo-celebrity status sought my politicians, academics, and social commentators.
In this championing of partiality is seen the dereliction of sensus communis, with its emphasis upon seeing in context how judgements shape up. This represents a gap wherein some values ought to reside. There is a need for a boundary culture to condition this otherwise self-cannibalising syndrome, but the forum in which to achieve this culture is missing. A potential way out comes from pluralism. This could be based on a question like the following, from Habermas:
How would the members of a social system, at a given stage in the development of productive forces. have collectively and bindingly interpreted their needs (and which norms would they have accepted as justified) if they could and would have decided on the organization of social intercourse through discursive will formation, with adequate knowledge of the limiting conditions and functional imperatives of society? (Legitimation Crisis, p.113)
Pluralism is at the heart of even the most coarse self-commodification as it is a basic principle of difference and value in the difference. That value is sought at all suggests this is not simply relativism, given difference is seen in contrast with other cases. In this is a material manifestation of pluralism and of value in difference. In finding a way to detach this from market notions, it could be possible to recover the sensus communis in some way that would permit a forum.
From the agora to the forum, the market exchange to the exchange of ideas, a recovery of community from self-defeat could yet be achieved by a reimagining of how we would have done things differently, had we the chance to explicitly arrange things.
We need to clip the wings of the neon Pegasus.