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Hegemonic Power and Varieties of Neoliberalism

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In a lecture delivered in Vienna in 1935, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl expressed an anxiety concerning the contemporary predicament of European humanity in the times of science. Despite, and indeed in view of, the undeniable progress in the natural sciences, Europeans were becoming increasingly resistant to a sense of history as something other than an “unending concatentation of illusory progress”.

Before saying something further about this predicament, I want first to pick up on the major assumption in his discussion: namely, that overcoming this predicament requires recovering “a teleological sense” of the history of “man”.

Although I do not really think it is restricted to political liberalism, for reasons that will emerge, I will call the sense of history that Husserl regards as being lost to as one belonging to classical liberalism. Such liberalism draws on this sense of history in what can be described as a three step response to the question of human flourishing.

First step: a satisfactory account of the conditions for human flourishing must acknowledge the variety of rational interests, interests which are, that is to say, uniquely characteristic of “man” conceived as a rational animal: science, art, commerce, politics, religion, etc..

Second step: With this variety in view, just power should aim to organise the social world in such a way that each person’s capacity freely to perform in each of these domains is optimised.

Third step: human history is the movement of increasing progress in realising such a society; it is the movement of the emancipation and progress of “man” in time: from its origins in primitive human animality, human societies are moving in stages towards the optimal realisation of man’s rational capacities in a properly civilised society, with Europe at the head.

Husserl’s remarks about the predicament of modern European humanity suggest that what I am calling the classical liberal view is in crisis. Suddenly the movement of our history seems not to be taking the path we thought we were on.

I want to propose the following hypothesis. Hegemonic conceptions of human flourishing in Europe have rarely been classically liberal. Instead, hegemonic power has been established and held by more than one neoliberal community of ideas.

The thought here is that efforts to optimise opportunities for leading a life proper to “man” have given rise to movements that attempt to achieve the hegemonic domination of the norms that belong to only one of the domains of human life.

I define neoliberalism in general, then, as the outlook of a community of ideas that seeks the limitless extension of the norms of conduct of one domain of life to the whole of life. Its emancipatory claim is that it will achieve the optimal flourishing of the whole of life by co-ordinating and controlling it in terms dictated by the norms of that one domain.

Anachronisms are piling up. The liberal conception I am describing will have only recently taken that name, and the term neoliberalism is of even more recent vintage, and passes for many today as a kind of catch-all for ‘everything bad about capitalism’. However, conceptually speaking the two terms together are well suited for this discussion, particularly if we accept that behind the various appeals to the idea of neoliberalism made today, there is a basic conception of it as a hegemonic movement that seeks the limitless extension of the market model to all spheres of life. Proponents of it might say: the aim of applying market-orientated reasoning everywhere is to optimise the conditions for human flourishing in general.

However, there is a feature of our time that Husserl is alive to that fundamentally interrupts this a-historical conceptual contrast: namely, the absence in our time (unless we are Marxists) of the kind of substantive philosophy of history through which the classical liberal conception, in its third step, had understood our lives.

This is profoundly connected to the progress of science itself: in particular through the radically decentring blows effected by the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. In our time, we are more resistant than Europeans of former times knew how to be to theological (eschatological) or metaphysical (teleological) conceptions of human nature and history.

And then into the space left open by the falling away of classic eschatological and teleological discourses of human flourishing the community of ideas that champions economic neoliberalism has been able to occupy the field virtually unchallenged. It all seems despairingly hopeless, making our existence fundamentally pointless.

But the situation only seems despairing if, with Husserl, you think that the only way our lives could be regarded as meaningful is against the background of a vision of human history as the progressive movement of our forms of social life towards distant, ideally just, condition. But one does not have to have such a vision in view to affirm that making the future better matters to us: one can simply want to make it so that what one makes of what has been passed down to us will have been some kind of (by one’s lights) progressive preface to what remains to come, without any vision of a distant final end.

This can be illustrated with reference to the unease that many feel about modern factory farming, intensive livestock rearing, and the extinction of innumerable animal species. Without presuming a substantive conception of human nature or history, the unease is that these developments show us modern men and women, as in a mirror, as at certain points akin to a form of life we might well think profoundly alien: akin, that is, to an animal with, as David Wiggins has put it, “no non-instrumental concerns and no interest in the world considered as lasting longer than the animal in question will need the world to last in order to sustain the animal’s own life”.

Such a life, “functioning” to such a destructive end, is not just depressing but runs totally against the grain of a participant’s sense that the temporal “here and now” of an ordinary human life is one in which “the dead and the unborn are also present”. The world in which we live out our lives is one which “connects us to worlds before and after us”. Our lives, our lived sense of who we are, is conceived out of and within that temporal stretch. “Functioning to no end” might describe, in objective terms, the infrastructure of a presently operational life-support system, but from the inside of a human life this “presence”, the milieu of our “spiritual worlds”, is already a “present” that is fundamentally linked to those who are not there.

Jacques Derrida has argued that it is only within this participatory sense of the deep connectedness of our “living present” to others who are not present (the essential historicity of our historical existence), and not in view of a distant horizon of an ideal end of history, that issues of justice, emancipation and progress can come into view in the first place:

It is in the name of justice that it is necessary to speak about ghosts, inheritance, and generations, generations of ghosts, which is to say about certain others who are not present, nor presently living… No ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognise in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born.

In the struggle to organise a response to economic neoliberalism today we may be inclined to think, like Husserl in the 1930s, that we need to rediscover a teleological sense of human history – a new grasp of and heading towards a form of social life that is finally (and objectively) proper to “man”. Emerging out of the Christian eschatological tradition and its hope for final redemption, political neoliberalism aimed to realise regimes without evil by forging a community of brothers, citizens, or comrades that would finally be, in a strong sense, one. Economic neoliberalism arrives in the wake of that dream’s ending in the horror of Stalinism and Nazism. However, as the site of (let’s not say an atheist but) an atheologised recognition of “the finitude of present functioning”, it also frees the space for a radically decentred, non-mystical and non-metaphysical, participatory vision of that finite presence. Derrida concludes:

In the same place, on the same limit, where history is finished, there where a certain determined concept of history comes to an end, precisely there the historicity of history begins, there finally it has the chance of heralding itself – of promising itself. There where man, a certain determined concept of man, is finished, there the pure humanity of man, of the other man and of man as other begins or has finally the chance of heralding itself – of promising itself.

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New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

Newsroom

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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