Breaking the back of neoliberalism: On Goosen’s Oor gemeenskap en plek

deur Auwais Rafudeen 

Breaking the back of neoliberalism On Goosens Oor gemeenskap en plek

Hierdie resensie het oorspronklik op 13 Mei 2015 op Litnet verskyn by:

There is deep dissatisfaction among many with the state of the world as it now stands. Wael Hallaq has characterised its crisis as follows: increasing inequality between the haves and have-nots; the breakdown of family bonds and community; and a global ecological catastrophe in the making.[1] And far from arresting this slide, the modern state appears to fan its flames. The result is the political and social violence so rampant in the world today.

But the causes of the crisis are profound. The crisis cannot be solved by surface-level interventions such as spreading the welfare net (or, in the South African context, increasing grants), engaging communities instrumentally to serve goals of the state, reducing carbon emissions, ensuring democracy or instituting human rights. Not that these measures do not – with qualifications – have their place. But at the root of the crisis lies a particular, historically recent conception of the human being and, consequently, of community and the state. It is this conception that drives the neoliberal order as we now know it, an order that is enmeshed with this crisis. And so it is this conception that needs to be addressed if we are to challenge the logic of this order and not simply its symptoms. A profound crisis requires a profound response.

Danie Goosen’s Oor gemeenskap en plek: anderkant die onbehae[2] constitutes such a response. This lyrical, lucid and indeed spiritual meditation on our current condition seeks to challenge the hyper-individualism of our times by restating the centrality of community in cultivating the real self. We seek our self-actualisation through the community and not beyond or against it. But in order to do so we need to resurrect the notion of community in the traditional sense – that is in the sense that preceded its current marginalisation and even instrumentalisation by the forces of modernism.

In juxtaposing the relationship between the individual and community in this way, Goosen delivers a crushing blow to suffocating identity politics.[3] Community members are not fenced off from the other, but indeed find themselves as a community because of the other. In contrast, in hyper-individualism the other is always the other (the individual is, after all, in this view atomistic and free-floating). One finds one’s self through the self. There is no inherent reaching out to the other. If such reaching out is done in the name of a cause or a shared belief as one finds in identity politics, then it is as a hyper-individual and any association or community formed on this basis is, in reality, a collection of hyper-individuals. It is somewhat ironic that it is through genuine communal identity that identity politics can be transcended.

For Goosen, this communal identity is a gift. Community as a gift is central to its traditionalist conception. The gift is initially located at the most primordial of all communal levels: the smile that a mother gives her child and which inducts him or her into the security of the wider community of which the mother is part. This contrasts with the angst of modern, atomistic selfhood. Such a selfhood, it can be safely inferred from Goosen, finds the concept of gift counter-intuitive and indeed strange. But the concept of gift, of course, has considerable implications for our psychological orientation to those around us. If we indeed see them as gifts, then such an orientation would intuitively engender a sense of obligation. Moreover, these obligations will be fulfilled with an underlying spirit of gratitude. In contrast, if our default position is to see ourselves as competing atoms, then we intuitively and often selfishly seek to focus on our rights.

But why is the gift alien to us? Why does it not engender a sense of obligation? For Goosen, this would be fundamentally connected to what is entailed by the individualist conception of the human being, namely, that he or she is free to follow any desire, and should not be curtailed in this respect by the norms and boundaries of a community. Far from being seen as a gift, communal identity is seen as an encumbrance. The multiplication of an individual’s desires is, in addition, assiduously cultivated by the advertising industry, and more broadly neoliberal logic as a whole. But this individualistic conception of the human being is deeply problematic for two reasons. Firstly, unchecked by the transcendent focus of a community, desire fosters unhealthy imitation and competitiveness, producing violence. Here Goosen’s viewpoint allows for a more open-ended view of violence that goes well beyond the physical. It harks back to an older notion of violence that speaks more to its emotional and moral affect than its purely physical effect. Capitalism is violent in itself (it erodes community and thus human well-being), and not simply violent because of its consequences (conflict and wars that result from pursuit of profit). Goosen gives a startling example of this when he considers the state’s imposition of dams, new roads and cities on the natural contours of a landscape (contours that were respected by local places) as an act of violence.

Secondly, the unrestrained pursuit of desire does not result in fulfilment – on the contrary, loneliness and despair appear to characterise the modern condition. Yet it is instructive that despite this ostensible opposition to community, despite all our attempts to erode the claims the latter may have on us, the community is still an intrinsic part of who we are. Goosen notes that Las Vegas, the epitome of consumerism, has no cathedral – one that would mark some element of the transcendent on to its neon world. But, and I am sure Goosen will agree here, its proliferation of chapels is indicative of our need – no matter how attenuated – to belong to something bigger than us. This belonging ultimately finds its deepest echo in our relationship to the transcendent. For Goosen, a traditional Christian, this transcendent is the triune God, but he makes it clear that the sense of this something beyond us is to be found in all religious traditions. The transcendent constitutes the nature on which we seek to pattern ourselves and the goal which we ultimately seek. In fact, for Goosen tradition is an ecstatic movement from the transcendent to the immanent and from the immanent to the transcendent again, and the purpose of community is to realise and participate in this movement. Far from being closed and stifling, community is dynamic and constantly opening itself to the wonder and mystery of this movement.

Of course, the fundamental problem for the modern condition is that the transcendent is felt to be absent. Reality is itself felt to be atomised and it is little wonder that human beings are seen to be so as well. More broadly, reality is experienced as separate, objectified things rather than as a cosmic unity, as per the traditional view – a unity which is tied to its source in God. Goosen does well to outline the richness of the traditional view, where each part of reality speaks not only to itself but to the greater reality of which it is part. Reality itself is communal in nature.

But it is also important to track the change in sensibilities which resulted in the modern condition and the perceived absence of the transcendent. Why have many people rejected tradition? Why have various new ways been developed of looking at reality? What causes them to have different affective dispositions to traditional religious verities? These are crucial issues to address. Goosen himself provides a large part of the answer when he notes that the state seeks to apply order to this loss of transcendence, to this sublime precipice (“sublieme afgrond” as he calls it). And it does this through its shaping of education, health, technology, policing and so forth. In other words, to borrow a conception from the anthropologist Talal Asad, it seeks to educate the senses in a particular way – in a way that, as Goosen points out, therapeutically assists with the loss of meaning and thus assuming this loss as afait accompli. Our senses, I would venture, are now educated to reject transcendence.

For Goosen, the turn away from the transcendent is the essence of monstrousness. The monstrous is solely concerned with self-preservation. And the subsequent “survival of the fittest” means that people become monsters to one another. And hence the necessity of the sovereign state to separate monsters from one another, or the imposition of puritanical or totalitarian philosophies to shape society in a particular manner. But all such attempts are still caught up in the same dialectic that engendered the monstrous, since they all implicitly regard it as substantive. In the tradition, though, the monstrous is in reality “nothingness” and is properly opposed by the overflow of reality, of the transcendent, on which traditional worlds are focused. Postmodernism successfully punctures the illusion of a modern “self” by pointing out that it is based on the view of reality as empty, but its “no-self” is likewise inscribed in the same dialectic and so ultimately extends the monstrous. To transcend this dialectic, to transcend the monstrous, we need to find orientation points in tradition and by extension community. The monster is indeed the one who stands outside a community, who does not participate in its affairs, who does not seek communion with the transcendent – this communion being the reason for community – who lives in the wilderness. He or she personifies hyper-individualism which, while maintaining social relations for pragmatic purposes, is really selfish at heart. It is not that a very limited form of selfishness, namely self-preservation, is not a virtue. But self-preservation must be tied to the higher virtues of communal participation and the pursuit of the ultimate Good (it is these two latter virtues that monsters lack). More than that, the monster wreaks havoc on communities and so too with hyper-individualism. But, crucially, monsters are separated from those who are not through the notion of virtues. It is not so much the pure location outside a community that fosters the monstrous; it is that such a location is not conducive to cultivating virtues. And so, of course, it is still quite possible that those who appear monstrous may demonstrate the virtues and those are seen as members of a community may not (though the norm, of course, is for virtues to be realised through a community). Goosen’s focus on virtues and on natural law – it is because the world is rational and ordered that allows us to sift the monstrous from the non-monstrous – has a critical implication: it engenders a radical and crucial depersonalisation of critique. For example, when attacking the negative consequences of liberalism or communism, one is importantly not attacking liberals or communists per se – liberals or communists who may have virtues that some of those doing the attacking may lack. And this can be applied to other philosophies or conceptions of reality, as distinct from those who hold on to these conceptions. This, again, deals identity politics and its “othering” a vital blow.

Where does all of this leave the individual? Goosen is deeply respectful of individual creativity and its importance to a healthy community. So his call is for a differentiated community – one similarly respectful of such creativity. But at heart such a communal orientation to the individual can be realised only when the community does not close in on itself, but is continually conscious of the greater, cosmic whole of which it is part. It is only within this whole that individual creativity can be truly appreciated and nurtured.

But it is a conception of an individual that, as mentioned, is not free-floating but is intrinsically conscious of his or her origin (from the transcendent), nature (of the transcendent) and goal (to the transcendent). Modernism has cut off the relationship of such elements to one another and now sees them as fragmented, precisely because it now rejects the transcendent they entail. And so, in contrast to the classic Aristotelian schemata, the individual is no more characterised by a nature and a telos, but is seen as the author of his or her own path, and that path will be carved out on an intractable material reality – a carving out that is, in effect, a will to power. And it is really here that we find the engine room of Goosen’s philosophical analysis. If one thing characterises modernism, it is its elevation of the effective and material causes, and its marginalisation, and even annulment, of the formal and teleological ones. Pure will and matter rule the roost, while notions of human nature and purpose are discarded and even rejected. This, of course, occurs in various degrees: liberal democracy is different from communism, but they concur in seeing these causes according to modernism’s new hierarchy (unlike the traditional universe where these causes were balanced) and so, despite being at different ends of the political spectrum, they are both caught up in the underlying logic that sustains modern polity.

This modernist mindset thus has crucial political implications. The modern territorial state, it can be said, is fashioned by the same mindset. It, too, aims at power and control by enclosing communities within geometric boundaries. More crucially, it often seeks to homogenise the territory under its control through national education, health, the law, etc, in order to create effective citizens in the service of the state. As such, it sees communities and the institutions and cultural forms associated with community as obstacles that, at best, need to be made marginal and at worst eliminated. And this, as modern historians will point out, has indeed occurred, often with catastrophic effects.

Goosen’s own opposition to apartheid, he tells us, was primarily philosophical in orientation. And while he has moved away from the Heideggerian position that informed his opposition, his basic insight that it was at root a philosophical problem (with devastating consequences) was surely right. Apartheid, as he points out, manifested this modernist mindset, seeking to enclose, contain, and control communities in the same manner. Apartheid represents an absolutisation of the effective cause: moulding the reality in the way it, like modernity, deems applicable. Apartheid is, philosophically, an extension of the liberal modern project to geometrise reality: it may be the family outcast, but it is nonetheless part of that family. In fact, as this is a crucial insight of Goosen’s, when we examine the logic of modernity – a logic rooted in the new hierarchy of causes that it projects – then many of the seeming conflicts in modernity, such as freedom versus necessity, state versus individual, the left versus the right, etc, are not conflicts at all, but products of that very modernity. And so, for example, while there is widespread dissatisfaction with the neoliberal order, quite often the critique of this order simply replicates its underlying logic. We need to overturn this logic altogether if we are truly to challenge this order. While Goosen, with his Burkean sensibilities, would find physical revolution anathema, there is little doubt in my mind that what he is proposing is nothing less than revolutionary at the level of ideas.

A caveat of sorts is in order here. Goosen argues against affirmative action, for example, on the basis that it replicates the centralising logic of the state. In principle he is correct. But there is another factor to take into consideration. The centralising logic of the apartheid regime, of course, had severe consequences, as Goosen himself makes clear. “Whiteness” and “blackness” may be state constructs, but they are also overwhelmingly social ones that have profound affective consequences for relationships between people. While affirmative action may indeed reflect a centralising logic on the one hand, it speaks to the need for our affective relationships to be righted. As such, with due qualification being given to the fact that it reflects this logic and should ultimately be transcended, could its current implementation perhaps not be seen as an instance of good judgement (“goeie oordeel” as Goosen calls it), which has always been an important part of traditional polity? It would be interesting to hear how Goosen takes such affective considerations into account.

But coming back to the main argument: What is the way forward? What is the way to re-enchant the world, the way to implement practically that traditional alternative to neoliberal logic? Goosen suggests that we should be looking at more local movements and to political structures such as federalism that are more amenable to fostering the notion of community. I may add here that since the turn away from the tradition was initiated by different sensibilities, sensibilities taught and to which we have become habituated through modern education, such political initiatives would also need to nurture more traditional sensibilities as contained in classical education of various stripes (Greek, Confucian, Islamic etc). Our senses have been educated to regard tradition as too far-fetched, too romantic, unrealistic. A different type of education may change our perceptions, one that would indeed make our obsession with realism in the secular sense, with the material, appear unnatural and unseemly. This of course has enormous implications for the humanities and in particular what it means to be a university – an idea expounded elsewhere in Goosen’s writings.

For Goosen, the cultivation of such sensibilities would also be integrally connected to the resurrection of the notion of place. In a way similarly to the philosopher Albert Borgmann, he believes that modernity has led us to focus on things in themselves, as abstracted entities, and not in terms of the connection to other things. The rootedness and nature of “place” allows us to make these connections. In a beautiful passage he clarifies his point in this way: “Due to the fact that things possess a particular demarcated place among other places, they become meaningful to us. Without attachment to place, things simply pass us by. And so the table, the cup and the shoe firstly have meaning for me because they appear in such demarcated places (such as in my grandmother’s farm kitchen, in my study, in a book of a beloved writer, in a Vermeer painting, or in a Beethoven piano sonata).”[4] It is the notion of place that allows as to attach ourselves to something, to fight against the fleetingness of things engendered by modernity.

Goosen is not a solipsist. He is not calling for us to reject liberal modernity. On the contrary, he recognises its dominance (it’s “almost the air that we breathe”). He also recognises its positive and even necessary features (the improvements it has brought to human life as well). But what he is calling for is an alternative modernity, one that recognises that we cannot and should indeed not go back, but which seeks to shape the unfolding of our reality in the light of an ancient, deep and proven wisdom. For it is only through this wisdom, as this immensely important book teaches us (and I specifically use the word “teach” in its profound traditional sense), that we can fundamentally break the stranglehold of our debilitating neoliberal reality.

  • Auwais Rafudeen is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and Arabic, Unisa.



[1] Wael Hallaq (2014), The impossible state. Columbia University Press.

[2] FAK, Pretoria (2015).

[3] That is, identity politics in a negative sense. Goosen does mention a positive sense of identity politics view of the self that is in balance with the other. But in the sense I mean it here it is an identity mobilised in terms of a particular view, or a particular set of views, around an issue, and thus an identity that is really rooted in the self while instrumentally employing others. This is a far cry from an identity rooted in a community.

[4] Goosen, Gemeenskap, 411; my translation.

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