Is history progressive and directional?

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Mon Apr 3 21:47:19 MDT 1995


I'm not sure how coherent my response to Justin will be, but I think this
discussion is important, so here goes. To begin I want to juxtapose two
pararaphs from Justin's reply to my remarks on his initial post. He writes
first that:

>A key claim that I left out of my brief restatement is that there is an
>asymmetry between domination and its opposite or negation, emancipation,
>the limitation or abolition of domination. If resistance succeeds in an
>emancipatory direction, the formerly dominant group ceases to exist as
>such--there are no more slaveowners--and therefore no longer can generate
>regressive resistance that tends to establish new forms of domination.
>Emancipation therefore tends to be progressive, although this is not
>inevitable or guaranteed.

And at the very end of his post he adds:

>Well, this connects up with my larger project. What is our basis for
>thinking domination to be wrong, specifically unjust? After all, the
>dominant groups say that it is just. We disagree, but is that just because
>we belong to subordinate groups, or identify with them? Why do either of
>the latter constitute to condemn domination? My argument about progress is
>part of a case that there is more than that to the condemnation.
>Domination is unjust because of the asymmetry I mentioned: the justice of
>the dominant groups will be destabilized while that of the subordinate
>groups will not. If, as I argue, stability of a certain sort is necessary
>for justice, then  emancipatory justice wins.

So it would appear that his argument hinges on the existence of this
asymmetry between dominance and emancipation. Emancipation tends to be
cumulative and stable, while domination tends to engender emancipatory
movements which will eventually suppress one set of exploiters after
another. Perhaps it is because of the abbreviated nature of Justin's
exposition, but I find it unpersuasive to argue that the superiority of
justice as defined by emancipatory movements hinges on its greater stability
compared to justice as defined by the dominant groups.

Assuming, for example, that one accepts that the transition between
capitalism and feudalism is part of the general progress from societies
exhibiting greater degrees of dominance towards socieities exhibiting
greater degrees of emancipation, Justin's argument would imply that
capitalism is superior to feudalism because it generates a greater degree of
stability. Stability in whose sense, though? Maybe this is not the sort of
stability Justin had in mind, but in some ways at least feudalism could be
thought to be more stable (though not without its own internal problems, of
course) than capitalism, which constantly revolutionises the means of
production, etc.

I am also not sure why Justin equivocates regarding the strength of the
historical tendency towards emancipation, as when he says that "emancipation
therefore tends to be progressive, although this is not inevitable or
guaranteed". Is not the core of the argument that there is a direction to
history? If it is not inevitable then how is it directional in any relevant
sense? I can accept that there are reasons to preserve emancipatory gains
and that their preservation can constitute a cumulative historical process.
There are similar reasons for preserving technological gains that respond to
perceived needs amongst a given population. But I am not convinced that this
is enough to impart a "direction to history". One can identify the links in
the historical chain and the new possibilities that arise with each new
socio-economic system without being committed to the proposition that the
actual sequence of historical events embodies a direction.

Justin also argued that:

>Right, but at the level of abstraction at which I'm dealing this doesn't
>matter. The only question is  whatever group there are, let them
>be what you will, can correctly be classified as dominant or subordinate.
>The argument is that subordinate groups, whatever they are, will resist
>the oppression of dominant groups, whatever _they_ are, and the latter
>will defend their dominance, whatever its basis.

This is where I think that Fellini was right to pick up on the rational
choice aspect of Justin's argument. For Justin's argument to hold, the
individuals who make up the various groups must eventually act in defense of
their "interests" (which are shaped by their location within a social
structure where some groups are dominant and others subordinate). The
"rational" impulse to act in one's best interest must ultimately prevail
over any counter-vailing tendencies (which can range from deliberate
ideological obfuscation, to "irrational" impulses, to general processes of
social conditioning).

I would want to take issue with Justin's claim that at the level of
abstraction that matters one can dispense with any consideration of the
content of these interests. For Justin's argument to work the relationship
between dominance and emancipation has to be an "absolute" one. For him,
there just is domination and there just is emancipation, and, in general, it
is a clear cut matter to decide what is what. The example of competing
interests between groups of workers that I offered in my last post was
designed to suggest that this is never the case.

Furthermore, I think that this type of argument can run into a "Rawlsian"
objection. It is possible that under certain circumstances the preservation
of an inegalitarian system based on the domination of some groups over
others could be in the "interest" of a majority of the dominated themselves.
It depends on the alternatives that are available in the real world. Are the
least well off in a given society better off with a smaller share of a
larger pie or a larger share of a smaller pie? It depends on the size of the
pie and the size of the share. Are workers better off to pursue a strike
that will cause a plant to shut down or to give in before attaining their
goals? It depends on how important those goals are, and the consequences of
the plant shutting down. When does it make sense to take a leap of faith
towards a socialist future knowing that many people will lose their lives
along the way? When the alternative is worse, and we have a chance of
succeeding.

The thing about each of these situations is that the outcomes depend on many
contingent factors, including our conscious, motivated, intentional
behaviour. Part of my difficulty with any notion of "directionality" to
history is that it always seems to imply that history is happening without
us. Even Justin's version, which does try to incorporate people's actions
into his case for a direction to history, would seem to me ultimately to
succumb to this difficulty. It says that for there to be a direction to
history people have to be able to defend their interests. All I need to do
then is to resist domination and in the end history will work out OK.

In the final analysis this would also seem to imply that understanding the
world around us is irrelevant to the outcome of historical evolution. I find
this especially problematic with regards to a system such as socialism
which, in the Marxist tradition at least, has always been associated with
the self-conscious self-emancipation of the working class. To me this
implies that in order for socialism to come about, those who are fighting
for it need to know both what they are fighting against and what they are
fighting for. The ability to define and implement an alternative to
capitalism would seem to me to involve more than simply "resisting domination".

Howie Chodos



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