It’s not just (neo)liberalism that increasingly insists on the primacy of ethics. Anarchism also seems more and more to talk about an “ethical orientation,” to use a phrase from Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding. But whereas (neo)liberalism sees an ethical turn as the solution to various conjunctural impasses — environmental ruin, economic insecurity, official corruption — and that is primarily apolitical (or depoliticizing), certain currents of anarchism desire an ethics that attaches to and even grounds political action. Such an ethics would cure, or at least palliate, the “political disappointment” and “motivational deficit” (Critchley) of the present. Critchley’s book embodies this structurally, as it first lays out how an ethics of responsibility and commitment is possible, and insists on the necessity of achieving one, before moving on to the political argument. As Critchely puts it, the book marks the passage “from an ethics of infinitely demanding commitment to a politics of resistance.” Todd May’s The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism moves in the opposite direction, giving an ethical anchor to his tracing of the points of confluence between anarchism and poststructuralism (particularly Deleuze, Foucault, and Lyotard). Jesse Cohn’s Anarchism and the Crisis of Representation criticizes certain antirepresentationalists (again, principally Deleuze and Foucault) in part for their “ethical relativism” and for creating intractable “ethical problems,” while maintaining that an anarchism that is ethically grounded can resolve such difficulties.
This isn’t to say that anarchism hasn’t historically tended to rely on a foundational ethics; I won’t deny Cohn’s statement that anarchism is “distinguished from reformist and Marxist varieties of socialism by its primary commitment to ethics.” But there seems to be an increased urgency lately to create and hew to such a commitment. Of course, these theorists have learned from the mistakes of contemporary experience: there are no Chomskyan appeals to realize our essentially good human nature, and ethics is no longer conceived of as law, that is, as a transcendent principal that is to be applied to every moment and act. Critchley, for example, borrows from Badiou a situational ethics that creates ways of measuring that are specific to each political situation. The work that ethics does for anarchism, then, is, in May’s words, “to assess whether an arrangement of forces, or a practice, once promoted, is indeed active or reactive.” Ethics is a tool for evaluation.
I mostly sympathize with the necessity of this function. My problem — one of my problems — with ethics talk is that it inevitably searches out a ground from which a politics must operate. Or perhaps, since current strains of ethics recognize, at least implicitly, the problems with foundations, it’s more relevant to speak of ethics as seeking a space from which to operate. Tellingly, this is a space that has already been cleared. Again Critchley is instructive here: His idea of an “interstitial distance within the state” is mostly an improvement on its obvious inspiration, Badiou’s “distance from the state,” but besides failing to ask how and why the state is absent — and thus eliding the problem of antagonism — Critchley also forgets, as Sexyshop puts it, that it “is not the physical space that contains the project but on the contrary it is the project that shapes the space.” In other words, space is neither neutral nor given, and it shouldn’t be considered a refuge from conflict or where life goes on as usual. Or to put it differently still, Critchley’s “politics of resistance” omits at least two other, equally important, movements: the politics of refusal and the politics of creation.
Of course this needs sharpening and expanding, but I think it might be the beginning of something. And not just a critical something but that at least outlines an alternative to ethics. To my mind, such an alternative would have to address at a minimum the following:
*What is the relation between the individual and the social, or between the individual and the state, as Warren Montag posited it? In other words, it would have to explore transindividuality, as Balibar (and others) have called it, or, maybe, assemblage, as Deleuzeans have called it. Part of the problem for me is that I lack even a vocabulary to talk about this stuff.
*Anything that deals with such relations would of course have to reckon with difference.
*How is change possible? How can novelty be produced?
*Similarly, where does decision come into play? I’ve talked about decision a little bit, in a Badiou context that I think is essentially vanguardist. But if one wants to replace the evaluative work ethics can do, some account of decision must be outlined. For now, I would think that Deleuze’s work on the virtual and actual and on the active and passive syntheses would be helpful.
Likely there’s lots more, but that’s a start.