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Political Philosophy and Real Politics: An interview with Albena Azmanova, author of “The Scandal of Reason”

The Scandal of ReasonAlbena AzmanovaThe following is an interview with Albena Azmanova, author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment.

What problems does The Scandal of Reason confront?

Political judgment is always trapped in the choice between taking action and failing to act, poised to commit either “crimes of commission” or “crimes of omission” (as Hannah Arendt named them). Intervening to stop the carnage in Syria has risks as perilous as not intervening. Allowing the building of an Islamic cultural center next to Ground Zero is as problematic as banning it. How do we know what is the right thing to do? How should judgment be directed? Can political philosophy be of help to real politics? What is a politically relevant theory of justice that can effectively guide judgment? These are the questions prompting my writing.

What is the “judgment paradox”? Why it is important to consider?

The “paradox of judgment” is my point of departure in the search for a politically relevant theory of justice. The paradox is this: the higher the normative ideals of a theory of justice (such as human rights, democracy, sustainable development, autonomy and equality), the more useless it is to politics – the demanding nature of the ideals allow them to be dismissed as unrealistic, untenable, or simply too vague to be helpful in solving real problems. Yet the more sober the theory, the more accepting of the reality of interest-driven politics, the less politically useful it is simply by force of being morally suspect. There is, however, a way out of this conundrum, and The Scandal of Reason aims to charts this escape from the judgment paradox. In the book, I advocate the duty of judgment and action, but argue that ideal theories of justice only stand in the way of sound judgment.

What is the “scandal of reason”? What led you to use this phrase as the title of your book?

The “scandal of reason” was observed by Immanuel Kant in a moment of formidable frustration, I imagine, since he dedicated his life to defending the power of reason. The “scandal” is this: in its earnest search for truth, reason degenerates either into dogma or into uncertainty, as it gets entangled in its own contradictions; while aspiring to truth and justice, reason falls prey either to sterile (and often dangerous) ultimate principles, or gets paralyzed by doubt. For Kant, this was the curse of modern man’s rational effort to do the right thing. For me, the “scandal of reason” is not a threat, it is the solution. I propose that we embrace the scandal of reason and dare to judge. It is possible to guide political judgment along the slim critical interzone between dogma and skepticism. This interzone is the territory on which operates what I call “critical deliberative judgment”. Critical judgment drops the crutches of ideal theory and is instead steered by the question “who suffers and why?”. As it pays close attention to empirical experiences of social injustice and the interpretations that those who suffer give to their suffering, critical judgment has neither the time, nor the patience for grand theories of justice.

Why is the process of discussion so important in your model?

In the model I detail in The Scandal of Reason, discussion and deliberation have a narrower but sharper role than they have in the most popular models of deliberative democracy. Public discussions cannot, and should not, replace the judgment public authority has to make. I find the contemporary hype about deliberative democracy dangerous, as it absolves political actors from their duty to make decisions and to assume the responsibility for these decisions—this fashion is a sort of colonization of political action by public deliberations. Public discussions, in my account, have two important functions.

The first function of public debates is to generate a confrontation able to reveal the deep, common, social origin of lived experiences of suffering. As the various participants’ grievances are placed in a dialogue, it is likely that through the battle of complaints we can discover how individual grievances are connected into a larger picture of injustice. Even better, we can learn how we are all complicit in the production of social injustice, even when we appear to be victims. For instance, the debate in Europe over the right to wear the Islamic headscarf (hijab) was staged on the territory of conflicting interpretations of the grand ideals of religious freedom, freedom of expression, the separation between church and state, and the protection of a common for all citizens public sphere from the penetration of political and religious forces. Yet, public discussions revealed that quite different things were at stake in the different contexts. In the French case, the complaints against the wearing of the hijab at school, and grievances about its ban, concerned the subordination of Islamic group identity to a hegemonic secular identity. In the Turkish case, the grievance against the headscarf ban in universities concerned the deprivation of women from more traditional rural background from access to university education. Effective solutions to the specific injustices that had triggered the hijab debates necessitate social reform for effective inclusion of the weak groups, not legal action for enforcing rights.

I describe this as a process of “making-sense-in-common” in which deliberations create a “critical consensus” among participants on what issues they find relevant as issues of injustice. This “critical consensus” is not a consensus on what is to be done, but a shared understanding of what is wrong. One critical function of deliberations here is the elimination of the injustice of invisibility, the fact that some issues are silenced because initially participants do not see them as directly relevant to their personal grievances. Let’s take for example the current debate on the rising unemployment in western democracies. The holders of good jobs in this debate are either invisible or portrayed as the enemy—they are the fortunate ones. What gets silenced is that the holders of good jobs suffer ever increasing work pressures. If we put the two grievances in a dialogue, we might see that there is a structural injustice connecting them, and this has to do with the maddening uncertainty, felt by holders of good jobs as well as the unemployed, that the dynamics of global capitalism generate.

To come briefly back to the functions of public discussions – their second function is not to issue a policy decision, but to articulate the grounds on which public authority should act. These grounds have less to do with values and principles than with the articulated shared notion of what counts as injustice established through the process of “making-sense-in-common.”

How does your "critical consensus model" help solve the problem of judgment? How does it outperform the theories of Habermas and Rawls?

Both Habermas and Rawls confront and attempt to resolve the judgment paradox, and in The Scandal of Reason I trace their efforts at finding a solution. The desire to increase the political relevancy of their theories of justice leads the two authors to gradually reduce the demanding requirements they originally set for norms and rules to be considered just. Thus, they both undertake a pragmatic turn in their thinking about justice. However, this pragmatic turn remains hesitant, half-hearted. What prevents them from relinquishing ideal theory altogether is the danger of error: even when we entrust democratic publics with making the judgment on the rules governing society, how can we be sure that what people have accepted to be just is indeed just? This tension between the practical acceptance of rules as binding and their being just forces Rawls and Habermas to maintain quite a hefty load of ideal theory by specifying, for instance, what the ideal conditions of discussing justice should be.

In order to complete the pragmatic turn, I propose to abandon all reliance on ideal theories of justice and instead focus on the process of judging. There is no such thing as an abstract demand for justice: calls for judgment always originate as specific grievances about injustice. It is this sensation of injustice (rather than an ideal of justice) that is the reliable guiding light. Of course, claims to injustice come in different shapes and I am not saying that anything goes. After all, at the nadir of the recent financial meltdown, bankers complained about losing bonuses, as workers complained about losing jobs and pension savings. My claim is only that no grand theory of justice can help us resolve such conflicts. What critical judgment can do, however, is to distill, through the battle of claims, the common social origins of seemingly incompatible demands and irreconcilable grievances. For instance, what underlies the grievances against imposed austerity, or against banks’ losing “talent” because of lower pay, is that public authority has relinquished all social responsibility, allegedly under the pressures of global capitalism, and that the solutions to injustice are to be found on the plain of social and economic reform, not of litigation and redistribution. (If banks are so structurally important, they should be publicly owned. That would hardly be the end of capitalism.)

That is why I prefer to embrace the “scandal of reason” rather than tame it with the help of a grand theory of justice. It is reason’s very wavering between dogma and uncertainty that is our best accomplice in the quest for justice. Giving voice to social conflicts in open and inclusive debates energizes the scandal of reason. As long as reason is thus spurred by its own contradictions, it will fall prey to neither dogma nor uncertainty and will instead bring to view attainable possibilities for a less unjust world.

How has your personal background influenced the writing of this book?

The story of The Scandal of Reason goes back in a straight line, and a long one at that, to my revolutionary past of twenty years ago. Quite unawares, and certainly without the armament of a grand doctrine, I became involved with the dissident movements in the late 1990s in my native Bulgaria as a first-year student at Sofia University. I recall distinctly that what drove us to act was a sense of frustration, and although I ended up writing up the demands of the students—whose strike triggered the downfall of the regime—I did so not because we had a creed, but because a television reporter asked after our goals and we had to come up with something on the spot. When I spoke later on behalf of the students at the Council of Europe, I was bewildered that telling of our frustration seemed not to be enough. Instead, I was pressed to specify positive goals, to name the tenets of our movement. To this day I find it a great pity that instead of trying to understand the proper causes of our frustration, we rushed into formulating (and simply borrowing) grand plans for a new future. A precious opportunity was missed in this way. The construction of (some semblance of) liberal democracies in post-communist Eastern Europe was in no way a response to the specific grievances that had prompted us to reject the old order. Alas, we rushed into a project of “what is right” before really figuring out what was wrong, what was missing.

Another of my book’s core ideas has its origins in those times: the notion of a sensation of injustice, rather than an ideal of justice (in the book I draw on Hannah Arendt in articulating the difference). Here is the story. One of my professors at Sofia University, Maria Pyrgova, told us one day in class that people were collecting signatures for a petition to stop the polluting of a city by a chemical factory, as the pollution was so bad that children in that city were being born with defects. Good little communist that I was, I went immediately after classes and signed the petition. The very next day I was called into my Dean’s office, where he informed me that the committee I had joined did not have the blessing of the Party (his exact words) and that I would be expelled from the university unless I withdrew my signature. I was aware of the dangers, and my family was in quite a dither, yet I felt there was no dilemma to be agonizing about. My sensation of injustice only deepened under the pressure, and withdrawing my signature was something that I felt incapable of doing. I always have difficulty conveying this properly: when the sense of injustice is acute, one feels there are no options to be weighted, no interests to be cautiously considered—these simply are not immediately relevant. The sensation of injustice is a more powerful stimulant for action than the knowledge of the just, which comes conveniently packaged in doctrines.

Yet I doubt that these personal experiences would have given me the drive for writing this book had my going to New York for my Ph.D. studies not fermented them. I was hoping to find, if not the blueprint for how to get it right in post-communist Bulgaria, then at least some understanding of why we got it wrong. Instead of answers, I found more confusion. I was baffled by the intellectual debates in New York. Preoccupation with economic redistribution, gender equality, cultural diversity, and action against sexual harassment appeared all too smug to me when set against the evils of life under political oppression and bankrupt economic system, which I had seen both under communism and its aftermath. I had hard time accepting the issues commonly discussed in New York as relevant to actual concerns with justice. Added to my stupefaction at the self-indulgence of academic debates in the West was my puzzlement at the intellectual authority of theories of deliberative democracy and theories of communicative action as forms of social criticism. I could not understand how serious people, without a trace of irony or cynicism, could rely on ‘talking’ to set right injustice. Why count on ‘communicative therapy’ to remedy socially produced suffering?

Over time, my sources of dissatisfaction became strands of analysis: How are our judgments of justice affected by what we consider to be relevant experiences of injustice? How can public debate make its participants aware of the deep social structures that generate injustice? The answers to these questions became the foundation of a theory of political judgment – first developed in my doctoral dissertation at the New School. My work was awarded the Hannah Arendt Memorial Award for Politics, but I preferred not to publish it before giving some empirical support to what I feared was too bold a theory. Now I have found this support and The Scandal of Reason is here.