Uday Mehta: Response to Akeel Bilgrami

Uday Mehta is Clarence Francis Professor in Social Sciences at Amherst College.

In the opening lines of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber declared that the ultimate stakes of the book were not the causal and historical roots of capitalist enterprise but rather the question of what aspects of “Western civilization”  “lie in a line of development having universal significance and value.” His answer, which followed in the very next sentence, was: “Only in the West does science exist at a stage of development which we recognize today as valid.” What made this science valid and uniquely Western was its rationality. “Knowledge and observation of great refinement existed elsewhere, above all in India, China, Babylonia, Egypt,” but what they lacked were the rational principles for the very activities that they practiced with great and often surpassing acumen.  Indians had geometry, mathematics and the natural sciences but “no rational proof” or “method of experiment.” Chinese “historical scholarship,” though “highly developed,” did “not have the method of Thucydides.” Indian political thought, despite being a predecessor to Machiavelli, lacked “systematic method” and “rational concepts.” And, crucially, given the focus of Weber’s work, India, Babylon and China had merchants, domestic and foreign trade, banks, credit markets and entrepreneurs but “their activities were predominantly of an irrational and speculative character.” Rational capitalism was uniquely a feature of the modern West.

Weber is of course not alone in associating the defining kernel of the West with principles. Samuel Huntington famously identified America with the Anglo-Protestant creedal “principles of liberty, equality, human rights, representative government, and private property” and with the specifically liberal and democratic culture, values and institutions that these principles, on his account, produced. Buruma and Margalit associate the West with the principles of scientific rationality and the formal aspects of democracy. But Weber is ultimately very different from these others with whom he appears to shares an initial impulse. For him, the specific kind of rationality that triumphed in the modern West did in fact produce a form of life. It was a form of life and a culture about which he had a deep ambivalence because it was characterized by the immanence, and not merely the epiphenomenal accident, of an “iron cage.” It was one whose epitaph would be, “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that is has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” and in which, moreover, regeneration might very well turn on the rise of “new prophets” or the “great rebirth of old ideas and ideals.”

In associating the modern West with rational principles, Weber goes on to identify a culture and a set of associated attitudes (what Bilgrami calls intellectual surround) that follow from these principles. To say that they “follow from” is not to say that the culture or the attitudes are “implied by” the principles. The derivation is not analytical in the manner that bachelorhood and being unmarried are.  The principles could have generated or supported other accounts or forms of life. That is where the richness and accuracy (or lack of it) of Weber’s historical analysis does the work.

The methodological merit of Weber’s analysis is that the principles, in being the alleged essence of the West, are linked and thus made responsible for the phenomena that are manifest in the West. They do not stand apart in a sort of immaculate immunity from that of which they are the alleged essence. This tying — again not analytically but historically — of the principles of the West with the actions and culture of the West helps exempt Weber from the charge that he judges the West by reference to what it believes, or the ideas that it professes, and but not by what it does or the culture that it in fact produces.  Weber’s history may be wrong but that is not the point. Weber offers a model of the way intellectual history should be done and of the role that ideas, beliefs and principles can play in history. With Huntington and Buruma and Margalit, the history of American racism, the penchant for violence, the crass commercialism, the awkward relationship between the interests of the West and its commitment to democracy elsewhere, are phenomena that are cited as though they have a mysterious and at any rate inessential relationship with the beliefs, ideas and culture of the West. They just sit there as orphaned facts unrelated to the account being offered, and therefore not surprisingly, not acknowledged with any seriousness. At a minimum, this is a sloppy way of doing history. More egregiously, it is an argument for not taking ideas, beliefs, and principles seriously, because in the end it is not clear that they do any work other than serve as marketing captions or normative decoys.

Bilgrami offers an alternative account of rationality from the standard endorsed by the Enlightenment and taken over by Buruma and Margalit. It is an account he associates with the radical Enlightenment and the view of nature that they held to which ultimately lost out to Newton, Boyle and the Royal Society in which nature was brute and inert.  In being inert, it offered no normative constraints on its use and exploitation. Locke also held such a view of nature. The earth, despite having been given to humankind by God, was a wasteland, which was hence materially and in its emotive potential, inert. This view of nature was conceptually crucial to at least two other ideas on which Locke’s influence was decisive: the justification of private property and the inequality that it engendered, and the warrant to colonize those parts of the world in which nature was left fallow or underutilized. As an aside, the alternative account is one which was broadly consonant with Weber’s reading of the modern West, though with him, as with other thinkers like Tocqueville and Tolstoy, there is a tragic sensibility, which accedes to what it laments. The disenchantment of the earth was a crucial step in rationality becoming the defining principle of the West.

There is another feature of the triumphant conception of rationality which strikes me as being equally central to the cultural surround and which receives the same kind of immaculate immunity by those who tout it.  It is the relationship of war and violence with rationality and the state. Bilgrami refers to this by way of Gandhi. I want to draw out the point because it is fundamental to Buruma and Margalit’s insistent and all too easy sequestering of the “enemies” of the West from the West’s purported essential identity, and because it helps clarify Robbins’s misreading of my own views and Gandhi’s views on change.

  War has a peculiar status in both popular and philosophic opinion. It is almost universally condemned as something to be avoided and as something tinged with profound human tragedy. And yet in the qualifications that are typically attached to such professions of condemnation, the rationale for war is – equally typically, given a latitude that has allowed it to become among the most pervasive features of contemporary political life.  War prospers under the constant injunction to be avoided. The logic of its exigent necessity seems always to trump the tragedy of its effects. And so, and especially in modern times, that is to say long after war was associated with intrinsic human virtues, even its most strident pursuit is invariably carried out under the banner of regret, contextual necessity, and ultimately, a higher purpose. In a similar way, violence and especially the violence of war is defended by those who profess to avidly oppose it; never as an end in itself, but only as a means; never in the first instance, but only as a last resort. War and violence are thus supported by the persisting residue of considerations left by the arguments that are proffered in opposition to them.

There is a characteristic, one might even say essential, structure to these permissive forms of opposition to war and violence. The kernel of the normative logic of that structure is one in which the defense of the political community trumps the value of any particular, or group of lives within it — even to the point of risking the life of the community itself.  War, as such, always has a communal rationale; which, of course, is not to say that it cannot be constrained or guided by moral principles.  It embodies an idealism that refers to something that exceeds life and which points to a beyond, to a future; at any rate, to a something that cannot be spoken of through merely extant considerations.  This is why the language, and so often the practice, of war, — even under firmly secular dispensations, cannot wholly sequester itself from talk of sacrifice, messianic purposefulness, the sacred; and hence the language of religion. This is true even in theories where there is an ostensible priority given to individual life. Even in such theories, the rationale for war exceeds a concern with the individual, indeed it exceeds a concern with life itself, and instead draws on a communal and more abstract idealism.

In the familiar narratives that Hobbes and Locke, for example, offer for explaining and justifying the origins of politics and the state, human beings are placed in a state of nature. This is an unregulated state with no supervening power or authority. Given human nature and the absence of a supervening power, so the argument goes, this natural state is liable to rapidly descend into a condition of war in which human life and human interests are constantly and inescapably threatened by the imminence of disorder, and ultimately, violent death. It is this dire predicament, which leads individuals, who have a primary interest in avoiding their own death, to contract out of the natural state, to surrender all or some of their natural powers and form political society and authorize the power of the state to regulate the interactions of individuals. When such regulation is successful, i.e., when the state does the job for which it was authorized, individuals can pursue their interests, and via various forms of coordination, the interests of the society as a whole. This is a condition of peace, i.e., where the conditions for the pursuit of individual and collective interests are stable.

What is important to note is that in this classic narrative that encourages and justifies the formation of political society and the state, there is no argument against killing, violence or war per se. The rationale for political society does not stem from a moral disapproval of the fact that human beings in the pursuit of their interests are, or as Rousseau would qualify it, have become, trigger happy and murderous. Violence and killing carry no clear moral opprobrium. They are merely indicators of a condition of disorder, or to use Locke’s term “inconvenience”, which vitiates the pursuit of individual and collectives interests, including crucially an interest in one’s security. There are of course several arguments in both Hobbes and Locke pertaining to how each of us wishes to avoid painful and violent death and those arguments have a crucial force in motivating the rationale for political society. But those are prudential arguments, addressed to individuals with a rational interest in preserving their own lives and interests.  War in the state of nature and the absence of peace are simply conditions in which prudence would be denied and for which political society offers a purported redress. But the rationality of that redress need not, and typically among modern political thinkers, is not, part of a general argument against either violence, killing or war per se.  The state simply regulates violence in light of the contract that authorizes its power. In an unregulated condition characterized by human equality and other aspects of the state of nature, killing and violence are merely imprudent. The idea being that under conditions where others have much the same resources and the same intensity for a desire to live, the strategy of deploying violence to secure one’s interests, sooner or later, is likely to prove to be self-defeating.  This is clearly a conditional argument and not a moral one. It is easy to imagine a risk taker not being moved by it, or conditions under which the rational expectations from violence are better than those from abjuring from violence.  Clearly war and violence remain conditionally rational within this tradition of thought.

My point is that violence, killing and war have a deep and even constitutive relationship with the tradition that offers a rational justification for the state, including the democratic state. Of course finer distinctions can and have been made regarding when violent means should be deployed or war declared. The group of thinkers broadly classified under the heading “just war” theorists has done exactly that. But as Michael Walzer has often made explicit, the regulation of war and violence by moral and political principles only makes sense if war and violence are in some sense morally and political permissible. The just war tradition does not challenge the validity of the essential relationship between violence, killing and war with politics, the state and democracy.

It would appear then that the “enemies” of the West in deploying violent means make a perfectly licit derivation from what Buruma and Margalit claim to be the essential principles of the West, except of course in their account of these principles they remain largely immaculate, and hence, untarnished from the culture and the history of the West.  Under conditions when the war or crusade on terror is global, and hence no longer tied to Westphalian constraints, the fact that the enemies might not be state actors only further embeds them in the contemporary West, as understood by Buruma and Margalit.

The contrast between Gandhi, and the West and the “enemies” of the West is stark.  In my view, it is so stark that one must consider Gandhi as not just having a very different politics; but rather, in some crucial sense as being a deeply anti-political thinker. To understand the full measure of Gandhi’s difference from the West and its enemies, one should be open to the thought (an idea which Robbins’s does not pause to consider) that despite the fact that his actions transformed the political landscape, he may have been a deeply anti-political activist for whom transformation was not to be vested in the power of the state because he understood that power to be constitutionally alloyed with violence. His commitment to non-violence can only be understood by acknowledging that he did not view the world solely or even primarily in political terms. Non-violence for Gandhi is not a cognate of peace. It does not refer, as it does in the tradition of modern political thinking, to a condition of public order of which the state becomes the ultimate guarantor.  It is something all together different because it starts by unbraiding the link between personal security, violence, war, peace, public interest and the state.  Gandhi like Weber, and the dominant thrust of modern Western and post-nationalist non-Western political thinking, saw the link between the state and violence as being constitutional.

The fact that Gandhi did not think of the state as the assured engine of progress does not make him, as Robbins would have it, “unspeakably complacent”; at least no more so than those who vouch for the progressive nature of the state are to be understood as complacent with every form of state violence. Gandhi’s emphasis on the priority of villages as modes of social organization and personal integrity and self-development as the root of transformation may have been archaic and even anarchic for countries like India. But the jury on the costs of the violence of the state, in both the West and the non-West, is surely not in.