Do you understand what my PhD is really about?

That’s been the most difficult question I’ve had to deal with during the course of my PhD. Honestly, how do you explain something really complex to people who don’t know anything? Usually, I waffle on about recycling and incentives and through in something around relationships until they go away. But lately I’ve been trying to prepare for my transfer from MPhil/PhD to PhD and I just could not get my thesis abstract quite right. Eventually, my supervisor suggested to write an abstract as if for the layperson, like a blog post. And it worked. So, I am curious now, how comprehensible is my thesis abstract? Please let know what you think.

In my thesis, I argue that a post-humanist approach to environmental law can be developed from a reading of Hegel. Society is ultimately made up of networks of individuals-in-families. Hegel calls the force that hold society together (mutual) Recognition but Jessica Benjamin reads it as Love. The conservation of society comes from the self’s responsibility to (or ability to respond to the needs of) others who depend on the self in the present and the present generation’s responsibility to future generations. Through Catherine Malabou’s reading of Hegel, the family based on marriage and procreation represents a plastic future that is not just a distinct entity from the present but exists simultaneously and is continually transformed by and into the present. This is reflected through the expansion of human civilisation. This means that to be human is constantly changing over time to include whatever is in its environment. In other words, to be human is to be post-human – the human self is its environmental other. The totality of relations between individual humans and their environment is reflected in the relationship between society and the environment. If law is an expression of the self’s responsibility to the other, then all law is arguably environmental law.

Therefore, I argue that law can be nothing more than an aide-memoire of the responsibility and dependence of the self and other. This can be seen from analysis of EU and national waste legislation, local authority literature, government and NGO reports and journalistic articles. The government recognises the role of individuals-in-households and the importance of changing household behaviour to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. This corresponds with the Hegelian family as the basis for society. But there is a debate regarding the limit of the law. On the one hand, the household is the untamed environment of the state; on the other hand, it is protected from the legal environment. Local authorities have an array of different household waste and recycling policies, such as incentivisation, co-mingling and the frequency of collections. The evidence indicates that the more invasive the policy into the running of the household, the more the household is able to reduce waste, increasing recycling and also prevent waste. This demonstrates that when the legal environment is brought inside the household, it reminds the household not only of its responsibility to the state but also of society’s responsibility to the environment.

So, since all law is environmental law, the marginalisation of sections of society is akin to the landfilling of waste. Previously, the household could buy products and dispose of waste by sending it into the environment and forgetting about it. Similarly, sections of society (individuals-in-households) arguably make use of other individuals-in-households until they do not need them any more. This master/slave dialectic is reflected in various ways, including age, socioeconomy, race, physical ability, sex, etc. Hegel argues that this relationship is always one step before breakdown, so perpetuating the imbalance. But since the human is post-human, the relationship has a plasticity that indicates that wasted communities are recyclable. However, through law, their wasting can be prevented because recycling is Hegelian Recognition. I argue that this will result in a more equal society, with an aspiration of a zero waste society. In other words, social equality does not come from the creation of rights (alone) that require resources to enforce them but responsibility that requires a sense of agency or subjectivity.

Facebook IPO: What would Hegel do?

I am pretty sure that the investment potential of Facebook is underpinned by the theoretical knowledge of Hegel. Having studied him for the last two years during my PhD, I am pretty sure that Hegel, that German, 18th century philosopher known as the father of the modern state would not only be one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest friends, he probably would have found Facebook. Except that he would have called it something like Recognition or Dialectic. He would be an avid blogger – quite handy when wars across Europe and/or financial hardship are making it difficult to publish – and made pretty good use of wikis. It would have been interesting to see something like the Phenomenology of Mind promoted via Twitter but I am pretty sure he would be a Networked Researcher.

So when I read Mark Zuckberberg‘s letter to potential investors as to what they should know about investing in Facebook, I could not help thinking that Hegel would be proud. Both Hegel and Zuckerberg emphasise the foundational importance of relationships. The essence of Hegel’s philosophy is Recognition, where each self-consciousness (i.e. human being) exists in and for itself in that it exists for another self-consciousness, that is ‘it is only by acknowledged and recognised’ (Phenomenology of Mind). In The Bonds of Love, the feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin argues that Recognition is so central to our existence that we often take it for granted; she says that near synonyms include ‘affirmation, validation, acknowledgement, knowledge, acceptance, understanding, empathy, taking in, tolerance, appreciation, sight, identification with, find familiar with and love’. Hegel is so bold as to argue that society, though an extension of the family, starts with a unity of individual consciousnesses of oneself held together by a feeling of love. ‘The first element of love is that I will to be no longer an independent self-sufficing person and that, if I were such a person, I should feel myself lack and incomplete. The second element is that I gain myself in another person, in whom I am recognised, as he again is in me. Hence, love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding.’ (Philosophy of Right). It is difficult to argue that Zuckerberg would not have sympathy with that view. He describes Facebook social mission as starting small, ‘with the relationship two people':

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

His stated aim for Facebook is to help people connect, share information and build those relationships, whether it’s with small circle or half the world. What’s interesting is that he then goes on to what appears to be an ultimate agenda of rewiring ‘the way people spread and consume information, believing that ‘the world’s information infrastructure’ resemble the social graph – a network built from the bottom-up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date’. This way of transmitting information is not dissimilar to what the growing body of neuroscience demonstrates about how the brain works, points out the French Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou (What should we do with the Brain?). In other words, how we individually process information, neuron by neuron, would seem a logical way for how we relate to people, convey information and how societal change is achieved. A key element of a neuron though is that it does not easily connect to other neurons – Malabou calls it explosion – and bonds only become stronger gradually over time. It’s also why we take time to drop habits (The Future of Hegel). Zuckerberg says:

As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

Malabou develops Hegel’s notion of plasticity to emphasise the tension between our resistance to and our susceptibility to change. As can be seen from Zuckerberg’s approach, it’s a conservative (incremental) approach to achieve a radical or progressive goal of ‘a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services’ and better government that responds to its citizens. And let’s be honest, the big problems that put us off companies and politicians is poor customer service, marketing that we just cannot relate too and products that just don’t meet our needs.
This brings me on to the ‘Hacker’ way, which Zuckerberg defines as ‘building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done’. In many ways, I would argue that Hegel was a hacker. Certainly, his key text, the Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, was something that had to be finished quickly because of financial pressures and concerns about war. In a continent dominated by Christianity, he certainly tested boundaries, with his philosophy taking in or recognising ideas from Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Indeed, in my view, by focusing on Recognition, he is arguing in favour of seeing beyond the illusion of self and other to what connects the two.  And, studying and then writing during the French Revolution, he was always a strong liberal; however, he recognised that liberalism could not be imposed from the top-down but could only be achieved gradually, incrementally, in a bottom-up or peer-to-peer fashion, much like the ‘continuous improvement and iteration’ of Facebook’s Hacker Way. Indeed, Malabou suggests that the What Should We Do The Brain? is a critique of a neoliberalism that has distorted the science of the brain and that we really ought to be reading more Hegel. And this is of course why it’s not enough to just read one text by Hegel or even only what he wrote. Whilst his philosophy is premised on their being such a thing as perfection, he describes history as being the development of progress towards perfection. Costas Douzinas points out in The End of Human Rights that the Hegelian Spirit, which was the underlying driver of the change in the word, has never grasped the totality. It goes back and forth between this world and the spiritual dimension and each time it understands a little more about the world. Each moment of time is a little more understanding. Hegel never said that anything that’s gone before is perfect, because the Spirit won’t know perfection until it understands everything. In other words, as Facebook hackers would say: ‘Done is better than perfect’.
The original aim of this post was to argue the relevance of Hegelian philosophy to today’s world. But then, as a true believer, I would say that. More importantly, having read through Zuckerberg’s letter, I am pretty sure that there is a theoretical basis to Facebook’s mission (and social media in general). Hmm, I wonder if I should put my money where my blog post is.

From paternalism to parental society

Two days ago, I wrote about how the Tea Party’s resistance might be a good thing for America. Not necessarily because of the policies they espouse (that’s not what this post is about). The Tea Party in the US and the anti-cuts coalition in the UK are in fact two sides of the same coin, that coin being the rising up of society through mass grassroots movements to remind government where they come from and what their purpose is.

As I wrote before, the state has traditionally been seen as paternalistic, with responsibility forlooking after a childlike society. This view still resonates today, with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism. A father is still a father, no matter how easy going he is. In the feminist critique, however, the alignment of the state with one particular gender has created opposition. Most obviously, this has been between the sexes, but,  where the feminine has come to represent the uncivilised or irrational, this also means between races, socioeconomic groups and between man and the environment. These ‘others’ of the white male have always been subject to oppression. It is this inherent gender polarity, says Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, that is the problem.

By eliminating gender polarity, the question becomes no longer who is the mother or who is the father but who is the parent. But we are not talking about an ungendered parent, but one who is bisexual or bi-gendered – that is, one who has attributes that have traditionally been identified as male and attributes traditionally identified as female. The important thing is that it is the parent who begets the child. So, if the state is the parent, say, who does the state beget. Does the state create society?

Benjamin argues from her psychoanalytic feminist perspective that the child identifies with the father in order to differentiate itself from the mother. Before this, from the child’s point of view, the father essentially doesn’t exist. In other words, the child created the father  then gave up power to him. This is the obvious flaw with the notion of a paternal state.

Yes, the environment (Mother Nature, say) can be said to have ‘given  birth to’ human beings in an evolutionary sense – according to how God designed the system, obviously – but it is the forming of societies that led to the creation of the state to govern societal relations. So, in reality, society is the parent of the state, with the responsibility to make sure that state behaves well (whatever that means).

The problem in many Western liberal democracies has been apathy in society. Voter turnout has often been quite low and this has allowed to the state to get away with proverbial murder, whether it be the Iraq war, the undermining of civil liberties, massive over spending and borrowing, large scale public sector cuts and lax regulation of the financial services industry, to name a few. But what the Tea Party movement, the anti-cuts coalition, the ‘Stop the War’ protests in 2003, the larger than usual turnout in the UK General Election followed by the forming of coalition , show is the importance of a powerful society, standing up for what it believes to be right and keeping government accountable. This is the parent’s job in relation to the child. When the parent can’t be bothered , children think they can do anything they want or they live in a fantasy world.

The state is the eternal child.

This doesn’t mean that the state doesn’t lack any power at all. As any child knows, parents can be out of touch with the times, so children do need to ‘educate’ parents as well. But obviously a child cannot respond to the parent in the same way that the parent responds to the child. But what’s important is that there is a dialogue or dialectical relationship between the parent and the child, the society and the state, where anti-thesis and thesis come together to form a synthesis, but even if they don’t, both understand the other better.

But even more important is that parents cannot be like children and children cannot be like parents. The Tea Party caucus can be the parent as part of society, but it cannot play that role if it is in government. There is a reason why the government is made up of ministers and secretaries, they have to take the more deferential or submissive role of a child. But this redefinition of the state/society relationship also means that we must abandon the idea of Montesquieu‘s three branches of government. Really, the legislature and the judiciary should rightly be seen as the highest levels of society, since their role is to keep the executive in check and acting in accordance with societal values.

Perhaps the parental society is the true Big Society – big, because it’s about not being a child anymore, it’s about growing up and taking its responsibilities seriously. It has nothing to do with a retrenchment of the state in terms of services provided. No, a small state is one that acts with the humility of a child towards the society that created it and gave it life.

Additional thought

Perhaps the current democracy movements in the Middle East are also an example of the dialectic between paternalism to parentalism. In which case NATO’s intervention in Libya must be like the reality tv show Supernanny, who comes in to help the despairing parent. So, it’s still questionable then.

The Erotics of the Debt Ceiling

So, according to the general gist of the media coverage, there’s just under a week to go to financial armageddon. If the US government cannot get Congress to agree to a lifting of the debt ceiling, it won’t be able to service its debts and pay its bills and…well, to be honest, beyond America, I am not entirely clear on the next bit.

I am actually kinda curious. A bit disappointed that Greece hasn’t defaulted yet, given that all the pundits are talking about the exposure of European banks. It’s a bit like a disappointing porn film. Maybe it’s just my sado-masochistic fantasies LOL. The thought of the world’s biggest economy defaulting on its debts is…well, let’s just say that SOMETHING has to go down ;) I guess you could say that the Democrats want to keep it up with a good hand job. The Tea Party, on the other hand, want to service it with a good whipping (and you thought they were the ultra conservatives). Honestly, how’s a country to decide.

On the other hand, when the choice is between being masturbated by Hilary Clinton verses being whipped by Michelle Bachman dressed in black rubber, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

On a more serious note, I suppose one could say that national debt really is a type of phallus – you know what they say about countries with massive debts, my debt is bigger than your debt, that sort of thing. Perhaps it is penis envy on the part of governments with smaller debts that masquerades as concern for the regional or world economy. I don’t know. But whether it is ‘penis envy’ or concern, it is arguably in response to the criticisms from the wider society, including the markets and the media. This isn’t in itself a bad thing.

The state has traditionally been seen as paternal. It still resonates now, particularly with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism and the nudge agenda. In this respect, therefore the paternal state is asking the maternal society (represented by Congress) to, well, I think you get the picture by now. But this whole gender polarity is perhaps a part of the problem.

Where does the state come from, for a start? It is born out of or created by society. Indeed, as per Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalytic feminist critique of paternalism, it is people forming larger and larger groups that set up a system to govern their relations. Society only identifies with a rational, paternal state to disidentify itself from Mother Nature. So, in reality, therefore, the state is the child of society, yet the child has been given the power to dominate the parent.

Now of course it is up to the parent how they bring up the child, but if the child does something wrong, then it is surely the responsibility of the parent to discipline. This of course is the basis of the accountability of governments to the people and society. As much as it pains me to say this, perhaps the Tea Party may have a point (god, I feel so dirty, especially after the sado-masochism). Barack Obama has likened the national debt to a credit card bill. Well, I am not a parent, so may be one who is can tell me whether, if your child maxes out the credit card, do you ring up the company to increase the limit?

Try telling that to the masses…

The further down the research path I am going, the more difficult I am finding to actually explain what my research is to non-academics (i.e. friends, family and acquaintences). I mean, how exactly do you tell someone who has not studied philosophy or any particular philosophy about the inner depth of Hegel. After all, a year ago, I was one of them. He’s not the easiest person to read (understatement of the year), even though I do think his philosophy and particular readings of it describe this world exactly.

But what amazes me is that there are so many different ways to read Hegel. Towards the beginning of the year, Hegel was, for me, an arch liberalist economically and socially. Now, I am starting to see the more socially conservative, statist work that influenced the likes of Marx. Everyone says that Hegel was an extremely liberal Christian but I can see quite clearly a philosophical compatibility with orthodox (i.e. conservative) Christianity. And to confuse everything, there is something here for feminists and environmentalists, as long as you go down the psychoanalytical route of Jessica Benjamin. Go figure!

So, as far as any of my social circle knows, my research is about the way that the state uses incentives to encourage social responsibility, particularly recycling. Feels incomplete but so much easier.