In Conversation

Enlightenment Now: Stephen Eric Bronner

Photo of Stephen Eric Bronner by Sam Sharif.

Stephen Eric Bronner, senior editor of Logos, an interdisciplinary Internet journal, is Professor of Political Science and a member of the Graduate Faculties of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Rutgers University. His latest book, Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement, was published this fall by Columbia University Press. The Rail’s Gregory Zucker recently sat down with Bronner.

Gregory Zucker (Rail): What is the “Enlightenment”? How is it relevant in a world marked by globalization?

Stephen Eric Bronner: Look, history can’t be reduced to sound bites: it always seems intimidating and remote. But making sense of reality is impossible without history. So let me put it this way: the Enlightenment refers to an international intellectual trend that emerged during the 17th to 18th centuries, whose most important representatives were committed to cosmopolitanism, secularism, scientific experimentation, civil liberties, social reform, and—above all—the constriction of arbitrary power. The Enlightenment can be seen simply as the justification for an emerging capitalist class contemptuous of feudalism, or what was known as l’ancien regime, but I think of it more as the ideological reflection of an age marked by the democratic revolutions in England, the United States, France, and elsewhere. Its great representatives like Isaac Newton, David Hume, and John Locke in England, Spinoza in Holland, Voltaire and Rousseau in France, or Kant and Lessing in Germany, crystallize probably what’s best about modernity. Together they constituted what was called a “republic of letters.” They read each others’ works, supported each other, debated with one another, and created a new international context of discourse. Too many of us, in spite of the Internet, are remarkably provincial in cultural matters. The Enlightenment provided the basis for an international civil society and a new form of cosmopolitan opinion that becomes particularly relevant when talking about the worst aspects of globalization.

Rail: But hasn’t the Enlightenment been invalidated, or at least badly tainted, by “Euro-centrism”?

Bronner: The Enlightenment was a European phenomenon. But reformers and radicals in other cultures anticipated its concern with tolerance, scientific experimentation, social reform, cosmopolitanism, and what today we call human rights. It is absurd to suggest that only the West, or Western thinkers, dealt with such issues. If Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Montesquieu and others romanticized China, or Persia, or Native Americans, their naïveté was born of good faith. The impact of the European Enlightenment also extended to the great slave rebellion in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, as well as to Latin America and figures like Simón Bolívar, the great liberator and democrat. With respect to the present, in fact, the Enlightenment has relevance for all cultures because they are increasingly being faced with similar issues. Today we talk about a “Clash of Civilizations” between the “West and the Rest,” but that’s the wrong way to think about things. Progressives in both Western and Non-Western nations are increasingly being confronted with cultural and political questions concerning the intolerance of fundamentalists, the unthinking acceptance of tradition, the arbitrary power exercised by privileged elites and undemocratic institutions, infringements on human rights, and the fear of scientific progress. We are—right now and right here in the United States—witnessing the emergence of a new counter-enlightenment in the form of neo-conservatism: its unabashed provincialism, its rejection of social reform, its acceptance of privilege, its fear of science, its contempt for international law, and cultural experimentation. These all played a role in the last election.

Rail: So what’s the alternative?

Bronner: It seems to me that the only way of confronting the popularity of this new Counter-Enlightenment is to become more cognizant of the two great traditions generated by the Enlightenment: liberalism and socialism. These need to be reinvigorated to meet contemporary concerns: there’s no place left for the old liberal neglect of economic exploitation or the narrow-mindedness and authoritarianism of what was called “actually existing socialism.” But the emphasis of these traditions upon resistance and protest, on expanding individual experience and fostering material equality, respecting scientific progress and rational discourse, all provide the conceptual framework for the cosmopolitan alternative that I think you are seeking.

Rail: You framed your book as a response to Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. What about the criticisms of the Enlightenment that have come from the Left and particularly from those concerned with issues of racism and gender discrimination?

Bronner: Before attacking the Enlightenment, those concerned with racial and gender equality might first take a look at how the Counter-Enlightenment dealt with these subjects: a quick look at thinkers like Edmund Burke, Johann Hamann, or Joseph de Maistre would be very instructive. They valued pre-modern traditions, patriarchy, lineage, myth, superstition, and the rest of those values underpinning “throne and altar.” In the play by Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro, the commoner Figaro asks the Duke, “What have you ever done to deserve the privileges you’ve had, besides being born?” This is something that any person of color, any gay person, any woman could have said to someone who was white, who was straight, or who was male. That phrase became known as the clarion call to the French Revolution.

Rail: Now what about Horkheimer and Adorno?

Bronner: All right: their classic work basically identified the Enlightenment with scientific or, better, mathematical methods of thinking about reality. Their argument is actually very simple. Where scientific rationality was initially used to attack religious, superstitious, and mythical dogma in the name of free inquiry, tolerance, and open society, soon enough—or so Horkheimer and Adorno argued—scientific rationality was unleashed against those ethical values that had inspired its use in the first place. What is seen as resulting from the Enlightenment is therefore a person without a conscience, a bean counter, or a bureaucrat, who fits perfectly into a capitalist system whose production process is based purely on profit and loss. As subjectivity is ever less prized, even while unconscious rage at its loss becomes open to greater manipulation by the “culture industry,” society becomes increasingly reduced to what can be mathematically understood and rage is taken out on the other. Not liberation but the concentration camp, whose inmates are defined by the numbers tattooed on their arms, thus becomes the logical extension of the Enlightenment.

Rail: There are parts of the enlightenment that have been integrated into our society, liberalism and capitalism for example. Other parts are still considered radical today. Which parts should we draw from?

Bronner: History really is the best teacher. It shows that civil liberties or the commitment to social equality cannot be taken for granted. Today, many of our basic civil liberties are being called into question. Listen to the right-wing talk show hosts and their opinions about civil liberties. Think about the Patriot Act, about the attack on gay marriage, about the hysteria and xenophobia generated through the manipulation of 9/11. It’s foolish to take what is best about modernity for granted. To reverse the great phrase of Shakespeare: what has been done can indeed be undone. That has certainly been the case with respect to curtailing the power of capital and fostering social reform. Such concerns logically derive from the Enlightenment preoccupation with constraining the exercise of arbitrary power and it is almost as if these commitments have been abandoned in a climate dominated by neo-liberal and neo-conservative thinking.

But there is also the unfulfilled internationalist promise of the Enlightenment. Less is said about that and, in a way, it is therefore the more interesting. Internationalism was always embraced as an ideal by the left and the labor movement. But institutions for its realization were lacking. Today, we have almost the opposite situation. Transnational institutions are beginning to emerge. The United Nations constitutes a symbol for interests beyond those of the nation state: whatever the ways in which it is unjustly influenced by the United States, nevertheless, its actions are not reducible to supporting those interests as the position taking by the U.N. during the Iraq War showed.

Rail: But is the U.N. really part of a radical approach to politics?

Bronner: That depends what you mean. Rethinking the role of the United Nations, in my opinion, plays a role in the need for rethinking our entire understanding of politics, which, since the birth of modernity, has been a tradition of national politics. We are increasingly witnessing the importance of maintaining international law—a planetary law—and especially young people must begin thinking about the character of a planetary politics. National categories can no longer be used in making sense of issues like immigration, AIDS, poverty, economic production, citizenship, and the deterioration of the environment. Even though the new institutions, like the United Nations and the European Parliament, are imperfect and tilted towards the interests of the richer nations, it seems to me that—just like the nation state—they can be pressured by outside forces like the anti-globalization movement. Part of that movement’s problem has been the inability to recognize both the existence of real institutions and the importance of referring to real institutions when talking about internationalism. The same is true in cultural terms: globalization is passing us by while we learn in schools and from mass media about the importance of celebrating our “roots.” Pursuing cultural internationalism does not mean identifying the world with a set of cultural ghettos any more than it means passively accepting the power of Hollywood. I have tried to deal with this issue in Reclaiming the Enlightenment.

Contributor

Gragory Zucker

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