Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Know how to dare!

In Commonwealth (2009) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their criticism of what they call the “republic of property”, and en route to the conceptualisation of a social democracy which lends itself to the actual transformation of the social and political status quo — and not merely restricts itself to lip-service to such transfiguration — turn to, among others, Immanuel Kant’s thought on enlightenment. This may seem to be improbable — after all, Kant is hardly known first and foremost as a theoretician of the revolution. This fact notwithstanding, they argue that a “minor voice” is audible in Kant’s work alongside the “major voice” of the philosopher of the transcendental method, who uncovered the conditions of possibility, not only of certain knowledge of the law-governed phenomenal world, but in so doing also, by implication, of a life of dutiful social and political responsibility that leaves existing power relations as they are.

This “minor voice” therefore points, according to them, towards an alternative to the modern power complex that finds affirmation in Kant’s “major voice”. The minor Kantian text which formed part of the subject matter of my recent post by the same title — “What is enlightenment?” — represents, according to Hardt and Negri, the “minor voice” of the revolutionary Kant. Crucially, they draw attention to Kant’s appropriation of the motto, taken from Horace, to wit, “Sapere aude!” (Dare to know!) as being suitable for expressing the meaning of “enlightenment”, but at the same time they shrewdly point to the very ambiguous manner in which this motto is developed in Kant’s short text .

On the one hand one cannot really detect much daring in Kant’s encouragement of citizens to do “their duty” obediently as citizens entrusted with carrying out different tasks (soldiers, ministers of religion, civil servants) and paying their taxes to the sovereign, whatever misgivings they may privately have about these. Here the two authors of Commonwealth see Kant as affirming the European rationalist tradition that construed the Enlightenment as a process in which the emendation of reason was (and still is) carried out. Needless to emphasise, such an approach amounts to the strengthening of the social and political status quo.

On the other hand, however, they claim that Kant himself creates the opening for reading this enlightenment exhortation (p16): ” … against the grain: ‘dare to know’ really means at the same time also ‘know how to dare’. This simple inversion indicates the audacity and courage required, along with the risks involved, in thinking, speaking, and acting autonomously. This is the minor Kant, the bold, daring Kant, which is often hidden, subterranean, buried in his texts, but from time to time breaks out with a ferocious, volcanic, disruptive power. Here reason is no longer the foundation of duty that supports established social authority but rather a disobedient, rebellious force that breaks through the fixity of the present and discovers the new. Why, after all, should we dare to think and speak for ourselves if these capacities are only to be silenced immediately by a muzzle of obedience?”

A discourse analysis of Kant’s essay confirms their reading. His use of words such as “courage”, “cowardice”, “dare”, “danger”, in such statements as the following, where he elaborates on the reasons for humankind’s “self-incurred tutelage”, are telling in this regard (p1 of the LW Beck translation):

“After the guardians [ie authorities of all kinds] have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone. Actually, however, this danger is not so great, for by falling a few times they would finally learn to walk alone.”

One might even read these words on the part of the mild philosopher of Königsberg as an incipient manifesto for political anarchism — that is, the position that humans do not need governments, because they are quite capable of governing themselves, once they have gathered the courage to do so.

And when Kant observes pointedly, towards the end of the essay, that there is a correlation between the free public use, on the part of citizens, of their powers of reasoning for debating all manner of topics — contentious (such as religion) or otherwise — and the enlightenment of the sovereign (who therefore need not be “afraid of shadows”), the radical implication is clear. If the sovereign does not submit him- or herself to the same rational rules that govern the actions of citizens, the latter need not feel bound to obey such a sovereign any longer. That is, rebellion is justified when authorities themselves do not act reasonably, but, by implication, unjustifiably.

In sum, what the “minor” Kant could teach anyone who is receptive, if Hardt and Negri are right, concerns the necessity of distinguishing between two kinds of thought and action. Regardless of the “freedom of thought and expression” which may accompany it, the first kind would leave the established political, social and economic order intact, even if such an order is one of injustice. And even if this seems to be an instance of “dare to think for yourself”, it would amount to no more than venting one’s frustration or sense of indignation, because it would lack that other element singled out by Hardt and Negri’s reading of Kant, namely “think (or know) how to dare!” The latter would inaugurate the second kind of thought and action, which does not shy away from acting in such a manner that an unjust order is rejected and resisted at all levels, such that one’s autonomy is clearly manifested.

Such a “minor” way of thinking AND acting would certainly carry tremendous risk, because it would fly in the face of the established, dominant order, where political, economic and administrative (bureaucratic) imperatives combine to keep citizens in a state of docility — or, to use the currently fashionable term, “compliance”. I stress the AND, because freedom of expression is not enough; it has to be combined with action of the kind that, perhaps subtly, subverts what Foucault called the “disciplinary mechanisms” which reduce people to “docile bodies” — bodies which are economically productive and politically powerless. Resistance to the unjust dominant order has to begin at the level of bio-politically resisting bodies — theory, by itself, is powerless to bring fundamental change, as Hardt and Negri proceed to argue in Commonwealth, delivering a lambasting to what they see as impotent social democratic theory on the part of theorists such as Habermas and Rawls.

For those who are at a loss regarding effective modes of resistance, just think of the many instances of protest witnessed in the early 21st century — protests which, as these two authors show, with plenty of supporting evidence (in their earlier text, Multitude; 2005), have multiplied across the globe, and are still increasing in the face of the forces of what they call Empire. But one need not think only of clearly visible political protest. Every time one succeeds in evading the kind of bureaucracy designed to induce docility in subjects — such as all the superfluous administration expected of teachers in the OBE system of education, which takes the place of what could be edifying, enriching teaching — you are chalking up a small victory against the forces of Empire, because you have dared to do so. And believe me, it is possible, even if one does not always succeed in convincing “authorities” that one’s time is better spent on creative activities from which students and staff can also benefit, than on the endless, sterile filling in of forms, or counting of beans.

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