by J. Domenico
February 27, 2020
Liberalism is collapsing.
The historical circumstances that gave rise to, and the environmental conditions that permitted, the proliferation of liberal democracy across the surface of the earth are either already destroyed or are in the process of being cannibalized. This is most salient in the way that common or public goods and labor protection laws are being eviscerated without hesitation or mercy to facilitate the further expansion of capital. The near total dominance of ‘right-to-work’ laws in the United States of America is exemplary of the latter, and the current attack on the United Kingdom’s national health service by American health insurance and pharmaceutical companies demonstrates the former.
However, as fascism, corporate totalitarianism, and other forms of authoritarianism metastasize across the planet, we can expect to see social rights, liberties, and the meager gains made therein, to also be destroyed.
This is tied, in part, to the weaknesses of the ethos of tolerance.
We commonly think of tolerance as being one of the fundamental popular attitudes needed for a functioning pluralistic society. We think tolerance is the disinterested acceptance of difference –- the lack of revulsion when faced by the different ways by which people unlike us conduct their lives. It is the averted eyes and carried ons in the face of what one considers unusual, even strange. At its most benign, it is merely unremarked acceptance.
Despite the constant self-aggrandizement of European colonial powers present and past, tolerance towards strange people, faiths, and customs wasn’t a unique result of the moral developments of the enlightenment. On the contrary, it could be considered a precondition for empire –- the Roman Empire absorbed any land and people it could put a legionnaire’s boot on and permitted any god to be worshiped so long as the Caesar was given his due. Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire was even more profoundly secular in its outlook, with the Khan not even demanding the obeisance offered to Roman emperors.
The more relevant version of tolerance stems from Christian Europe during the middle ages. Though attitudes and positions towards those non-Christians fluctuated over times and borders, there are noted instances of accommodation – though many of these amounted to the simple acts of not exterminating Jews on sight. Medieval Poland was one of the pioneer bastions of such tolerance, and became a major nexus of Jewish life and culture in Europe.
The bounds of tolerance further expanded after and because of the Protestant Reformation and the centuries of internecine religious warfare between Catholicism and its mutant children faiths.
The United States of America, for all of its own strife and discord caused by racial intolerance, became a noteworthy bastion of religious tolerance on the paper of the Constitution with the First Amendment -– despite the invisible asterisk implying that Congress shall not make no law establishing any particular Christian sect.
The contradictions between claims of universal rights to life and dignity warred with the brutal realities of slavery and indigenous genocide that stained the American story mounted, and the concept of racial tolerance spread from the rightfully egalitarian and abolitionist sectors of the American populace to written law – albeit, with every letter being inked in blood and written by tooth and claw.
The civil rights movement expanded the bounds of tolerance to the non-white. It became, to varying and uneven degrees, incrementally taboo to discriminate based on constructions of race.
The bounds of common tolerance were pushed further by the gay rights movement, as minorities of sexuality and gender rebelled against the legal and social oppression and prejudices forced on them. In these spaces of Tolerance won, ever more non-Christian faiths were able to take root and flower in the retreating hegemon of white, cis, straight Christendom.
This is but the loosest of overview of the expansion of the concept of Tolerance in the context of the struggle for rights and dignity.
While the concept of tolerance – and the ever widening circle of those tolerated by the hegemonic powers of American society – has improved the material conditions and social realities of people with marginal identities, the ethos of tolerance has intrinsic limitations in and of itself, and its application in the current context of American society is ethically compromised.
As an ethos, tolerance self-defeats as a means of achieving an egalitarian society because it is based on a power disparity. To put it simply, for one to tolerate an other, one must have power over that other. One must have the option and ability to remove that other from one’s experience, of course by force.
The person doing the tolerating, by dint of being in a position to tolerate, holds a sword (metaphorical or literal) over the head of those they tolerate.
The existence of that power disparity, like the existence of almost all power disparities, is unacceptable.
The way this manifests in our current American civilization in how social rights and liberties have expanded to people with marginal identities while their economic power has been all but stripped away as their political power is gamed out of their hands.
Capital, and the white hetero male sum that function as American Capital’s nervous system, by the ethos of tolerance grants (however reluctantly or eagerly) social liberties to those of marginal identities as a consolation prize for the latter’s unknowing surrender of what economic and political power they have. You may have the right to marry someone of the same gender, or of a different race, but you will never be able to afford health care, university for your children, or rent when you work two jobs that pay $7.25, that you can be fired from any time your boss so much as feels like it.
Tolerance is the permission to exist, granted by the powerful. For this reason, it is now intolerable.
We must shed the ethos of tolerance, and if we are to fight for a more just and equitable future, or any future worth living in, we must adopt an ethos of solidarity.
The ethos of solidarity is recognizing that another human being is much like you: cast into a hostile world to live a life they didn’t ask for. It is to recognize your loneliness and fear shared in them, and to understand that the only way to survive in our increasingly hostile world, devoured by the processes of Capital and burned by the climatic destruction it is wreaking, is together.
Critics will call this ethos of solidarity an idealistic phantom, an impossible demand of selflessness that is absurd to ask of people. In truth, solidarity is the crudest of self interests – it is recognizing that the worst thing that you permit to happen to another human being can happen to you. It is also the guarantee that even if you are among the greatest predators of our world, the worst thing that can happen to another human being will happen to you.