‘Ethics Under Capital: MacIntyre, Communication and the Culture Wars’ by Jason Hannan reviewed by Michael Principe

Ethics Under Capital: MacIntyre, Communication and the Culture Wars

Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2020, 226 pp., $115.00 hb
ISBN 9781350080607

Reviewed by Michael Principe

About the reviewer

Michael Principe is Professor of Philosophy at Middle Tennessee State University and Middle …


When Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was published in 1981, it became an academic blockbuster, while frequently drawing criticism from liberal commentators who saw it as a conservative intervention into the scholarly and cultural conflicts of the day. In that book’s preface, MacIntyre frames his motivation for its writing against the background of his earlier embrace, and subsequent rejection, of Marxism. While there is very little direct discussion of Marxism in the book, MacIntyre frequently lauds the standpoints and character of various figures in the Marxist tradition, while making clear that he continues to accept the kind of criticism of liberalism from which he says Marxism originates. This uncompromising rejection of liberalism along with regular reference to such notions as family, nation and tradition rendered MacIntyre inaccessible to some sections of the left academy.

Since then, there has been something of a reevaluation of MacIntyre’s political position. Beginning with MacIntyre’s own 1984 postscript to the second edition as well as some of his essays, especially ‘Three Perspectives on Marxism: 1953, 1968, 1995,’ he has helped make clear his relationship to Marxism and illustrate his clear anti-capitalism. Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson’s superbly edited Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings 1953-1974 has brought renewed attention to MacIntyre’s overtly Marxist period. Numerous books and articles have sought to reveal and analyze a left-MacIntyre or as Blackledge and Kevin Knight call it in their edited collection, Virtue and Politics, MacIntyre’s ‘revolutionary Aristotelianism.’

Jason Hannan’s Ethics Under Capital represents a further contribution to this mode of Macintyre scholarship and we are invited to view and employ MacIntyre in the academic and cultural world of 2020.

Speaking to an American audience, Hannan begins by describing what he perceives as the strange world that has materialized since the election of Donald Trump: ‘The state of American democracy today appears to have become an alternate dimension – a kind of twilight zone in which our institutions remain the same, in which we go through the same formalities and perform the same rituals, but in which a madness reigns supreme’ (ix). We have witnessed Trump’s ‘pathological lying, vicious insults, incessant trolling, public buffoonery, and trashy behavior’ become shockingly normalized and in some quarters positively celebrated. Hamon acknowledges that this is not just about Trump. He joins with many others in suggesting that we have come to inhabit, practically speaking, a ‘post-truth’ world. Hannan’s engagement with MacIntyre is motivated by the desire to recover a politically workable notion of truth that can help bridge current cultural divides. Hannan employs MacIntyre to explain both how we reached our current condition and what we might do to recover from it. Those of us with critical capacities, he says, should see MacIntyre as a ‘prophet’ who predicted a new ‘dark age’ which is ‘already upon us.’

Writing prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Hannan describes our current moment as one of crisis and opportunity. The consequences of the 2008 financial crisis have, he says, affected a new generation that is open to radical politics. Evidence of this, he says, is found in the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America and in the fact that ‘Marxist theory is once again fashionable’ (1). MacIntyre’s ‘militant opposition to capitalism,’ (14) suggests to Hannon that the theoretical undertaking of After Virtue and other writings can be helpfully utilized at this conjuncture.

What differentiates Hannan’s work from others is the focus on what he calls a ‘crisis of communication.’ Hannan takes his lead from MacIntyre’s claim that ‘[t]he most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character […].There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture’ (24). Hannan cites a number of contemporary cultural disputes where it can appear that we face sheer moral incommensurability.

Recent arguments around ‘free speech’ serve as an example. Battles over free speech are regarded as ‘an ultimate showdown, where something grave and fundamental is at stake: truth, freedom, justice, human dignity, even Western civilization itself’ (24). Yet, Hannan notes, both liberals and conservatives seem to have, at the same time, free floating stances on a range of free speech issues. He remarks that conservatives sometimes defend the campus speaking rights of racists, misogynists and homophobes, but find Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests against police violence and racism intolerable. Liberals may, he says, defend Kaepernick, but sponsor legislation outlawing criticism of Israel.

The character of so many public debates is assertion v. assertion, accompanied by ramped up emotion and anger. Hannan accepts MacIntyre’s diagnosis that the culture largely inhabits a generalized emotivist moral universe. In a chapter entitled, ‘Roots of the Culture Wars,’ Hannan reviews After Virtue’s brief history of secular moral theory and its failed attempts to secure a foundation for moral reasoning, focusing on Hume, Kant, utilitarianism and natural rights. Hannan’s account is uncritical. He does occasionally and helpfully cites passages from Marx that elucidate MacIntyre’s analysis. For MacIntyre, as well as Hannan, we are left with a liberal individualism and instrumentalism in which there seems little more to moral and political disagreement than rhetoric, manipulation and the imposition of one side’s will upon the other.

Hannan goes on to describe the current period as ‘emotivism on steroids.’ With the dominance of capital having fragmented collective values and meaningful community, the rise of social media has, according the Hannan, deepened these tendencies and exacerbated the divide between left and right. Relying heavily on examples from Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, and analysis from cultural critic Mark Fisher, Hannan recounts the rise of 4-chan, Gamergate and the origin of the alt-right, stating that for his purposes what is most important is the alt-right’s rhetorical style. Living for transgression and the ‘lulz,’ such right-wing figures as Milo Yiannapolous and Richard Spencer fancy themselves as heirs to the counterculture and as advocates of ‘freedom.’

At the same time, ‘tumbler liberalism,’ as Nagle calls it, gives us ‘left cannibalism.’ Examples explored by Hannan include the uproar over Rebecca Tuvel’s essay ‘In Defense of Transracialism,’ published in the feminist philosophical journal Hypatia, which he calls ‘one of the strangest moments in modern academic history’ (89). The backlash against this article comparing the categories of ‘transgender’ and ‘transracial’ by an untenured assistant professor was immediate and enormous, with much of the academic feminist establishment calling for retraction of the piece. Hannan quotes philosopher Kelly Oliver who wrote in defense of Tuvel that this affair was ‘identity politics run amok’ (91). MacIntyre describes the new (and old) dark ages as a loss of ‘civility and moral community.’ Oliver, says Hannan, ‘brilliantly captures the nature of emotivism in the age of social media,’ when she writes that ‘[o]utrage has become the new truth’ (93).

Having hit something like rock bottom as far as our ability to rationally communicate across the wider culture, Hannan then explores possible solutions to this problem. He considers two theoretical responses, deliberative democracy and agonistic pluralism, before arguing for a MacIntyrian solution.

Under the heading of deliberative democracy, Hannan briefly considers the work of Rawls and Habermas. Like MacIntyre, they uphold a rationalist politics, but unlike him offer formal and universal procedures for deliberation in hopes of resolving disputes and coming to rational consensus. While reviewing MacIntyre’s criticisms of this approach, Hannan focuses his argument by presenting a case study involving the Maori tribe of New Zealand who claim the river Whanganui is in fact a person and ought to be legally recognized as such. According to Hannan, since Rawls and Habermas only have room in their theories for rational agents, arguments for the personhood of the river are excluded. For Hannan, this reveals the nonneutral, Eurocentric framework of the approach. On this basis, he contends that for Rawls and Habermas, ‘arguments for animals and nature have no place in public deliberation’ (120). Just as MacIntyre argues that Rawls’s emphasis on the abstract individual entails the absence of any conception of social flourishing, Hannan argues that deliberative democracy lacks a conception of ‘ecological flourishing.’ While provocative, the reader will likely want to hear more about how the dispute between the Maori and the government might be resolved in MacIntyrian terms.

With regard to agonistic pluralism, Hannan centers the work of Chantelle Mouffe. In contrast to deliberative democracy, Mouffe, while rejecting foundationalism and essentialism, also rejects the possibility of rational consensus building in favor of an ongoing contest amongst political adversaries who attempt to gain hegemony. Hannan sees the crucial problem with the agonistic approach being the rejection of rational resolution and the category of truth. Despite Mouffe’s defense of liberal political institutions and abiding concern regarding totalitarianism, Hannan believes this, absent the category of truth, is actually an approach that may ‘establish the conditions for totalitarianism to take root’ (145).

MacIntyre’s attempt to formulate a model for achieving rational resolution between conflicting traditions is offered up as the way forward through our contemporary culture wars. Toward this end, Hannan deftly summarizes MacIntyre’s conceptual framework of practices, narratives, traditions and virtues as central to moral and political community. Key for Hannan is the idea that living traditions involve conflict. For MacIntyre, conflict within and between traditions can be resolved through rational means, though means grounded only in the traditions themselves, not in an ahistorical or universal foundation. In this sense, he rejects, Hannan explains, the default belief found in Mouffe and others that theoretical and political difference is grounded in radical incommensurability. For MacIntyre, successful theories allow us to understand the predecessor’s weaknesses and why the predecessor theory was previously regarded as viable.

Hannan does not engage in a concentrated defense of MacIntyre’s view. His interest is in finding its use for contemporary politics and the culture wars. By way of argument, Hannan concludes by giving an account of presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders’ visit to Liberty University in 2016. While major Republican candidates regularly visit this right-wing, evangelical stronghold, no Democratic candidates had previously done so. As Hannan reports, Sanders made clear to his audience that they had significant disagreements, including over women’s rights and gay rights. But, he wanted to have a real and respectful conversation. Sanders talked about morality, the golden rule, and, within broadly religious terms, made a case for universal healthcare and ending the enormous economic inequalities in the US. Hannan sees Sanders’ attempt to find common ground as different from the politicians of the Democratic Party establishment who, he thinks, simply want to defeat the other side.

Largely implicit here, and throughout Hannan’s discussion of common ground, is the proposition that a significant area of commonality may be found in working class solidarity. With this in mind, the contrast Hannon draws between Sanders and establishment Democrats might help explain why polls indicate that some Trump voters may have voted for Sanders if he had been the Democratic nominee.

Hannan is right that there is something inspiring about Sanders’ approach. However, in the end, it is unclear that Hannan successfully makes the transition from his defense of MacIntyre’s theory to material practice. Surely, Rawls, Habermas and Mouffe could also offer interpretations of Sanders’ conversation at Liberty University in terms of fairness, rational consensus or hegemony. Hannan recommends that we communicate across political and cultural divides with respect and civility. Even if the theoretical framework offered up by MacIntyre provides some understanding of this practice, Hannan says little regarding how material conditions might be shaped to facilitate a world in which this sort of communication is routine.

Ethics under Capital is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on MacIntyre from a left perspective. Interesting, too, is Hannan’s focus on the rational resolution of conflict, where most left academic work on MacIntyre focuses on his critique of liberal individualism and society. In the end, though, more work needs to be done to bring the theoretical and practical aspects of the project together.

10 June 2020

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