Without Classes

I recently read a book of essays by an Italian philosopher named Giorgio Agamben. The work is titled “The Coming Community”. It was published in Italian in 1990 and appeared in English in 93. As best I can tell, the book advances a view of ontology in which being is defined by potentiality and a contingent everything-and-nothing relationship to phenomena rather than the traditional dichotomy between ideals and tautology that has always dominated the western discussion about metaphysics. He characterizes this new ontology as “whatever singularity”. Use of the term “whatever” (qualunque in Italian) is intended to denote a synthesis of the particular and the general, or a continual vacillation between the two. Because this system of meaning is predicated on allowance rather than differentiation, it creates unities as opposed to divisions. This coalescing of factors results in singularity, which is the basis fo the coming community that Agamben envisions.

In one of the book’s more lively chapters, Agamben explores the social implications of whatever singularity in contemporary class relations. His conclusions are surprising and not altogether plausible in my opinion. But I do think he’s correct. Here’s what he says about class in contemporary society:

“If we had once again to conceive of the fortunes of humanity in terms of class, then today we would have to say that there are no longer social classes, but just a single planetary petty bourgeoisie, in which all the old social classes are dissolved.”

He goes on to describe the qualities of this universal class…

“The planetary petty bourgeoisie… has taken over the aptitude of the proletariat to refuse any recognizable social identity…. They know only the improper and the inauthentic and even refuse the idea of a discourse that could be proper to them. That which constituted the truth and falsity of the peoples and generations that have followed one another on the earth—differences in language, of dialect, of ways of life, of character, of custom, and even the physical particularities of each person—has lost any meaning for them and any capacity for expression and communication.”

I don’t disagree with his premise, that the dissolution of determinate meanings is causing a collapse of social divisions. And there are plenty of reasons to think that a homogenization of social relations is taking place and that the modern profusion of shared dependencies has lashed together all the peoples of the world to a common destiny. But there are other ways in which our differences are becoming more entrenched and more seemingly insurmountable. To say that we are all merging into a universal middle class seems naïve. There are entire regions of the globe where people still rely on subsistence farming, while in other sectors the rich and privileged classes reign supreme like feudal lords. Perhaps it could be said that the nations of the world are moving toward an industrialized, consumer-driven social model, but it’s premature to say that they are all likely to make it there.

Agamben goes on to point out that although the exponents of this new social order of the planetary petty bourgeoisie have willingly consigned themselves to anonymity and rootlessness, they still grasp in vain for meaningful identity; perhaps as a habit of ideological thinking or out of fear of the unknown and the unknowable. He predicts that the continued execution of this futile enterprise might culminate in mankind’s destruction. If not, we may progress to a new era of possibility and unity:

“If instead of continuing to search for a proper identity in the already improper and senseless form of individuality, humans were to succeed in belonging to this impropriety as such, in making of the proper being-thus not an identity and an individual property but a singularity without identity, a common and absolutely exposed singularity—if humans could, that is, not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects, into a communication without the incommunicable.”

Here Agamben sounds distinctly utopian—or dystopian, if you like. A world whose inhabitants embrace the whatever singularity is a world with neither identity nor stable classifications. It is a world of only surfaces, no depth. Depth is fallacy; only the surface is to be trusted, and in this world where the surface is revered and taken at face value, the surface constitutes the extent of the known. There are no other concerns. That deeper sequence of causalities that we accept as phenomenon goes utterly unacknowledged. Supplementary information becomes useless.

What changes most, I think, is how we think of human beings. A person is neither esteemed an individual nor a member of a group. Man looses agency and he loses sense of belonging. I don’t see how free will could have a place in this world. It seems that everything would be pre-determined. Everything just is. There is no play.

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