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The End of Kantian Universalism: The Current Pandemic Madness (Part I)

It is too early now to draw the balance of the current pandemic madness, but certainly not too early to reflect on what is going on, and what will this bring about. My bet is that it will, as it indeed should, bring about the end of Kantianism – meaning the type of universalistic thinking codified, if not inaugurated, by Kant, and especially by the kind of neokantianism that rules academia since well over a century. The rule of this Kantian universalism is certainly not limited to universities, or even intellectual life, but incorporates science, technology, economics, politics – literally everything that can be associated with global modernity. The disasters produced by Kantianism are way bigger that those produced by Marxism or Freudism, and much less recognised.

Let me try to explain what I mean by this.

The most powerful area of Kantian rule is certainly not philosophy – what powers have philosophy professors in our days anyway? – rather science, and its handmaid, technology (if not the other way around). Nothing can be wrong with universalistic science, one could object immediately; it simply consists of those truth claims that are universally valid. However, there is a problem here, a very trivial one, but often forgotten: we do not live in a “universal” world, but on this planet here. And thus the moment the results of universal science are applied in and on this planet, our home, troubles emerge. It is here that we can identify the problem of Kantianism as a universalizing ideology: the unlimited applications of science, in the sense of technology, are justified by the principle of universally valid knowledge, without immediately taking into account that such products might not be compatible with the conditions of our life in this planet. To give one trivial example, plastic bags are produced by applied universalistic knowledge, but such entities are incompatible with our concrete planet, meaning Nature as it exists here, as they do not decompose and thus contribute to the unprecedented environmental disaster we are living through (among other disasters). Another, similarly trivial example concerns the corrosion of metals. Rocks do not corrode; but once rocks are transformed into metals, they do. Metallurgy, by the way, through the mediation of alchemy, its “theorization”, is one of the most basic sources of modern science (see Frances Yates, Eric Voegelin, Stephen McKnight, etc.). Metals also pollute; even poison. Metal poisoning is one of the least studied and more pernicious aspects of pollution. And the term “corrosion” etymologically is one of the biblical words to capture corrupion. Not accidentally.

The other term, corruption itself, also has an interesting etymology, and in this way helps to understand the radical corruptness of the economy. Economics is not a science, but a specific instruction to not simply commit corrupt acts, but of how to live in an existentially corrupt manner. But this will have to be discussed in a follow-up article.

Science, of course, can play its role even in identifying aspects of the current environmental disaster. It is a way to redress and rectify its own errors, or even sins, one could say. This is certainly the case – except when it is used in the modality of scientism to legitimate the universalizing destruction – for example, by following Karl Popper’s principle of ‘falsification’, one of the most pernicious of Kantian universalistic dogmas. As, of course, hardly anything meaningful can be ‘falsified’, so the prophets of science, helped by technology, politics, and business, can continue their world- (Nature-, globe-, whatever) destruction. It is quite amazing how much the current epidemic brings forward the worst preachers of science, and how they receive choice attention both by social media and government circles (for a concrete example, see the various contribution of Roberto Burioni in Italy, labeling anybody going against his official, Popperian-Kantian position as a ‘liar’)

So let me move straight into the current pandemic madness, as it brings out so many aspects of the disastrous Kantian universalism, marking its untenability. Why this is so? Let me tell this as shortly as possible.

The most clear and astonishing aspect of the current epidemic is its extremely specific age profile. Young children evidently do not even get the disease – though normally influenzas affect them particularly strongly; while deaths occur almost exclusively among the oldest part of the population. The statistics in Italy, the most inflicted country after China, speak particularly clearly. The overwhelming majority of the deceased are above 80; and not only that, but most of them also had at least three serious health conditions. On the other hand, while given the drastic responses, one could presume that there was a serious threat to most people, the statistics convincingly reveal that this is not the case. Thus, up to (including) 27 March, in the whole of Italy, there were 84 people under 50 and 17 people under 40 who died due to the Coronavirus. Of this latter, only 1 – yes, one – had no serious previous medical record. It should be noted that Italy – for a series of very peculiar reasons – has perhaps the oldest age profile among all countries of Europe.

Why this epidemic targets so clearly the elderly, it is for the medics to clarify and explain; though, especially in current times, the symbolic value of this kind of disease is particularly striking. It is remarkable that the Church, arguably terrorized by Enlightenment thinking, does not even offer an interpretation of this aspect, missing this chance to offer a commentary on modernity.

Given this situation, one could have expected that measures will be proportional to the danger – thus, focusing on older people with a previous pathological record. They could be invited to stay at home and avoid contact with others as much as possible. But this was not the case – everywhere draconic and universalistic measures were applied.

But how can this response by the states, where again Italy offered the lead, be explained? This question again leads very far, and only some aspects can be covered in this short article.

To start with, age specific measures go against the universal principle of equality. Any legislation or ordinance limited to the elderly could be considered as discriminating against them – an example for the capital sin of “ageism”.

Now, “ageism” as such is one of the most absurd examples of the application of Kantian universalism. All of us humans get old; this is a fact of nature. When we get old, we get weaker, slower, our powers slip away, so – among others – we are supposed to retire. However, somewhat recently – how this happened, would be worth a study, in my university all contracts stated that at one’s 65th birthday one retires, it was both a right and an obligation, and an absolutely universal fact (so perhaps this also was a typical Kantian error, as some people indeed could and should have continued!); however, around 2006, the law changed, as automatic pension was deemed against constitutional principles – such forced retirement was challenged on the basis of “ageism”. What it means is that the law is forced to go against nature, as aging as simply part of nature, so a distinction or if you want ‘discrimination’ on the basis of the life cycle is a central feature of any human society (and modern academic life simply becomes impossible if anybody can occupy a position practically forever).

Not any more for our modern societies, which increasingly decide to go against nature – a part of Kantian universalism, supposedly dictated by the universalistic logic of the “natural” sciences (another gross misnomer; should be rather called the “unnatural” – as universalistic – sciences; our ‘Nature’ has nothing “universalistic” about it; it is concrete, as any living being). So age-specific ordinances are out: either everybody stays at home, or everybody goes where one pleases – which of course is another nonsensical dualism, in line with Kant’s dualistic-dichotomizing tendencies. So everywhere in Europe, and in the world, unnecessary, even absurd quarantine legislations were passed, among other problems giving unprecedented power to the police. Luckily, at the moment I’m in Florence, where – still – police behaves with a degree of reasonableness, but I can image what is being done to poor Hungarians by a police force that is historically and constitutionally (meaning by its own ‘constitution’) conditioned to use any opportunity possible to abuse those people over whom it is granted powers. However, the central and general point is that all such legislation exposes the limits of unnatural, even nature-hostile, Kantian universalism.

Still, why do states act in this way, and why is Italy taking the lead? We need to enter another aspect of Kantian universalism, beyond science and the law – politics, in particular electoral rights. Here again the leading role played by Italy is important, as in Italian elections pensioners are historically playing a major role – it is common knowledge that Berlusconi won his elections by targeting housewives and pensioners, especially those (the emphasis is intended, as the point is not general-universalistic) who spend over ten hours daily in front of the TV, evidently having nothing else to do. So ‘democratic’ politicians would refrain from making policies that would lose their votes – and instead force everybody to stay at home, especially in countries, like Italy or Spain, where for young people to be all times in public spaces is one of the most important aspects of life. The outcome, already, is suicides, mental health problems, business closures, in countries already threatened by high youth unemployment rates – due to an officially maintained and mongered atmosphere of panic.

As, what is going on, anybody here can experience. I live on the border of Florence, Fiesole starts a hundred meters from our house, thus strictly speaking I could not cross the road and buy bread in the nearby bar, as legally it is already Fiesole, another municipality. Another absurdity of Kantian legislation! But there is more. A car with a loudspeaker passes twice per day, inviting everyone to stay at home and threatening with exemplary punishments. Even further, any ambulance that passes uses the full sirens, though there are hardly any cars on the streets. One can understand the need of such noise during busy times, but it is absolutely unnecessary now. Drivers should be instructed not to use the meaningless sirens. Instead, I’m sure, they are instructed to use them even more than in the past – full voice, all the time! After all, they cannot risk an incident with the patients they are now carrying. I can picture for myself the HR specialists, explaining them how they would think that in an empty road there is less danger than during busy traffic times, but actually the opposite is true, as dangers are always seeping from everywhere, but especially in an empty street! Thus such sirens, probably not in an unintended way, become integral elements of panic-mongering.

The result is that everybody is supposed to spy on everybody else, and indeed local journals are full of images sent in by people on others who are committing the most horrible crimes against people, true enemies of the public: couples taking their children in a pushchair, families meeting in a garden, or – horror!! – people simply walking in the empty streets. According to rumor, police is now even using drones to check on people in gardens – no more than eight people could be together at the same time! We personally witnessed one such instrument, making a strange noise and appearing directly over us – as if a UFO. But it was not a movie, rather part of our – twice unreal – reality.

All this, I must emphasize again and again, is nothing else but the consequence of Kantian universalism, that transforms otherwise reasonable concrete people into monsters searching the monster in the generalized and universalized ‘other’. As I stated in a 2010 article, paraphrasing Fabrizio de André, the best Italian singer, specifically against Habermas, ‘the modus operandi of a fully transparent and homogenous public sphere is terror.’

Let me finish this first part by exploring further the issue of the electoral voice of the elderly. Politicians, to be fair, must take into account the opinions of such a large group of voters. But is it evident that pensioners should vote?! According to Kantian universalism, certainly. But does it have any sense?

Here historical parallels are very important. One is the ‘council of elders’, central for Athens, as for many pre-modern communities all around the world. What it meant is that all communities on the planet took into consideration the great wisdom older people gained by their experiences. Therefore they were indeed prime ‘communal’ (if not political) actors. But this meant two key things. First, they were not pensioners, but parts of the community, who did more or less what everybody else did, except that they used more their voice and wisdom, and less their hands and physical force. Second, that usually not everybody was member of such a council by ‘mere’ age, but those who were recognized as wise in one way or another. So certainly no Kantian universalism was applied.

The other concerns the medieval principle, going back to Greek and Roman customs, of assigning political rights to heads of households. While in the past (though not everywhere) this had a gender component that today certainly could not apply, the basic issue was not this, but that political participation implied certain responsibility, which in these societies was connected to the concept of ‘household’ (incidentally, microeconomics still today talks about ‘household’ and their ‘utility’, a legacy of Aristotelian language, when what is really meant is ‘individuals’ and the ‘search for pleasure’ – part of the misleading terminology of modern economics, another aspect of untenable Kantian universalism, but this will be covered in a follow-up article). The general principle is still important in our case, as pensioners indeed do not carry in our societies much activity that implies responsibility. Their ‘vote’ therefore is a bit of a problem.

So my non-Kantian suggestion – which would not solve ‘everything’, as the entire voting-based system is highly problematic, but at least could improve matters somewhat – is that pensioners indeed should not vote.

Before I’m being mobbed, let me add two related comments (perhaps, inviting for further lynching). First, on the other hand, I think pensioners, or at least grandparents, should have a ‘right’ to see their grandchildren – just as divorced parents do have. I think grandparents are, and certainly should be, much more concerned about being with their grandchildren, whom in our modern societies they often do not see for months if not years, than their ‘right’ to chose the actual comedians to fill the political offices. Second, to be fair on the other side, I would also take away the voting rights of students. In the medieval world students had no political ‘rights’, and this was a just rule, as they were studying, dependent in several senses, thus did not lead the independent life necessary for political participation, and even further were under formation, so their judgment was being formed, thus easily altered. It is interesting to recall that central to 68-ist ideology was to assign political power to students. This only further underlines the nonsensical character of such ideology, as the supposed ‘not being corrupted by the system’ was rather identical to ‘not having any real-life responsibility’. This said, of course many things were indeed corrupt – first of all, as already mentioned, the very principle of modern economics is corruption.

The argument presented so far was mostly limited to the current pandemic, which once will end. But the destructiveness of Kantianism will not end. It needs to be explored further. This will be attempted in a series of follow-up articles.


This is the first of four parts with parts two, three, and four available.

Arpad SzakolczaiArpad Szakolczai

Arpad Szakolczai

Arpad Szakolczai is a Board Member of VoegelinView and a Professor of Sociology at University College Cork in Ireland. He is author of Comedy and the Public Sphere (Routledge, 2012); Novels and the Sociology of the Contemporary (Routledge, 2016); and Permanent Liminality and Modernity (Routledge, 2017).

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