A philosophy for the protesters

The OWS movement grew out of the philosophical paradox that our financial system could not contain flaws.

marx, lenin and engels
Karl Marx: The theory of Communism may be summed up in one sentence: Abolish all private property [EPA]

Barcelona, Spain – A few weeks ago, after participating at a conference at Stony Brook University in New York, I went to Zuccotti Park to see and support the protesters there. A few months earlier, I had done the same thing, but in Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona; in both parks, where similar dissatisfaction with our world order was being expressed, the only thing I could think of was the actuality of Karl Marx’s words of 1845: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. How can these words still be valid today? Is there a philosophy for these protesters?

Regardless of all the great work that philosophers have done since Marx, this change has still not come about. The reason does not rest in philosophers’ inability to interpret correctly, but rather in their desire to interpret correctly. The inability to effect change that concerned Marx cannot be attributed to interpretation but to the truth that interpretation seeks, that is, to descriptions. Descriptions demand the imposition of certain truth and the conservation of reality, the status quo. Interpretation, on the other hand, constantly makes new contributions to reality, constantly produces change. Marx’s call to change the world should be read against those philosophies incapable of producing change, those that sustain the current constitution of society, politics and, most of all, the economy. These philosophies are primarily practiced in the United States under the name of “metaphysical” or “analytical” philosophy, and star representatives include, among others, Robert Nozick, Francis Fukuyama and John Searle. While Nozick and Fukuyama defend neoliberalism and its triumph over history, Searle (who was honoured by George W. Bush in 2004 with a National Humanities Medal) focuses on a defence of reason and objectivity and so acts to conserve the current condition of the world.

In the midst of our global economic crisis, which sees financial centres such as Wall Street occupied by protesters who call for change, Marx’s statement points out that we are still framed within the thought system that sustains the crisis, but it also demands a change in thought, that is, a philosophy for these same protesters. This philosophy is available and is called hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation that runs proximally through history from Aristotle and Augustine to Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Although Plato in the Ion presented hermeneutics as a theory of reception and practice for transmitting the messages of the gods of Olympus, it soon after acquired a broader philosophical significance, suggesting alternative vital meanings for world, thought and existence. Thus, its most important living representative, Gianni Vattimo, recently pointed out how “whoever does not succeed in becoming an autonomous interpreter, in this sense, perishes, no longer lives like a person but like a number, a statistical item in the system of production and consumption”. The protesters and movements that arose in Spain last spring and have now spread throughout the world are the incarnation of these autonomous interpreters determined to overcome the economic impositions established by our governments. But what grants them this determination is not possession of a higher truth than the one espoused by the bearers of power, but rather the idea of an alternative and socially balanced organisation of wealth, that is, a different interpretation of the world.

But the parallel I am trying to establish between our protesters and the philosophy of interpretation does not rest simply on their demand for change but also on the condition in which they find themselves. Both the protesters and hermeneutics exist at the margins of society, as a sort of discharge of capitalism, on the one hand, and a second-rate philosophy, on the other. This marginalised condition is a consequence not of political or theoretical inconsistence, but rather of their vital ethical demands. Like Marx, hermeneutic thought and the protesters pose a radical demand for change. Rarely do people comfortable in their lives propose a different interpretation of reality, but when they do, it becomes politically revolutionary because it opposes the objective state of affairs that conditioned his previous existence. The demands of our protesters in Barcelona, New York and Sydney vary from equal distribution of income, greater social services, to reduction of corporations influence on politics, but this does not indicate they are conflicting, confused, and anarchic but that they are all hungry for change. But why is hermeneutics the most appropriate philosophy for these protesters who seek to change real economic policies?

If hermeneutics can become the philosophy of our protesters it is not only because it shares a discredited condition, revolutionary goals or ethical resistance, but also because it suggests that human coexistence is possible without imposed truth, that is, a single global financial system. After all, according to Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and other distinguished economists, it is just this belief in a global economy that drove us into financial crisis in the first place. The IMF, WB and ECB are founded on a “pensee unique,” that is, an ideology of perfection, rationality, and self-regulation where flaws, frictions and failures cannot even be taken into consideration. Imposing as truth the specific economic policies of these organisations is to the life embodied by our protesters, a life that shows different and differently vital cultural and economic demands. Hermeneutics, then, is one of the few philosophies that reflects the pluralism of our postmodern societies because, like truly democratic procedures, it includes and allows structural changes to take place every time citizens demand them. Ignoring these demands for change overlooks new, different, and vital interpretations and also ignores the 99 per cent of the population that is now demanding them and the change they can effect.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with Gianni Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. His webpage is www.santiagozabala.com

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.