Forward, to the union of humanity

October 15 2001 / New Statesman

Two centuries ago, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant also envisaged a world community. Jason Cowley welcomes a neo-Kantian in Downing Street.

“All wars are so many attempts to bring about new relations among the states and to form new bodies by the break-up of the old states to the point where they cannot again maintain themselves alongside each other and must therefore suffer revolutions until finally, partly through the best possible arrangement of the civic constitution internally, and partly through the common agreement and legislation externally, there is created a state that, like a civic commonwealth, can maintain itself automatically.”
Immanuel Kant, 1784

“Round the world, 11 September is bringing governments and people to reflect, consider and change… There is a coming together. The power of community is asserting itself… I have long believed this interdependence defines the new world we live in.”
Tony Blair, 2001

Everyone who is anyone in the world of letters has been scrambling to offer their interpretation of the world-changing events of 11 September. We have endured Martin Amis’s hyperbolic take on the collapse of the twin towers, all “sharking” planes, “world flashes” from the near future and “species-shame”. We have endured the hawkish pomposity of the well-known thriller writer Robert Harris, delivered in weekly despatches in the Daily Telegraph, for which he was no doubt hired as a lone maverick counter-intuitive voice, though he has emerged as someone capable only of attacking the left from the right, as it were. We have had Ian McEwan’s subtle meditations on the hijacked passengers’ expressions of love at the point of extinction, as well as far too much “expert” geopolitical analysis and the odd apocalyptic prediction or two.

But so far there has been no seminal essay, no work of insight and prescience to rival Francis Fukuyama’s essay The End of History, which so perceptively defined the mood of western triumphalism at the end of the cold war in 1989, while offering a persuasive philosophical explanation for the collapse of our old bipolar world.

In the absence of such a text, Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party conference deserves to enjoy a radiant afterlife, not least because of its curious and unexpected revival of a form of Kantian liberal internationalism, as expressed in his hope for the future harmony and interdependence of nations. “This is a moment to seize,” he said. “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are influx. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder the world around us… ‘By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we can alone’.”

Much has been made of the urgent tone of the speech - its messianic fervour and missionary zeal - and considerably less, if anything, of its philosophical foundations. This is to be regretted, because when Blair speaks of a “common thread of principle” uniting all nations, of “reordering” the world, of eradicating global poverty and ignorance, and of rebuilding a new interdependent world order from the wastes of conflict, he thrillingly, perhaps unconsciously, shares a vision of the future with the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s essays Perpetual Peace (1795) and Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent (1784) once provided the philosophical inspiration for contemporary liberal internationalism, and certainly influenced the foundation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

That Blair should discuss such ideas while he prepared to support the bombing of Afghanistan is not as absurd as it first seemed. Kant believed that war was the engine of history, a paradoxical mechanism for beneficial change as men reluctantly submitted themselves to the rule of law in order to avoid a relentless cycle of destruction: “The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.”

Kant saw how war weakened and impoverished nations, how it “stunted the full development of human nature”. He saw, too, how the ruinous effects of successive Conflicts could, because men are ultimately rational and self-interested, be turned to the advantage of human society, leading to greater concord and agreement between states. In time, they might lead towards a universal “civic constitution”, a prototype League of Nations (Kant was writing in the late 18th century, when there was no discernible world community).

In 1784, reflecting on centuries of turmoil in Europe, he found it “hard to suppress a certain disgust when contemplating men’s actions upon the world stage” - the kind of disgust one feels now, as the most technologically sophisticated nation on earth bombs one of the most primitive into bewildered submission. One finds, Kant continued, “in spite of apparent wisdom in detail that everything, taken as a whole, is interwoven with stupidity, childish vanity, often with childish viciousness and destructiveness”.

But Kant was far from despairing; rather, like Tony Blair, he believed in the possibility of progress and understood that war and conflict, though regrettable, were largely the inevitable expressions of what he called man’s “unsocial sociability”, and of a natural desire to protect one’s own local and international interests.

Kant was a teleologist. He believed that there was a direction and purpose to the development of history, that history was always moving towards its telos, its ultimate goal or end - and that end, as he saw it, was a perpetual peace between mutually interdependent democratic states under the rule of law, what he called a “civic commonwealth”.

Underscoring the Kantian notion of history is the idea of progress and, in particular, the idea of scientific progress, through which one generation adapts and improves on the discoveries and errors of those who have gone before. Which means that the history of ideas can be compared to the history of technology - ideas follow successively on from one another, being refined or rejected, just as you cannot invent a microwave oven before you have invented an electric power generator.

It does not necessarily follow that an advanced society is morally superior to an underdeveloped society; yes, microwaves are handy, but you cannot have an H-bomb until you have an A-bomb. However, the more advanced a culture, according to Kant, the greater the opportunity for the greatest number of people to fulfil their potential, their telos. In less advanced societies, such as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where life is rigidly ritualised and education for women forbidden, fewer people have the capacity to reach their potential, and thus religion remains a powerful attraction. As Nietzsche wrote, in Human, All Too Human (1879): “People to whom their daily life appears too empty and monotonous easily grow religious; this is comprehensible and excusable, only they have no right to demand religious sentiments from those whose daily life is not empty and monotonous.”

One of the great sadnesses of the contemporary Islamic world - and perhaps the underlying reason for its prevailing failures -is its loss of faith in the progressive nature of scientific knowledge. Unable to free themselves from metaphysical explanations of the world, many Muslims have ceased to dare to know, which for Kant was the true definition of enlightenment. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage,” he wrote. “Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know.” That there is no successful modern Islamic state to rival the superabundance, diversity and freedoms of the west is another source of puzzlement and disenchantment to a people who, after all, were blessed with what they saw as the last and definitive revelation of the great monotheistic religions.

Kant’s writings on history were hugely influential on Hegel, and indeed indirectly on Marx, both of whom identified history as developing through patterns of conceptual connections. For Hegel, history proceeds through the successive resolution of contradictions, as every complex situation creates its own internally conflicting elements, which in turn give rise to new states of affairs that are themselves undermined by their own internal contradictions, and so on in perpetuity. For a Marxist, the goal of history is a classless society, and history is propelled not by a kind of Hegelian universal consciousness (Geist, or world spirit), but by the interplay of economic forces. Here, the class struggle replaces the Hegelian dialectic and Kant’s “unsocial sociability” as the engine of history.

The spectacular failure of communism to remake the world for the better, the rise of fascism in Europe and the perceived ineffectiveness of the League of Nations and the United Nations in countering further conflicts contributed to diminished interest in Kantian universalism during the great stagnation of the cold war. But Kant’s ideas remain persuasive and powerfully relevant, not least because, apart from occasional lapses into mysticism, he is, again like Blair, a liberal optimist, defining progress in human terms, rather than in accordance to any divine plan. (Nevertheless, like a good Aristotelian, he does at one stage in Idea for a Universal History unfortunately suggest that the history of mankind “could be viewed on the whole as the realisation of a hidden plan of nature in order to bring about an internally - and for this purpose also externally - perfect constitution; since this is the only state in which nature can develop all faculties of mankind”. This is where Kant and Blair seem to diverge, be cause nowhere does Blair speak of history’s “hidden plan” - though, as a Christian, he no doubt grapples daily with his own intensely felt eschatology.)

Like Fukuyama, Kant believed that history would eventually reach a state of rest, in which liberal democracies adhering to the rule of law would find it impossible to go to war with one another and would thus work together towards the universal goal of world peace. For Fukuyama, history has ended (by which he means history as a battle between rival world-transforming ideologies, not the innumerable small details and events of everyday history, such as the fall of a government or a plane crash) because the universal movement towards the realisation of human potential has found its ultimate expression in liberal democracy as the only viable system of government. That authoritarian Islam has emerged as the great counter-narrative to secular liberal democracy does not invalidate Fukuyama’s central thesis, nor, I think, is he wrong to suggest that, once a society adopts the scientific method “as a primary means for obtaining knowledge, it is set on an irreversible path towards market economics and liberal democracy”.

Fukuyama’s triumph was to resurrect the discredited Kantian idea that there is a coherent direction to history, a discernible progressive pattern to human events - an idea to which Blair evidently adheres. This is not to say that earlier stages of history will not repeat themselves, or that there will not be future wars or comparable falls into chaos and irrationality. Nor is Fukuyama’s thesis predictive, deterministic or utopian-he concedes it is unlikely that the whole world will ever be united at the end of history, in a universal coalition of harmonious states. Rather, Fukuyama simply suggests that, in the absence of transcendental imperatives, liberal democracy, for all its huge disparities and variations, remains the only possible form of political legitimacy, the model that offers the greatest possibility of wealth, health and happiness to the greatest number of people.

Which returns us to Kant and to his idea that in war lies the possibility of future peace, perhaps even a perpetual peace. “In the end,” he writes, “war itself will be seen as not only so artificial, in outcome so uncertain for both sides, in after effects so painful in the form of an ever-growing war debt that cannot be met, that it will be regarded as a most dubious undertaking. The impact of any revolution on all states on our continent, so closely knit together through commerce, will be so obvious that the other states, driven by their own danger but without any legal basis, will offer themselves as arbiters, and thus they will prepare the way for a distant international government. . .”

Almost 200 years after his death, Kant’s dream of an international government remains as distant as ever, especially when nightly we see the grotesque spectacle of bombs and food parcels being simultaneously dropped on the blighted people of Afghanistan. Yet while there is a neo-Kantian in Downing Street, and one who is an important figure on the world stage, an attempt to work out what Kant called “the civic union of the human race” remains an intriguing, if necessarily remote, possibility.