Relational Materialism and Citizen X
In Part One of this chapter I made several large claims important to the upcoming discussions. Allow me to briefly summarize and categorize the main points.
Main Claims from Chapter Three- Part One
Phenomenology is the study of individual experience and this includes both the first person point of view of an experiencing “I” and the structure of the experience itself. All experiences are Intentional, a technical term meaning they are ‘directed at’ or ‘about’ something, most notably other experiencing individuals and the shared Lifeworld of culture, history, and belief.
While the discipline of phenomenology certainly has influenced political philosophy, a full systemic account of political philosophy in a phenomenological frame has not yet been developed. My project is to do just that for both theoretical and practical reasons.
To do this, I will base my argument around “Citizen X,” my term for the politicized phenomenological agent. Agency importantly involves embodied action in the external world while Politicization involves the inclusion of the experiencing individual as a member of some socio-political group and the structure supporting sociopolitical inclusion.
My phenomenological system is termed Relational Materialism and based on what I understand as a fundamental phenomenological relationship between agents, as both individuals and groups, and the sociopolitical state, I argue that sociopolitical power is usefully conceived within an alternative “distributive” model.
Now to move forward.
Moving Forward: An Alternative Distributive-based Model
In the past, distributive models/descriptions of social relations have been controversial and have been argued against by many philosophers including an important and influential argument against it by Iris Marion Young. As I move forward, I will use Young’s arguments explicitly in the construction of my own model. However, for now, the remainder of this blog entry will be devoted to explaining some of the intricacies of my account of distribution in contemporary liberal society.
To understand what I mean by my claim that “sociopolitical power is usefully conceived within an alternative distributive model,” two things must be explained.
First, what exactly is ‘distribution’ and what does it consist of?
Two, how does distribution fit with my phenomenological model of Relational Materialism.
In general, distribution involves the division and allotment of material and immaterial goods, services, and resources within a given territory and population. A territory and its population is a broad definition of a contemporary sociopolitical state, and each state follows some particular distributive scheme.
The primary purpose of any distributive system is to satisfy the wants, needs, and demands for services, goods, and resources within a territory.
“Services” are intangible economic activities, examples of which are haircuts, taxicabs, or ‘expertise’ such as visiting a doctor or a financial advisor.
Services contrast with “goods,” generally physical items that satisfy some want, utility, or need. More accurately, goods can be tangible (an apple, a car) or, increasingly, intangible, for example, information or news that is distributed through some physical instrument such as a newspaper or computer.
Goods that are limited relative to demand are termed ‘economic’ goods (cars, computers), contrasted with ‘free’ goods, goods needed by society and available without limit, such as water or air. However, clean air and water are more recently considered (controversially so) ‘common goods,’ as competition over them has become rivalrous.
Private goods can be privately owned, such as a car. Public goods, by contrast, are non-rivalrous; the light from a streetlight or national defense are examples.
From this all-too-brief distributive primer, I want to take three specific ideas.
First, it is not distorting or surprising to understand ‘goods,’ in a practical and academic sense, as intangibles, as actions manifested and marketed. Goods and services alike have recognized intangible elements adjoined to corresponding physical relationships. A massage is an idea and an action marketed and commodified in the form of merchandise, professionals, and specialists. “Taxi” is an idea made concrete in driver, car, and cab company.
Second, that values are created and that “valuing” relates directly to “devaluing.”
Third, that these intangible and manufactured elements of distribution are relational, that is, they occur in relationships between some particular agent and some external element. I will develop this claim further over the next several chapters.
Simple and Complex, Conceptual Idealism and Actual Realism
There are two broad views of the equal distribution of goods in a society: Simple and Complex. Though there are various arguments and camps within each of these schemes, they all fall within this basic delineation.
Simple Equality ideally demands goods are to be distributed evenly, in equal, uniform manners. Each individual gets the same amount of each ‘good’ in morally and materially considered ways; an egalitarian land of enough and as good as.
Complex equality says there is more to it than that. There are circumstances that have true effect on the egalitarian aspirations of our distributive system.
My understanding is that we, as embodied politicized phenomenological agents, or more simply, as “material agents” or just “agents,” exist in a material world where the structure of our sociopolitical requires, necessarily I might add, a complex description of distribution.
We do not live behind a Rawlsian veil that would blind us to differences in social station, background, assumption or convention, and we are not unencumbered by the realities that these differences present to us. We see who and what we are, and we are weighed down with the cumbersome accumulation of histories, decisions, social mores, and consequences.
Thus the ideal, that all social goods be distributed to the benefit of the least-advantaged member of the particular society, Rawls’ conception of the ‘Difference Principle,’ is an egalitarian response to the actuality of our complex social relations. It acknowledges that there is more to the heart of our situation than what can be salvaged from pragmatically untenable simple conceptions of absolute uniformity of distribution.
The locus of the political
Something important is brought to light with Rawls’ Difference Principle, something inherent in all sociopolitical theorizing including my own.
There is a fundamental distinction to be made between Ideal and Actual: it is an ontological difference of priority. The Ideal is a rational construct, it is a formalized construct of reasoned experience. Ideal theory asks for a priori categorization, how could things be if stripped of the actuality of material experience. It is a theory of concepts, a theory of theories. Passive and disconnected, Ideal theory is the theory of the concept of theories.
The Actual, in contrast, is the theory of the concept of action. It is materially based, embodied, the experience itself, not the categorization of the experience. Actual theory is ontologically based in the phenomonologcal world, the world of experience and the structures of experience. It is therefore active; it is the act of experiencing.
Ideal theory is ontologically based in the deliberations and judgments of the phenomenological consciousness, logically subsequent to and comparatively more passive than the act of the experience itself.
The Actual is prior to the Ideal, it is what brings the ideal to being. It is ontologically prior in two ways. One, that a “material agent” must exist and sustain considerable experience before conceptual categorization can occur. Two, that the “material world” exists independently from the agent and it is the agent’s coming into being and out of being within this external ‘lifeworld’ that frames the accumulation of ideal concepts.
A common element in contemporary liberal theory is exemplified by Rawls’ principle of equalizing social differentiations, that as veiled and unencumbered agents, we can ask that our political paradigm be legitimated with the Ideal as the ontological starting point.
The Ideal is a proper place for postulating and theorizing, but the actual drafting of our practices should not come from an ideal vantage point. The questions of Idealism are commonly “how” and “why,” Rawls’ own question was how can we create an equality of distribution because some people have nothing while others have too much.
However, before answers to “how” and “why” can be meaningfully solved there is a prior question that needs dealing with. “How can we become equal and move closer to the ultimate level playing field” depends first on the prior inquiry: “what is causing the disharmonious relationships in our systems, economic, political, and social, and what actual decisions can we recognize as disharmonious to the whole, and can therefore choose to change in fundamental ways?”
This is a question of Actual theory, of Realism, of material concern.
As I want to wrap up this blog entry at the fear of running too long and/or digressing too fully, I want to make one more summarizing statement and then conclude.
Relational Materialism is Actual theory, ontologically based in the active world of experience. The sociopolitical questions I want to raise deal with the activity of experiencing agents and the Lifeworld we have created.
Before any type of prescriptive/descriptive analysis of "why" any particular capital-based liberal state is facing the contemporary problems it faces or "how" those problems can be alleviated, the questions of “what is a contemporary state qua state,” and “what is the structure of a state qua state” must both be answered.
Those two questions will form the bulk of the next many months of my philosophy blog entries.
As I mentioned previously, a state is a political entity and ‘politics’ deals importantly with decision making. Thus, as I will begin to discuss in the very next entry, Politics is a matter of Power: power in the society we have constructed and live in, power in relation to the power of others, in relation to our own histories and our shared experiences, power in relation to other necessary social goods: nourishment, shelter, health, security and, perhaps, a good life. And these things are, to be certain, fundamentally political concerns.
As always, I encourage you to leave comments, to argue and ask, as I may have very well skipped over things, not explained things, or otherwise not clarified myself. Also, perhaps you don't agree or maybe you even do, for whatever reason at all, I hope you feel free to comment and continue the discussion.
 The United States utilizes a mixed distributive scheme and economy, blending elements of a free, unrestrained, privately owned capitalist market with state-owned public goods and regulatory measures.