The Ordinary Virtues

Michael Ignatieff’s The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World identifies a moral truth of general relevance, especially in globalizing times. This book argues basic habits of human decency -the ordinary virtues-, are what people use to navigate moral questions in globalized contexts of divided communities, with mixing strangers, different cultural practices, and unpredictable insecurities.

The story of the book is about the discovery of the importance of such ordinary virtues at the limits of universal human rights discourse. It is Ignatieff’s realization that the human rights revolution has only established a language for self-assertion, not real solidarities. It suggests world order needs the support of ordinary virtues to grapple with nationalism and inhumane governance in current affairs.

By ordinary moral virtues, Ignatieff means, ‘commonplace and everyday as opposed to heroic and exceptional’, a mix of, ‘trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resilience’ (p. 26-27). They are contextual, pragmatic, local, taken-for-granted, gut-feeling ethics, I think 4176dm+tVOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_best expressed as basic human decencies. As a part of the Carnegie Centennial Project, Ignatieff discovered these virtues in a multi-glocal tour of moral life in globalizing times, from Hispanic neighborhoods in L.A., immigrant communities in Queens, Rio favelas, illegal settlements in Pretoria, and poor villages in Mandalay, Bosnia, and elsewhere, in an exploration how people make sense of their moral lives in complicated globalizing times.

Basic human decencies, Ignatieff observes, are in high demand today, and he is right to explore and defend them. Basic decency to strangers is an ancient moral norm, but in globalizing times it is needed in the normal everyday more than in exceptional circumstance. In the Odyssey, what made the Cyclops a “savage” was more to do with his inhospitality than his monstrous features. When Odysseus and is comrades, starving wayward sailors, found themselves in the homeland of the Cyclops, their host ate them. The Cyclops is a figure of moral vices, greed and cruelty. In Homer’s tale, Penelope, at home in Greece, is the figure of ordinary moral virtues, perhaps even to a fault, nearly allowing her guests to eat her out of house and home. In a globalizing world, these virtues and vices are in contest on a daily basis, and defending the ordinary virtues can contribute to alleviating suffering and misery at an everyday level but also on a global scale.

Part of the importance of The Ordinary Virtues, is its critique of the practical limits of human right universalism, the acknowledgement of their inadequacy, perhaps an admission of their decline. But, Ignatieff also suggests liberal societies are more conducive to ordinary virtues than authoritarian societies. What gestures towards world order this book makes will inevitably be politically contested, but its defence of basic human decencies is always worthwhile, in any context. Surely, any world order built on moral vices, greed, domination, etc., will eventually collapse in war or revolution.

There may or may not be larger forms of belonging beyond the horizons of the liberal world order, but basic human decencies are nonetheless always and increasingly important in the times of globalizing disorder.

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The Emergence of Globalism

How did the ‘globe’ become political? The idea of a globular world order has shaped international political thought for up to a century. Or Rosenboim’s The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 tells the story of the early debates over how to reimagine world order in a ‘global’ world. It provides a wealth of learning about the writings of such major thinkers in these debates as Raymond Aron and David Mitrany, E.H. Carr, F.A. Hayek and H.G. Well’s. Rosenboim distinguishes political globalism, as a political space, from trans-nationalism and cosmopolitanism and suggests, ‘The main normative claim of the discourse of “globalism” was that the existing political system should be revised and reorganized with reference to the world as a whole, and not only to national, regional, or imperial interests’ (p.278). This is a timely book in a moment when political globalism seems more and more out of reach and out of touch, but the world seems more and more globalized.

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A merit of this book is that it leaves the reader wanting more. It suggests the question, for instance, of global thought beyond the Anglo-American world. What of the “global” south? It also suggests the question, are similar debates being held today around the emergence of “planetary” politics? The globe, as a spherical geography, can be distinguished from the planet, as the total system of earth systems and orbital space. How is world order being reconciled with the emergence of planetary politics? Lastly, it this book also raises the question of the preconditions of global thought. For instance, modern conceptions of time as linear and space as empty have shaped the way the globe could be imagined.

This book will reward reading by early and advanced students interested in ‘global’ politics.

Facing the Planetary?

William E. Connolly’s Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming gathers important insights into the contemporary ecological politics of belonging, although their implications are not fully assessed.

This book builds on Connolly’s large body of previous works. In it, Connolly assesses the Continue reading “Facing the Planetary?”

A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason leaves larger questions unanswered, but points 978-1-77614-050-3-critique_1200the way. It examines the changing use of ‘blackness’ as a category in an increasingly post-Western world order, and it raises the concept of ‘black reason’ as the thinking around the category that shapes its use. The book provides a history of the category in practice, its origins in the needs of capital, Atlantic then global diffusion, and moments of its change in practice: abolition, decolonization, and Apartheid. This drives the analysis to the crux of today, where the relation of West and the world is being reworked, enabling both new racism and a search for a ‘common world’ beyond black reason. Mbembe suggests ‘Europe’s twilight has arrived, and the Euro-American world has not yet figured out what it wants to know about, or to do with, the Black Man’ (p.7).

Continue reading “A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason”

Post-Western World?

What does a post-Western world order mean? Oliver Stuenkel’s Post Western World argues it means more continuity than change, and more cooperation than conflict. He argues, alarmism over the “rise of the rest”, and China in particular, is over stated, because the world order as it exists, is not a purely Western construct, although it has been Western-led and enforced. Rising powers, he claims, will behave no differently than their Western counter-parts, and, while projecting their power, will nevertheless support, more or less, the institutional framework of the international order.

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This book is accessibly written, makes an important corrective for problematically Western-centric readings of world order trends, and is worth reading by students and thinkers on international affairs and world order in general. I, and others, broadly agree there is less cause for alarmism than is sometimes thought in the prospect of a multipolar and non-Western led world order. I do not wish to engage in a minute academic review here, but want to raise two connected points. First, Stuenkel’s analysis unduly leans on “realist” assumptions. His analysis, for instance, privileges state power, and argues state powers generate their own soft power, which undercuts the sources from which states gather the Continue reading “Post-Western World?”

Retrotopia, Othering, and Belonging

Zygmunt Bauman finishes his final book, Retrotopia, with a chapter, ‘Looking Forward, For a Change’. He gestures towards a cosmopolitan change, but does not fill in the picture. He leaves us with the question of departure, to where?

Continue reading “Retrotopia, Othering, and Belonging”

Can Mr. Zuckerberg’s Global Community Be Built?

 ‘If you build it, they will come’, is a phrase I remember from pop culture, Wayne’s World, not its original Field of Dreams. Like all sayings, it is not wholly true, even false, but contains the scent of truth.

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook, what is being called a “manifesto” titled, ‘Building Global Community’. In it, he outlines his vision of Facebook reformed for a new era of turmoil, as the social media scaffolding of a global community. Asking the question, ‘are we building the world we want?’, his answer, Continue reading “Can Mr. Zuckerberg’s Global Community Be Built?”