Sep 21, 2009
Formalism versus Fundamentalism
As some of you may recall, and many of you will not, Frances Fukuyama published a book in 1992 entitled, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s thesis therein was that, with the ascendancy of societies combining a free market economy with democratic political institutions, history, understood quasi-dialectically as a series of increasingly dominant and effective social forms, had, as the title suggests, ended.
Fukuyama’s thesis was and is plausible because, like the scientific rationality which forms the third angle of modernity’s powerful triumvirate, the free market and democracy share a distinct formalism. Just as “science” offers not a set of beliefs about the world so much as a method for exploring and solving its many mysteries, “democracy” merely offers a way of formulating laws and maintaining a system of government, without stipulating their specific content, while the “free market” provides general guidelines for the organization of commerce and trade, indifferent to the existence of a particular enterprise or commodity.
This formal abstraction lends to science, the free market, and democracy, a kind of universal timelessness and along with it an aura of finality. At the same time, this formal emptiness, while appealing to the reformer, appalls the revolutionary; the reformer sees in this open-endedness the possibility of continuous improvement; the revolutionary sees it as a failure to instantiate the absolute.
Formalism is relativism: the vessel cares not whether it be filled with wine or gall. Acceptance and enjoyment of formalism calls for a liberal nature willing to relinquish any insistence on the “this way and no other” of fundamentalism, be it religious, political, or otherwise.
Fundamentalism is necessarily revolutionary because filling the formal void – once and for all – with any particular content entails its overthrow and undoing.
With fundamentalism (of whatever flavor) fundamentally at odds with the formal project of a free, rational, and democratic society, it would seem that the latter’s only hope for survival lies in cultivating humans with a greater and greater tolerance of ambiguity and an inbred abhorrence for the prejudices of absolutism (speaking both metaphysically and politically). Beyond that, methinks, it must at times be prepared to resolve itself into the terrible absolute of war in order to fend off the foreclosure of its own future.
Still, in the opposition of formalism and fundamentalism there is a notable asymmetry, for the formal can abide the fundamental whereas the fundamental seeks ever to drive out and eradicate the formal. The question is whether this asymmetry will work in favor of the formal, allowing it to ever adapt and enfold the fundamental, or whether the dogged, single-mindedness of the fundamental will use every egress offered by the formal to infiltrate and ossify it.
Image Courtesy of Felix42.