In 2011 two important books were published on the topic of human rights, a subject much critiqued by the left as a proxy for new forms of imperialism, but which has proved notoriously difficult to displace as the default language for describing the many new and lingering guises of injustice of the 21st century. The first of these was Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils, a subtle blend of “forensic architecture” and the analysis of images to lay bare the constitutive role of human rights, or humanitarianism, in the perpetuation of occupation. (Our interview with Eyal about the book can be found here.) The second was Robert Meister’s After Evil, a wide-ranging study of the theological, political, and economic limits of human rights discourse, especially as it pertains to historical injustice. Alberto Toscano wrote, in a review of the two books, that Weizman and Meister “push us toward a more fine-grained interrogation of a ‘sentimental humanism’ that, despite having lost the bombast of its early days, continues to limit our political horizons.”
It is difficult to summarize the career of Robert Meister, Professor of Social and Political Thought in the Department of the History of Consciousness at the University of California — Santa Cruz. Suffice to say, despite his modesty, that he’s an important figure in the current landscape of political, economic, legal, and educational theory. In this, the first of a two-part interview, we discuss his work on human rights, options theory, and where he’s taken an education from such luminaries of liberal political thought as Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick.
Michael Schapira: After Evil was a long book and reflected a wide range of interests (e.g. passages on literature and a meditation on sorrow and disgrace), but essentially it was an intervention into human rights discourse, as well as related areas like transitional justice. Now you are writing about liquidity, pricing options, and other concepts that are associated with our uncertain economic future. I know there is always a bit of contingency in how projects emerge or why we are interested in different things, but looking back have you seen any patterns of why your interest was pushed in one direction or another?
Robert Meister: I’ve always modeled my intellectual trajectory on the example of Marx’s career. My first book was an attempt to demonstrate how you could do, with our contemporary materials and debates, what Marx did with his materials and debates. In other words I saw my project and my career as constructing Hegelian objects out of the works of my own teachers, many of whom were prominent figures in liberal political thought — John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Walzer, H.L.A. Hart, Ronald Dworkin, and Isaiah Berlin. I wanted to construct Hegelian objects out of those figures and then see how a Marxist analysis could be developed out of a critique of what went without saying in the tensions between and among them.
My recent book on human rights [After Evil] essentially had to do with global human rights discourse as it developed out of the cold war — a discourse suggesting that a consensus on human rights was the unquestionably positive side of the triumph of capitalist globalization. I wanted to look at what was implied in that idea, namely a rejection of a kind of revolutionary ideology that was based on the notion that the gains of past injustices could be harvested by the losers. I think the deal in human rights discourse was essentially that the beneficiaries of past injustices got to keep their gains by allowing the losers to claim a moral victory. In other words the deal was that we can achieve a moral consensus that “the losers were right, the past is evil,” but only in return for imposing a political consensus that the evil has passed and that anyone who tries to return to the past is really simply marginalized as a terrorist, a reactionary, or someone who doesn’t realize that the sins of the present are not a continuation of the sins of the past.
So the argument of that book was really an argument about what is problematic about a discourse of politics that aims to allay the anxiety of beneficiaries about being allowed to keep their gains because the victims will treat them as would be or would have been perpetrators.
And was this [beneficiaries] the missing category that you failed to see in discourses of transitional or reparatory justice?
Exactly. A beneficiary focus was a way of recuperating the class idea by stressing the ways in which gain-based remedies for past injustices were being foreclosed as a result of the discourse on human rights.
The next book will pick up on a chapter in the After Evil called “Adverse Possession.” Adverse possession is another way of talking about what is available for reparations. In colloquial terms we say possession is nine tenths of the law — well the other tenth is reparations.
Waiting to be part of possession one way or the other . . .
And moving into the language of finance we can talk about “repos” and spreads on repos. My basic idea coming out of the human rights book was that the kind of justice that I had been taught, distributive justice, was part of the process of philosophy extricating itself from theology by focusing really on the declension of nouns: who does what to whom? for whose sake? at whose expense?
The question that was always raised by my teachers, such as Rawls and Nozick, was not merely why someone has been harmed, but why someone else should pay. Who should pay what to whom because of whose wrongdoing and for whose benefit? And it was really inconceivable to most of my contemporaries trained in liberal political theory that you could have reparative or inter-temporal justice because it involved making people who didn’t do anything wrong pay people who didn’t suffer anything wrong for the benefit of someone who isn’t there — which is the paradigm of injustice for liberals. That’s why they think that real justice is generally forward looking.
I developed an alternative way of thinking about this using options theory, which essentially says that the whole concept of inter-temporal transfers of wealth is not something that we lack the conceptual tools to address. It’s something that’s addressed in every area but the area of political and especially historical injustice, which is defined by this imposition of the kind of consensus that I just described in the human rights discourse — that the past is evil and that the evil is past, and that there are no residual or ongoing claims. But I also thought you could never have even a discussion of historical settlement — that is to say a historical option to pay those claims and to liquidate them — if you regard those claims as debts, because their value goes up, using the formula of compound interest, exponentially as a square of time.
So I thought why not look at the system that we have now for settling inter-temporal claims in terms of being able to set a value on keeping them running, on not settling them, so that justice is an option, but it’s an option on the cumulative benefits of past injustice? It’s an option that has value even when it’s not settled, the value to each side of settling versus not settling will change with the volatility of underlying conditions.
As an example you could view the cost of the welfare state to capitalism, as a proxy for the value to labor of rolling over the option of a general strike in a period of high economic and political volatility. And, today, you could view the cost to the U.S. government of temporarily nationalizing credit guarantees as a proxy for the value to capital of rolling over its option to liquidate securities. The suicide bombers on Wall Street showed us how easy it would be for anyone to trigger a liquidity crisis. The value of these backstops were immanent on the balance sheets of the Fed and of Treasury, which backed global financial markets with a federal guarantee of roughly $13 trillion. In this instance, we nationalized that cost and then we privatized the benefits.
But what would it be like if we interpreted the terms of justice as optional in democratic capitalism, not simply as a cynical point, namely that democratic capitalism is a way of reconciling people to continuing injustice, but rather as a financial point, namely that you can price the option of leaving the cumulative of benefits of past injustice to run. An interesting thing in options theory is that settlement — cashing out, liquidation — is relatively exceptional as distinct from rolling over (which is sometimes called “staying liquid”). So rolling over the option of justice (aka “austerity”) should also have a price can be directly identified to a near enough approximation as the cost of keeping liquid the cumulative financial assets that might be available to settle accounts. What we learned is 2008 is that liquidity is not free. It is not a natural property of a well functioning system, it’s a cost that has been nationalized by rolling over justice.
Aside from the economic aspect you also have passages in After Evil about disgrace and disgust, which is bringing in themes from literature and theology. Is that a rhetorical ploy, trying to open up different registers of the debate about justice and the settling of past debts and the assignation of perpetrators and victims?
I tried to be very careful about not simply making a book that was otherwise rather philosophical more attractive to a cultural studies audience by introducing examples from literature. For me the theology was fundamental. I said a moment ago that the problem with the theories of justice I learned from my teachers was that they are about the declension of nouns as distinct from a broader theological tradition in which justice is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, about the conjugation of verbs. In the theologies that interest me justice is particularly about the role of nested tenses, for example whether the past is completed or not completed in the determination of what the future will have been, or what the past will have been if the future turns out in this or that way. I think that, when you are talking about the construction of optionality or contingent claims, you’re really talking about the kind of grammar that theology makes possible, including the theology of describing the present as always a moment in which justice is optional because now is not the time. Because it’s always too late or too soon, and because it will always be too soon until it is too late, so that now will never have been the time, but you can reconcile yourself to past injustice by saying that you would have been a rescuer had you known then what you know now, or that you will have been someone who would have been a rescuer once you know in the future what you can’t have known at the time.
Well, the interesting thing about my work on finance and my work on religion is that they both embrace the complex logic of creating value from inter-temporality in just that way. They are thus interruptions to the kind of presentist thinking that simply produces anxiety and incentivizes people to choose bad options that limit their downside too much, or not enough I should say, by giving away all of the upside potential of leaving the option of justice still on the table.
When you were studying with Rawls and Nozick, who have been utterly dominant in mainstream political philosophy for decades now, was there any unease at the time amongst students, or did this come later as the limitations of their theories became evident as they started to strain under historical conditions?
My principle advisors were Isaiah Berlin and Michael Walzer, so I always had a more historical view. I thought of those debates that I studied between people like Rawls and Nozick as historical objects that illuminated what in retrospect was the moment of mid 20th century welfare state capitalism. And so my goal, even in my doctoral dissertation, was to historicize them by constructing the debates as in a sense moments in a Hegelian conception of the welfare state, which I was trying to criticize.
That said, the great thing about the financial moment, and particularly the financial moment as revealed by the bookends of the period between 1989 and 2008 — which was apparently capitalist financial triumphalism under the guise of human rights — is precisely the ways in which Rawls and Nozick stressing the debate between liberty and equality as a trade-off missed the concept of how you can attach value and produce value through optionality. My new work actually returns much more specifically to Rawls and Nozick by using the concept of optionality to capture what people like [Étienne] Balibar regard as an antimony between liberty and equality, and what my teachers thought of, especially Isaiah Berlin, as a conflict between the two.
Can you describe in more detail the work your are currently doing with Randy Martin on optionality — what your approach is and what you hope to achieve? I also wanted to come back to what we discussed earlier [prior to the interview], namely working with the background condition of the Piketty phenomenon, with Capital in the 21st Century becoming a best seller and many people confronting, at least intellectually, for the first time something similar to the category of beneficiaries and growing spreads, because Piketty is describing wealth transfer and consolidation.
For our project Piketty’s book is a gift because it focuses attention on the distinction between asset values and revenues, between capital markets and GDP. And it makes it clear that under normal circumstances of capitalism asset growth exceeds GDP growth, and that the possibility of reversing that is usually the result of exceptional circumstances such as war and depression. Now the gift is that empirically he identifies the phenomenon of asset growth as a distinctive element of capitalism that is distinct from revenue growth, income growth. A criticism of Piketty’s book, which is right I think, is that he doesn’t have a separate theory of asset pricing. It’s a book that’s written very much within the assumptions that would imply that the relevance of your point is that asset growth is justified only if it keeps pace with, rather than exceeds, the pace of income growth, and that it’s a concern if the two get too far apart because it’s income growth that constitutes the real economy.
Well, our project focuses very directly on the theoretical foundation of asset pricing relative to commodity pricing. It makes the phenomenon that Piketty identifies as possible into a theoretically necessary or constitutive component of capitalism rather than simply a kind of bad and little noticed fact of how capitalism has turned out. In particular my own contribution is to identify the financial theories corresponding to the take-off of asset prices in 1970s that Piketty describes. We already knew, of course, that the whole point of creating surplus value is to accumulate it, and in order to accumulate it you have to preserve it, and in order to preserve it you have to buy something that would constitute a hedge. But up until 1973 we didn’t have a good theory of how you manufacture and price hedges. Our previous theory was very much the theory that Marx and his predecessors used, which is that the only vehicle of accumulation was expansion of your investment in raw materials, which required increased production. This is why they thought that income growth and asset growth needed to be linked to one another — because the great genius of capitalism as well as its great limitation was that the only way you could accumulate what you made was to hedge by investing in raw materials and fixed capital that required you to produce more in order to accumulate what you made the last time, because there was no point in making a profit if you couldn’t keep it. What’s happened since the 1970s is that financial economics has shown how you can manufacture hedges, risk free in whatever supply is necessary for demand, without going through the production process, which is why the creation of purely financial products has grown faster than the forms of accumulation that require the creation of non-financial products. Piketty hasn’t theorized that, but we have. I think that’s a way in which our book builds on that book.
So in a sense our entire project is to talk about the limited role of payments, the limited role of settlements, in a social world in which wealth is now expressed as optionality and which anxiety about optionality has induced vast numbers of people to try to lock in hedges in a way that gives away all of the upside of social wealth to someone else.
And student debt would be a good example . . .
In the second part of our interview we turn Robert Meister’s political work within the University of California system and discuss more global issues in higher education.
Michael Schapira is the Interviews Editor for Full Stop.