There is a much needed discussion that must take place around what relativism is and what its so-called response is, i.e., relationism. This is needed for anyone attentive to more than the politics of theater and its scripts—and this will demand one’s entire attention. Let it be a foundation for our definitions of these terms so that they may be used accurately to explain our political environment, particularly those who use it as their lapdog to justify their actions.
Two things are present here. The first is that this is in no way an argument for relativism or relationism, only an explication of the two as far as I have studied it. The second is that when we take this discussion as supplementary to the broader context of conservative philosophy, we give truth to the social conservative tenet that life is in constant flux. But don’t mistake this to mean that there are no truths—surely there are. But it is not so simple as the typical Christian conservatives would have us believe, neither in politics nor philosophy.
Political philosophy is closest in relation to social philosophy, and closer to sociology, insofar as there is a singular relationship in our macro focus between the public agent (the individual) and the institutions making up his society. When we say institution we are referring to all agencies that encompass the bureaucratic government, the corporations partaking in a so-called free market, the academy and education system, the legalities of such systems, and on and on.
We will note that implicit in these institutions is their culture, which is where they source and justify their actions. The relationship between institutions and individuals is crystallized by culture because the latter incentivizes the institution’s survival. For instance, the corporation survives because it is in its nature to be financially profitable; profit which is only possible when it successfully conforms to society’s ideals, its moral and beauty standard, its criteria of sociality. Note: Disney might suffer a dip in sales if its content comes out as “woke,” and Coca-Cola might suffer a dip if its CEO comes out as a “white supremacist”; but in both of these instances, the dips are temporary as the brands are too large and too invasive to go completely under. Nevertheless, they peddle what they see to be mainstream culture and erect a flag on its mound of values to bolster their profits. That is all.
Corporations, then, are value-less. They make no claim to truth beyond the bottom line. In other words, they are carried away by the storm of popular sentiment. One might call them populists. Perhaps we are all populists.
Relativism can be defined in two ways.
The predominant definition is one that is placed squarely in the postmodern literature. It is the theory that truth, morality, and meaning are not absolute, but relative to the people or groups holding them.
This means that practically, we cannot judge other cultures because we don’t have the social tools to do so, no legitimacy because our standards are not the same. So instead, we deconstruct our own culture, usually at our sacrifice and the other’s prosperity—which explains the contemporary sentiment that “Christianity is bad but Islam is okay.”
But nearly 100 years ago, German sociologist Karl Mannheim defined it in his Ideology and Utopia as such: Relativism is a rejection of “all those forms of knowledge which were dependent on the subjective standpoint and the social situation of the knower, and which were, hence, merely ‘relative.’”
In other words, it’s the rejection of subjective standpoints, not the rejection of the claim that there is no objective truth.
It’s been my understanding and many others’ understanding, however, that relativism is the rejection of objectivity, of the idea that there is an “absolute truth”; it is a deliberate non-judgment of values that defines values according to the subjectivity, the social conditions, and historical positioning; but in this way, it is a judgment of values, as it subjects none of them to truth. Keep in mind that even the most extreme moral relativists presuppose universal values, Chomsky argues.
But staying on course with Mannheim’s definition for a moment, we must grasp relationism, which was his response to relativism, as he understood it, which, again, was the rejection of subjective standpoints.
Relationism is the idea that “the recognition of different perspectives according to differences in time and social location appears arbitrary only to an abstract and disembodied theory of knowledge.” In other words, subjectivities are only meaningless to those without. Consider these relativists to be vagrants of knowledge, to be contrarians, to be without any appeal to objectivity or even without the method to explore how vital differences can be to understand the sum of the whole.
Relationism, then, contends with value(s) without the normative claim on what is or is not absolute, or True, in order to come to an understanding of the world through the lenses being analyzed.
Consider relationism to be a way out of the relativist conundrum of Mannheim’s time. This sociologist is effectively saying, “to hell with your rejection of differences. We must know them in the same way we know how chess pieces move—to play a much larger game and come to know and discover what it is trying to tell us.” This chess game, of course, is the meaning of social life. Without recognizing how relative the world is, can we really assert any meaning without being ignorant enough to ignore what meaning is for others? This is a subtle premise of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, where society crumbles without a common criteria of knowledge or, at the minimum, a recognition that differences do exist. (For more on this particular topic, refer to “A Social Conservative’s Guide to Ideology & Utopia”)
A Synthesis of the Two
In sociology, as I would expect of other fields, the preference toward relationism as a descriptor or characteristic that we attribute to modes of thinking is hardly anything more than dispensing with the philosophically untenable relativism which has been used for all sorts of wonky ideas. Of course, I’m being only slightly facetious.
For Mannheim, relativism was the flippant dismissal of forms of knowledge because they were “relative,” i.e., not objective. This attitude gets one nowhere in the sociology of knowledge which Mannheim orients as: the goal of understanding the world as we see it, not necessarily coming to any “absolute truth” about it.
For our time, I would say, our concern is primarily with the lingering effects of postmodernism, whose thinkers were only “relative” insofar as it justified the deconstruction of our civilization. Relativism to the postmodernists was almost strictly cultural in its political application; it no longer rejects knowledge dependent upon subjectivities, but held that knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality were all culturally constructed. As a result, no one possessed the tools to evaluate the others—except, of course, for these Westerners to evaluate the West, while giving deference to those “others.” We can go further and blame their relativism for cultural constructivism.
Whether in Mannheim’s time or in ours, the issue with relativism, as we can now see, is connotation. Put this way, it is a relational word, but its truth can be found in the caution we employ against it.
The crux of the paradox is in knowing the meaning of the crowded pieces that make it so. A few moving pieces are politics, relativism in both meanings, and political ideologies. The complexity of relativism—of anything at all—is that when we try to expose it, we find that we are exposing only our nakedness. Human beings are brilliant and notorious for compartmentalizing the world and also rationalizing it, sometimes in uniformity and many other times in contradiction (satire is the irony of contradiction, an acknowledgment that simplicity exists in simplicity-demanding minds; I believe this is what makes the cartoon TV series “South Park” so enjoyable: When we play with intricacies, we reveal absurdity).
Politics is the art of justifying hypocrisy and convincing others to rally behind one value or another. Politics is composed of agendas that contain within them ideas each further representing their rationales, whether some rationales justify or contradict each other. Therefore politics postures itself around relativism because value claims are oriented around the subjective. A relativist attitude is the only way to justify contradictory beliefs.
When we refer to something as relativist, we are almost always referring to its postmodern meaning, formally known as the postmodern knowledge principle. Within this meaning, we have the first paradox because the claim that there is no objective truth is itself an objective claim. Yet we also see in political application that relativism in the postmodern sense retains its Mannheimian meaning as well because it justifies contradictory beliefs as it suits one’s politics. On its most innocent level, relativism is merely the acknowledgment of differences.
Keeping this tertiary-meaning in mind, relativism in meaning and in practice are at odds with one another because in postmodern meaning, a relativist is forced to assert that there is no objective truth; and in practice, he is forced to both reject the subjectivities of varying truths in varying cultures and posit that there are morals that we should strive toward.
So in politics, when an argument about the morality of an action is predicated on what was done or not done in other cultures, this is a “relativist” appeal in that it is simply acknowledging differences between cultures, and a relativist appeal in that it can be used in either meaning of the word; but it is not relativist because it is claiming that there is a truth, or lack thereof, that should be present in both cultures. The argument can either use other cultures to politically advocate for a similar truth in one’s own culture or use other cultures to politically persuade against it. In either case, it would be relativist to at least acknowledge cultural differences; but because connotation is important and we must apply caution to the usage of the term, we can say that the mere acknowledgement of differences without relativism’s tertiary-meaning is to be properly understood as relationism. Or, relativism without the baggage.
Take the ideology of the progressive who asserts that what is good for one might not be so for another; in other words, “to each his own”—a relativist mantra. This has practically and politically translated to more than just tolerating others but advocating for validating those with their own truths, despite any dispute that such truths might be false. This attitude is relativist because to advocate for validating subjective truths demands two things:
1. in the postmodern sense, that morality is predicated on cultural differences, be they judged good or bad; morality, truth, knowledge, are products of culture.
2. in the Mannheimian sense, that the subjectivities of these cultures must be ignored for the pursuit of a greater moral good, if a greater moral good cannot be found in the subjectivities of varying cultures. Put another way, some subjectivities are wrapped up together, while others are thrown away, for a greater moral good.
In the latter sense, this might be confusing. “But I thought claiming an objective moral is not relativist?” It isn’t. But to Mannheim, relativism is defined by its rejection of the subjective for merely being subjective; and in our political environment, political beliefs are as justified in denying the subjective for something greater. In other words, validating subjective truths can itself be an objective aim whereby only some truths are socially approved. Let’s take some examples to steer away from the abstract for a moment.
Arguing that abortion is good, or normal, because it has been practiced for thousands of years is claiming that abortion is moral because it was present in different cultures throughout time; notice that this is still a claim to a universal truth, although it might be concealed. However, this would be a poor argument because slavery has also been practiced for thousands of years. By contrast, suppose one (rather ahistorically) argued that the practice was good because the West is the only civilization in human history that has effectively outlawed it, suggesting a contemporary error. This would also be poor because it is a value judgment and therefore the relativist neglects the “to each his own” mantra. In both cases, one is driven by a universal moral truth, not relativism, although he used cultural differences, or lack thereof, to make his claim.
On the other hand, the same person might also try a different tact and argue that abortion is good because “to each his own.” In this case, in order to be an effective relativist, if abortion was outlawed in most parts of the United States, he must keep silent and say, “to each his own.” But he does not say this because he does not believe it. So he might shift his argument and reiterate, “my body, my choice” in a show of solidarity for women. In this case, in order to be an effective relativist, he must keep silent and say “to each her own” when midwestern women disagree. But of course, he does not say this.
Let us now turn to LGBTQ+ rights. Gay rights presuppose that one cannot be “cured” with conversion therapy because we are biologically attracted to one sex or the other. Trans rights assert that there is no biological sex and gender is a product of an oppressive culture. Both of these rights are diametrically and philosophically opposed, but to accept them both simultaneously requires one to validate subjective truths in the postmodern and Mannheimian sense of relativism.
What we can conclude from relativism’s paradox is that no one is really a relativist, in the proper senses of the word, because no one posits that there is no truth. Even the most extreme moral relativists presuppose universal truths, such as the position that there is none.
However, relativism can also be used to describe the relation between forms of governance, economic systems, or individual actors, and levels of power. Power is a relative force that can change and bend depending on who uses it, but it can never be destroyed. If someone loses power, it is just taken by someone else. This will be slightly more expounded on in the section, “The Pendulum Analogy.”
The Utilitarian Conservative
“Conservatism is not relativist in that it uses relativism to make moral justifications for degenerative behavior, like leftism.”
This is not an entirely true statement, although we could argue that conservatives are more philosophically consistent in their political beliefs. In the same breath, we could pay attention to the fact that they are playing a game of catch-up as they allow their political power to wane because they would rather lose with principles than relish in the same relativist game as their counterparts.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a lesser known conservative personality. He might be called a utilitarian, but we will only accept this insofar as he is politically expedient. In other words, his pragmatism will lead the Christian conservatives to dismiss him as a utilitarian and his actions, or lack thereof, as immoral. But he will reply with a shrug of his shoulders and laugh when they complain that they are “losing the culture war.”
The utilitarian conservative might not advocate for some political agenda that the puritan conservatives denounce and leftist counterparts praise; but he might support letting the agenda persist if he believes it to be winning for his side.
The Pendulum Analogy (Relativity of Power)
Relativism guides us toward answers for questions of who the “self” really is and how his actions become consequential when he discovers the various lines toward recognition and power.
Relativism is a foundational concept. If there were to be any natural law, this would be it. Because the concept is wholly connotational and contextual, and it can be found present in all aspects of social life, meaning almost becomes imaginary.
“Then are we inevitably pulled into a sort of nihilism, this idea of meaning almost being imaginary?”
We could be pulled in this direction, but even if meaning were to be socially constructed, it would be as real to us as it is to others; we still feel and experience, and so meaning as an “imaginary” concept suggests that it is both individually and societally manufactured, many times in mutuality.
Totalitarians manipulate meanings according to their will, and so there is an emphasis on the societal manufacturing of it in opposition to the individual; whereas, a so-called representative democratic government might seek balance between the individual and societal, lest either exercise its tyranny. The caveat in the first case is that the societal is better considered as an individual in practice, because it is one leader exerting his will upon everyone else; whereas, democratic governments are equipped to manufacture meaning societally assuming there is individual collaboration in knowledge production. These two governments in their ideal-typical forms are relatively paradoxical in this way as well.
Relativism, in both senses of the word, is the stuff that totalitarians are made of and there is a realness to this fact that justifies (amorally speaking) the inevitable loss of the benevolent monarch. In other words, history is prone to the pendulum of supplanted power and while totalitarian governments can evolve into democracies, the dangerous supplantation of democracies with any tyrannical devolution is a reality always staring us in the face.
Power can be thought similarly to the way physicists think of energy. In the realm of politics, power, as a relative force that can change and bend depending on who is using it, works the same way. But it can never be destroyed. If someone loses power, it is taken by someone else.
Conservation law (special relativity) is composed of forms of energy: the mechanical, kinetic, and chemical. Mechanical energy, the sum of energy in its kinetic and potential form, encapsulates two dominant political systems that we will call totalitarian and democratic, but whose basic qualities we are extrapolating to mean “greater tyranny and more liberty,” or a “greater central state, subordinated individual,” and “diffused central state, dominant individual.”
Consider this passage:
“…[A] swinging pendulum has its greatest kinetic energy and least potential energy in the vertical position, in which its speed is greatest and its height least; it has its least kinetic energy and greatest potential energy at the extremities of its swing, in which its speed is zero and its height is greatest.”
For our purposes, modify “height” to “power” and “speed” to “entrepreneurship,” and now reread the passage.
In summary, power is the greatest at the extremities of the pendulum’s swing. But entrepreneurship (speed) is the greatest when advancing toward said extremity, culminating in a climax of potentiality. The lack of entrepreneurship at the top of the swing represents the tyranny one inevitably finds at its highest moment of power, particularly because the centralization of state power inhibits cultural and economic growth. As the pendulum travels back to the center, its speed begins to accelerate, reaching its highest entrepreneurial point when power has dissipated. The higher a pendulum’s “height” (power), the more “utopian” a society becomes.
In political terms, dissipation, diffusion, and dilution, all similarly refer to the process of thinning power. The Soviet Union was extremely powerful over its people (greater central state, subordinated individual) and a force for the world to reckon with, but it was economically and entrepreneurially destitute. There was no “speed,” no advancement. In an otherwise “constant and idealized system” without dissipative forces (i.e., disruptions to the status quo), the Soviet Union exerted control over its people for nearly 70 years.
However, as it reached its pinnacle, its fuel ran out. Without speed, the government inevitably fell back toward the other direction; the pendulum swung back and the regime collapsed like a house of cards. Yet, it would be inaccurate to say that Russia today enjoys a representative democracy compared to that of the United States, although what might really be the difference between Russia and the U.S. is their contrasting ability to perfect the illusion of democracy—neither country is really fooling anyone.
The pendulum analogy further suggests that even in high-speed societies, culture degenerates through a symbiotic construction and deconstruction of the entrepreneurial spirit. In these societies, power becomes dissipative, diluted, and diffused, so that culture eventually dissolves into tribes of identity and undermines representative democracy as it is doing in America. In other words, there is a lack of mutuality in culture production and instead unevenly diffused throughout the population and in too many hands; thus, the society accelerates its development and consequently its devolution.
In the extremity, however, there is too much power in the hands of the few so that there is restrictive culture, featuring the surveilled, but adaptable, talents of Shostakovich.
The corporation has become the ironic projectionary institution of the masses. Staring into the bleeding jaws of late capitalism in sheepskin morality, the public politically directs the sentiment of boards of directors and technological overlords through the power of displacement.
The right wing has failed the “voting with your feet” attitude with streaming platforms that do not share their values. Mobilization is a revolutionary tactic, and the dying demographic of a “conservative” people cannot muster up enough momentum to bring the accelerating pendulum to a halt. Inevitably it should come back down but unsure if you will live to see it; what is worthy? Who has become lethargic, tedious, antiquated and simple and who has become an unseeing fool?
The belly of the beast: everything is dying. The Titanic doesn’t stop sinking just because the musicians stop playing Cardi B.
In democracies, populism is factionary, but it never dies. A “people” can be a “mass” whether it be of one thousand or one million. In the United States, politics are split between two predominant parties; but in a nation of 334 million about half do not vote. Who are they and what are they thinking?
The terror about democracies is that the loudest people will be heard and will emerge victorious. A state does not need to be centralized for dominant individuals to harbor power themselves and wield it as a collective totalitarian. Ironically, the democratic resolution would be to include more people—namely, those that currently do not vote. When they begin to vote, progressives might call for democracy to be saved and restricted. Then the right can posture themselves as defenders of voting rights. Or, unironically, we might restrict voting altogether to limit the progressives outsourcing votes of the citizen to the vote of the immigrant, to the young, to the hapless that unknowingly already voted. Perhaps in our life I believe this because it means survival.
So what does the conservative want? More liberty would sound flippantly two-faced and deep down we know it. There is liberty in restriction, and there is freedom in liberty. This is true of governance and living peaceful, ordered lives with spontaneity in definable boundaries—a social fact of both factions.
Freedom from an ever-increasing centralized state is a good start but the reins have been ceded so that a total loss of control is nearly inevitable. Nearly, because there is always room for possibility.