Workers' Liberty #54


Exchange, solidarity and indifference

The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust, by Norman Geras (Verso)

Drawing on the experiences of the Holocaust, Geras casts in wider terms the problem of the real and painful failure of the 'passive bystander' to come to the aid of Jews at the time of their greatest need. It cannot be assumed that the problem of indifference to others is a unique feature of the Holocaust: it is a widespread and general feature of everyday life. If we are not prepared to help others in the time of their need, we cannot reasonably expect others to come to our aid in times of our need. This is what Geras calls the 'contract of mutual indifference.'

But what is the evidence for the allegation that people are 'in general' indifferent? Geras himself stresses that he is describing a phenomenon which is not 'universal', but only sufficiently widespread to support his thesis. It is not an argument which can be sustained without further investigation. It is certainly true that the failure of many people - who knew, or must have known, or should have known, what was happening to the Jews - to come to their aid is well documented. But as Geras acknowledges, the actual historical picture was complicated by the fact that there were some at least who went out of their way to care for their fellow human beings. An understanding of indifference should be able to grasp the picture as a whole and not merely one aspect of it, even if this aspect is a prevalent one.

However, it is with the introduction of the notion of contract that the major difficulties arise. What exactly is the status of this 'contract of mutual indifference' - that if we are not prepared to help others in times of their need, we cannot reasonably expect others to come to our aid in times of our need? Is it a (regrettable) fact of human nature that people will only give aid on the basis of exchange, and does this fact of human nature serve to explain indifference in terms of the breakdown of natural reciprocity? Or is it a destructive result of a society based on the exchange of commodities, so that even aid is governed by exchange principles? Geras seems to plump firmly for the former. But what is the evidence for this 'fact of human nature'?

Are there not plenty of examples of people giving aid without any hope of reciprocity? In the case of the Shoah, it is particularly unfortunate that the contract of mutual indifference was a classic antisemitic argument for not coming to the aid of Jews: since the Jews since time immemorial have only thought of themselves and have never come to the aid of others, why should others now come to the aid of the Jews? We can trace this 'moral logic' back to the early days of 'the Jewish Question'.

Geras wishes to cultivate a 'duty to aid' others in times of distress, but on the basis of rational self-interest. If I do not come to the aid of others, then others will not come to the aid of me and I shall be left without friends when I need them. This 'rational choice' model of the duty to aid stipulates that the decision to aid another is necessarily based on a rational choice that it is worth aiding the other since the other will then, and only then, aid me when I need it. But consider the following: a) what rational interest do I have in aiding another if it results in my own death? b) why should I aid this particular other if this other has a record of not aiding me? c) why should I aid this particular other if my belief is that this other will be unable or unwilling to aid me in the future? Is it not likely that where aid is most needed - for the pariah who is not equal - exchange theory would be a kiss of death for aid?

There is a further problem in the enforcement of this contract. Geras puts his faith in 'robust and democratic' political institutions to enforce the contract. But how are these 'robust and democratic' institutions to arise if they are themselves grounded in a society of mutual indifference? And how are they to enforce the terms of this 'contract'? Are they to absolve those who fail to give aid when they themselves have not been aided? Or are they to force those who have been aided to aid in return? Or are they to demand that everyone gives some aid to some people some of the time?

Political institutions are not only enforcers of contracts, but also powers in their own right with their own capacity to come to the aid of others. During the Holocaust, decisions were taken by the Allied governments not to publicise the plight of the Jews until the war was over and not to come to the aid of the Jews except in terms of the general war effort. These were political decisions which doubtless had to do with a number of factors: a certain military logic (bombing the Auschwitz camp would not help the war effort), antipathy to Jews within certain political circles, and another important factor for this discussion - the traditional political framework of nationalism which demands indifference to what nation states do to their own subjects within their own territorial borders. The equivocations of mutual concern and indifference are as much present within the nationalist framework of modern politics as they are within the exchange framework of modern commerce.

Having reached this point, we might be prompted to ask whether we need to understand indifference in terms of contract at all? Should we perhaps abandon notions of contract altogether? While Geras' model is perhaps too constraining to assist in our understanding of indifference and the duty to aid others, we will still need to understand the relation between reciprocity and indifference. One possible avenue for exploration is to explore the indifference of others in the context of the failings of reciprocity rather than Geras' reciprocity of failure.

In a functioning exchange model, respect for the rights of others is combined with indifference to the needs of others insofar as those needs are not covered by their rights. In modern civil society, indifference is not total: indeed the world market creates connections between people which never previously existed. But indifference is structured within and by a system of exchange which subordinates meeting the needs of others to respect only for their rights. When the system of exchange breaks down, as it did when Jews were robbed of their very right to have rights in Nazi-occupied Europe, the resulting picture is no less equivocal. On the one hand, the framework of mutual respect of rights is abolished in a frenzy of mutual fear and suspicion; on the other hand, new forms of solidarity can emerge not only within pariah peoples (eg, among Jews themselves) but even between Jews and non-Jews. There is some evidence for this within occupied Europe, even if the solidarity had to be hard fought for and was extremely precarious in the face of all manner of disintegrative pressures. But it was enough to reveal that, as a social phenomenon, solidarity is not only a contractual relation; it also arises beyond the threshold of contract.

Another possible avenue for exploration is to use Geras' theory of the 'contract of mutual indifference' in another, perhaps opposite, way: as something to be overcome by a theory of aid which, if it is not anti-contractual, is not constrained within this contractual frame. In other words, could we not turn Geras' theory round to investigate the ways in which the contractual theory of the duty to aid is surpassed rather than confirmed? The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas provides one alternative: that my duty to the other is unconditional and has nothing to do with the expectation of reciprocity - only with the pre-societal face of the Other. But Levinas does not so much surpass the contractual model, which has the virtue of being a social theory, as negate it in the name of a pre-social relation to the other. We need to understand the relations between exchange and indifference in a way that neither locks it in a contractual model of sociality (Geras) nor removes it altogether from the arena of social relations as a purely moral 'ought' (Levinas).

The equivocal relationship of indifference to reciprocity may require a third possible avenue of exploration: one in which the theorist moves beyond an analysis of indifference in terms of reciprocity to seek an understanding of indifference which takes into account the confusing and conflicting evidence for its existence within a wider theoretical framework. The starting point for this enquiry is to understand the nature and extent of indifference before speaking of a remedy. How then might we begin to characterise indifference? Indifference in this context refers to two very distinct phenomena. On the one hand it is passivity, a state of non-action; on the other hand it is an explanation for that passivity in terms of a character failing. That the same word covers two separate phenomena is an indication of the tendency to assume that there is an inseparable connection between the two. But there may be all manner of reasons why people do not go to the aid of others - other than that of indifference. Their actions may stem more from antipathy than from apathy; they may believe for instance, that the victims are not worthy of aid. Conversely, they may have the best of motives, but fail to act because of terror or from a belief that they are unable to offer effective aid despite their feeling of shame or sorrow that they can do nothing. They may also believe that there are other ways in which they can act which will be more efficacious - for example, the Polish armed resistance to the Nazis rather than direct aid to Jews. Most likely, there may be a mixed and confused amalgam of motives for not coming to the aid of others.

Clearly Geras has broached a topic which will fuel a much needed debate, and we would not wish simply to throw out his own theory of the 'contract of mutual indifference'. Unless we open up the question of indifference, however, there is the danger that we may succumb either to a false optimism or to a false pessimism which colours and reinforces any argument we make. Geras, understandably, begins writing in a mood of profound pessimism, but ends making a determined but muted attempt to be optimistic on the basis of a revitalised system of reciprocity. The remedy, however, only makes sense if the grounds for his original pessimism were less ‘general' than he himself makes out, and if it addresses the problems of indifference which inhere within reciprocity itself.

Robert Fine and Sarah Sturdee

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