An Opening Notation on the Limits of Paternalism – The Feminist Wire

An Opening Notation on the Limits of Paternalism

By Nahum D. Chandler

It has been said that we must be prepared in the progress of all reformatory movements for periods of exhilaration and depression, of rapid advance and retrogression, of hope and fear. So it has been across the globe during the past half-millennium in the approach to matters of social and economic forms of impoverishment. Or, more precisely, across these centuries this has been the perennial punctuation offered, in counterpoint to expansive hope and moral exhalation in considering how to relieve or dissipate such conditions for the millions who have endured them.

That is to say, in the progress of the moral recognition of the worth and value of each human life, the question always returns — do the poor in the end simply receive, by way of actual circumstance, their just desert?

Back of all this stands a distinct and fundamental conundrum. It goes by way of the unspoken name of paternalism – the idea that the poor must be guided toward a radical transformation of their values and their given understanding as to how to live their lives. Charity, then, even in its most benevolent form, has usually been understood above all as a means of enacting a social revolution of values — not for the benefactor, but for the beneficiary.

As with all such truisms, the grain of truth in it — for we all must persist in such reexamination and efforts toward self-transformation if we are to have a chance at living a life worth living — if taken as the sine qua non of an approach to the situation of impoverishment, distorts both our understanding of the historicities that are always inscribed in such conditions and our sense of how we might transform them. For what is always occluded by such presumption is a fundamental engagement with the histories — at the micro-level, so to speak — by which a given circumstance of impoverishment has acquired its persistent and systemic forms. That is to say, by way of an historical sense and especially the combination of a global level perspective with a partial one, but of necessity by way of the guide of the partial, one will always find a deep structural relation between the benefactor and the beneficiary.

And encoded in such relation are terms of value — what has been variously called ideals of life, the good life, the just, the right, or simply the good — that if not taken for granted or understood as unfungible, nonetheless are almost always withdrawn from negotiation or fundamental transformation in the various forms of the address of conditions of impoverishment. It is in this sense, perhaps, that the present crisis (notably, for example, in Andhra Pradesh, India, as it has come to vociferous discussion during recent weeks) attendant upon micro-finance in its various forms around the world, which is still one of the most powerfully effective paths toward an address of poverty in the context of the arrangements of our contemporary globalization, should be understood.

For, the accession to capital in our time, even in the micro-sense, can be made possible if and only if there is already at least a tacit acceptance of a certain principle of accumulation — namely accumulation without end, without any given social or ethical end. Such acceptance may be and most likely often is ambiguous or without practical emphasis at any individual or community level. Yet, its implication remains implacable and is at present unavoidable.

For even in the most far-reaching programs of micro-finance, the irreducible value has so far still been understood not simply as return or result, one that might enable the further realization of a chosen individual or social end, but return as profit — that which can legitimately be removed from the micro-system and appended to a larger form or institution of accumulation. This latter form is always one, in the end, without any end other than that of accumulation. And these latter entities — for profit institutions of one kind or another — and the systemic structures that they articulate thereby always reserve the sanctioned power to avert, adjudge, or accept thereby the ends according to which and by which the poor might act to transform their conditions of impoverishment.

Yet, might there not be a fundamental question that has been opened anew in this historical conjuncture — with the possibility and rise of micro-finance institutions, such as that of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which lends more than $100 million monthly and returns its “profits” to the borrowers, 97 percent of whom are poor women — about the ends for which one lives? For in the midst of the effort to transform oneself and the conditions of life in the confrontation with impoverishment, can one not suppose that a path has been opened for a re-articulation of value, to affirm a kind of accumulation that moves according to something otherwise than a “protestant ethic,” that seeks the realization of something otherwise than a paternal acceptance and dispensation (even in the form of the nation or the party)? In the dusty desert of a globalized world of dollars and privilege of the money-form in general, might not the reclamation, or slow cultivation of horizons of value that address the demands of care for the other and the intractable necessity of always becoming otherwise than what is simply given to one-as-one-is reappear or appear within our realm of imagination?

Writing now as I do, in a time of recoil and withdrawal from an expansive hope to address global impoverishment, as thoughts for opening a conversation, one is led to wonder if there might not have appeared among us, in our own time — for example, in the form of the women “benefactors” of Grameen Bank (having reduced government ownership from a legally stipulated twenty five percent to a de facto three to four percent by their initiative in deposits) and other institutions so organized — multitudinous possibilities for the slow and uneven but variegated re-imagination of our future possible world and worlds, a new organization of horizon in which we might all become “beneficiaries”?

Links to related articles:

International Herald Tribune 5 January 2011:

Muhammad Yunus “From Microlender to Loan Shark,” International Herald Tribune 8-9 January 2011,print edition p. 6; accessed online 10 January 2011, 7:33PM PST at:


Nahum D. Chandler is an intellectual and scholar working broadly in philosophical problematics, especially as they concern the history of political thought, the history of the human sciences and concepts of historicity and historical memory in general. Since the spring of 2008 he has held an appointment as a visiting scholar in the Office of the History of Science and Technology at the University of California at Berkeley. Since completing his doctoral study at the University of Chicago, he has taught in at Duke, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Stanford, and both the Irvine and Davis campuses of the University of California. As well, outside of the United States, especially notable, were two summers as a visiting scholar at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin, Germany and a year as a visiting professor on a Fulbright lectureship at Tohoku University, one of the top three national universities in Japan. He has been engaged in a long-term study of the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, some of which can be noted by way of several recent publications inThe Journal of Transnational American StudiesCriticism, and CR: The New Cetennial Review. He is also a student of the work of two contemporary intellectuals, the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the revolutionary composer, pianist, and poet Cecil Taylor.

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