A standard critique of universalism in the domain of politics is that the universal is really a veiled particularity. For example, one might speak of “universal rights” such as those outlined in The Declaration of the Rights of Man, yet a critic might rightfully point out that when these rights are carefully scrutinized, they’re not really universal at because in reality they favor the interests of Western European men, and are actually exclusionary to women and people from other cultures.
I think this is a good argument. The problem is that from this observation people often make the entailment that universals don’t exist. After all, if every proposed universal we’ve ever come across turns out to be a veiled particularity, then it would seem to follow that universals are always fictions, shams, lies, rhetorical constructs. “Universals” (note the scare quotes) would really just be, as Nietzsche argues, rhetorical techniques through which one group advances their power and privilege over another group. While this argument appears plausible on the surface, the main problem is that it fails to recognize that it is arguing from the standpoint of the universal. In other words, the critique of the false universal, presupposes a concept of true universality. The person who dismisses the Rights of Man on the grounds that they really embody a veiled particularity or privilege, is actually presupposing a concept of the universal. They’re saying that this “universal” fails to live up to what universality ought to be. Universality, despite the attempt of the Nietzschean to banish it, strikes again.
It’s been a long time since I read Laclau and Mouffe, but if memory serves me right, it seems to me that they say something similar. While Laclau & Mouffe emphasize the way in which different groups struggle with one another over who gets to fill out the empty content of the universal term (e.g., who gets to say what freedom really means, communists or capitalists?), they also seem to suggest that there’s something of the universal that always exceeds and escapes particularity. I’d like to suggest that this dimension of the universal (and maybe they already said it; or maybe it was Zizek) is what Lacan referred to as Real. There is something Real about the universal, which is to say that the universal is impossible to represent in the world, impossible to represent, but that it nonetheless always returns to its place.
No matter how thoroughly we debunk the universal, no matter how completely we show that every known claim that something is a universal is in fact a veiled particularlity, the universal still seems to return. The universal is like the ghost of Hamlet’s father calling for us to overcome the injustice of particularity, of unfairness, of inequity, even if we don’t know what true fairness, equality, and universality would be. The universal does not so much exist as insist. It insists both as something that calls us to make it real, but also as something that everywhere and always seems to recede while nonetheless being present. And perhaps this is the whole problem surrounding the universal. When we think we know and have it, when we think it is established in the world, we can be certain we’re in the domain of veiled particularity. However, when we think the universal as an ever receding horizon, as something that perpetually calls to us, that insists, despite the fact that it is not yet actual or real in the world, then we know we’re in the domain of true universality. Universality is a problem to perpetually be addressed. It is a problem that perpetually addresses us. It is not something that is already here.