TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Critical Theory of the Contemporary: Nationalism, Populism, Islamism

In addition to its main focus on original sin in modernity, Telos 178 (Spring 2017) features a special section of topical writing, introduced here by Russell A. Berman, that continues our ongoing commitment to setting forth a critical theory of the contemporary. Telos 178 is now available for purchase in our store.

Not that long ago, debates over politics were anchored in a clear opposition between universalism and relativism. Proponents of an inclusive structure of, at least aspirationally, all states—the new world order—envisioned an unchallenged entrenchment of democratic capitalism everywhere. Where dictatorships endured, as in North Korea, they were treated as bizarre outliers, exceptions that proved the rule of the progress of mankind toward Kant’s perpetual peace. Universalist values held sway; ultimately all rights were to become human rights, due to all humans solely on the basis of their humanity, implying that rights pursuant to national citizenship, to membership in any particular national community, would dwindle in significance: no borders, no sovereignty, no traditions. However this conceptual expression of globalization faced sophisticated critics, variously postmodern, which treated that universalism with disdain and suspicion, insinuating to it an imperial agenda and offering an alternative program of multiplicity, diversity, and multipolarity. That was the historical moment of the theoretical opposition between Habermas and Derrida, the universality of communicative reason versus the insistence on difference. Inclusion and integration stood opposed to multiculturalism, as did generally applicable norms to the particular claims of local culture and tradition.

That historical moment has passed. The ground has shifted. A new paradigm is emerging. Critics of “globalism” define the debate today. Since when? The end of the Cold War, precisely that moment when global liberalism was to have celebrated its history-ending victory, meant that the internationalist agenda of the Soviet Union (no matter how corrupt and hypocritical) was quickly replaced by an explicitly national or even nationalist Russia. The advocates of Communist internationalism, one primary manifestation of universalist thought in the past century, have disappeared as relevant political actors. Meanwhile in the Middle East, the democracy agenda died with the failure of neoconservative policy in Iraq (whether one attributes that failure to the Bush administration and its mismanagement of intervention or to the withdrawal decisions by the Obama administration). It died again with the “free world’s” shameful disinterest in the Iranian Green movement, and again with the collapse of the much-heralded Arab Spring. The carnage in Syria is the tragic outcome. Rare are the international allies of the forces of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. The only heroes are the remaining proponents of democracy in the Arab world and in Iran, the fighters for liberal transformation, who have been betrayed by the world. The Europeans did little, Washington even less, and the “anti-imperialists” of the far left who have rallied to the camp of Hezbollah share the guilt for the crimes of the Assad regime, as recently documented by Amnesty International.[1]

However it is in the West, in Europe and in the United States, that a new, post-universalist orientation has become most explicit, with the Brexit vote that has blown a hole in the project of European unification and with the Trump election in the United States, but also with the rise of anti-global, particularist forces as diverse as the National Front in France and Syriza in Greece. Metanational structures, such as the European Union, face disdain and condemnation, denounced as hostile to the pursuit of respective national interests. Similarly, the new administration in Washington appears to have given up on multilateral trade agenda, preferring bilateral agreements as a more effective vehicle to pursue national goals. The ultimate shape of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is, at this point, still emerging, given oscillations on key points (such as the evaluation of NATO) and the potential of “resistance” via the courts. In any case, the message from the White House is distinctively focused on national concerns, not on global exigencies.

Precisely that celebration of nationality as a break with traditional universalism is the topic of investigation in this issue’s section on the Critical Theory of the Contemporary. David Pan argues that there is, despite expectations, at least a potential for the new American nationalism to define itself in terms of liberal values, not as philosophically necessary (as if there were a universal history toward democracy) but as a distinct and particularly American legacy. Whether the administration will take that path remains to be seen. Tim Luke points out some of the profound damage to the global environment that a nationalist agenda is likely to cause. This shattering of universalism, however, is not only an American phenomenon. Andreas Pantazopoulos explores the case of Greece to dissect the character of populism, on the left and on the right, and the specific confluence of populism and nationalism: the politically effective attacks on international threats turns out to be fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Greece is especially interesting because it is the left that has come to dominate the populist spectrum. Finally, Arno Tausch addresses Islamism, the one surviving internationalist program. Here we are on treacherous terminological grounds. The conceptual distinction between, on the one hand, Islam, the world religion with numerous local formations and experienced by its adherents along a broad scale from traditionalism to secularism, and, on the other hand, Islamism, the radical anti-Western movement that aspires to politicize Islam, ought to be clear enough. It is the notionally fairly straightforward difference after all between religion (in its diversity) and politics (in a radical key). Yet matters are not that simple precisely because the radical politics of Islamism invokes the religion of Islam (rightly or wrongly) as justification and it recruits activists from the population of adherents to the religion. This is the topic that Tausch takes on, especially with regard to gender questions, contextualizing some recent political events with reference to public opinion polling in the Muslim world.


1. Amnesty International, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria,” February 7, 2017,

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