Who Leads the West and Why: Trump or Merkel? Constitutional Cultures in the United States and Germany

The following paper was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy,” co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, September 1–2, 2017, Moscow. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Theodor Fontane, the master of German realist fiction, published his first novel, Before the Storm, in 1876. Set during the winter of 1812–13, in and around Berlin, it explores the decisive historical moment when Prussia changed sides—breaking out of its forced alliance with France in order to side with Russia in the anti-Napoleonic war. Yet the dialectic of the moment was such that Germans could join in the rout of the French while nonetheless embracing aspects of the French revolutionary legacy. Thus near the conclusion of the novel, the Prussian General von Bamme, commenting on social changes around him, a reduction in traditional structures of hierarchy, speculates, “And where does all this come from? From over yonder, borne on the west wind. I can make nothing of these windbags of Frenchmen, but in all the rubbish they talk there is none the less a pinch of wisdom. Nothing much is going to come of their Fraternity, nor of their Liberty: but there is something to be said for what they have put between them. For what, after all, does it mean but: a man is a man.” Mensch ist mensch.

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The Legal Foundations of Individualism

The following paper was presented at the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.

As the final speaker after a fascinating day of talks, I’ll keep my comments brief. I’ll be addressing two questions about democracy raised by our conference description: first, “the reasons for its rarity and volatility”; and, second, “the factors that are essential for its stability.” For each question, I’ll try to provide a concise, mildly provocative answer from my perspective as a writer and scholar about constitutional law and comparative legal history.

So why is democracy so rare and volatile? I think one answer we could give to this question is that democracy is volatile because the modern self is a legal achievement. There is nothing outside of law, including individual subjectivity. Instead, the modern self that lies at the center of liberal democratic practice developed only after a long historical process of dialectical negation and synthesis. In that process, a handful of societies, beginning in western Europe, transcended what in my most recent book I call the “rule of the clan.”

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Rebellious and Responsible: On Rowan Williams’s Faith in the Public Sphere

This is the last of three papers delivered at a seminar on religion and politics that was organized with Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, on the occasion of his recent book Faith in the Public Square. The seminar was held at Radboud University in December 2013. The first paper, by Martijn de Koning, appears here, and the second paper, by Chantal Bax, appears here.

It has been a real pleasure to read Rowan Williams’s book Faith in the Public Sphere, not the least because of one of the first statements in the introduction: “Archbishops grow resilient and sometimes even rebellious” in the face of all possible forms of critique archbishops can expect to receive when commenting public issues. A rebellious archbishop—what more can the reader wish? An archbishop willing to take the risk of “blundering into unforeseen complexities” when trying to find the connecting points between various public questions with religious faith. No blundering as far as I can tell, but a risk, yes, there is always a risk when talking about Faith in the Public Sphere, or having faith, being faithful, in the public sphere. This is not only a risky undertaking for an archbishop, but probably for every modern believer since the days of Ignatius and Calvin, who realizes that there is a tension between good civil behavior and raising one’s voice of conscience. Hence, that there is a fundamental tension between faith and the public sphere in modernity—a tension that cannot be resolved, but should actually be regarded to be constitutive and constructive for both faith and the public sphere itself. Having read the book, it seems to me that Williams has set himself the task of showing how constructive this tension can be.

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Liberalism: Hero By Day, Despot By Night

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maja Sidzinska looks at James Kalb’s “Liberalism: Ideal and Reality,” from Telos 122 (Winter 2002).

James Kalb bluntly asks us: “Why does liberalism—the tradition that makes equal freedom the political touchstone—combine such strength with such incoherence? . . . Liberalism is triumphant almost everywhere, but its victory reverses the meaning of its principles. It calls for live-and-let-live, and enforces it by supervising everything” (111). Kalb explores the inherent tension between what he regards as the two core principles of liberalism—freedom and equality. Here, freedom is interpreted as the potential or ability to carry out one’s will, while equality is understood as the principle that ensures the right of each individual to do so. But what happens when two individuals’ wills are in conflict? Logically, liberalism has few intrinsic means to resolve such a scenario, argues Kalb. It simply “resolves disputes by letting each do as he likes consistent with the equal freedom of others, and in case of conflict the more tolerant wins” (117). In this case, “more tolerant” appears to refer to that stance which is less intrusive on the will, person, or property of another.

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Agnes Heller and the Critique of Everyday Life

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J. F. Dorahy looks at Agnes Heller’s “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution of Everyday Life,” from Telos 6 (Fall 1970).

The category of “everyday life” is a relatively new addition to the critical framework of Marxism. Since it was formally introduced by the French theorist Henri Lefèbvre (Critique de la vie quotidienne I, 1947; The Critique of Everyday Life, 1991), the critique of everyday life emerged in the post-1945 period as a response to the continuing stability of late capitalism and the integration of formerly radical elements of society within its logic of containment. From within the orbit of “actually existing socialism,” Agnes Heller’s critical anthropology of everyday life illuminates the integrative tendencies of both “great systems” during the Cold War via the prism of the alienated personality. While “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution of Everyday Life” touches on numerous practical issues confronting the radical political movements on the late-1960s—including analysis of the ideological relevance of Che Guevara and the role of the sexual liberation movement in the formation non-alienated communities—its greatest and most enduring aspect is Heller’s focused and concise delineation of the phenomenology of personhood in the world-historical epoch of alienation.

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From Europe to America and Back: Tocqueville and Democracy as Legacy and Future of the West

This paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

It is with Tocqueville that the term democracy acquires a positive connotation. When the first part of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, the very title came as a surprise. It was radically new, and it struck people like a bolt from the blue. Tocqueville took another unprecedented step when he associated democracy and equality. According to Aristotle, equality is an aspect of justice, not democracy. The equality that Tocqueville had in mind was not political or economic, but social; it referred to a social condition arising from equality of condition and from a pervasive egalitarian ethos. The latter reflected, in turn, the absence of a feudal past in the New World. Back in Europe and France, Tocqueville lived through the events of 1848, when the notion of “revolution” gained a socialist character. It is at such point that Tocqueville perceives a conflict between socialism and liberty: socialism means equality without liberty, while democracy stands for equality and freedom. He thus starts a new debate, that of the problematic relationship between equality and liberty, which draws on his dual political experiences in Europe and America. He discovers that it is through their synthesis that a political system capable of combining the best aspects of liberty and equality might emerge. Liberal democracy could therefore be born of the encounter between Europe and America, that is to say, the two main parts of the Western World.

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