The Rise of the Illiberal Elites

In the wake of the Brexit vote and the 2016 American presidential election, the idea began to circulate that we were witnessing a trans-Atlantic, populist “revolt against the elites,” which had spontaneously arisen from populations whose concerns had, for too long, gone unheard by those in power. Longstanding economic problems regarding income disparity and wealth—left unaddressed by both sides of the political spectrum—are indeed among the most pressing issues that we currently face. But as has been observed, the first half-year of the new U.S. presidential administration, with one of the wealthiest cabinets in American history, calls into question the validity of the “populist” interpretation in the U.S. context. The failure of this theory has in turn exposed a gap in our ability to conceptualize what actually happened during the U.S. election, what is unfolding before us, and how we got here.

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Three Forms of Democratic Political Acclamation

This paper takes its initial inspiration from Carl Schmitt’s claim in 1927 that the “original democratic phenomenon . . . is acclamation,” and draws upon the interchange between religious and political forms of acclamation observed by Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz and Erik Peterson and elaborated recently by Giorgio Agamben. If Schmitt is correct, then acclamation is central to the construction of “the people” who by definition are the source of political legitimacy. What is required then is what I have called an “analytics of publicity” that would study the different ways in which the public is formed through different forms of acclamation.

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Telos 179 (Summer 2017): A New Regime?

Telos 179 (Summer 2017) is now available for purchase in our store.

When the historian Ken Burns spoke at the Stanford University commencement last June, he delivered an exceptionally political address, including an attack on what he labeled the “Vichy Republicans.” Those Republican leaders who had not distanced themselves from candidate Trump, so Burns, were the equivalent of the Vichy French who collaborated with Hitler. That master metaphor, comparing 2016 to 1933, has continued into the new administration, with the anti-Trump camp labeling itself as “the resistance.” Despite Burns’s historiographical authority, one might question the validity of the underlying equation. No doubt the policies of the Trump administration are more conservative than those of Obama—hardly surprising—but the paradigms of the totalitarianism of the twentieth century are not necessarily the most adequate theoretical tools to analyze early twenty-first-century political phenomena. As emotionally satisfying as it may be for some to try to relive battles of earlier decades, Critical Theory ought to try to do better. We may very well be entering a different political era, a new regime, and not only in the United States. Can we describe it more effectively?

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“Then and Now,” and Now

For many today, Claude Lefort is a thinker known mainly by association, someone whose work emerges where others are asked to situate their projects relative to his thinking of the political. He is a prominent, if not central, figure for the more post-structuralist thinkers of radical democracy. Lefort’s sense of democracy—as that form of society where the place of power is empty—is vital to those projects that would likewise tie democracy to the symbolic character of power, and to the distinct workings of politics and the political. Interestingly, while debate over the correct translation of le or la politique seems to almost always return to Lefort, it remains the case that for his own part Lefort was never much interested in post-structuralism. For him, the post-structural turn, itself bound up with the legacies of May 1968 and the new knowledge, obfuscated almost as much as it made clear.

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The Political Totalization of Carl Schmitt: Deciding on “the Absolutely Unpolitical”

While “the political” is among the most studied aspects of Carl Schmitt’s thought, little attention has been paid to the notion of “the unpolitical,” which, I argue, plays a crucial role in understanding the totalizing status of the political. This essay, first, illuminates the symptomology of Schmitt’s political totalization; it shows how, despite its claim to autonomy, the political emerges as the total: an infinite potential that consumes human life as a whole. Second, this essay argues that the institution of political totality essentially relies upon the elimination of its radical outside—the “absolutely unpolitical.” Throughout his writings Schmitt presents the unpolitical as a merely “fictitious” reality. Meanwhile, what remains obscured is an originary event, the decision on the absolutely unpolitical, which institutes a pre-political field and thus grounds any subsequent political decision.

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Telos 175 (Summer 2016): Political Theory, Political Theology

Critical theory inherited the mission of philosophy to know the world and to pursue the good life. Careful examination should shed light on the cosmos and our place within it and contribute to a beneficial ordering of human concerns, when wisdom informs governance. Yet that aspiration to know the world encountered the limits of intelligibility, beyond which reason could not proceed. Meanwhile, the efforts to remake the world in the spirit of reason elicited processes of rationalization, as deleterious to the world around us, the natural environment, as to the world within us, the ongoing cultural crisis of modernity and its social corollaries. That is Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment at the foundation of the critical theoretical tradition that continues to provide a framework with which to articulate a critique of the contemporary in its many heterogeneous facets: the disruption of all forms of solidarity, the pressures on family structures, the erosion of educational opportunities, the growing gap between rich and poor. Add to this the ominous shifts in the international order, including the breakdown of state structures from North Africa through the Middle East, the strains on the European Union, and the return of a repressive semi-dictatorship in Russia, while—at this point in the presidential election season—the United States seems to be tumbling dangerously toward Weimar conditions.

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