Telos 181 (Winter 2017): War and Civil War

Telos 181 (Winter 2017): War and Civil War is now available for purchase in our store.

Consider the question: has American political life ever been as polarized as it is today? If the most appropriate answer is: yes, of course, in 1861, then the problem has been named and we are left with little comfort. The evaporation of anything like a bipartisan consensus in the political class leaves us staring at a battlefield, with few common bonds or shared attachments. Politics has become the internalization of war by other means. This is our version of the crisis of parliamentary democracy that Schmitt described in the Weimar years. Congressional Democrats are unwilling to cross the aisle to find room for compromise in the Trump era, but this only repeats the animosity among Republicans toward the Obama agenda eight years ago. Each party seeks its own advantage, which exclusively means the other party’s disadvantage, as the national good slips beneath the horizon. Each party focuses on mobilizing its base for votes and fund-raising, which means that each has an irresistible incentive to avoid solving those problems that are the most effective vehicles for rallying their supporters: when they held the majority, the Democrats preferred to keep the “dreamers” vulnerable, so as to be able to recycle them in future campaigns, just as the Republicans chose to punt on health care. Each issue is too successful in attracting voters, too valuable to give up.

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Poland after 1989 and Canada after the “Trudeau Revolution”: Comparing the Emergence of “National Democracy” and Late-Modern “Liberal Democracy”

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.

This presentation compares two societies, which, although both claim to be “Western” as well as vibrant liberal democracies, are in many aspects quite different. Those societies have been shaped by their history and political culture to evolve in quite different directions. Nevertheless, they can both be seen as “post-revolutionary” societies.

Poland has had a very checkered history, from being a Great Power, to disappearing from the map of Europe, which has contributed to a strongly “erotic” sense of belonging among the Poles. Poland after 1989—the so-called Third Republic—has been in the difficult process of attempting a restoration of a more traditional Polish society, whose organic evolution and development had been so cruelly interrupted since 1939.

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Better Than a Victory or Worse Than a Defeat?

At the root of what is now happening in Catalonia there are various diagnostic errors. Those who wish to manage the issue as that of legality and public order are radically mistaken in their failure to see in it an eminently political problem, requiring all the imaginative force of political reason. The mere guardians of legality are unaware either of such creativity or of the diplomatic acumen called for in especially complex conflicts. Technocratic management is impotent there, where what is at stake is identity itself with its acute affective dimension, the emotion saturating one’s belonging or non-belonging to a group. Therefore, the source of the current crisis surpasses its historical and geographical context and goes to the conflation of the political and the nonpolitical, which may be unnoticed in periods of “normalcy,” though not in exceptional, dangerous and decisive situations.

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The Sarah Halimi Affair and the Taboo on the “New” Anti-Semitism

The following essay was originally published in French at Le Figaro Vox on July 14, 2017, and is published here by permission. Translated by Russell A. Berman.

In the night of April 4, 2017, in Paris, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, was savagely killed. Her murderer, Kobili Traoré, a radicalized Muslim with a Malian background and a long police record, assaulted her for forty minutes, first in her living room and then on her balcony. He shouted “Allah Akbar,” while degrading his victim, called her a “fat whore” and a “shaitan” (a demon in Arabic). From their windows and later from the courtyard, several neighbors heard and then witnessed, in disgust, the massacre. In Noémie Halioua’s excellent article in Causeur, she reports the testimony of one of them: “First I was woken by the moans of a creature in suffering. It was torture. First, I thought it was an animal or a baby. But then, lifting the blinds and opening the window, I recognized that it was a woman moaning as she was being beaten. With each blow, I heard a moan; she did not even have the strength to cry out anymore.” Kobili Traoré strikes her so hard that his fist is swollen. When he sees the light of the police flashlights in the courtyard, he yells, “watch out, there is a woman here about to commit suicide,” as he seizes his victim, still alive, by her wrists and throws her over the banister of her balcony. Sarah Halimi lays in the courtyard, dead, covered in blood.

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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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