TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 148 (Fall 2009): Political Theologies

When asked whether the U.S. government considers Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be the “legitimate president” of Iran, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded laconically that “he’s the elected leader,” according to an AP report of August 4. The phrasing—and the omission of any reference to the brutal suppression of Iranian protests—offers an insight into key political orientations of the current regime. What counts is the outcome, not the process; what matters are the ends, not the means; and what is of greatest importance is the state and its apparatus, not society and its complexities. No doubt, the Obama administration’s caution on this matter reflects its effort to emphasize diplomacy, as the opportunity for states to talk with states, and to back off from the democratization agenda of its predecessor. The way it has taken sides in Iran is, at least, consistent with its values. Diplomatic negotiations take place over the heads or behind the backs of society, which is why state departments and foreign ministries frequently find themselves at odds with the values of the polities they purport to represent.

This priority of state-to-state relations internationally corresponds domestically to the priority of the state over society. None of the expansion of policing powers of the previous era has been significantly retracted, while the management of the economy proceeds at a brisk pace, with the prospect of a biopolitical administration increasingly likely. Current events are breathing new life into Critical Theory’s nightmare of a “totally administered society.” Anxiety about the growth of the managerial state defined classical Critical Theory, and this was frequently enough one of the key issues that separated it from the orthodox left. For Telos, the political developments of the last third of the twentieth century seemed to indicate various rollbacks in the state apparatus and the potential emancipation of society. Has that historical episode come to an end?

The current discussion of political theology has erupted out of the renewed attention to Carl Schmitt, which Telos pioneered. Schmitt’s theorem that modern political categories derive from the secularization of theology provides powerful insights, but, as with all academic discussions, this one too is susceptible to a flattening out into an anemic history of ideas. The constellation of articles in this issue should contribute to a recovery of the radical insight: politics not merely as the concepts that inhabit the desiccated carcass of secularized theology, but theology as the marker of the inescapable limitation on politics and state power. The theological turn can be as consistent with Foucault’s exhortation to defend society against the state as it is with Adorno’s insistence on considering all things from the standpoint of redemption. Yet those positions belong to an era of theory and society increasingly distant. What we need now is a political theology of the new bureaucratic regime. This issue is a first step.

The issue opens with Bassam Tibi bridging the decades between his encounters with his teacher Max Horkheimer in the days of the student movement and his own evaluation of contemporary Islamism. A self-described liberal Muslim, Tibi denounces Islamism as a new totalitarianism. This is however not an attack on Islam as religion but on its deformation into a politics of oppression. Islamism is to Islam as ideology is to ideas: a form of betrayal. Yet for Tibi, an even more urgent concern than Islamism is its leftist defenders in the West. Here, too, Tibi sees betrayal, the jettisoning of the ideals, which he suggests a left tradition ought to honor. It is precisely at this point however where further discussion could begin. In the current fascination of parts of the left with jihad, what can one make of the willingness of progressives to deep-freeze their long-held beliefs—in civil rights, in gender equality, in free speech, and so forth—in order to enter alliances with reactionary Islamists due to their veneer of anti-imperialism? Is this a tactical blunder (reminiscent of parts of the Iranian left and its misplaced enthusiasm for Khomeinism in 1979)? Or is there not a repressive streak within the left with a much longer genealogy, stretching back at least to 1793? That is where a discussion of terror ought to begin.

James V. Schall provides a systematic foundation to the possibility of political theology through a reflection on the relationship between reason and revelation. Both forms of knowledge can concern themselves with the “best city,” the possibility of political excellence. But the revelational tradition surpasses the law, even if it tries to guide it. Politics remains incomplete, and necessarily so; the aspiration for a total politics, a full management of human affairs, runs counter to human limitations. Hence the importance of his conclusion with Aristotle’s warning: “For it would be absurd for someone to think that political science or intelligence is the most excellent science, when the best thing in the universe is not a human being . . .”

Arthur Versluis undertakes an inquiry into the intellectual lineage of Schmitt’s account of modernity. Rather than placing him primarily in relation to early modern political theory (Hobbes), Versluis traces discussions back to late antiquity and conflicts between an orthodoxy emerging around the Church and the mystical radicalism of Gnostic heresies. For Versluis, secular modernity results from an institutionalist emphasis on historicity over transcendence. The consistent marginalization of gnosis eliminates transcendence and “one is left only with a historical horizon,” which becomes the space in which the total state operates. “Totalitarianism results from pursuing a distant mirage of enforced historical utopia, the pursuit of which left behind the bodies of many ‘heretical’ victims or scapegoats.” Islamism, despite its opportunistic appeals to religion, fits into this model of a secularizing modernity because it has little to do with transcendence—consider its distance from Sufism—and everything to do with an immanentist “paradise on earth”—as lugubrious as that so-called paradise turns out to be. Against this enforced management of life, Versluis appeals to mystical and anarchic (i.e., anti-statist) traditions, as far apart as Böhme and Péguy.

Telos has a long history of transmitting international intellectual opinion, so following the explicit discussions of political theology, a set of essays presents critical voices from contemporary Scandinavia. The Scandinavian social model has of course long been the paradigm of the administered society, the most fully developed welfare states, in part due to unique circumstances of demography and culture, but in part as well because social-democratic advocates regularly invoke it as the template to emulate elsewhere. Some of the emergent tensions in contemporary Northern Europe—and therefore in the paradigm of the welfare state—are reflected in these essays. Frederik Stjernfelt’s argument that secularism is not a fundamentalism responds to the rise of culturalist or multiculturalist agenda that have called for limitations on free speech: in Denmark this issue came to a head around the cartoon controversy, but it is indicative of a wider anthropological turn in culture that erodes the ability and will to make distinctions, even between democratic and totalitarian politics. For Stjernfelt, this represents “a major political step backward, which threatens to erode 250 years of enlightenment and to open the door to never-ending religious wars,” a critique compatible with Tibi’s attack on the western apologists for Islamism.

The paradox however is the alliance between statist expansionism and multicultural fragmentation. Kasper Støvring explores the transitions in cultural agenda in Denmark, from the (social) democratic radicalism aligned with modernism through the contradictions of elitist modernization to the more recent turn to a national conservatism. Støvring places this transformation in a European context and explicates it with references to Roger Scruton’s positive evaluation of national community. Because of an implicit populism, it stands closer to elements of popular culture than did the radical advocacy for modernism, with its frequent avant-garde and therefore elitist profile. Klaus Solberg Søilen moves the discussion to Sweden and to social policy. He traces the ideological origins of the Scandinavian welfare state, its ultimately depoliticizing impact, and its capacity to provide bountifully for the “new class.” The Scandinavian model is less about radical redistribution than about the preservation of the status of a bureaucratic managerial class: “the welfare state today is less about solidarity than it is about self-interest,” or in other words, an organized status quo with a high degree of inefficiency. For the new class, it serves as “a modern version of Robin Hood. Unlike in Sherwood Forest, however, most of the funds today go to the middle class, not to the poor.”

A final trio of articles presents some contemporary treatments of philosophy and society. Rossen I. Roussev traces the decline of philosophical and more broadly humanistic education in colleges and universities and mounts a robust and appropriately philosophical defense of the need for a program to rectify this cultural impoverishment. He invokes Derrida’s insistence on a “right to philosophy” and the importance of educational reform. Matthew Rampley provides a comprehensive discussion of art and society in the work of Niklas Luhmann, with striking contrasts to the accounts associated with Bourdieu and Foucault. Rampley also shows how Luhmann’s emphasis on micro-social events rather than on larger frameworks can shed light on specific problems, such as the particular evanescence of contemporary art. Peter Gratton provides a comprehensive profile of Derrida’s thought with regard to the internal tensions within democracy, the implications of sovereignty, and the possibility of a “non-sovereign freedom.” That however can only imply a politics that escapes the constraints of a totalizing state.

Gábor T. Rittersporn provides an elaborate discussion of David Ost’s The Defeat of Solidarity. At stake are the vicissitudes of post-Communism in Poland and the fraught relationship between liberal intellectuals and social movements. Even more, however, this discussion concerns the status of liberalism in general and its limits, especially in the face of the social devastation left by Communism. Gerhard Richter follows with a critical reply to Ulrich Plass’s review of recent Adorno scholarship in Telos 146. Three book reviews conclude the issue. Mark Wegierski presents Paul Gottfried’s anatomy of the conservative movement. Shafiq Shamel discusses Bassam Tibi (whose article opens this issue) and his strident critique of jihadism. Finally, Matthew Congdon explores Derrida’s essay on the blind hubris of anthropocentrism. The humanism that denies its limits is akin to the limitless state.

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