TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 156 (Fall 2011): Democracy and Nations

Telos 156 (Fall 2011) is now available for purchase here.

Will Europe be able to master its debt crisis and prevent the spread of economic instability throughout the eurozone? Will the political leadership in the United States be able to manage the challenge of the debt limit and, more broadly, the ongoing problems with the federal budget? As this issue of Telos goes to press, each of these dramas is still playing out, and the conclusion to neither is predictable. Will the euro crumble, will Washington grind to a halt? Probably not. Yet if Europe’s contagion is ultimately contained, and if the United States dodges the bullet and avoids default, it will only have been in the nick of time. Perhaps some tired observers will heave a sigh of relief and reassure themselves that the system has worked. Of course, escaping catastrophe is better than the alternative, and no one should be wishing for the worst. But this is not a matter of wishful thinking at all. Magic will not save us. On the contrary, this is about contemporary politics and the apparent inability of existing political institutions to address vital matters in an effective manner.

At stake are the limits of contemporary politics in the developed western democracies. Telos has elsewhere addressed political economy in China and the problems of Putinism in post-Communist Russia. The political dynamics of such non-democratic regimes can offer comparative examples, as could the tendencies toward neo-totalitarianism in Islamist radicalism. Yet what we can currently watch is the dysfunctionality of the most democratic systems, not their antipodes. What hampers political decision-making in democratic Europe and in the United States? How close to the brink does a democracy have to stumble in order to reach a decision? As Alain de Benoist writes at the conclusion of the opening essay in this issue, “The current crisis of democracy is above all a crisis of politics,” which can only mean that we are facing systemic problems in democratic politics. This issue of Telos therefore turns to the topic of democracy and nations: how does democracy operate today, what is its relationship to nations and nation-states, and do national traditions have any relevant bearing on the status of democracies? “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”: do Lincoln’s words have any significance beyond nostalgia? The pressures on democracy are extraordinary, trapped as it is between cosmopolitan models of international governance and the temptations of parochial populism. Can a substantive democracy that guarantees rights still function within the constraints of a traditionalist nation? Yet the converse is also relevant: can a substantive democracy based on the rule of the people do without a national self-understanding?

For Benoist, democracy is buckling under the pressure of seemingly antithetical, but ultimately compatible, evil twins: “In short, trapped between economics and morality, the ideology of the marketplace and the ideology of human rights, contemporary democracy is less and less democratic because it is less and less political. The economy is able to impose its law under the cover (and in the language) of rights.” Globalization entails the spread of a paradigm of abstraction, capitalist economics, and universalist ethics, each of which tends to erase national differences: “It requires the suppression of frontiers, while democracy can only be exercised within a given polity.” This amounts to one crucial and recognizable claim: that democracy operates best in smaller territories, and the pressures to expand—whether a matter of venal imperialism or moralistic crusades for universal values—undermine the vitality of democratic institutions. Moreover, Benoist points out the untenability of the liberal (and neoliberal) assertion of a likely connection between capitalist economies and democratic systems: “historic experience also shows that capitalism can coexist well, not only with a purely oligarchical regime but also with an authoritarian regime (yesterday in Chile, today in China), which disproves the idea that the market economy automatically creates the conditions for democracy.” The essay articulates a cogent analysis of the internal contradictions of contemporary democracy with an implicit defense of national democracies on the basis of a conservative anti-capitalism (or anti-globalism). Underlying the agenda is an effort to defend the political as such, for without political capacity we remain unable to address challenges.

Raf Geenens addresses similar issues, coming however to different conclusions. His focus is on the vicissitudes of the nation-state in the context of the rise of supra-national institutions. Benoist sees the spread of international governance as having the deleterious effect of depoliticizing nation-states. Geenens proceeds, alternatively, by pointing to the position of those cosmopolitan democrats who welcome this development. International rule promises to bring the benighted age of nation-states to a rapid and welcome conclusion: better Brussels and Strasbourg as seats of power, than Paris and Berlin; better Turtle Bay than Capitol Hill. Geenens takes us two important steps further. First, he identifies a group of thinkers who insist on the importance of the nation-state: “in opposition to the optimism of cosmopolitan democrats, they soberly maintain that in these new circumstances the nation-state, a system of territorially bounded sovereignty with political representation centered on a single level, remains an indispensable ‘political form.’ As such, they go against the bandwagon story about the inevitable withering away of the nation-state.” He looks closely at aspects of the work of Pierre Manent, John Pocock, Larry Siedentop, and Jean Cohen, drawing our attention to important arguments for the nation-state. “Global governance in its worst version does indeed seem aimed at creating a neoliberal space in which human beings are reduced to economic actors. And, indeed, many supranational institutions appear to be grabbing as much power as they can, without much concern for the lessons of liberal theory about the constitutional dispersal of power.” Yet, he takes another step and, in lieu of defending the nation-state itself, tries to locate “a new or at least an altered raison d’être” given the new context of supra-national institutions. (Question: what role do we expect the Greek government to play in the context of supra-national Europe, and will it still be a democracy in a meaningful sense?)

Against the backdrop of these two political-theoretical accounts, we turn to three articles that look at two specific contemporary nation-states in terms of issues of sovereignty, immigration, and tradition. Behind the anxieties concerning sovereignty loss, the questions posed by Carl Schmitt are hiding in plain sight, and Ronald Olufemi Badru explores them in relation to contemporary politics in Nigeria. In Badru’s account, Schmitt’s concern with the sovereign and his maintenance of power points directly to issues of the personal power of the sovereign and its power-political consequences. This moral egoism, Badru argues, has damaged the fabric of Nigerian politics; the alternative he presents is a moral altruism, which he elaborates via Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant. Franklin Hugh Adler shifts our attention to Israel and, in particular, the status of the Israeli Jews who immigrated from Arab countries: his point is to explore how the presence of the Mizrahi complicates the narratives of both Zionism and anti-Zionism, and therefore might offer a “bridge to regional reconciliation.” Whatever the plausibility of such a bridge, Adler’s essay is crucial in its examination of the complicated relations between the political-legal order of nation-states and the really existing hybridity of their populations. The more a nation-state insists on a particular national-historiographical narrative, the more irritation arises from individuals or groups who do not identity with it, e.g., both indigenous populations and immigrant populations. Such demographic politics tends to reemerge in most polities, not only exceptional ones. Yaacov Yadgar also focuses on Israel and its domestic cultural diversity with regard to the range of Jewish religious identities, especially the more than a third of Israeli Jews who, neither orthodox nor secular, define themselves as adherents of tradition, the masortim. At stake for Yadgar, however, is not simply the complexity of the religious-identification landscape but also an exploration of the status of tradition (and religion) in modern identity as such. While standard accounts of modernity (and aesthetic modernism) insist on the dogma of an abrupt rupture with tradition, in fact many members of “modern” societies maintain a positive relation to traditions without participating in “ultra-traditionalist” conservatisms. For Yadgar, this amounts to a “‘practical’ rather than textual or philosophical, and dialogical attitude toward tradition.” Yet for the question of democracy and nations, this implies that significant sectors of the populace may hold onto ways of life defined by tradition, albeit in a non-reified manner. This in turn suggests that nations can harbor certain fields of cultural distinctiveness that will be at odds with the process of globalizing abstraction and international governance.

The two following essays point to a different challenge to national coherence: the force of individual atomization and the associated fraying of the fabric of community. If autonomy emerged from the Enlightenment as an emancipatory project for the individual, it has become an obligation, an inescapable mandate to act in terms of self-interest, which erodes other social relations. Pekka Sulkunen examines this inversion and the tension between autonomy and intimacy: “The risk is that autonomy is no longer simply a measure of human worth; capacity to exercise it has turned into a principle of belonging. Those who do not have it may lose even the rest of their dignity as individuals and members of society.” Somogy Varga addresses comparable issues around the “ideal of authenticity—roughly, that one should lead a life that is expressive of what the person takes herself to be.” Yet the imperative for authenticity runs the risk of placing enormous psychological pressure on the individual (not unlike the pressure that the global economy places on the institutions of national sovereignty). Varga concludes, controversially, that this pressure is itself a potential source of pathologies: the dark side of programs for self-realization is depression.

Two final essays turn to two poets: Rusmir Mahmutćehajić introduces the Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar, a discovery in his own right, but also an author who raises questions about the integrity of tradition and the power of the sacred in verse. Pedro Blas González provides a reflective discussion of Czesław Miłosz’s 2001 essay collection To Begin Where I Am, reading for the poet’s critique of nihilism and a discovery of a human transcendence worth comparing to Dizdar’s. Each poet is embedded in the vicissitudes of his nation, and each surpasses it.

The issue concludes with three reviews of books pertinent to democracy and nations. Antonio Y. Vázquez-Arroyo reviewing Sheldon Wolin’s Inverted Totalitarianism, provides a robust profile of Wolin’s thought and the achievements and complexities of his analyses of American democracy. Joseph W. Bendersky reviews Atina Grossman’s award-winning Jews, Germans and Allies, a history of postwar Berlin and the intersecting biographies of survivors, refugees, victorious occupiers, and defeated Germans. Finally, David Ost examines Victor Zaslavsky’s Class Cleansing, a terse and compelling account of the Soviet atrocity at Katyn in April 1940

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