TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 169 (Winter 2014): A Return to Politics

Telos 169 (Winter 2014) is now available for purchase in our store.

In recent years, there has been much hand-wringing over widespread apathy, not only among young generations but throughout the public. Politics, so critics have been claiming, has become a matter exclusively of media manipulation, of a manufactured consensus foisted on a malleable citizenry. This dystopian vision allegedly held not only in the United States (although perhaps especially here) but across much of the globe. Democratization movements appeared to have been crushed, whether in Iran or China, as the leadership in the West—once the premier advocate of democratic transformation—opted instead for the realpolitik of deals with rulers, no matter how unsavory, over support for popular movements, no matter how just.

Yet the monopoly on opinion claimed by the government–media alliance has been crumbling over the past years, slowly at first and suddenly cascading toward a new, more volatile formation. No doubt the internet has played a decisive role in this: as much as it has served as a terrain for surveillance (especially commercial surveillance), it has also enabled an anarchic dissemination of information and networking potential, incubating new forms of political engagement. These can display mutually exclusive allegiances, although with underlying resonances: on the right, the Tea Party heirs, and on the left, the Occupy movement share some libertarian common ground. Populist parties in Europe are similarly confusing the political landscape, while anti-Islamist bloggers in the Middle East compete with online jihadist recruiters. There is no self-evident common denominator in this eruption of political activity, except in the sense that unconstrained creative impulses have challenged the structures of traditional control. Telos therefore explores this return of politics, in some of its crucial current contests as well as in the history of theorizing political aspirations.

The issue opens with Adrian Pabst’s probing analysis of the September referendum on Scottish independence. At stake is not the defeat of the initiative, for as Pabst explains, the result could not be farther from a victory of the status quo. Instead he shows that the referendum itself, the animated political debate over the future of the United Kingdom, was no mere peripheral curiosity (as it was treated in the meager coverage in the U.S. press) but a telling symptom of the political condition of the moment, in effect an uprising against the managerial inertia of the centrist nomenklatura of the political class. The energy unleashed during the campaign testifies to an urgent search for new modalities, identities, and institutions, in opposition to the proponents of governance as usual. It has challenged the particularly acute centralization of power in the UK and called for devolution, not only to the national level of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but also through consistent federalism to regions and municipalities, where practices of genuine self-governance might unfold—and self-governance is the genuine challenge to power centers.

Hence, the potential for a significant repoliticization throughout society. On the one hand, the old regime is still in place, as Pabst puts it: “We are witnessing the triumph in cynical combination of what Christopher Lasch and Paul Piccone aptly termed ‘old elites’ and ‘new classes.’ Today Britain and other Western liberal democracies are in the hands of old business empires and political dynasties as well as new global conglomerates and a managerial-bureaucratic class linked to an international financial plutocracy.” On the other hand, “the undoubted revival of popular participation in politics that was so evident in the run-up to the Scottish referendum is in large part a reaction against liberal democracy’s slide into oligarchy and demagoguery. One could arguably call this moment the definitive end of ‘the end of history’—the finally exhibited demise of the sham conflict between left and right, or of democracy and liberalism . . .” Whether the United Kingdom will seize the opportunity afforded by the Scottish debate remains to be seen, but the illusion of bureaucratic stability has irreparably shattered.

A key terrain of political controversy remains the concept of multiculturalism. Jens-Martin Eriksen and Fredrik Stjernfelt critically examined its impact, both in Malaysia and in Europe, in The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, published by Telos Press in 2012. Part of their argument involved an examination of a specifically leftist variant. In this issue, however, Göran Adamson, Aje Carlbom, and Pernilla Ouis challenge them on precisely this point, claiming instead that multiculturalism is inherently inimical to the enlightenment tradition of the left, implicated instead in the conservative, early romanticism of Johann Herder: “Multiculturalism fulfills all the criteria of a conservative ideology. Its exclusive focus on groups and the concomitance of the absent individual makes it, moreover, more radical than Herder’s timid conservatism, in which the individual as a concrete being in time and space is central. Multiculturalism—i.e., a multitude of cultures—implies that the entity expected to shine and give color is culture. No less fierce form of conservatism would manage to idealize the ethnic community and yet turn a blind eye to its real members. Save for defending a generous immigration policy, multiculturalism has little in common with leftist views. Analytically, multiculturalism constitutes a pronounced form of conservatism . . .” This illiberalism of multiculturalism—the priority of group and tradition over individual rights—has long been noted. Is multiculturalism therefore incompatible with the left? The answer depends on how the notion of a “left” is construed. Hence Eriksen and Stjernfelt’s rebuttal, challenging the left to face up to its own Jacobin (and by implication, Stalinist) legacies: “. . . given the checkered history of more than two centuries of leftism, there is no reason not to see multicultis on the left as the current heirs of a strong and immanent tradition within the left, going all the way back to Robespierre’s populism and anti-individualism. The tendency on the left to identify, if not reduce, individuals to simplistic collective categories, such as class, economic position, culture, and ethnicity, has simply been there all the time, and it has been able to merge seamlessly, in different combinations, with other classical leftist ideas such as substantial equality, paternalism (turning into despotism in the extreme), anti-capitalism, anti-Americanism, anti-bourgeois lifestyle recommendations, etc.” In other words, multiculturalism is definitively a left-wing phenomenon, when it inherits the worst of the left tradition. The current return to politics will therefore have to address a legacy of repressive behavior, or else it will repeat it.

In that vein, a set of essays follows addressing aspects of the character of political discourse, its potentials and pitfalls. Zoltán Balázs takes a close look at the value of “purity” in politics. He shows how a fascination with purity pervades various and quite distinct aspects of contemporary radicalism—be it a matter of environmentalism, ethno-racial allegiances, or moral judgments—and he traces a genealogy of the quest for purification as a factor in political discourse more broadly. The path from purity to purges is a short one. Johnny Brennan turns our attention to myth and its role in politics, particularly through Spinoza’s reading of the ancient Hebrews: “Myth, for Spinoza, is inseparable from our lives and from society; it is a part of our mental construction and in that manner can be used for progress. But myth also has its limits, and should it surpass those limits it can lead to a culture of superstition that will regress to more primitive forms. It is not necessarily a form of falsity, but neither is it a form of absolute truth.” Christopher Holman bridges between theory and practice by reading Arendt against Marx, salvaging aspects of the 1844 Manuscripts as well as Arendt’s own political ontology informed by German council communism, while drawing connections to protests against privatization of water resources in Bolivia in 2000. At stake is the capacity for autonomous political action: “the case of the Water War reveals not only the degree to which a so-called social issue refers us to a complex of specifically political questions, but also the extent to which debate over these questions is capable of being generalized such that it can serve as a wider model for human self-organization.” Dimitris Gakis takes a close look at Wittgenstein and Marx to find extensive overlap in the critique of reification and the understanding of language, while noting Wittgenstein’s considerable distance from standard aspects of “Marxism”: scientism, teleological linearity, and economism. Joshua Rayman corrects the misunderstanding of Adorno as an idealist theorist hostile to practice. Through a close reading of the Current of Music, edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor in 2009, Rayman shows how Adorno’s writing on the Princeton Radio Research Project displays a multidimensional and complicated relationship between conceptual formation and lived experience.

Five short pieces follow, making up a forum on the National Security Agency. Government surveillance has been at the center of political debate, at least since the Snowden affair: libertarian anxiety about an expansion of state power faces off with concerns about potential security threats, especially in the context of ISIS but also in the face of increased cyberattacks. Warren Habib leads off, questioning the scope of the NSA, facilitated by the policy continuity between the Republican and Democratic administrations: “The executive has long resisted any attempts to wrench information on the sorts of programs in place for monitoring communications. In one of the more charming continuities from the Bush to the Obama administrations, the assertion of the state secrets doctrine has been used to shut down numerous judicial challenges to a variety of questionable programs.” Yet Robert Lieber draws on historical perspective to argue that “the balance between security and privacy is likely to fluctuate depending on the perceived nature and immediacy of threats as well as in reaction to how government agencies conduct themselves.” While the Snowden revelations generated anxiety about NSA intelligence gathering, ISIS has reminded the public of the need for security and surveillance. “When all is said and done, questions about the NSA’s role are not matters of either/or but about a broad spectrum of gradations between security and liberty and the interplay that necessarily takes place between these in a free society.” Baruch Fischhoff demonstrates how military R&D can become sensitive to ethical concerns, as discussed in the 2013 report Emerging and Readily Available Technologies and National Security: A Framework for Addressing Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues, and David Danks describes the alternative consequentialist and deontological perspectives on the ethics of surveillance, casting the problem as an updated version of Pascal’s wager. Finally, David Pan argues that the status of the NSA is changing profoundly due to the internet and the corollary transformation of the public sphere. “While Snowden’s revelations were indeed a turning point, this sudden forcing of the NSA into the limelight of American politics after its history of secrecy has ultimately been the result of a long-term process in which it has had to adapt to the blurring of the border between private and public in both its foreign intelligence and domestic security missions.” Contemporary society’s greater dependence on the internet means greater vulnerability to cyberattacks, and the new role of the NSA is precisely defense on that front. “The frequency and severity of hacker attacks on businesses has highlighted the ways in which the biggest current threat to privacy is not the NSA but cyberattacks from criminals and foreign governments.” In this context, “the NSA can make the case that it is perhaps one of the most important defenders of our privacy and security in a digital world.”

The issue concludes with three reviews. Mark S. Wagner provides an essay on The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, edited by Carl Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm. During the summer of 2014, the border between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was definitively crossed in the streets of Europe, but those demonstrators were merely playing catch up with an ideological fervor that had already swept through significant parts of the academy (above all in the humanities, and rarely in the sciences). The calls for an academic boycott (rather than, say, an economic boycott) demonstrate how readily scholars can succumb to a cult that will primarily harm scholarly life: Jonestown for professors. Wagner provides a comprehensive account of the volume and places it in an intellectual context.

In addition, John H. Smith reads Andrew Cole’s Birth of Theory, with a particular focus on Hegel’s construction of the dialectic against the backdrop of a medieval inheritance, and Sandra Rudnick Luft reviews Aryeh Botwinick’s Michael Oakeshott’s Skepticism, calling into question the effort to find mystical belief somehow hidden in the indeterminacy of skepticism.

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