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

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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.

In this context, the question of the relationship of politics to religion, or theory to theology, is posed anew and with greater urgency. The version of enlightenment that denounced religion as a deception (Voltaire) and that promised universal happiness as the necessary outcome of secularization (Marx) has failed and is now recognized to have distorted the ambitions of reason by all, except for the dogmatic fanatics of the new atheism. On the contrary, it is atheism that we can identify as the ideology of the bad present, while it is faith in a transcendent dimension, the project of religion, that is today’s critical theory. Rigid secularism has become the opiate of those masses who are otherwise abandoned to the commercialized sensationalism of the culture industry, which systematically assaults tradition, individual responsibility, and community values. The redemptive alternative to this nihilism would be a great awakening.

This entwinement of politics and religion operates in at least three distinct modalities. First, and most prominently, the global resurgence of religious allegiances has marked the definitive end of the secularization thesis that, borrowed from Max Weber, dominated cultural and social theory during the mid-twentieth century. Despite gleeful predictions, religion has not and will not disappear; at stake is not only the eruptions in the Muslim world, beginning perhaps with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the permutations of Islamism, nor is it limited to the persistence of communities of faith in the American electorate, but even in the notionally fully secularized Europe, indeed even in the France of laïcité, religion has reentered public discourse, and by no means solely in the Muslim community.

Yet this resurgence or seeming return of the repressed religion is hardly a return at all, since—and this is the second modality—religion extensively underpinned and informed the structures of modernity continuously, even if that religious provenance was typically camouflaged by the discourse of secularization. Theological—or even mythic—forms and contents continued to thrive under the veneer of modernity, hidden in plain sight but never fully severed from their revelatory origins. This is the paradigm of Carl Schmitt’s understanding of political theology, not only with regard to the genealogy of sovereignty but also in the conception of the state as katechon the barrier against chaos and apocalypse. In the face of the cultural crisis, the violence in public spaces, and the spectacle of terrorism, it could be the mission of the state and the law to provide for tranquility and guarantee order, the beneficial ordering of human concerns mentioned at the outset.

Nonetheless religion, not surprisingly, faces resistance from a secular intelligentsia that, problematically appropriating the legacy of enlightenment to serve its own new class interests, attacks traditional allegiances, solidaristic communities, and the legacy of inherited values. Hence the third modality of contemporary politics and religion: religion in the negative, the target of attacks by the world of theory. This takes the shape of a special animus toward Christianity and a studied obliviousness toward the devastation facing the Christians of the Middle East (let alone in China or North Korea). Cut from the same cloth is the rise of a new anti-Semitism precisely in the institutional home of theoreticians, today’s anti-Semitism of the academics. The hackneyed stereotype of the uneducated, blue-collar bigot has been rendered obsolete, now replaced by proponents of anti-faith prejudice who hold endowed professorships, the latest twist in enlightenment’s dialectic: the most educated turn out to be the purveyors of the worst idiocy. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, now Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge, has denounced the spread of a poisonous anti-Semitism in British universities, and the same can be said for the United States. Nor should one imagine that this shameful spectacle is a function of the debate over Middle East politics. Something else is at stake: the professorial attack on Judaism is fundamentally a revolt against religion, carried out by picking an easy target. Facing today’s intelligentsia, no religion is safe.

This issue of Telos opens with Diego Bermejo’s magisterial account of secularization theory, its flaws, and the conceptual and social context for the persistence of religion: reality proves theory wrong, once more. Bermejo summarizes the theoretical framework in which the present debate between secularism and religion is carried out, especially in Europe: it is noteworthy that Bermejo writes from the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, i.e., in Spain, where over just a few generations massive shifts in religious culture have taken place. His article first examines the standard theory of secularization and the cultural triumph of secularism, then provides a critique of this standard theory, and concludes by demonstrating the shortcomings and inadequacies of secularization theory on three levels: as sociological theory, as theory of religion, and as a theory of reason. There are significant political consequences: “. . . secularism should acknowledge the emergence of religious challenges. Religion has found, in the crisis of reason (metaphysical, scientific, and political), an opportunity not only to be present in the public sphere but also to demand the right to equal treatment—appealing to the same democratic principles of secularism—and the right to political participation. Secularism cannot respond to these challenges with another form of ‘enlightened fundamentalism’ (Habermas). This causes serious problems for the grounding values of democracy, in particular: the limits of tolerance and pluralism; the normative foundations of political legitimacy; the place of religions in the political order; the agreement, not always easy, between citizenship and membership; private and collective rights; the necessary restrictions, incompatible with democracy; the right of indiscriminate suffrage and democratic (dis)identification; the limits of laïcité (laicism) and the limits of religion; the rational constraints of democracy or the democratic constraints of rationality (including rational foundation or legitimization), and the range of casuistic possibilities associated with these issues. These problems become acute in light of the heated debates about the relationship between politics and religion, raised in recent years (especially in Europe).” And those debates grow even more heated when the relatively secular cultures of Western Europe encounter the more emphatic communities of believers from elsewhere, both Muslims from the Middle East and Christians from Africa. In those instances, globalization promotes desecularization.

While Bermejo provides a sweeping overview of secularization theories and their critics, Shira Wolosky probes deeply into the work of Alain Badiou, exploring his combination of Platonism and Marxism, postmodernism and ethics in order not only to trace his engagement with theological material (Paul) but also to critique his repetition of regressive structures of prejudice and marginalization. In other words, Badiou not only embodies the current return to theological material—in that sense he is post-secular—but also the persistence of atavistic animosities and allegiances. He is universalist and anti-universalist at the same time. This contradiction plays itself out with destructive consequences: “Badiou represents himself as a vanguard of revolutionary ideology. What he instead repeats and reveals is the foundational position of anti-Judaism within theologized metaphysics of the absolute and the total. The ‘theological turn’ that he deplores in others applies foremostly to himself, except his is a theology without norms, a resurrected ontology that demands the dissolution of the conditions of human community and difference.” The animosity toward the tradition and the refusal of solidarity become a familiar constellation, the rejection by the theoretical class of the Lebenswelt of the historical community—within Badiou, as if he were playing out the mathematical Platonic dimension of Christianity against the Judaic history of revelation.

Following Bermejo and Wolosky, a series of articles takes up aspects of the work of Carl Schmitt, the paradigmatic political theologian. David Ragazzoni looks at Schmitt’s 1954 Dialogue on Power and its claim that the political project of modernity to neutralize sovereignty has failed. In particular Ragazzoni teases out Schmitt’s implicit dialogue with the tradition of political thought, especially Hobbes and Spinoza. Andrea Mossa discusses Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba (available in English translation from Telos Press) and its exploration of theological and political fields of action. Inna Viriasova adopts a productively contrarian approach to Schmitt by looking at the status of the “unpolitical” in his work and the originary distinction between the political and the unpolitical. Marcus Schulzke explores the conceptual underpinnings of the “war on terror” by drawing on Schmitt, bringing his theory into the current political debates: “The United States has used the partisan disruption of the friend-enemy distinction to its advantage in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. How the United States has done this becomes clear when its strategies of distinguishing friends and enemies are seen in terms of Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan. Applying Schmitt’s theory in this way not only helps to explicate the war on terror but also adds a new dimension to Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan by showing how states may respond to the partisan disruption of conventional war.” Finally, in this extended Schmitt collection, Saul Newman draws connections—or rather, emphatic contrasts—between Schmitt and Max Stirner with regard to the question of political theology. While Schmitt, as we know, insisted on underscoring the theological legacy inherent in modern state sovereignty, Newman pursues a self-describedly anarchic agenda of escaping that same political-theological apparatus, and he hopes to do so by appealing to Stirner’s work: “Schmitt points to a certain paradox at the heart of revolutionary political thought of the nineteenth century—not only in anarchism but also in Marxism: in their attempt to eliminate all transcendental categories and replace them with an immanent conception of life, or with a materialist analysis of history and society, these revolutionary theories remain trapped within a theological position. [. . . However] while Stirner is often positioned in the anarchist canon as an individualist anarchist, his demolition of the key categories of humanist thought not only goes beyond and indeed radicalizes the terms of anarchist theory itself, but provides us with a way out of the politico-theological trap that we have not yet managed to escape. In unmasking the religiosity and idealism that so much of our political thinking and so many of our political practices remain mired in, and in proposing alternative theoretical strategies, Stirner shows how the politico-theological machine might be derailed.” Stirner would then turn out to be the genuine anti-Schmitt, and by examining his thought we gain greater insight into the operation of the political-theological thesis.

The issue continues with additional commentary on political theory. Jade Schiff compares estimations of civic education for Leo Strauss, Joseph Jacotot, and Jacques Rancière. How can education enable us to resist oppressive regimes? The answers range from cultivating the liberal integrity of the individual to inculcating a revolutionary spirit, with considerable differences implied between those routes. (Similar differences play out today in contemporary discussions of higher education pedagogy, in the context of the new activism and political disciplining. Should students become more thoughtful or more engaged?) Femmy Thewissen follows with a discussion of Claude Lefort’s work, proceeding from the reading of Machiavelli, in order to discuss politicization and depoliticization with regard to governance and the shift from theatrical settings of politics to contemporary network structures.

Three concluding comments direct our attention to contemporary events. I parse Judith Butler’s disparagement of the Parisians’ response to the ISIS attacks in November, another example of intellectual animosity toward “solidaristic communities.” Andreas Pantazopoulos provides an astute account of the populist character of SYRIZA through a review essay of Cas Mudde’s study of the movement. The issue closes with Wayne Hudson’s review of Aryeh Botwinick’s Emmanuel Levinas and the Limits to Ethics, which shows the importance of an ethics “that takes account of the finitude and inconsistencies of human beings.” We are frail indeed, flawed and mortal, and recognizing this human condition provides a useful starting point for political-theological reflection.

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