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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.

A sanguine optimist might hope that a populist president could cut through this civil war and carve out a political center, a sort of American corollary to a German grand coalition, but the chances for that are surely very slim. Working against any productive outcome is also the new culture industry, the politicized media on the right and on the left, that benefits, in terms of ratings and subscriptions, from feeding the frenzy. The parties are perpetual mobilization machines, and the self-promoting commentators of the press, as well as the echo-chamber denizens of social media, amplify the polarization. A politician hardy enough to try to carve out a middle ground will face accusations of treason from the guardians of ideological discipline—indeed, as of this writing, each party accuses the other of treasonous collusion with Russia. Whatever the facts behind the alleged conspiracies, interference in the campaign or the uranium deal, what we are witnessing is a rapid and ongoing escalation of reciprocal hostility, politics as warfare.

Meanwhile, the prospects for international conflict are increasing rapidly. The crisis of the global liberal order is no longer just a matter of trade disputes, European consumers’ picky anxieties about GMOs, or Chinese disregard for copyrights and intellectual property. Threats to the international security system, which has depended centrally on American power, are growing, even as the U.S. will to maintain its historic role has been fraying (a process accelerated by the domestic trivialization of politics against the backdrop of cultural and economic dissatisfactions). China is not only projecting its power in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific but aspires to assert itself across Eurasia, a long-term vision to reduce the scope of U.S. influence. Russia has its own ambitions to retrieve as much of post-Soviet space as possible and is willing to use force to do so. Each of these major powers has a junior corollary—North Korea and Iran—neither of which however is merely a satellite, far from it. Moreover each of them represents proof of the failure of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, another example of the decline of the liberal order and the global peace it promised.

War and Civil War: This issue of Telos turns to conflict as its special theme, as an opportunity to discuss relevant aspects of the political theory tradition and to place them in relation to some current topics. First up is Samuel Zeitlin’s introduction to his translation of two essays on Thomas Hobbes that appeared in Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 1979, commemorating the three hundredth anniversary of the death of this foundational thinker of modern politics. The two authors, Julien Freund and Jacob Taubes, steered away from historic contextualizations of Hobbes’s accomplishments. Instead they chose to focus on the contemporary significance of the Hobbesian legacy. “It may come as no surprise that the aim which Freund ascribes to Hobbes and the politiques in his hermeneutic and historical work is identical to that which Freund ascribes to the political in his own political theory: the prevention of external war and the maintenance of internal concord and prosperity through the avoidance of internecine conflict.” Politics as the maintenance of tranquility against the backdrop of a cosmos predisposed to conflict—such a focus on order raises the specter of the repressive Leviathan that wields power in order to constrain entropy and agonistics. Therefore both paeans to Hobbes simultaneously engage with another political thinker, Carl Schmitt, who had influenced both authors and from whom they sought to keep a distance, or, for example, in Zeitlin’s words, “In his reading practice, Taubes performs a kind of hermeneutic guerilla operation against Schmitt’s view of enmity by deploying Schmitt’s biblical sources in conjunction with Schmitt’s overt view of political enmity as expressed in his political writings against Schmitt’s overt political statements on behalf of National Socialism.” In our own era of political enmity, domestic and international, and the attendant crisis of liberalism, Schmitt as the paradigmatic critic of liberalism continues to cast a long shadow, complicated both by his own biography and the influence he has exercised.

If the liberal world order currently faces threats of war, it is hardly the case that liberalism itself, with its notional advocacy for perpetual peace, has been averse to engaging in military ventures. The warfare of the “democracy agenda” was constitutively liberal, as were the “good wars” of the past, drawing sustenance from the models of just war. Steven Torrente explores an alternative to just war theory, drawing on Jan Patočka’s “solidarity of the shaken.” Patočka’s name points us back to the era of dissidents in Czechoslovakia, to the role of Charta 77 (some of this appeared in Telos), and to his murder at the hands of the Communist police—a crime committed then in the name of an abused anti-fascism currently being recycled as “Antifa” on the American left with little awareness of the historical background. Torrente contrasts Patočka with Arendt, explores his relationship to phenomenology, and connects him to the war descriptions of Teilhard de Chardin and Ernst Jünger. The experience of modern warfare challenged our capacity for meaning and therefore opens up the temptation of nihilism. Instead of an ethics based on Kantian principles and legal structures—standard just war theory—Torrente shows Patočka building an account based on the experience of the world-war front and the potential for solidarity, an ethics for soldiers, not for lawyers. “If solidarity of the shaken is an ethic of war, it is a severe one—not in the sense that it will lead to greater conflict, for nothing could lead to greater conflict than what Patočka described as the ‘forces of the day.’ It is a severe ethic for what it demands of human beings, which is to keep open and unresolved the question of meaning and the predicament of existence. Yet it is much easier to forget or turn away from that predicament, getting lost in [what Patočka named] the ‘gigantic Boredom which cannot be covered up even by the immense ingenuity of modern science and technology which it would be naïve and cynical to underestimate and ignore.’”

Kellan Anfinson returns us to Schmitt, again struggling between the appeal of the theorization and the personal political choices Schmitt made in the Nazi era. “Through Schmitt’s disposition for security over risk, his theory becomes subservient to his personal politics, though it can also be developed in other ways,” and he therefore endeavors to read Schmitt in effect against himself. Building on Michael Marder’s account of Schmitt’s understanding of the event, Anfinson underscores the understanding of politics as a field of conflicting interests—politics as warfare, not consensus—which then leads to a criticism of the parliamentary epistemology. Yet instead of following a Schmittian path to dictatorship, Anfinson derives a prescription for forms of resistance: “Thus we might engage Schmitt’s framework, but critically resist his ethos of security and instead press the law at critical points, pick strategic moments to break it, and risk ourselves for the sake of changing it. Let us sketch what such partisanship might entail. The domains treated by Schmitt—religion, economics, and technology—would now be supplemented with others, such as our relation to the environment, education, and media. . . . Partisanship may have some roots in a critical disposition, a form of desire, or a marginalized social position that when incorporated into and modified by these machines lead to new political configurations. These new configurations may initially have only mild degrees of connection. But they are also politically intense, driven by an existential belief, risky, illegal, engaged in resistance, non-conformist, and operate on a small scale.” In this reading, Schmittian agonistics becomes a formula for micropolitical engagement, but it also lends itself to a description of the increasingly embattled political world around us. From this vantage point, Schmitt does not necessarily serve as a source of authorization or endorsement but as a description of the contemporary repetition of the unresolved Hobbesian war.

Giorgio Agamben’s investigations into the foundations of political power attracted attention as part of the critique of “neo-liberalism” in recent decades, but his readings of the political-theoretical tradition, especially authors such as Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt, have faced significant criticism, including in this journal. In this issue Mikkel Flohr reflects on Agamben’s marginalization of La Boétie, on the surface a likely candidate for Agamben’s analysis but who nonetheless appears to be sidelined. The issue is not the scholarly objection that Agamben overlooked a source but rather that the intratextual treatment of La Boétie undermines the credibility of Agamben’s signature claim to represent the critique of sovereign power. On the contrary, in Flohr’s reading Agamben himself reenacts the logic of sovereignty. “Although Agamben clearly aims to provide a critique of sovereign power, his adherence to the logic of Schmitt’s sovereign exception inevitably reproduces the illusion of sovereign power and thus ends up perpetuating it in precisely the manner La Boétie warned against, severely limiting the critical potential of his analysis.” Yet it is not just a matter of exclusion: Flohr argues that La Boétie remains a vital source to carry out the critical project that Agamben effectively betrays.

The following three articles point out strategic weaknesses in the contemporary American or Western capacity for political thinking. Aaron Zack looks at the Chinese challenge to American hegemony and identifies the structural resistance against developing an American grand strategy. A postmodern culture may be inherently incapable of responding to a real-world threat, relying instead on what, in the former administration, was described as a “strategy-free zone.” In Zack’s words, “the American sovereign is not only decaying in the traditional sense of losing cohesion as the guardian of an actual political community and its strategic interests; it also seeks and finds its greatest satisfactions not in actual grand strategic achievement but rather in proclaiming itself the omnipotent sovereign to its audience, generating images and the appearance of omnipotent sovereignty, and viewing and consuming those images.” Hyeryung Hwang diagnoses a corollary incapacity for engaging with the real world in the contemporary fascination with affect theory. “Ultimately, the current fascination with the idea of affect is a symptom of how the ontologization of politics has become a new academic trend in the humanities and social sciences. . . . Restricting the concepts of representation and meaning to monolithic entities as opposed to ‘lived experience,’ a deadening form of expression, however, leads to a certain myopia with respect to how forms of representation can suggest possible and meaningful ways to mediate our connection with the world.” We are left with the task of finding a “new realism” that would enable us to develop positive engagements with the world. To do so requires an appreciation of the context of lived experience. Yet, as Ryan Holston shows the paradigm of “deliberative democracy” and Habermasian consensus theory are predisposed to occlude the particular character of ways of life: “justification is always grounded in Sittlichkeit, i.e., a particular tradition or ethical life. . . . In other words, the utopian aspiration of appealing to ‘reasons all can accept’ has come with a cost, which is the failure to acknowledge the vital role of a sensus communis for meaningful deliberation.” The aspiration for an effective politics, recognized by a community as legitimate, would require replacing the priority of abstract universalisms with the experiential basis of a life-world: Holston’s goal therefore entails restoring “an appreciation for small-scale communities that exist over time and the need for rootedness among interlocutors.”

Two more essays turn to a literary topic: Rachel S. Harris and I discuss the Anglo-Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef. At stake are questions involving theoretical concepts of the so-called “minor literatures,” national narratives and allegories, and the array of questions around politics and aesthetics. El-Youssef’s writings are distinguished by his ability to scramble established categories and to break though the propagandistic cant that too often accompanies academic discussions of controversial political topics, perhaps especially the Middle East.

This issue of Telos concludes with five contributions to our “Critical Theory of the Contemporary” project: editors and guests turn their attention to current issues, examining them in the light of some of the more theoretical or philosophical perspectives appropriate for this journal. Dovetailing somewhat with the discussion of El-Youssef, Azade Seyhan’s essay examines contemporary Turkish intellectuals and their role in the Erdoğan regime. In too many instances one can speak of a trahison des clercs, a refusal to defend the modernizing legacy of Atatürk and instead a willingness to compromise with Islamist radicalism, a scenario chillingly familiar from the early days of the Iranian Revolution. Kenneth Johnson looks at the political landscape of the United States, the rise of populist anger, and the endemic weaknesses of the left, with reference to the Telos perspective on cultural and social changes. Timothy Luke turns to the controversy around confederate memorials: insisting on the need to face the past of slavery and racism, he asks whether removing the evidence will facilitate the development of a critical memory or only erase it, contributing further to what Russell Jacoby named “social amnesia.” Adrian Pabst discusses the retreat of liberalism and the rise of extremism, on the right and the left, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. If there is a way forward it is not, he argues, in resuscitating liberalism, with its assumptions concerning individual self-interest, but instead in finding a way toward traditions and communities—less Hobbes and Locke, and more Burke. The issue concludes with David Pan, returning to the question of war as the culture war, a symptom of deep divides in campus debates, but by no means only there. He too poses the question of liberalism, with a somewhat different perspective, underscoring how even a liberal order depends less on universal principles than on a foundational political act.

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