TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Terror and Solidarity: Part 2

The first part of this essay was posted yesterday. It concluded with a characterization of the reluctance to criticize terrorism. “Leaden solidarity is this ‘strange emotional mixture’—as Negt called it—that keeps people, who know that terrorist violence is not a viable form of politics, from distancing themselves from terrorism—unambiguously and politically, that is, by rigorous political analysis.”

One would expect both, unambiguous distance and rigorous political analysis, from Chantal Mouffe, one of the most clear-headed and insightful political theorists, who recently published an article entitled “Schmitt’s Vision of a Multipolar World” (South Atlantic Quarterly 104:2, Spring 2003). Mouffe argues that Schmitt’s geopolitical analysis in his Nomos could be usefully applied to contemporary issues. (Schmitt analyzes the nomos, or geopolitical order of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, the law that regulated relations among European states between 1700 and the beginning of World War I. This inter-state law, while guaranteeing the global hegemony of Great Britain, contained war; that is, this international legal order kept wars among European states from escalating into wars of annihilation—until World War I. With World War I this system dissolved.) Mouffe is interested in Schmitt’s solutions to this collapse and what he considered its most dangerous side-effect, the dissolution of the classical state with its specific form of politics.

Mouffe reads Schmitt not merely as competent analyst of this dissolution, but adopts one of his solutions. In 1952, Schmitt argued that the antagonistic struggle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. might end with a new bipolar arrangement; or, and this is Mouffe’s preferred solution, it might lead to “the opening of a dynamics of pluralization, whose outcome could be the establishment of a new global order based on the existence of several autonomous regional blocks” (Mouffe, 249). Mouffe adopts this multipolar model with a few caveats: this new equilibrium would have some semblance to the earlier Nomos, it would have to be truly global, not only Euro-centric, and it would have to avoid the “pseudouniversalism arising from the generalization of one single system” (Mouffe, 250).

It’s obvious where the anti-positivist legal scholar and the post-Marxist theorist of articulated difference overlap. Mouffe’s re-thinking of Schmitt might sound too abstract, too ideal, if not idealist—in my view it’s a good starting point (although she does seem to read Schmitt at times with too little distance). Mouffe also convincingly argues that is plain wrong to understand the Republicans’ friend-enemy distinction as one derived from Schmitt. Schmitt’s aim, she argues, was precisely to overcome this kind of moralistic construction. Schmitt always insisted that this distinction ought to be drawn in a properly political way, not on an economic or ethical basis. Good and evil are indeed no political criteria.

This makes as much sense as does her analysis of the dangers of a unipolar world and her alternative, a multipolar order. Where Mouffe’s article becomes problematic, or, to put it more strongly, where she is wrong, is in her conclusion: Schmitt’s warnings about the dangers of a unipolar world and the post-statist politics that such a world involves, Mouffe argues, help us understand the nature of terrorism. According to Mouffe, terrorism simply is the product of this new unipolar world, the “product of a new configuration of the political characteristic of the type of world order being implemented around the hegemony of a single hyper-power” (Mouffe, 250). The post-statist politics that comes with this unipolar order makes it impossible for antagonisms to find legitimate expression, it robs us of the political arena in which antagonisms can be transformed into agonisms, enemies can be transformed into legitimate adversaries.

I find this conclusion deeply problematic. We are indeed confronted with a situation where traditional nation states are eroding, yet this process has not yet—and perhaps will never—progress to a degree that prevents political organization at the national level. Why then would the existing global hegemonic system close off all venues for the negotiation of antagonisms? Why, to be more specific, would this apply to contemporary Britain? Why would British politics leave terrorism as the only political response to the existing antagonisms? And is that really true for Palestinian suicide bombers? Iraqi insurgents? I find it surprising that Mouffe’s article lacks an analysis of the autonomous political logic of terrorist politics, a surprising shortcoming on the part of a post-Marxist theorist, who has made it her life’s mission to insist on the autonomy of the political.

This is not an argument about apology; I’m not arguing that all attempts to explain terrorism inherently imply an apology of terrorism. And I don’t think that defining terrorism as evil, radical or otherwise, gets us very far. On the contrary, what we need is an analysis that does not derive terrorism from a single logic, does not see it as merely a reaction to an existing system of domination. That’s either sloppy thinking—or the effect of what Negt called a “strange emotional state”: a leaden solidarity this time not with a militant sector of the European Left, but with what is perceived as essentially a nationalist, anti-imperialist movement—regardless of the anti-Semitism that motivates parts of this movement, regardless of the reactionary religious politics that informs much of it. But emotional states really do not have a place in politics—not on the respectable right and especially not on the Left.

However, I would assume that Mouffe’s failure to address the autonomous political logic of terrorist groups has less to do with this leaden solidarity than with the project of radical democracy, its emphasis on the (agonistic) articulation of differences (of class, ethnicity, gender). It is hard to give up this project of preserving differences (as part of a radical anti-hegemonic struggle). But fundamentalisms (of the Christian and the Islamic variety) are putting this project to the test—and with it Mouffe’s alternative to “pseudouniversalism.” Finally, Mouffe’s failure to analyze the religious politics of terrorism might have to do with the European Left’s deafness when it comes to anti-Semitism. There is a history here of blind spots, denials, and all-too-easy accommodations that we cannot afford to lose from view. Distancing ourselves unambiguously from terrorist politics—instead of continuing to grant them some anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist aura—is not an ethical act, but a first step in the analysis of the past and the present.

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