The banality of the camp

On the first day of the year, Newsweek re-published a piece from the conservative Hoover Institution glorifying the war machine of the 1930s. The author bemoaned the fact that “the collective ethos of the World War II generation [what Brokaw dubbed the “greatest generation”] is fading”. On the recent 74th anniversary of D-Day, we were reminded that few living survivors of WWII still exist and that we should honor their memory and sacrifice.

The only way to do so, of course, is to ensure that what happened in the 1930s and 40s never happens again. The latter half of the twentieth century certainly witnessed further economic devastation and genocide. So we ought to ask what exactly it is to which we should say “never again”.

This phrase, which has recently been adopted from its original use by survivors of gun violence in schools, has fallen victim to two contradictory impulses in the collective western conscience. On the one hand, we are told we must never forget the Holocaust (or Columbine or Sandy Hook or Parkland or …) and yet, on the other hand, we repress these memories to the status of a mythology that has reduced the names “Holocaust” and “Hitler” from being rigid to free-floating signifiers: they have become metonymies for simply “evil” or “genocide”. The historical, cultural, material, and ideological conditions that resulted in Auschwitz have contracted to a dimensionless point called “the Holocaust” that happened at some vague place and time (“Germany during World War II”) whose only definiteness is that it is “in the past”.

What has been forgotten is that the Holocaust was not only an event that can be localized to particular sites (i.e., the camps). While Agamben has been criticized for his analysis of the camp that makes it ubiquitous — in his words, the camp is not merely “a historical fact and an anomaly that … [belongs] to the past, but rather in some sense [it is] the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live. … The camp … is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet” — the caricature that, according to this analysis, “everything is a camp” misses the point. The camp is not simply a place. The places that become Konzentrationslager are the physical and material localizations of an ethos or a way of (non-)thinking.

As Agamben reminds us, along with a recent book by the historian Aidan Forth, titled Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876-1903, the modern camp, which first appeared at the end of the nineteenth-century, is the prolongation of the juridical regime of prisons as well as the colonial-imperial regime of managing unwanted populations in the empire. The collaborationist Vichy* government in France, for example, managed their own camps for Jews but also for homosexuals, the Romanis, Spanish refugees, left-wing activists, and other unwanteds or undesirables.

*We today have our own Vichy government dedicated to “national regeneration” and “France alone” (“MAGA”, “America first”), the reversal of the progressive movement of the Third Republic (including hostility to labor unions), an anti-democratic and authoritarian return to “traditional culture”, the repression of dissent, the de-naturalization of foreigners, and of course collaboration with the Nazi genocide.

What made the camps possible was not only the genocidal and sadistic Gestapo. In 1955, the journalist Milton Mayer published a book, titled They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, in which he interviewed ten ordinary German citizens over the course of a year. They referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people”. Among the ten, only one after the war still believed in Nazism as a “democratic” project. “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we [non-Germans] knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it” (emphasis added). When one of the ten men, a baker, was asked why he supported the National Socialists, he said it was because they had promised to solve the unemployment problem “but I never imagined what it would lead to. Nobody did”. But what was it that Nazism led to? “‘War,’ he said. ‘Nobody ever imagined it would lead to war.’” But even after 1939, all then said that their lives

“were lightened and brightened by National Socialism … And they look back on it now — nine of them, certainly — as the best time of their lives; for what are men’s lives? There were jobs and job security, summer camps for the children … What does a mother want to know? She wants to know where her children are … There were horrors, too, but these were advertised nowhere, reached ‘nobody.’ … None of the horrors impinged upon the day-to-day lives of my ten friends or was ever called to their attention [emphasis added]. … The real lives that real people live in a real community have nothing to do with Hitler and Roosevelt or with what Hitler and Roosevelt are doing.”

In a widely-circulated but apparently apocryphal quotation, we are reminded that the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers. In the supposed origin of that quotation, R. v. Keegstra, which upheld the Canadian prohibition of hate propaganda, Chief Justice Dickson noted that it is true that Germany enacted and enforced similar anti-hate speech laws just prior to the rise of Hitler and that “no one is contending that hate propaganda laws can in themselves prevent the tragedy of a Holocaust … The experience of Germany represents an awful nadir in the history of racism, and demonstrates the extent to which flawed and brutal ideas can capture the acceptance of a significant number of people”.

We should also not forget, as James Whitman has recently documented in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, that key components of the Nuremberg Laws were inspired by American** race laws (particularly anti-miscegenation laws). It is not the conscious, cartoonish evil of the supervillain about which we must be vigilant but, rather, the common sense of Joe the Plumber and Mom and Pop down the street who either accept the existence of the camp or who simply don’t care all that much about it because they have work in the morning and children to put to bed.

**We should also not forget that the War Relocation Authority responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans existed for a full year after the surrender of Germany and the liberation of Auschwitz.

Arendt (and others) infamously said of Adolf Eichmann that, in all appearances, he was perfectly ordinary. The Holocaust occurs not because of the trials of Hitler but because of the banality of all the “little Eichmanns” among us.

Advertisements

The seductions of form and the resistance of spirit

1. Almost twenty years before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Smith founded a moral theory on our capacity to sympathize. And yet, at a crucial juncture of the work, he notes that “it is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty”. Ultimately, Smith continues, this disposition leads to the division of society into ranks and the corruption of our moral sentiments: “this disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition [,which is the basis of social rank, is] … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages”. It is only by confusing later utilitarian and game-theoretic psychologies into The Wealth of Nations that we have been perplexed at the avowed continuity of these two works (which, like Aristotle, Smith conceived as systematic).

The perfidiousness of (neo-)liberalism is its empty formalism of will that, like Williams’ critique of utilitarian psychology, reduces experience to calculation (the “sovereign masters” of nature being pleasure and pain, for example) and homo sapiens to homo economicus. The irony of our supposed materialism is that when the role of necessity overtakes virtue, we also surrender the (material) reality of our situations and circumstances to the ideologies of contract and discourse. The abolition of spirit only raises its spectre in the phantom of justice that stands over the courthouse or the harbor, while having abandoned our streets and our homes.

The material chases the form, Aristotle says, as its lover, for it cannot exist without this union. So too the essence of representative government is the agon between the sovereign functions in a sort of inversion of trinitarianism: instead of the union of love between the persons of the trinity (three-in-one), it is the jealousy between the sovereign powers that is supposed to prevent despotism (one-in-three).

While Montesquieu has been recently re-discovered in this context, his analysis of divided government is not his primary message against the threat of despotism. Despotism is neither merely the result of the tyrannic psychology of the despot (as it was, for example, for Plato) nor a degenerate form of government: like the Hobbesian state of war, which exists not only in times of conflict but when there is a perpetual will toward conflict, despotism exists to the extent to which there is a certain spirit, not of fear but of anxiety (as he says explicitly, “a free people is not the one that has this or that form of government, it is one that enjoys the form of government established by Law”). In his Thoughts, Montesquieu observes that “when prosperity is merely external, the evidence of well-being is quite equivocal”.* The fear that is famously the principle of despotic government in The Spirit of the Laws  is not, primarily, fear of the despot but, rather, what we might call a more general anxiety: “as fear is the principle of despotic government, its end is tranquility: but this tranquility cannot be called a peace; no, it is only the silence of those towns which the enemy is ready to invade”.

*He continues in this passage also to say that “for often a prince who has great qualities, but does not have them all, can do great things abroad for a State that he governs very badly”.

Just as Montesquieu warns against mistaking external prosperity for reality, so too he warns against filling a will empty of virtue with admiration of the power that keeps us safe, lest our souls be invaded by that very power.

In contrast to the principle of despotism, Montesquieu observes that in addition to power and law, a “popular state” also requires virtue: “when virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before is become indifferent … The people fall into [misfortune] when those in whom they confide [viz., in the trust of their power], desirous of concealing their own corruption, endeavor to corrupt them [as well]”.

We are corrupted not only in our will but also in our imagination, i.e., not only in our complacency but also in our appeals to our institutions and constitutions, in our procedures and processes, to deliver us from evil.

Elsewhere in the Thoughts, Montesquieu warns us of our present emergency: “it is only by dint of philosophy that a sensible man can support [despotic governments], and by dint of prejudice that a people can bear them. These sorts of governments are self-destructive. Each day brings them into decline, and with them, there is virtually no middle ground between childhood and old age.” For all our quarrels over identity politics (and the public intellectuals who have capitalized on these failures), it is not Nero who now fiddles but those who condemn him as if he were not the logical conclusion of the present “experiment” but an aberration.

2. In his twin critiques of idealism and logocentrism, Klages argues that

the idealist’s own principles render him incapable of distinguishing the world of perceptions from the world of representations. As a result, the idealist must perforce disavow the world of actuality; as a result, that world will always be found to play a miniscule role in the idealist’s system. In fact, the idealist treats the world of perception as if it were a product of spiritual activity [emphasis added], whereas this activity could not raise itself up as the antithetical counterpart to the word of perception unless it had based itself upon a pre-existent substratum of vital events. … As soon as one is convinced that the substance of experienced life is outside the reach of spirit, one is compelled to endorse the conviction that conceptualizing spirit … is a force that, in-itself and for-itself, does not belong to the cosmos. [This is the spirit that he then notes has been unmasked in the modern age as the utilitarian “will to annihilate nature”.]

But it is also the realist that shares this solipsism, only doing unconsciously what the idealist does in self-consciousness. Following Nietzsche, Klages denies that experiences contain actuality, even as they arise from actuality: “whoever regards the objects of thought as actuality, confuses the boundaries that divide the objects with that which has established those boundaries”. Both the idealist and the realist retain for themselves the capacity to judge without being able to admit that their judgments of truth qua judgments falsify the experiences to which they give expression. What is needed, then, is not more understanding but a transformation of the spirit that seeks not the truth of experience but to experience more truly. This is perhaps the postmodern condition: not only that we can no longer “cognitively map” our place in our world (Jameson) but that we do not even know how to experience it.

Hope, negativity, and the temporality of revolutionary consciousnes

1. Deleuze’s innovation was to locate the empirical not in the given but between the psychological and the transcendental. From Bergson, Deleuze rejects the category of possibility, as being not the negation but the shadow of actuality, i.e., the “retrograde movement of the true” that constitutes the true itself, neither in the phenomena (given) nor in the in-itself, but in the actual as the determinate negation of the possible (thus according to classical ontology, the contrary to the real is the impossible). After Time and Free Will, the method of intuition becomes not only reflection on the time of our own lives but the opening of thought to other durations, above and below, across and perhaps even around.

But it is with another empiricism that Deleuze first arrives at the site of genesis:

having situated ourselves in a purely immanent point of view, which makes possible a description whose rule is found in determinable hypotheses and whose model is founded in physics, we ask: how is the subject constituted in the given? The construction of the given makes room for the constitution of the subject. The given is no longer given to a subject; rather, the subject constitutes itself in the given.

Against mathematical constructivism, Humean empiricism takes as the only possible beginning the hypo-thetical contingency of the sensible in the passions (as Deleuze says, “if it is true that association is necessary in order to make all relations in general possible, each particular relation is not in the least explained by association. Circumstance gives the relation its sufficient reason”). Humean empiricism is thus a skepticism, of course, but not one that motivates us to doubt the powers of the mind and to abandon reason to unreason. Hume’s famous dissolution of the substantial self opens thought to the affects that form our capacities and tendencies, whether toward truth or (eo ipso) to destruction.

2. Almost a century after the Great Depression, amidst the decimation of modernity, Geiselberger et al have proposed that we face the Great Regression from the twin threats of globalization and neoliberalism, which have awakened the repressed debt incurred by Enlightenment ideologies that are currently howling in open ressentiment, scapegoating, and sadism (both naked and ironic). Confusion, despair, and desperation drive us either to repeat the same gestures among ourselves or to seek compromise, common ground, and a return to normalcy by swallowing the blue pill. Yet neither should we be seduced by the solipsistic fantasy of the truth that demands nothing more, since there is always something more than the true, just as there is the good beyond being. The politics of resignation, however, remain in the shadows, comforted by the righteousness of common sense (“I’m just being a realist/pragmatist/…” or “in theory, yes, but in practice …”).

The politics of hope, on the other hand, goes beyond (what is given to thinking as) the true. In The Principle of Hope, Bloch distinguished between the expectant emotions, such as hope, and the filled emotions (such as envy and greed). The former open entirely onto a real future. The latter, on the other hand, refer only to an unreal future “in which objectively nothing new happens, [whereas] the expectant emotions essentially imply a real future; in fact that of the Not-Yet, of what has objectively not been there” (emphasis added). Hope is thus antithetical to restoration; hope is revolutionary when it recognizes that the given is not merely broken but also not worth repairing. Hope, Bloch says, is the “expectant counter-emotion against anxiety and fear, [and] is therefore the most human of all mental feelings … it also refers to the furthest and brightest horizon. It suits that appetite in the mind which the subject not only has, but of which, as unfulfilled subject, it essentially consists”. Yet unfulfillment, which intrinsic to each of us (and that constitutes our temporality, as Garrido argues), is also distributed unequally according to our situation. Thus, immediately after the above pronouncement, Bloch says that “out of economically enlightened hunger comes today the decision to abolish all conditions in which man is an oppressed and long-lost being”.

But as we know, those conditions are total, both within and across types: capital is inescapable yet we also cannot abolish class without also race and gender, for example. Thus the consciousness of those conditions must also be radically changed both in its content and its form, or at the level both of the true and its proof. What revolutionary consciousness requires is not only a theory of utopia but also of its temporality. The urgency of suffering makes its greatest demands on the immediate and the conceivable. It is this desperation that underlies Pieper’s criticism of Bloch’s notion of hope as one that, following Marcel, “is nothing if it does not deliver us from death”. If utopia cannot be expected in history, then we must seek its guarantee in another life (Kant, Nietzsche).

3. It is Negri who presented this problem with the greatest clarity:

The individual life of the social worker, his individual search for collectivity, is a tangle of contradictions, of negative conditions, of reified and reifying elements that should be submitted to criticism; and the liberation from which demands the recognition of the collective antagonism, the forming of the antagonism into constitutive instrument, knowing how to reach higher forms of collective corporeality (beyond individuality, beyond the family, towards ever more complex and ever more versatile communities). If individual revolt is the condition of liberation, if the continual crisis of individuality and of inter-individual relations, of sexual, racial, national relations, is the condition of anticipation and project – the negative labor that takes root in a manner that emancipates individuality … nonetheless it is true that that beyond that individualities want here, that new corporeality in which negative labour wants to realize itself, is not yet given.

The fundamental aporia is therefore not between the individual and the collective but, rather, in the distinction itself that presents the mereological contradictions and paradoxes of individuality as such, as one of the effects of the bourgeois construction of temporality in the current discourses of biology, medicine, and science. Thus, as Negri indicates, the site of thought’s struggle is between capitalist/statist and proletarian temporality (Negri explicitly identifies the body of the community as a “temporal territory”). The former defines the domain of the possible, whereas the latter lays bare the reality of suffering. Here thought rises not to the eternal but to the universal in the practical imperatives presented to it by its sympathy to the other – as Negri says, this freedom is one that “knows how to love” – in the rejection of all forms of life that reproduce antagonism, whether in life or in thinking. We shall perhaps not see a better world but only if one can be imagined can it be lived.

Democratic politics at the limit of liberalism

1. Following the Kantian formulation of the idea of moral freedom, after A Theory of Justice, in Rawls’ considerations of the properly political (i.e., non-metaphysical) conception of justice, we are faced with what we might call the fact of pluralism: “the diversity of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away … it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy”. This diversity is both the presupposition and the end of liberal politics. The diversity consists not of antagonisms to be overcome or sublated but as the irreducible multiplicity of forms of human life. This plurality is a fact in a twofold Kantian sense: (1) it is not deduced but given and (2) it is forced upon us as the condition and manifestation of freedom (freedom both demands this plurality and is made possible by it). The domain of the political, according to Rawls, is therefore “distinct from the associational [emphasis added], which is voluntary in ways that the political is not …” given that, in his preferred formulation, we enter the domain of the political at birth and only leave it at death.

Rawls is consistent with the contract tradition (with the possible exception of Locke), even as he takes it to its limit by reducing the ideal of contract into its basic form not as reciprocity but as blind equality. The ideal construction of political equality is, however, only the first half of the twin problems of legitimacy and stability. The latter requires the overlapping consensus of a specifically political conception of justice as an overriding value in cases of conflict. It is precisely because “a political conception of justice [is] regarded not as a consequence of a comprehensive doctrine but as in itself sufficient to express values that normally outweigh whatever other values oppose them …” that the present crises of liberalism have exposed its inability to manage the contradictions of separating the ethical from the political. We only acquire an allegiance to liberal institutions when, over time, the civic institutions of justice “normally counterbalance whatever [other] values may oppose them” because they make possible the background conditions of private life. Liberalism fails, then, in one of two cases: either the collapse of fairness in those institutions or when the virtues of social cooperation – perhaps as a result of the former – are no longer taken to be ultimate.

The normative autonomy of the political, in Rawls’ conception, is abrogated by the inherent ambiguity of the fact of pluralism. On the one hand, “history tells of a plurality of not unreasonable comprehensive doctrines. That these comprehensive doctrines are divergent makes an overlapping consensus necessary”; yet the existence of such diversity is insufficient to account for their reasonableness. Plurality is in the relevant sense not an empirical fact but a fact of reason. An overlapping consensus is not only necessary because of the diversity of comprehensive doctrines but it is only possible because of their divergence. The limitation of Rawls’ analysis is to have taken the divergence of comprehensive doctrines to be one of content but not of form. If the diversity of comprehensive doctrines were merely empirical, then the paradoxes of toleration become inescapable and the libertarian conflict of interpretations erodes both the content and the force of the overlapping consensus necessary to maintain the separation of the political from the ethical; the skeptical epoché is fatal to the possibility of politics. The fundamental fact of reason is not that there are many truths but that the truth of truth is the plurality of its expression.

(Similarly, the limitation of liberalism in general is to have mistaken that to which we owe our allegiance (e.g., civic institutions) with that from which we declare our allegiances; only a bureaucrat can assert with a straight face that we can owe allegiance to an institution.)

The virtue of Rawls’ analysis, on the other hand, is to have recognized that the construction of the political requires not only a commitment to freedom in its negative sense but the existence of a community of shared values (in short, to have recognized the abstractions to which a Lockean account is suspect). The question, however, is in what sense those shared values are taken to be political. Rawls’ insight that politics is non-voluntary is a recognition of the fact that, fundamentally, our existence is not solitary but shared (we neither die alone nor are born alone); in other words, the materiality of our existence implicates us within the flesh and fabric of a world that touches and shelters us. Politics is an expression of this shared (singular-plural, in Nancy’s terms) existence; thus, the processes and expressions of individuation are intrinsically non-political and the reductio of politics to the maintenance of a modus vivendi is the only possible consequence of the ideology of liberal individualism (whose dissolution immediately invites fascism). The fundamental predicament of politics is not that we must merely live with (viz., tolerate) others who have different – and equally reasonable – conceptions of the good; it is that, in Deleuzian terms, nomadic subjects are sundered by divergences and yet belong to the same world: the inconsistencies that must be managed are not between conflicting conceptions of the good but internal to any subjective capacities from which we might find our bearings.

2. Rawlsian constructivism is the site of the familiar tensions of liberalism, which can break in either direction, as the point of the dialectical inversion of the universal and the particular, circumventing the theologico-political problem but at the cost of founding the possibility of democratic politics on the public use of reason. The problem with reason, of course, is not that whatever might pass for it is too narrow but that it is easily susceptible to counterfeit.

In her own criticism of the models of deliberative democracy proposed by Rawls and Habermas, Mouffe observes that

what is really at stake in the allegiance to democratic institutions is the constitution of an ensemble of practices that make the constitution of democratic citizens possible. This is not a matter of rational justification but of availability of democratic forms of individuality and subjectivity. … The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject, which sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects [whether communicative, public, etc.]. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible.

Therefore, Mouffe claims, all rationalist machinations must break against the ontological limit of pluralism as the very condition of possibility for deliberation but at the same time that which undermines the possibility of the necessary consensus to bind the allegiance of democratic subjects to institutions that must simultaneously enable and subordinate them.

Mouffe’s solution embraces the antagonisms constitutive of pluralism through the recognition of adversaries as a “legitimate” enemy, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality”. The agon of politics takes place not discursively but through the formation of power relations that are constitutive of democratic subjects themselves; therefore, “our shared language of politics is entangled with power and needs to be apprehended in terms of hegemonic relations”, i.e., the “point of convergence – or rather mutual collapse – between objectivity and power”. Power striates but it can also be recursive; we can be overpowered but also empowered (freedom from is the uncanny photo negative of freedom to). Antagonism does not erase equality but, rather, presupposes it. Antagonism, however, also only produces equality on the condition that in conflict we aspire to the universal. It is this tension between agonistic desires and the claim to universality that produces the aporetic condition of politics that Balibar has dubbed “equaliberty”. On the one hand, through an Aristotelian elenchos, Balibar argues that the structural coupling of equality and liberty can be demonstrated by mutual subtraction: “if freedom is not equality, then either it is superiority—mastery—or it is subjection and dependence on some power, which is absurd. Thus, correlatively, equality must be thought as the general form of the radical negation of all subjection and mastery, that is, as the liberation of freedom itself from an external or internal power that takes it over and transforms it into its opposite”. On the other hand, the demands for equality and liberty “cannot be enunciated in the same language, in terms of the same discourse”. In particular, Balibar proposes a tetradic structure of mediation between equality and liberty by property and community (fratnerity), where the one easily degrades into liberal individualism and the other into reactionary nationalism. For this reason, “there will be permanent tension between the conditions that historically determine the construction of institutions that conform to the proposition of equaliberty and the excessive, hyperbolic universality of the statement”.

The perennial aporia of democratic politics, then, is not only that the people do not know what they want. As Zizek observes, “the people is still here, but no longer as the mythical sovereign Subject whose will is to be enacted. Hegel was right in his critique of the democratic power of the people: ‘the people’ should be re-conceived as the passive background of the political process—the majority is always and by definition passive, there is no guarantee that it is right, and the most it can do is acknowledge and recognize itself in a project imposed by political agents. As such, the role of the people is ultimately a negative one: ‘free elections’ (or a referendum) serve as a check on the party movements, as an impediment designed to prevent what Badiou calls the brutal and destructive ‘forçage’ (enforcement) of the Truth onto the positive order of Being regulated by opinions”. As Deleuze and Guattari have also observed, one of the primary forms of repressive forces is doxa, of which the (democratic) state is one important expression. As Hobbes so keenly foresaw, a democracy suited to the negotiations of interests is merely a return to the state of nature.

The more fundamental aporia of agonistic politics consists not in the failure of negotiations but in the fact that the indeterminacy of the statement of equaliberty – in its negative universality – is incommensurate with its enunciation or its plural reference indexed to the subjects capable of asserting it. The people both do not but also cannot know what they want. The material consequences of the statement of equaliberty “depend entirely on relations of forces and their evolution within the conjecture, within which it will always be necessary to practically construct individual and collective referents for equaliberty, with more or less prudence and precision, but also audacity and insolence against the established powers”.

The problem with tolerance; or, Liberal Stockholm Syndrome

1. The word “refugee” was introduced into English around 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes – signed by Henry IV in 1598 – and thousands of Protestant Huguenots fled Catholic persecution. Under the doctrine of compelle intrare (Luke 14:23) and the authority of Romans 13:4, the Christian magistrate banished or burned the nonconformists or the heretic at the stake.

Just after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Locke wrote his famous Letter Concerning Toleration that, despite its title, is narrower in scope than anything that, as Goldie observes, western Europe would see for another 175 years. Nevertheless, to his credit, Locke argues that toleration ought to be extended to non-Christians, including pagans, Muslims, Jews, and Native Americans (while, however, denying tolerance for atheists and Catholics (qua antinomians), unlike Bayle, whose position was more expansive). Locke’s position was inconsistent after the Letter but the first argument he advances there would be the foundation for (classical) liberalism since: i.e., the separation of church and state.

Locke, however, remained an evangelist, merely arguing that the state was not the appropriate instrument for that mission (and, moreover, that coerced conversion was ineffective). Locke did not concede any epistemic ambivalence about a “true faith” but, rather, advanced a more or less pragmatic argument that peaceful evangelism was preferable to torture and coercion.

1a. Modern liberalism, particularly of those varieties predicated on the admission of epistemic humility, on the other hand, is not only wider than Locke’s but suffers from two unresolved inner contradictions. First, given the conflation of toleration with (the fact of) plurality, we must resolve the paradox of intolerance, i.e., to answer the accusation that intolerance of intolerance is contradictory. Yet that is not the real contradiction, since the paradox is only apparent. Locke’s solution to the paradox is the reason he did not extend his argument to Catholics (and also the reason Hobbes writes the last two books of the Leviathan): if one believes that there is a higher authority than the state – such that religious moral authority trumps that of the state, whose function is to preserve the peace – then the very grounds for community are eroded by those who refuse to accept the norms of reciprocal equality. Those who reject the détente of civil society can have no place in it. For Locke, then, the principle of liberal toleration is not that “all creeds are equally valid” but, rather, “we must co-exist”. Thus there is no paradox of intolerance (or, in other words, no contradiction in the failure to tolerate the intolerance of tolerance). To those who wish the destruction of civil society – particularly through a denial of its fundamental egalitarianism – we owe no quarter.

Modern liberalism, however, has decoupled truth from pluralism. Locke’s evangelism did not require that we disavow the truth of our position but, rather, that we seek conversion by peaceful means rather than violent. Rational discourse, for example, is not merely a game of Show and Tell but a shared endeavor toward truth. The contradiction of modern liberalism is the simultaneous commitment to the denial of truth – since “no one has it” – and an insistence on toleration for the expression of any opinion for no purpose other than its expression (thus leading to the paradox of intolerance).

“I look on bad conscience as a serious illness to which man was forced to succumb by the pressure of the most fundamental of all changes which he has experienced, – that change whereby he finally found himself imprisoned within the confines of society and peace” (Nietzsche).

2. The bad conscience of modern liberalism has produced this second inner contradiction: that it entertains and invites not only their enemies but also their sympathizers to the table from the guilt of “understanding”. But even the noble Socrates observes that, as the “midwife” that assists others to gain knowledge,

I, with God’s help, [deliver] them of this offspring [i.e., wisdom]. And a proof of this may be seen in the many cases where people who did not realize this fact took all the credit to themselves and thought that I was no good. They have then proceeded to leave me sooner than they should, either of their own accord or through the influence of others. And after they have gone away from me they have resorted to harmful company, with the result that what remained with them has miscarried; while they have neglected the children I helped them to bring forth, and lost them, because they set more value upon lies and phantoms than upon the truth; finally they have been set down for ignorant fools, both by themselves and by everybody else. … Sometimes they come back, wanting my company again, and ready to move heaven and earth to get it. When that happens, in some cases the divine sign that visits me forbids me to associate with them …” (Theaetetus 150e – 151a; emphasis added)

But it is not only the fascists and the agents of civil destruction that ought not to be legitimated by discourse and “understanding” but those who are unable to recognize them because they have been corrupted by a self-fulfilling illusion of rational conviction masquerading as an open mind that can nevertheless admit of no truth that has not already been decided. Stupidity and error are corrigible but self-hating misology is not. If virtue only exists “as a gift from the gods” (Meno 100b), we can only pray that it is not too late for more of us to learn.

3. Resistance, however, is always too late. The need for resistance indicates that the tools which would have made it unnecessary will ipso facto be useless for it. Resistance requires not rationality but strength, as well as the courage to recognize the misplaced guilt of toleration for the guilt of responsibility. We are all guilty, Dostoevsky says, and “understand that you yourself are guilty, for you might have been a light to evil-doers … and were not a light. If you had been a light, by your light you would have illumined the path for others, too, and the person who did evil might not have done so in the presence of your light” (BK 14:291-2). Light, however, does not show the darkness but banishes it.

The crowd and the count

The suicide of Allende on 11 September 1973 during the U.S.-backed coup marked the end not only of democracy in Chile for almost two decades but the defeat of a people who did not realize until it was too late that they had never really been united. A people united will never be defeated, Ortega proclaims. Yet the perversity of the democratic state is that it does everything in its power to fight the unity of a people, despite the contradictions, which can no longer be disguised, between its form and the expression of a popular will. The fundamental problem of democracy is not that the state should fail to serve the popular will but, rather, that in its absence the state becomes its surrogate in representation.

Sartre once called elections a “trap for fools”. Contrary to the ideology of liberalism, voting is a fundamentally anti-democratic act precisely to the extent that the extant electoral procedures and mechanisms preserve the contradiction between the equality of every vote (“one person, one vote”) and the fact that not every vote is counted. The only solution to the antinomy between democracy – according to which, in principle, every vote is counted-as-one – and capitalism – according to which a vote is a measure of one’s power – is to reject both options as strict contraries: every democratic institution is, as Rancière argues, predicated on an ineradicable wrong (tort) that cannot be corrected by the proper procedures (e.g., we just need re-districting or better controls) because it is the act of voting itself that produces the “miscount” and, thus, the illusion of a popular will that could be expressed by a numerical tally “for” or “against”. The problem, in short, is not how to count the votes “fairly” but the operation of the count itself.

“[E]verything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. Ostensibly, the elected Assembly is the one which reflects public opinion most faithfully. But there is only one sort of public opinion, and it is serial. The imbecility of the mass media, the government pronouncements, the biased or incomplete reporting in the newspapers – all this comes to seek us out in our serial solitude and load us down with wooden ideas, formed out of what we think others will think. … So when we are called to vote, I, the Other, have my head stuffed with petrified ideas which the press or television has piled up there. They are serial ideas which are expressed through my vote, but they are not my ideas. The institutions of bourgeois democracy have split me apart: there is me and there are all the Others they tell me I am (a Frenchman, a soldier, a worker, a taxpayer, a citizen, and so on).” (Sartre)

In the face of the present plutocracy, we are no longer deluded by the ideology of liberalism, which has resulted in the present legitimation crisis: “… serial thinking is born in me, thinking which is not my own thinking but that of the Other which I am and also that of all the Others. It must be called the thinking of powerlessness, because I produce it to the degree that I am Other, an enemy of myself and of the Others, and to the degree that I carry the Other everywhere with me” (Sartre). The complaint that the state no longer “represents me” has not taken the necessary step: we are promised a supposed solution (in the form of “adequate representation”) that is exactly the problem that needs to be overcome. Democracy requires not the representation but the expression of a popular will, i.e., the will of a people.

The reduction of the political subject to the economic (or, in Sartre’s terms, the practico-inert) seems now to be total. There is neither a people nor even the hope for one.

Dean has recently argued that the necessary intermediary for a people-to-come is the party, which “operates as the support for the subject of communism [or we might simply say, of politics] by holding open the gap between the people and their setting in capitalism. The more the gap appears, the more the need for and perhaps even sense of a party impresses itself. This gap isn’t a void. It’s a knot of processes that organize the persistence of the unrealized in a set of structural effects: ideal ego, ego ideal, superego, subject supposed to know and believe – the party as the Other space. … [It is] a rupture within the people dividing them from the givenness of their setting, a rupture that is an effect of their collectivity, the way their belonging works back upon them”. The party manages the affective antagonisms – between us as well as between us and the objective conditions in which we live – that are otherwise either serialized and abstracted into the liberal citizen or mobilized by identity politics to maintain the necessity of the former. The party is the site where politics happens as the embodied, material body of the collective (what Hobbes had thought the sovereign could be) that can pass through the state without constituting it. Thus the only democratic politics that can resist the temptations of fascism is disruptive of the state and its power by the voice of a people united, without which there is only the crowd and its frenzy.

Notes toward a manifesto for philosophy in the 21st century

1. Philosophy today is divided between two contrary – and both false – commitments: (1) to the insistence that there are “enduring questions” of human life and (2) that there should be “progress” in philosophical discovery (the paradigm for such progress, of course, being the natural sciences). On the one hand, the formulation of any such “enduring questions” is necessarily either (onto)theological or nihilistic; on the other, we have only confused (mostly linear) models of progress. The illusion of “enduring questions” consists in the fact that philosophical questions repeat and we mistake repetition for sameness. The demand for progress is often confused with the demand for “answers” to these “enduring questions” of humanity.

2. Art, Langer claims, is not merely the expression of feeling but of the idea of feeling. “The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes, not something he finds. It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction. To produce and sustain the essential illusion, set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality, and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living, is the artist’s task.” A few pages later, when discussing the visual space of a painting, she observes that “pictorial space is not only organized by means of color … it is created; without the organizing [Kantian] shapes it is simply not there. Like the space ‘behind’ the surface of a mirror, it is what the physicists call ‘virtual space’ – an intangible image. … Being only visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which we live …”. The autonomy of painting consists, then, not in the fact that the painting is not a tool and thus excluded from the motive space of action; rather, the painting exists as independent (virtual) reality that is not merely derivative or reducible to the material or the sensuous.

2a. Similarly, philosophy is the expression of the idea of an idea or, more precisely, the formal constellation of ideas. Both Spinoza and Husserl, in their own ways, insisted on the emergence of ideas from affectivity. Thought is a sort of bending or folding of affect, which forms both its ground and its effect. Philosophy responds to the emergency of thought in a double sense. (1) Thinking emerges from transcendental, formal, and political conditions for which philosophy must not only account but create (Fichte contra Kant) and atone (Benjamin). (2) We must ask not only what “calls for” thinking but what demands cannot be ignored or unheard.

3. Previous centuries have had their own figures of philosophy: the peripatetic, the cynic, the statesman, the monk, the courtier, the German professor, the writer. The figure of the philosopher in the twenty-first century is the dissident.

3a. Philosophy must refuse the temptations of “relevance” for, if successful in the endeavor, would merely affirm the status quo. The primary task of contemporary philosophy is not to be “relevant” to our lives but, rather, to give expression to the distortions and abjections that make these lives possible, impossible, plastic, beautiful, and diminished. To that end, the paradigmatic objects of the philosophical gaze must no longer be tables and lamps but states and dollars.

4. In a surprising remark at the end of his reflections of the status of political philosophy in the analytic tradition, Williams asserts that “in its insistence, at its best, on the values of unambiguous statement and recognizable argument … its patience … its willingness to meet with the formal and natural sciences … in all this, and despite its many and often catalogued limitations, it remains the only real philosophy there is”. Among his observations of analytic philosophy’s fraught relationship with value theory and often its explicit Balkanization, Williams redeems the impurity of political philosophy in the sense that even within the terms that settled the collapse of the fact/value distinction, any analysis of meaning (à la Davidson, for example) must be determined by empirical constraints at the risk of being “indeterminate and pointless” (Williams specifically accuses Wittgensteinian philosophy for its rejection of the latter requirement). But in this sense, philosophy is not only impure but normative (perhaps even in the ancient sense) because it is itself an expression of a shared life. In this sense, then, philosophy is innately political, not because speech forms the common basis for both, but because sympathy is among its fundamental affective conditions.

4a. Just as Langer famously proposed to think of a philosophy in a “new key”, the genres of philosophy are related like musical modes. What in the same essay Williams called the “systematic demands” of philosophy is not merely the need to “apply” fundamental philosophical concepts to politics but to hear the political in the ontological, the ethical in the logical, and the beautiful in the transcendental.

4b. Philosophy need not choose to be political; the choice to be apolitical is not only a performative contradiction but a surrender to sophistry. But the normativity of philosophical thought is not the same as a “plan of action” (in the same way that a painting is not merely a duplication of the real, a philosophical idea, e.g., of justice, remains virtual). Philosophy constructs the possibility of a life worthy of love, for which we must fight.