"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for October 2018

Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  


Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Trolling Higher Education

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There’s an article in the Atlantic Monthly called “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia” which is making a stir, and I want to take a moment to respond to it. Three scholars wrote a series of fake jargony papers and submitted them to various gender theory publications to prove how intellectually bankrupt they are, and to illustrate that the underlying disciplines are likewise baseless and stupid.

Yascha Mounk, the author of the Atlantic Monthly piece, is strongly in support of their project and compares it to an earlier stunt by Alan Sokal, who got a piece accepted in the journal Social Text which included statements such as:

Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity.’ It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.

Mounk does not cite a similar project by three MIT students, who used an AI to generate gobbledegook papers for submission to a for-profit conference on “Informatics.” Presumably what he approves of here is not the criticism of academic resources with lax standards, but the attack on gender theory, which is a frequent whipping boy for self-styled rationalists who deride the putative relativism of the humanities, while generally lacking even a rudimentary acquaintance of what they’re dismissing.

There is a word for what our scholars did: trolling. Like all trolls, their project was successful largely because they exploited a key feature of public discourse: the presumption of good faith.

Have you ever seen Ali G or Borat, and asked yourself how people could be so stupid as to go along with the crazy premises he puts forth? The answer is they’re not (always or merely) stupid, they are operating under the substantial pressure exerted by the presumption of good faith, and the attempt to act accordingly deforms their interactions. This is a function of how communication works.

People are not taken in by trolls simply because they’re stupid or because the systems they represent are uncritical. Civil discourse presupposes that all parties are representing themselves honestly. That is why trolling has a systematic advantage in humiliating the opponent. It is a dishonest and misleading form of critique, and it highlights nothing so much as the arrogance and contempt of its practitioners.

We cannot create a society in which we all must ask ourselves at all times if the other party in a transaction or debate is simply trying to make us look stupid. That would be a hateful degradation of the entire enterprise of higher learning, and an incredible waste of time.

But there are more important reasons to reject this project.

I have a friend who is a professor of medieval French literature, who wrote a meticulously-documented dissertation on gender and sexual identity construction in the Romance of the Rose, and he at times used the specialized terminology of his discipline, which, like many forms of technical discourse, can appear to the non-specialist as nonsense.

Why did he do that work, and why did he employ those conceptual tools? Because in the last few decades we are seeing, literally for the first time in human history, an opportunity to methodically and analytically reflect on the social construction of gender identity, and the way these identities are often constructed through a collective process of ideology formation. These processes are not value-neutral, but reflect the implicit or explicit presumption of the superiority and dominance of male heterosexuals. What we call gender deconstruction is nothing more than a specialized analysis of the process by which this identity formation occurs, with a goal to freeing individuals from having their identities determined for them, in advance, as lesser, from without.

I would note that this is largely what Sokal’s putatively “gibberish” quote above says, and say that I would actually more or less agree with it. Whether or not you believe that the construction of reality by the individual merely reaches the level of social values or touches our fundamental sense of what reality is in itself, well, you can disagree, but it is not a stupid claim, and it has had important support not just in philosophy but in the sciences

The development of gender theory as a discipline is exactly contemporaneous with an unprecedented movement toward political acceptance of non-normative gender and sexual identities, and this is not a coincidence. I will not assert a causal relationship, but I will say with certainty that they are part of a common historical moment.

So what I want to emphasize is this – we’re talking about communities that have literally had no voice ever in the European tradition, and they don’t need this shit. They need space to think through some of these problems and develop their own language and conceptual vocabulary without self-styled guardians of the Western Enlightenment, which has been so goddamned enlightened for most of its history with respect to, say, gays and lesbians, holding them up for ridicule. 

Update Oct 16: This month, Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary became the first EU country to bar universities from issuing degrees in a specific subject: gender studies.

Written by Mesocosm

October 8, 2018 at 1:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized