Saturday, April 03, 2004

TOOTING MY OWN HORN: There are times when I try to deceive myself and pretend that (my) blogging is anything other than sheer vanity masquerading as intellectual and political engagement. And then there are times when I have to surrender the pretense.
I do so now, by calling attention to this, the only thing I've written to be published in a mass-circulation publication. It's not too bad, I think, despite an error introduced by the (generally careful and hard-working) editorial staff (it should be Lady Margaret Hall, not St Margaret Hall); more importantly, it tells the story, all too briefly and clumsily, of a really remarkable woman who deserves attention.

Friday, April 02, 2004

AND SPEAKING OF PRO-NAZI PHILOSOPHERS ... After all the unconvincing (and often under-informed) talk of the Bush Administration as inspired by, or a pawn of, Leo Strauss and his cabal of acolytes, it's nice to find a serious, well-informed and convincing article relating current US politics to political philosophy. In this case, Alan Wolfe looks at the anti-liberal German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt -- who was the Nazi's leading theorist of jurisprudence, and an unrepentant anti-semite -- not as a direct influence on the Bushies (most of those who explicitly and consciously appeal to Schmitt these days are either Leftist political theorists, or Rightist political theorists associated not with the neo-cons who are credited with influencing Bush's foreign policy, but with the 'paleo-cons' who oppose that foreign policy in favour of isolationism and a more simplistic and defensive nationalism; but more on this in a moment), but as someone whose ideas provide insight into the Administration and its outlook.
Wolfe's article starts out, though -- and in this it perhaps reflects its place of publication, the Chronicle of Higher Education -- with a consideration of Schmitt's current position in the academy. This is in itself an intriguing, because puzzling, story. It seems, at first glance, pretty bizarre that many far-left political theorists -- understandably, and probably admirably and rightly, looking for new theoretical resources and insights in the wake of the shipwreck of Marxism as a practical political system and emancipatory cause -- should embrace not just a Nazi, but a pretty explicit and unrepentant one (Heidegger, too, has of course had a profound impact on left-leaning theorists; but Heidegger's philosophy can be at least arguably divorced from his political follies. The same can be argued in the case of Paul de Man, though, again, there is a counter-argument as well. But Schmitt presents a more difficult case for defense, since he's an explicitly political thinker, and one between whose political theory and political allegiances and practice there is a pretty clear and strong link). The popularity of Schmitt on the European, and to some extent American, far right is less perplexing, and less interesting, to me at least. My own inclination, possibly unjust, is to regard Schmitt's right-wing admirers as fairly clearly neo-fascist. Such people are sufficiently far outside the mainstream, both academic and political, in both the US and Europe, as to make engagement with them less than urgent at this point (though it is probably wise to prepare oneself for the grim prospect of a resurgence on their part). The case of the Left Schmittians seems more interesting to me, both because it is surprising, and because, at least in the academy, such people constitute a more significant (if still far from mainstream) force. So it's worth pausing a moment to consider them.
Why would progressive, Left-wing people, however extreme, embrace Schmitt? And why would they embrace Schmitt rather than another thinker who might serve a similar purpose, without the Nazi baggage? Wolfe notes that Schmitt provides a critique of liberalism which is attractive to those who haven't overcome their allegiance to the 'authoritarian strain in Marxism' represented by Lenin, Gramsci, etc. -- those who actually want something tougher, indeed more brutal and shocking, than less revolutionary and authoritarian Marxist theorists (never mind liberalism, which is completely out of the running). This is I think fair so far as it goes; Schmitt's admirers do seem driven by a deep-seated hostility to liberalism; they embrace the fierce critic of (in Schmitt's term) 'political Romanticism' because they are themselves political romantics -- they have succumbed to the political romance of violence, the longing (tp adapt the title of Bernard Yack's excellent book) for total revolution.
Still, the question remains: why Schmitt? Why not, say, Sorel, who was also a powerful critic of liberalism, democracy, and political moderation, and who was all over the map politically -- ricocheting from anarcho-syndicalism to fascism to Bolshevism -- and whose spirit seems to me rather closer to the anti-globalist, new-New Left, than Schmitt?
There are a number of purely intellectual explanations for this. For many, Schmitt is just a more interesting, compelling, sophisticated thinker than others who argue for similar conclusions. I think that this is probably one reason -- I'd like to think the primary and main reason -- for Schmitt's appeal; but I do have a couple of speculations about additional motivations. One is that Schmitt has the advantage of novelty and foreigness. There is something instantly arresting and captivating in encountering a thinker who, coming from a radically different position, articulates ideas and perceptions that one shares (and perhaps only realises that one shares after one's been exposed to that thinker). Schmitt's fascination for certain Leftists is that he at once their arch-enemy, and their semblable. The other explanation is that to appeal to earlier Leftist theorists who share Schmitt's anti-liberalism and authoritarianism is to appeal to thinkers who supported, or in some cases were directly responsible for, Communist regimes, and thus Communist crimes. Invocation of such thinkers thus involves invocation of the great moral and intellectual failures, betrayals, illusions, and indeed pathologies, of the far Left in the 20th century. But to invoke Schmitt is to invoke the crimes of Nazism -- something which Leftists feel doesn't implicate them at all; indeed, is not anti-fascism one of the great glories of the history of the Left? (Let us forget for the moment the way in which the German Communists in effect helped Hitler seize power by rejecting cooperation with the Social Democrats and liberals, and the Hitler-Stalin pact; enough apologists for Communism certainly do). It may be (and this is not I think a conscious move on the part of the Left Schmittians) that embracing Schmitt provides certain theorists with a way of having their anti-liberal cake, and eating it too.
However, probably the most interesting and, to me, novel aspect of Wolfe's article is the connection it makes between Schmitt and the contemporary American Right. Wolfe claims that 'Schmitt's way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie. In particular, his analysis helps explain the ways in which conservatives attack liberals and liberals, often reluctantly, defend themselves.' Wolfe locates the crux of Schmitt's political message, and his prescience, in his argument that politics is dominated by the irreducible distinction between friend and enemy. Politics is about antagonism -- an intense and extreme antagonism that allows for no compromise. (This is the opposite of the liberal or moderate view that politics, ideally, is all about compromise and at least partial reconciliation).
Wolfe sees a reflection of this uncompromising friend/enemy distinction in the work of contemporary conservative pundits such as Anne Coulter (whose temperamental, as opposed to ideological, fascism should be pretty plain for the eye to see). Wolfe, himself a liberal, also seems to accept Schmitt's argument that liberals will never be able to respond to such attacks in kind, because of their optimistic view of human nature, their suspicion of power, their aversion to conflict and brutality and extremism. Liberals are too nice to be political; politics is for the tough, while they(we)'re wimps.
A further element of Schmitt's outlook is what one might call its groupiness. Schmitt was opposed both to individualism, and to universalism. Individual lives and rights and well-being matters less than the outcome of the all important conflicts; while the very idea of 'the interests of humanity' is politically void, because, as Schmitt observes, humanity cannot wage war because it has no enemies. But politics is all about war -- war between competing, opposed groups. Liberals and conservatives are two such opposed groups, between whom compromise and mutual understanding is impossible, because they see politics in completely different ways; and conservatives, argues the conservative Schmitt, are simply right, while liberals are simply, totally, and incurably, wrong.
Wolfe's exposition of Schmitt's views, while brief, is quite good; and the connection he draws between this analysis and the contemporary behaviour and political fortunes of liberals and conservatives in the US is in many ways compelling. Still, I wonder if he doesn't go too far in accepting a Schmittian analysis, and portraying liberals and conservatives as more absolutely and simply opposed and different than they in fact are. It seems to me that Wolfe, like many political theorists (which by training he's not -- he's a sociologist [CORRECTION: Actually, Wolfe was trained as a political scientist, and currently teaches in a poli sci department, though for much of his career he's held positions in sociology departments), has a tendency to essentialise ideas -- to assign responsibility to abstractions, to forget that labels are no more than labels. People do not act or think in certain ways because they are liberals or conservatives -- or, rather, because there is some essence of liberalism or conservatism, which is within them. Rather, each individual is a compound of various beliefs and proclivities, and we use terms like 'liberal' and 'conservative' to characterise certain of these.
Put in a less highfalutin way, temperament and ideology are different things, and for most people neither is simple. There are a number of conservatives who don't conform to Wolfe's Schimittian paradigm of conservatives (though these days the most visible ones certainly seem to do so), and there are even some liberals who don't fall into Schmitt's portrait of liberalism.
Even if we do treat liberalism and conservatism as ideal types, I'm not sure that Wolfe's characterisation quite captures the essences of these complex beasts. Is it simply true that 'Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water's edge; for conservatives, politics never stops'? This doesn't seem to me to characterise a good many conservatives (and it also seems incomplete to me in not factoring in leftists). Indeed, Wolfe's model of conservatism -- essentially, a manichaen (in the vernacular sense of that word) view in which there are only two sides, only two possible positions, and you're either with us or against us -- seems to me as, if not more, characteristic of radicals as of conservatives (of course, the Bush Administration manages to be both radical and conservative). There is, from Hume and Burke on (actually, no: from Aristotle on) a tradition of conservative thought that prizes moderation (a tradition represented recently by such varied thinkers as Michael Oakeshott, Raymond Aron, and -- yes -- Leo Strauss, all of whom have far more cachet among right-leaning political theorists in the American academy than Schmitt does at present).
Still, these are quibbles with a good article, which provides a fair introduction to a fascinating and troubling thinker, as well as offering an illuminating statement of the import of the current political conflicts in the U.S. between, basically, a moderate libealism and a radical conservatism over whether, in Wolfe's eloquent words, 'whether we will treat pluralism as good, disagreement as virtuous, politics as rule bound, fairness as possible, opposition as necessary, and government as limited.'
UPDATE: Russell Arben Fox has a very good, thoughtful critique of Wolfe's article, which is well worth looking at. There's also a posting on it at Crooked Timber, with a sometimes interesting, sometimes intemperate, discussion going on in response.

Sometimes the truth is no stranger, but as strange, as satire (sometimes it's stranger; but that's another story). In a post a few weeks back (on Thurs March 11, to be exact) I speculated on the possibility of political theory taking the theatre world by storm, and suggested, among other possible smash hits, the seering drama of 'Hannah and Martin: A Love Story' (taking my cue from Simon Blackburn's mean-spirited and amusing review of the Arendt-Heidgegger letters in TNR).
Now I read a review in the NY Times of a play at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater called -- Hannah and Martin.
The play further sounds, from the review, very much like what I'd envisaged when I first thought of the idea in jest (which is not to say that the play sounds comical, either intentionally or unintentionally; indeed, it sounds pretty good, and I'm curious to see it).
All of which leaves me feeling very peculiar indeed.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

TERRORISM: As the 'war on terror' continues on its bloody way -- and particularly in light of Israel's recent assasination of the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin -- it is interesting to read the following thoughts on terrorism. The words come from a speech by Chaim Weizmann to the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in 1946, but seem to have been the work of Isaiah Berlin, who advised Weizmann on his speech expanded and strengthened Weizmann's initial warning against terrorism.
(This blog seems to be in danger of becoming an all Isaiah Berlin, all the time, venture -- which is probably not a bad thing for me, given that I'm supposed to be writing about Berlin full-time, but may not be the most thrilling for readers)
Weizmann had written 'Terrorism insults our history; it mocks the ideals for which a Jewish society must stand; it contaminates our banner; it compromises our appeal to the world’s liberal conscience'. To this Berlin added:
'It is futile to invoke the national struggles of other nations as examples for ourselves. Not only are the circumstances different, but our purposes, too, are unique. Each people must apply its own standards to its conduct, and we are left with the task of weighing our actions in the scales of the Jewish spirit. Nor must our judgement be dazzled by the glare of self-conscious heroism. Massada, for all its heroism, was a disaster in our history. It is not our purpose or our right to plunge to destruction in order to bequeath a legend of martyrdom to posterity. Zionism was to mark the end of our glorious deaths and the beginning of a new path leading to life. Against the ‘heroics’ of suicidal violence I urge the courage of endurance, the heroism of superhuman restraint. I admit that it requires stronger character, more virile nerves, than are needed for acts of violence. Whether they can rise to that genuine courage, above the moral cowardice of terrorism, is the challenge which history issues to our youth.'
(The quote appears in an article by Henry Hardy (disclosure: my Oxford supervisor), ‘A Deep Understanding’, in the Jewish Chronicle, 26 March 2004, 35–6, and can also be found at the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?