My question is very simple, but the answer is far from self-evident: how do we begin to grasp the political situation in which we find ourselves? It is politics that I would like to talk about, or more precisely the logic of the political; more precisely still, my concern is the logic of the political as it is deployed by the Bush administration in the USA. The concept that I want to advance in order to get a grip on that logic, a concept that I hope has some explanatory power, is what I call ‘crypto-Schmittianism’, which I will explain presently. Allow me one prefatory word. I have only been living in New York and at the heart of Empire for the past 20 months or so, and my perspective on the US is that of an outsider or a resident alien, as we are called, and at times a rather bewildered alien.
Let’s begin by asking: what exactly happened in the American Presidential elections last year? Or rather, how did Bush win? Well, I think part of the story is that certain people in the Bush administration have got a clear, robust and powerful understanding of the nature of the political. They have read their Machiavelli, their Hobbes, their Leo Strauss and misread their Nietzsche. They understand the more or less noble lies that need to be told in order to secure and keep hold of political power. In their hands, some of the most precious words we have – democracy, rights, human dignity and most of all freedom – have been twisted and debased into ignoble lies that are told in order to maintain political power.
But, worse still, certain people in the Bush administration have read their Carl Schmitt. They understand that politics (and this might serve as a definition) is a sphere of activity that acts through force, generally founded on law – but not always, not in a time of emergency or a state of exception when the sovereign is he who makes the law as was the case in Guantanamo. The political is a sphere of activity which is concerned with the external security and the internal order of a political unit, what we usually call a state, whether local, national or imperial. Furthermore, the political is that activity that assures the internal order of a political unit like the imperial state through the more or less fantastic threat of an enemy. The political is about the construction of an enemy in order to maintain the unity of the citizenry. That is to say, the unity of the citizens, in this case Americans, is constituted through the relation to an enemy. Post-9/11, that is, post-Cold War and the disappearance of the communist enemy, this role has obviously been taken over by what is called international terrorism: Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, or whatever fantasy fusion of these beings was melded in the minds of the electorate, or more recently by shadowy figures like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There is a double fantasy going on here: the fantasy of the enemy and the fantasy of the homeland. Furthermore, it is through the fantasy of the enemy that the fantasy of the homeland is constituted.
Politics has arguably always been conducted at the level of fantasy, the image and spectacle, but it is particularly egregious at the present time. Indeed, what unites the Bush Administration and Al Qaeda is their obsession with the spectacle, a painful love affair with the image, both the image of empire’s spectacular defeat on that sunny September morning four years ago, and the attempt to respond to that defeat with the image of ‘shock and awe’ in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (I will come back to the theme of awe); both the carefully controlled and choreographed video appearances of Osama bin Laden sitting cross-legged in a cave and speaking softly with an AK 47 propped up behind him, or ‘W’ strutting and smiling in combat fatigues on an aircraft carrier to declare the end of hostilities.
Politics is more than ever concerned with the spectacle and the control of the image, which is what makes the Situationism of Guy Debord more relevant than ever as a diagnostic tool in political analysis. Yet, there is a contradiction to the present situation, namely that it is characterized by an utter pervasiveness of the spectacle, yet what that spectacle reveals is a social process that is hollow to the core, where the reality it offers its subjects is that of Reality T.V. Paradoxically, this obsession with the image is never truer than in conditions of seeming invisibility. I was back home in London for the bombings of 7th July, which were on the subway system and therefore invisible to the naked eye as I walked into Central London on that bright and lovely summer morning. But 7/7, as it is unfortunately being called, is all about the control of visibility, whether the images taken on cell phones from people trapped on trains, which were graphic and terrifying in their grainy poor quality, or the images of terrorist suspects, one wearing a New York hooded top, that were captured by the surveillance cameras that survey almost every inch of London (if one travels from one side of London to the other, it is estimated that one is photographed by surveillance cameras between twenty and thirty times).
To fail to understand the politics of fantasy is to have no way of understanding why citizens in Florida feel more threatened by terrorism than citizens of New York City where 9/11 really happened. The Democratic Party in the US, and this is perhaps the kindest thing one can say about it, has an impoverished understanding of the spectacular politics of fantasy and still charmingly imagines that if you present people with the facts, with the truth, then they will be won over. Oh! The poor innocent babes, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man might have quipped.
Let’s be clear what I am saying: to understand the political is to understand that order and security (and the two terms have become systematically blurred: order is security, security of the fantasy of the homeland from the fantasy of the enemy through the control of the conditions of the spectacle) are maintained through the opposition to an enemy, an enemy at once real and fantastical, a sort of shadowy imago that can strike at the heart of the place you call home at any and every moment. That is to say, politics is essentially about the management of fear, an economy of fear, continually adjusting the level of fear to produce the right level of affect in the citizenry. I’m thinking of economy in Freud’s sense here, as the regulation of the right distribution of energy, of affective flow, in the psycho-political organism. It seems to me that there is a desperate need at the present time for the development of a discipline that we might call ‘political psychology’ or ‘political psychoanalysis’.
Once again, this idea of politics as the management of fear is nothing new; just think of Spinoza’s cautionary words about fear, superstition and the boundless credulity of human beings in times of crisis at the beginning of the Theological-Political Treatise. The people in the Bush administration, those University of Chicago educated reactionaries, have also read their classical literature. It is the lesson of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. As you will recall, the Oresteia is a thoroughly political tragedy concerned with the nature of justice in the state, with what is right for the Athenians at the moment of their imperial ambition, their imperial extension and projection of power. At the end of the drama, Athena, the arbiter of justice, a sort of one-woman-goddess version of the Supreme Court, says:
‘Neither anarchy nor tyranny, my people.
Worship the mean, I urge you,
Shore it up with reverence and never
Banish terror from the gates, not outright.
Where is the righteous man who knows no fear?
The stronger your fear, your reverence for the just,
The stronger your country’s wall and city’s safety.’
Shore up the mean with reverence and terror. But never banish terror from the gates of the state. The stronger the fear, the stronger the reverence for the just, the stronger your country’s wall and the city’s safety. A safer world, a more hopeful America, to recall the slogan of the brilliantly, indeed spectacularly, well-managed Republican National Convention in New York last September. The political as the strength of the country’s wall, is maintained through an economy of fear and an economy of terror. The lesson of Aeschylus was not lost on Hobbes. He writes:
For if we could suppose a great Multitude of men to consent in the observation of Justice, and other Lawes of Nature, without a common Power to keep them in awe; we might as well suppose all Man-kind to do the same; and then there neither would be, nor need to be, any Civill Government, or Common-wealth at all; because there would be Peace without subjection.
Of course, for Hobbes, the idea of peace without subjection is ludicrous and we require the common power of the commonwealth in order to escape the state of war. Such is the function of the sovereign, where sovereign power completes the circuit of subjection through the feeling of awe, through what Donald Rumsfeld used to call in 2003 ‘shock and awe’. The social glue that binds subjects peacefully is a reverential fear of the sovereign. Listen to the way in which Hobbes describes him:
He hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of all…And in him consisteth the Essence of the Commonwealth’.
By terror thereof…the sovereign has the ability, the potency and the virility to form the will of all. This is the essence of the commonwealth, of the so-called social contract, what Rousseau calls in the Second Discourse ‘the fraudulent social contract’. Peace is nothing more than the regulation of the psycho-political economy of awe and reverential fear, of using the threat of terror in order to bind citizens to the circuit of their subjection.
Who can forget the wonderful Leslie Nielson character in Police Squad, whose slogan was ‘I’m interested in justice, and that means bullets’? The political leader – the modern day Prince – understands this and knows how to operate an economy of terror and how to use violence. He knows justice means bullets, and he knows how to conduct an overseas war with a fantastical enemy. If 100,000 or so Iraqis die in the process and a 1900 and counting of your disenfranchised Lumpenproletariat, then that is a small price to pay for four more years of power. As the poet Yeats writes:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
And to think that many, many people, intelligent well-meaning people, people on the marches against the RNC last September, people on the 2003 anti-war marches, people all over the world, even some of the titanic intellects on the faculty at the New School where I work, had the stupidity to describe George Bush as stupid. He is not stupid. Calling him stupid is stupid. What we witnessed in the lead up to last November’s election victory was the exercise of genuine political intelligence.
Yet, what I have just said doesn’t really get at the phenomenon in the right way. I would argue that what characterizes the concept of the political in the Bush administration is not so much Schmittianism as what I want to call ‘crypto-Schmittianism’. What do I mean by that? Roughly the following: on the one hand, the concept of the political is based on the fantasy construction of the enemy and maintaining the economy of awe and terror that allows order to be secured in the so-called homeland. On the other hand, the decisive feature that defines the current US administration is a thoroughgoing hypocrisy about the political. What I mean is that, in Carl Schmitt’s terms, there is something chronically depoliticizing about the ideology of the current administration. Going back to those ignoble lies that are being told, contemporary US imperial power espouses an utterly moralizing, universalist, indeed millennial, ideology whose key signifier is freedom. I will come back to freedom. Allied to freedom are notions of democracy and human rights and they even had the audacity to speak about human dignity in the 2002 National Security Strategy document that provided the metaphysical justification for pre-emptive military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not far behind these signifiers lies the crucial question of faith and the link between faith and politics, or the triangulation of a faith that permits a moralization of political judgments on a metaphysical basis. The astonishing and much-discussed factoid about the presence of moral values in the exit polls from last November and which caused a minor panic amongst American liberals, is deeply interesting to a humble philosopher. Citizens are making political decisions that are really moral judgments and these judgments flow from a dogmatic metaphysics, to be precise God as the depoliticizing instance par excellence. Once again, to bang this point home, this is not stupid. To critical, secular, well-dressed metro-sexual post-Kantians like us, this view of the world might well appear deluded, indeed we might think that a pro-life, anti-queer metaphysics is downright pernicious, but there is no doubt that the triangulation of faith, morality and politics is a framework of intelligibility that makes powerful sense. To go further, one might say that the strong connection between faith, morality and politics is one of the most enduring features of civil society in the US since the time of the original violent settlement, through to the eulogies of Tom Paine and Tocqueville. The left ignores that connection at its peril.
Of course, what we are talking about here is the question of civil religion, and in particular civil religion in Rousseau’s political theory, the extraordinary final chapter of The Social Contract, which got him into such trouble with the authorities in Paris and Geneva after its publication in 1762. Rousseau thought – and rightly – that religion was the unifying ideological glue in any legitimate polity. What got him into trouble was his conviction – and this was a century before Nietzsche – that Christianity was unfit for this purpose as it directed citizens’ attention away from this world to the afterworld and the care of their immortal soul. What Rousseau tackles with alarming directness is the problem of Christianity and politics, namely the Christian separation of theological and political authority. In the religions of antiquity there was an identity of theological and political authority. One need only read the Oresteia or the tragedies of Sophocles to realize that the gods of the Athenians were gods of the city, civic gods without any universal jurisdiction. Although cities and peoples were jealously proud of their local gods, this pride went hand in hand with the recognition of the relativity of religious belief; namely, that the gods of Sparta were not the gods of Athens or Corinth and furthermore the adoption of such gods would not be good for the Athenians, the Corinthians or anyone else. Oddly, this relativity of belief never seems to have led to religious war. Christianity, by contrast, which requires universality of belief has led to little else but religious wars for the past couple of millennia. Christianity divides political and theological authority, declaring that the kingdom of God is not of this world, but of the next. It is an essentially anti-political religion. Rousseau declares, ‘After all, what does it matter whether one is free or a slave in this vale of tears?’ He goes on, ‘Far from attaching the hearts of the citizens to the state, this religion (i.e. Christianity) detaches them from it as from all other things of this world; and I know of nothing more contrary to the social spirit’. In an eerie anticipation of Nietzsche’s argument in On the Genealogy of Morals, Rousseau writes that Christianity is slave morality, ‘True Christians are made to be slaves; they know it and they hardly care; this short life has too little value in their eyes’.
In the US, what passes for Christianity – and it is, to say the least, a highly perverse, possessive individualist and capitalist version of what I would see as Christ’s messianic ethical communism, to say the least – is a new civil religion, a civil religion of freedom (at this point, we could make useful reference to the argument and wonderful pieces of evidence found in Robert Bellah’s classic 1975 book, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. Just look at George W. Bush’s inaugural speech as President on January 20th 2005, with its multiple – in fact more than forty – references to either freedom or liberty in seventeen minutes of slow and passionless oratory. Bush – or his speech writers, although there is good evidence of him working hard on this speech – presents three theses:
(i) For Bush, the only emancipatory force in human history is human freedom and ‘self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self’, i.e. self-legislation or autonomy.
(ii) Yet, the so-called ‘author of liberty’ is God who stands outside human affairs. For Bush, God plays the role that Rousseau assigns to the lawgiver, the stranger or foreigner figure that legislates for the community. What we might call, with Agamben, the paradox of sovereignty is that human freedom is only guaranteed by a theological agency that both ordains and constrains that freedom.
(iii) Furthermore, Bush goes on in a much more Hegelian or Fukuyaman direction than Rousseau, arguing that the ‘author of liberty’ gives history direction and purpose. History, it would appear, is the eschatology of freedom. Let’s just say that I have grave doubts about this position, but there is no denying the coherence and political classicism of this world-view.
There are huge theological problems in the invocation of Christianity in contemporary US politics. The idea that the mission (I use the word advisedly) of politics is the expansion of freedom and that freedom is a gift from God is a doctrine that sits very oddly with the history and dogma of the Christian church. For the latter, freedom is more of a problem than a solution, being nothing more than the capacity to err that is the consequence of our post-Lapsarian state. Christian freedom has to be disciplined by a life of withdrawal, prayer and asceticism that can do no more than hope for the very opposite of freedom, namely the dispensation of divine grace. It is clear that what Bush and his camp followers have very effectively done is to transform Christianity into an imperial civil religion with considerable populist appeal, particularly around core moral issues of abortion and gay marriage.
Let me try and summarize crypto-Schmittianism with an anecdote. In his book, Bush’s Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward asked ‘W’ if he talked to his father before going to war in Iraq. He replied in the negative, but added that he had consulted a higher father. This is both funny, psychoanalytically revealing (above his ‘real’ father – Bush 1 – and even above his symbolic father – Reagan, whose death was spectacularly mourned in the US, as if he were truly the Christ of Bush II’s civil religion, where Bush II assumes the role of St. Peter – lies the divine father who ordains freedom in a castrating legislative act like the Big Other in Lacanian theory) and deeply serious, I think. But I have no reason to doubt ‘W”s moral and theological sincerity. It reveals that a political decision of the classic friend-enemy variety is being made on the basis of the depoliticizing instance of God’s will. The considerable power of this kind of political thinking (and – lest we forget – it is the justifying logic of most colonialism, which is what leads one to conclude that so much contemporary politics is simply neo-colonial) is that the enemy is not just, as in classical war, unlike us, or advancing a territorial claim that we want to repel, or blocking a territorial claim that we want to make. On the contrary, on the crypto-Schmittian view, the enemy is evil and becomes, in Schmitt’s words, an outlaw of humanity, an outlaw who can therefore be legitimately annihilated in the name of freedom. Might it not be the defining characteristic of contemporary essentially economic wars, that they are fought around the signifier of humanity? And might not the presence of this signifier be the key to understanding the savage inhumanity of contemporary war. And although I do not think that philosophers should be in the business of prediction and prophecy, there is little doubt in my mind that future wars (and there will be future wars without significant geo-political transformation) will also be economic wars fought for the possession of scarce commodities, notably oil as the key global commodity. Recall Schmitt’s phrase from The Nomos of the Earth, ‘whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat’. I think this means that the slightly further left amongst us should also be careful about invoking the signifier of humanity in any oppositional politics. As I have just begun to read the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, although sadly only in English, let me cite one of his poems, or – to be accurate – a poem by one of his heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro:
They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by unpeopled space.
To summarize my main point, the Bush administration has a clear and strong understanding of the political, but this is wrapped up in a moralizing, depoliticized discourse. This combination is hypocritical but politically extremely very effective. It is, indeed, lethal to its enemies. How then does one oppose it? What, at this point in time, are the possibilities of oppositional politics?
Let me begin by turning to the Democratic Party. From my point of view as a resident alien in the US, the problem with them is that they are too decent, too gentlemanly or gentlewomanly. They are too nice. They want to bring healing and reconciliation to the divided body politic. They want to take the country back, as they somewhat whimsically tend to say. It seems to me that they don’t understand a damn thing about the political. They need to understand the savagery of politics. They need political teeth, not soft lips and smiles. They give in too easily and if they continue in that manner they will simply limp from well-meaning defeat to well-meaning defeat. They need to study their Carl Schmitt and, more importantly, Gramsci on common sense, hegemony, religion, ideology and collective will formation, and they need to throw away their John Rawls. It sometimes seems to me that the only thing that many American leftists believe in, particularly the Habermasians squirming in their seats since 9/11, is law, particularly international law. International law is a very nice thing, but if it fails to have an anchor in everyday social practices, then it leads to a politics of abstraction, which incidentally is how I would view the rejection of the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands, where the various governmental and bureaucratic elites thought they could simply override the popular will. Of course, in the referenda the opposite happened and the consequences for the European Union are serious and far-reaching as many European countries reject what they see as multiculturalism and slip back into some anachronistic nationalist discourse. The lesson of the above for the left, wherever it may be, is that the sine qua non of oppositional politics lies in an understanding of populism. What needs to be politically articulated at this historical conjuncture is, in my view, a leftist populism (this is one reason why Ernesto’s recent work on populism is of such interest).
On the question of an oppositional, leftist political strategy in the US context, everything depends on having a clear view of what or who we are dealing with here, namely the nature of the right, the religious right or the radical right. At least provisionally, it seems to me that there are two options:
1. The religious right is undoubtedly a huge bolus in contemporary American politics, but it is moveable, it is digestible, it can be excreted. Although it is a force in politics that has been gaining an ever more powerful momentum since the Reagan years, it is not necessarily a permanent feature of the political landscape.
2. The religious right is what my colleague Anne Stoler has called a new regime of truth, a new framework of intelligibility that is not stupid. It is rather a new theologico-political form of life, a new conception of the world that will, in the future, assert more and more influence on American political life.
What follows from this? If option 1 is true, then I think it is arguable that we should stay within the traditional party political structure, hopefully in a more radicalized manner, and try and make the Democratic Party electable by bringing ‘Jesusland’ with us. I really hope that option 1 is right, because if option 2 is right, then we are witnessing the birth, to quote Yeats once more, of some rough new beast slouching its way towards us. To deal with this beast, we need to sharpen our best sociological, anthropological, historical and analytical tools, but we have to face the awkward truth that if we are entering a new regime of truth, then this poses a potentially devastating threat to what we comfortingly think of as the liberal polity.
In addition to the logic of the external enemy, we might put this together with the issue of the internal enemy, which I haven’t discussed; what the Right would call ‘the culture of death’ that is opposed to Bush and the just dead Pope’s so-called ‘culture of life’. Namely those purportedly amoral, value-free nihilistic east and west coasts, dens of iniquity like Greenwich Village and Berkeley, full of queers, Jews and resident aliens, relentlessly aborting fetuses while being metaphysically uncertain, perhaps even atheistic. If we place the internal and external enemy side-by-side, then the picture starts to look very nasty indeed. The United States is effectively disunited and divided into what William Connolly and I have baptized ‘Puritania’ on the one hand and ‘Pluristan’ on the other.
Let me finish by trying to identify the live political options at the present time. In order to do this, I would have to borrow from a recent publication called Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in an Age of War, written by the Retort group based in San Francisco and published in June by Verso.
As I see it, there are at least three live political options at the present time, although this list does not pretend to be exhaustive:
1. What we might call military neo-liberalism, whether the nasty sort we have seen with Bush II or the slightly softer, but not enormously different, Democratic Party version of this, provided they succeed in finding a new Clinton, and he was no stranger to bombing, lest it be forgotten. This would also cover Blair’s Labour Party and all mainstream British politics, Berlusconi’s Italy and Spain prior to the Madrid bombings.
2. What I would like to call neo-Leninism, whose theoretical and slightly farcical face would be the recent work of Slavoj Zizek, but which is practically expressed in the vanguardism of groups like Al Qaeda. In my view, the left should approach Al Qaeda with the words and actions of bin Laden resonating against those of Lenin, Blanqui, Mao, Baader-Meinhoff, and Durrutti. The more that one learns about figures like Sayyid Qutb, who was murdered by the Nasser government in Egypt in 1966 after a period of imprisonment when he wrote many texts that would influence intellectuals like al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s mentor, the more that one sees the connection between Jihadist revolutionary Islam and more classical forms of revolutionary vanguardism. I am extremely suspicious of such forms of revolutionary vanguardism, in particular as concerns their use of violence. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s last movie, Notre musique, says: ‘Tuer un homme pour défendre une idée, n’est pas de défendre une idée, c’est tuer un homme‘.
3. The political phenomenon that frames Afflicted Powers is the 2003 anti-war demonstrations and there is no question that these and other phenomena indicate that something has decisively shifted in the nature and tactics of resistance. The authors of Afflicted Powers somewhat half-heartedly describe this non-vanguardist left in terms of Hardt and Negri’s notion of the multitude, and I think this is perhaps the weakest point of their argument. Allow me a word on the notion of the multitude. Hardt and Negri’s claim is that the multitude is the new political subject and political alternative that grows within empire. Yet, I would dispute this view both on both theoretical and political grounds: theoretically, the analysis given in Empire at the ontological level risks retreating into the very anti-dialectical materialist ontology of substance that Marx rightly criticized in his early work. Politically, in my view Hardt and Negri’s approach makes the work of politics too systemic where both empire and multitude, that is, both capitalism and the resistance to capitalism, originate in the same ontological substance. It is rather rare for books to be refuted empirically, but I think this happened to Empire on September 11th, 2001. More generally, if we are doing politics, we cannot and should not pin our hopes on any ontology, whether a Marxian notion of species-being, a Spinozo-Deleuzianism of abundance, a Heideggero-Lacanianism of lack, or any version of what Stephen White has recently called ‘weak ontology’ in politics. On my view, politics is a disruption of the ontological domain and separate categories are required for its analysis and practice. There is and should be no transitivity between ontology and politics. Returning to the third option, I would want to redescribe it as what we might call neo-anarchism and this is the position that I would like to recommend. Such a neo-anarchism is concerned with the mobilization of a multiplicity, but I would hesitate from calling it a multitude because that would risk ontologizing politics, seeing politics as the expression of some common substance, which is as depoliticizing a gesture as I can imagine. What interests me in contemporary anarchism is the cultivation of highly spectacular tactics of protest, the forging of what my friend David Graeber calls ‘a new language of civil disobedience’ or what we might also call ‘non-violent warfare’, where I would want to emphasize the words ‘non-violent’. Regardless of any ontological theodicy, politics becomes the activity of the forming of a common front, the aggregation of a collective will from diverse groups with disparate demands. Such a neo-anarchism, which is what makes it neo-, cannot hope to achieve the classical anarchist dream of society without the state, which I simply do not think is an option for most of the Earth’s population at this point in time. But such a neo-anarchist experience of the political can articulate a politics at a distance from the state, indeed what I call an interstitial distance within and against the state. Indeed, it is in these terms that I would want to describe some of the new social movements, such as movements for indigenous rights in Latin America or indeed the landless movement, the Movimento sem terra in Brazil. On my view, and this is something I’ve argued at length elsewhere, at the core of such a neo-anarchism, there is not an ontology, nor an economistic theodicy, but an ethics of infinite responsibility that challenges and overrides the vapid mantras of contemporary political moralism would require another talk and I have already said enough.
Based on talks given by Simon Critchley in 2005 at the New School for Social Research, University of Toronto and the Hayward Gallery, London.
Simon Critchley is Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He is author of many books, most recently Things Merely Are (Routledge, 2005).