Compléments de Multitudes 9

Politics as war : a formula for radical democracy ?

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1. Introduction

Since its inception, liberalism has thought of itself as being at war with “war.” It has understood “war” as the greatest threat to a civil society whose essential end is the autonomy of individuals, which in turn results in the development of “culture” and a “civilized world.” From its origin, just as nowadays, liberalism identifies two main sources (“foyers”) of “war”: the first is orthodoxy, the second is democracy. Liberalism opposes orthodoxy because it upholds the separation and subjection of religion to politics, of church to state – a separation and subjection that orthodoxy rejects. Likewise, liberalism opposes democracy because its ideal of civil society requires that government be exercised in and through the rule of law, and never directly by the people to whom those laws are addressed.
And yet one need not look beyond our own Western tradition to see that repeatedly during the modern age orthodox movements have latched on to the democratic aspirations of peoples, as if to indicate an old and secret affinity between the political expressions of the vox populi and the vox Dei. Similarly, one does not need to appeal to other, supposedly antagonistic “civilizations” to realize that the liberal idea of what it means to have a “culture” or “civilization” has been repeatedly called into question within our tradition. In the last decades alone an ongoing “culture war” has taken place in which the liberal understanding of culture and identity has been contested from both the Left and the Right, giving rise to different forms of “identity politics” and “multiculturalism.”

These varied reactions to the liberal ideal of politics seem to indicate that the “war” against which liberalism fights is not as such anti-political, but rather expresses another understanding of politics, that of politics as war. The formula “politics is war” is central to the thought of two important critics of liberalism who are not usually treated together: Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt. In the following remarks I shall discuss a couple of ways in which this striking, perhaps shocking formula brings out certain aporias that the liberal understanding of politics constantly encounters, and that require a rethinking of both democracy and orthodoxy.

2. The aporia of the rule of law and the new sense of democracy.

It is generally accepted that the liberal conception of civil society is wedded to the ideal of the rule of law: a subject becomes political only insofar as it has been previously legally constituted as such a political subject. Liberalism tends to subsume politics under law. The formula “politics as war” stands for a rejection of this juridification of politics. The formula is actually a reversal of Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is policy pursued by other means.” In Clausewitz war is an activity that carries out the policies of the state and thus presupposes its existence. On the contrary, the formula “politics as war” is intended to draw attention to the ways in which political and legal forms emerge in the first place. Although war may be conducted according to certain rules, in no sense can one say that it falls under the rule of law. That is why when Foucault and Schmitt reverse Clausewitz, they wish to thematize the pre-legal situation from which emerges the rule of law and, in general, every legitimate form of domination.
What is this “situation” that precedes all forms of legitimate rule? Foucault and Schmitt both accept the following premise: No law can be applied in a chaos, because chaos is defined as a situation of exception to any law. If a law is to apply, a difference between order and disorder must be already marked in a pre- and infra-legal fashion. The formula “politics as war” indicates that the marking of the difference between order and disorder is not a normative operation but a strategic one, in the sense that it is an operation of war which is intrinsically political. In the Western tradition, it is the oppositions of domination and resistance, slavery and freedom, that are at once political and war-like. These oppositions are at once pre-legal and political because they do not specify the difference between legitimate and illegitimate modes of rule, but rather describe the opposition between the practice of rule or domination as such (whether legitimate or illegitimate) and what falls outside of this practice.
This is the place to remark on the first crucial difference between Foucault and Schmitt. For Foucault, what falls outside of the practice of domination is the practice of “not being governed.” Foucault is interested in the pre-legal establishment of order because he wants to identify a space for a politics of resistance and an ethics of pleasure, both of which cannot occur within the rule of law, because this rule legitimizes domination but cannot express the desire not to be governed. For Schmitt, at the other end, the practice of domination is contrasted by what he calls the “authoritative command.” Schmitt is interested in thematizing the pre-legal character of the difference between order and disorder because for him, ultimately, the instance of order that makes possible any legal system has an inevitable theological component: order results from a divine revelation that commands absolute authority over the individual. Prior to any rule of law there is a politics of obedience to divine commands, which are the ultimate ground of authentic, non-relativistic morality. It seems to me that liberal rule of law has always been confronted by these two varieties of “politics as war”: the an-archic and irreligious one represented by Foucault, and the arch-archic and religious one represented by Schmitt.

But how are these considerations pertinent to radical democracy? One can begin to answer this question by offering a set of historical examples. From its earliest Greek inception, the site of democracy (in the conflicts for eunomia, first, and for isonomia, later) has never been other than the site of politics as war: the site where order and disorder, domination and resistance, slavery and freedom, are determined pre-legally. During the English civil wars of the 17th century, alongside the emergence of liberal and republican discourses on the rule of law associated with Hobbes and Harrington, one also finds the radically democratic discourse of Winstanley, who held that “the best laws that England hath are yokes and manacles, tying one sort of people to be slaves of another.” Perhaps democracy has always been in a state of war with, over, and before the rule of law. For sure, it has never simply been subsumed under it.

In Winstanley’s claim according to which law originates from a situation of war and is a means of pursuing conquest and empire, Foucault sees the emergence of a new perspective on law:
Dans cette histoire des races et de l’affrontement permanent des races sous les lois et à travers elles, apparait, ou plutot disparait, l’identification implicite entre le peuple et son monarque…. Désormais, dans ce nouveau type de discours et de pratique historique, la souveraineté ne va plus lier l’ensemble en une unité qui sera précisement l’unité de la cité, de la nation, de l’état. La souveraineté a une fonction particulière: elle ne lie pas; elle asservit…. Ce qui est droit, loi ou obligation, si l’on regarde du coté du pouvoir, le nouveau discours le fera apparaitre comme abus, comme violence, comme exaction, dès lors que l’on se place de l’autre coté.

But in what sense does the rule of law dominate its “people”? The rule of law is centered on the principle of the equality of the citizens before the law. By pointing out that this “equality” is established on the site of the conquest and exclusion of one or more “peoples” Foucault brings out a basic aporia of the rule of law: namely, that the “civil” equality before the law cannot establish the equality to make the law before which one is formally equal. On the contrary, “civil” equality before the law is always achieved by foreclosing this other, “political” equality. In short, the condition of “civility” is necessarily imposed on peoples through conquest and empire. Conversely, once the equality to make the laws before which one is to be equal becomes a political goal, then to be engaged in “politics” comes to mean: to be engaged in a struggle for recognition on the part of peoples, races, classes that have been, always already, excluded from a “civil” society as a condition for its emergence. Foucault’s point is that the struggle for political equality is from the beginning “multicultural.”

The discovery of peoples, races or classes as historical agents which are not only separate from, but stand in a situation of undeclared war with, the sovereignty of the state leads to a redefinition of the idea of the “people.” “People” comes to denote whoever resists the legal apparatus of conquest, that is, whoever resists, in the name of a “universal freedom of all” (Winstanley), the very idea of “legitimate rule.” In this way, the meaning of democracy is no longer identical to the “rule of the people,” as if the struggle for democracy were a struggle on behalf of “the people” for a share in the administration of rule. This is no longer the case because the agency of the “people” is conceived as a function of the resistance to rule itself. From this new democratic perspective, the fundamental political division is the one between domination (in and through the rule of law) and resistance, not the classical one between legitimate (law-bound) and illegitimate (tyrannical) rule. A democratic politics will not seek to widen participation in the practice of rule, but rather to widen participation in the contestation and resistance to ruling from a standpoint of “not wanting to be governed” or, in the terms of Arendt, of no-rule. To struggle for democracy is to struggle for a political life in which there are no more rulers, where the distinction between those who rule and those who obey can be suspended.

3. Politics as war: the aporia of liberal individualism in liberalism and the culture wars.

If the formula “politics as war,” as I have interpreted it so far, fits well with the concerns of radical democratic theorizing, it also signals an understanding of politics that is fundamentally critical of the one offered by the tradition of modern political liberalism. Modern political liberalism rejects everything associated with the formula “politics as war” because such an idea undermines its foundational assumption, first expressed by Hobbes and then repeated by the tradition of Enlightenment. For this tradition, the foundation of civil society consists in a transition from a state of nature, which is essentially a state of potential war, to a state of culture, i.e., the free and rational development of humanity, which is essentially one of peace. It matters little whether the state of war is simply left behind by civil society, as in Hobbes, or whether it is internalized in a dialectical fashion into civil society as in Kant and Hegel. What counts is that the state of war is the extreme figure of the difference between self and other, against which a civil or peaceful society defines itself in terms of its capacity to accord recognition to the individual as an equal member of humanity.

According to the project of the Enlightenment, this recognition of every individual’s humanity is achieved in moral autonomy: the individual agrees to give the pure form of law to its conduct. Since the pure form of law cannot discriminate between self and other, acting in accordance with such a legal form is the only way to recognize every other as another self. And this recognition takes away the permanent potential for conflict (simultaneously disclosing the ideal of perpetual peace).
But to recognize every other as another self requires eliminating the possibility that every self is also other or singular. By the “singularity” of the individual I mean what makes each one irreducible to another, and therefore radically “other.” In modern liberal thought the marks that constitute the otherness of the self, its singularity, either are neutralized as belonging to the natural, but pre-human and pre-cultural state of humanity, as occurs in social contract theories; or this otherness is thought to consist in particular cultural attachments (the “ethical” stage of particular conceptions of the “good,” to speak with Rawls) which the individual is called upon to relativize or privatize in order to achieve the full realization of human autonomy (the “moral” stage of the universal conception of “right”). In other words, political liberalism refuses to grant a universal validity to the singularity of individuals. In general, this radical difference is considered a private matter that should not be politicized. The formula for this privatization of radical difference is the separation of church and state. For modern liberalism identifies as “religious” any system of belief for which there exist radical differences between human beings which are constitutive of their sense of humanity. These differences of religion, race, ethnicity, or sexuality are at stake in what is nowadays called “identity politics,” which in turn accounts for why such politics is often labeled “fundamentalist” by liberals.

When individuals begin to act up politically on the basis of these differences and seek universal recognition for them, liberalism faces a major difficulty. There is a clear tension, if not contradiction, between the liberal desire to grant universal recognition to every other as another self, and the desire to have one’s self politically (i.e., universally) recognized as and in its otherness. The liberal system, in so far as it grants recognition only to universalizable identities, cannot possibly do the same for these universalizing differences. From a logical point of view, liberal politics of recognition is hard put to address the challenge that they pose.

At the same time, liberalism cannot place such differences behind a “veil of ignorance” because they are far from being “private” or “particularistic” features that have no place in the public sphere. On the contrary, it is quite clear that today what is political turns on the assertion of such differences, and that they seem to harbor a self-understanding of the singular individual that is more “authoritative” than this individual’s “universal” self-understanding as an equal member of “humanity.” Singularizing differences demand a degree of recognition that liberal culture accords only to features whose rational and universal character is unproblematically warranted, i.e., warranted by means of the consensus that could ideally be achieved given the appropiately transparent conditions for communication (or, put another way, given the adequate stage of “cultural development”). In this sense, the phenomenon of “identity politics” is symptomatic of the impossibility of establishing non-aporetic, consensus-driven discursive procedures that can grant universal recognition to singularizing differences (and the identities fashioned around them).

Hence the rejection of the liberal ideal of culture and its understanding of autonomy that one finds in so many contemporary political movements. This rejection is motivated by the belief that certain aspects of human life cannot be subjected to the division between private and public, personal and impersonal, that political liberalism advocates, without thereby generating enormous resistance and also a sort of internal contradiction. Schmitt and Foucault are useful to think this resistance to, and contradiction within, political liberalism. In the process they can also explain why, now more than ever, political conflicts take the form of “culture wars,” that is, take the form of conflicts about what culture means.

4. Schmitt and postmodern fundamentalism.

According to Schmitt, there is at least one aspect of human life for which what is most “personal” (that is, what attains the singularity of the individual) is immediately also what is most “political” or universal: this is the aspect of religion. The discourse that Schmitt develops to understand religion as immediately political is called political theology. Schmitt’s political theology is one of the highest theoretical expressions of what I shall call postmodern orthodoxy or fundamentalism.

In The Concept of the Political Schmitt famously defines the political as that pre-cultural situation in which the individual is called to decide between friend and enemy. Unlike the liberal tradition, Schmitt holds that it is the state of war (status belli) that expresses the natural state (status naturalis) of humanity. Schmitt means that it is only in the political situation where the individual’s biological life is always potentially at risk that the individual can become aware of that for the sake of which it could sacrifice its life. Such a final end is the source of spiritual life, in the sense that it provides the individual with a source of ultimate meaning that totalizes its life and, therefore, literally constitutes the salvation of its life.

Schmitt argues that in war it is up to each individual to decide for themselves “whether the otherness of the stranger in the concrete, present case of conflict means the negation of one’s own kind of existence and therefore must be fended off or fought against in battle in order to save one’s own, existential kind of life.” But the force of Schmitt’s argument is precisely that it is not a pre-given, culturally determined “kind of existence” that is “one’s own” and that could serve as criterion for deciding who is the authentic enemy. On the contrary, the judgment as to what ought to be one’s authentic form of life can only result from the confrontation with the decision as to who is the enemy: “The enemy is not something that for some reason must be done away with and annihilated because of its want of value. The enemy is on my own level. For this reason I must confront him in battle in order to gain my own standard, my own limit, my own figure.” Without this confrontation with the question of otherness there is no such thing as “one’s own kind of existence” because there is no term against which to determine what is authentically “one’s own”. Hence Schmitt can say that his conception of the political is none other than a transcription of the Biblical Ur-scene: the story of Cain and Abel, where “the other reveals himself as my brother,” because one does not start with knowing who the enemy is, and “the brother reveals himself as my enemy,” because one comes to know oneself only by making the decision on who is enemy. In this sense, Schmitt belongs to a postmodern constellation for which any claim to self-identity passes through the prior acknowledgment of the other as other.

Schmitt’s concept of the political does not rely on traditional cultural identities to decide who is enemy and who is friend. This is what makes it so unsettling: it accepts, just like political liberalism, that modern identity- and community-formation is radically contingent. But whereas political liberalism thinks of identity as the result of a work of culture that one has to perform on oneself to be free from the prejudices that come from natural endowments and particular attachments, political theology sees the work of culture as being itself a prejudice that stands in the way of establishing an authentic identity. The political is intended precisely to bracket the unassumed influence of the sphere of culture as such.

But why does the universalism of culture in political liberalism function as prejudice? Schmitt holds that the singularity of each individual is ultimately recognized by God. Only in relation to an absolute ground of value can one come to experience one’s existence as singular. Cultural attachments to particular or universal identifications, for example to a nation or to an ideal of humanity, equate me with others and so cannot singularize me. Here Schmitt points to a tension internal to political liberalism: supposedly a system that values absolutely the individual, in reality liberalism requires that the individual divide or double itself into a private and a public self, into a bourgeois and a citoyen, into a carrier of a particular conception of the good and a possessor of universal moral powers. But for Schmitt the individual must be “one,” singular: and this can occur only if there is no division of private and public, only if what is of absolute value enters into every aspect of the individual’s life and totalizes it.

The political, in Schmitt’s understanding of it, brackets the validity of all cultural identifications that equate individuals with one another so as to bring out a religious and supra-cultural ground of authentic identity. Schmitt believes that only when confronted with an absolute either/or, with an irreconcilable difference, is the individual placed before a decision that will, immediately, determine who is the friend and who is the enemy. This absolute either/or is a moral category because it is the difference between good and evil. But such a moral absolute is attained only by negating the sphere of culture or autonomy as a whole, since, by definition, no human, cultural construction can aspire to an absolute status. The “natural” or “political” difference between friend and enemy is therefore united from the start to the “religious” ground of the difference between good and evil. The political decision as to who is the enemy is finally made on the basis of faith, with which the individual accepts that the absolute difference between good and evil is no mere human work of culture, but is given through divine revelation. Schmitt’s strong thesis is that a world without fundamental enemies, a world of perpetual peace, is a world in which individuals no longer hold that the difference between good and evil is absolute, but only relative. In other words, it is a world in which moral absolutes no longer really count. That is why for Schmitt real politics ultimately takes the form of “holy war,” of a conflict over the “right” faith, which is nothing other than faith in the existence of absolute evil and absolute good.

5. Against Political Theology: Foucault’s Reformation of Liberalism

Foucault offers a response to this postmodern fundamentalist challenge that takes into account the objections to liberalism discussed so far. In his later work, Foucault proposes to reform our understanding of the project of Enlightenment in light of what he calls an ethos of freedom. This ethos consists in “a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.” Like liberalism, and unlike Schmitt, Foucault believes that freedom consists in a work of culture that the self performs on itself. But this work moves in the opposite direction of the ideal of moral autonomy. Instead of determining its identity through universal and necessary laws of conduct and thought, for Foucault the modern “hero” is whoever “tries to invent himself” so as to remove as many “conditions of necessity” as possible.
This work of culture takes place on the site of democracy: where order and disorder, domination and resistance, are established prior to, and as a condition for, the application of any law whatsoever. Postmodern fundamentalism operates on the same terrain, but it believes that these oppositions need to be decided in terms of friends and enemies, chosen in an absolute way, and on the basis of faith. For Foucault the opposite is the case: the work of culture is neither to eliminate the friend/enemy opposition, nor to fix it absolutely, but to render it as fluid, unstable and convertible as possible. The work of culture is ironical: it orients the individual toward the de-realization of “what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” As Foucault conceives of it, the individual asserts its individuality only in experiencing the alterity of all constructs of self-identity. To be free means to be capable of being otherwise.
Modern liberalism stands behind the idea of a common humanity that allows the self to recognize the other as another self. The problem with this model is that the otherness or singularity of the individual comes to be seen as a negation of the self that needs to be overcome in order to realize the identity of humanity, the mutual recognition of self and other. Foucault contests the appeal to the value of humanity, or universal self-identity, as something already given, if only as a regulative ideal for all the transformations of the self, i.e., for all permutations of becoming-otherwise. To assume humanity as a pre-given universal identity goes against
the principle of a critique and a permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy: that is, a principle that is at the heart of the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself. From this standpoint, I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity.

Critique stands in tension with humanism to the extent that it valorizes the capacity of the self to become other to itself, to transcend and transgress its constructs of self, as a function of its openness to an other who challenges the predetermined horizon of what counts as humanity, no matter how wide or abstract this horizon is factually drawn.
If the liberal ideal is humanist because it always seeks the selfhood of the other, the ethos proposed by Foucault seeks to show the otherness of the self in virtue of which each (human) being has access to its singularity, to the aspect of humanity that comprehends each (human) being in so far as it is an exception to the universal, in so far as it stands outside of the law. To become singular in this way means to open the self to the irreducible plurality of (human) beings and their factical freedom, a plurality that pragmatically calls into question the existence of a universal human identity.
But if Foucault, like Schmitt, defends the cause of singularity against a universalistic humanism, he does not do so from the fundamentalist standpoint according to which only what transcends human culture, namely God, gives access to singularity. On the contrary, Foucault holds that only the work of culture can redeem the singularity of individuals, but on condition that this work be pursued beyond the limits set by liberalism’s own ideal of culture.
For liberalism the value of humanity underpins all of the fundamental rights. For Foucault this value must be put into question if the liberal system of rights is to make place for a democratic ethos of freedom as a practice of “not being governed.” Democracy does not just entail equality under the rule of law but also equal capacity to make and unmake the law before which one is formally equal. This political equality cannot itself fall under the form of law. In ordertoacknowledgeit,therefore,onehastoopen the system of rights beyond those who are already “equal under the law” to those who are systematically unequalized or excludedby virtue of the law.

Those who remain “outside” of the system of rights are the ones who get caught in the exclusionary circle that characterizes the liberal understanding of the relation between natural rights and political rights. This circle is vicious because to have one’s human or natural rights recognized it is already necessary to be a citizen and have political rights, while the constitution and attribution of these political rights ought to presuppose the prior recognition of natural or human rights. The exclusionary dynamic of the liberal system of rights is explained by the fact that the form of political community to which the individual must belong in order to be recognized as “human,” and therefore as endowed with natural rights, is always already culturally prejudged, either in a particularistic or in a universalistic sense. In other words, the ascription of natural or human rights presupposes that individuals assume culture as a fact: in its particularistic variant, the cultural fact refers to the individual’s purportedly irrevocable attachments to given political, religious or bio-political identities; in its universalistic variant, the cultural fact refers to the individual’s purportedly irrevocable attachments to context-independent rational or argumentative forms. In neither case is the cultural fact inherently open to interpretation and contestation.

Foucault therefore agrees with Schmitt that in liberalism culture functions as prejudice. But, unlike Schmitt, he does not seek to bracket culture as such. On the contrary, it is on the seemingly irrevocable character of such cultural facts that Foucault’s ethos of freedom sets itself to work. The work of culture, then, consists in performatively dissolving every cultural fact into a cultural right. As I understand it, a cultural right is not a right that recognizes and protects a pre-given cultural identity, as current liberal theories of multicultural rights have it. It denotes instead a free space for the political self-invention and self-interpretation of singulars, in opposition to any and every pre-given cultural identification to which they have been subjected.

To put my point provocatively. Postmodern fundamentalism objects to liberalism that every cultural identification keeps the individual from experiencing its singularity in the face-to-face with what is divine and absolute. Foucault objects to both liberalism and fundamentalism that by assuming cultural identifications as facts, instead of free inventions, the individual is kept from becoming divine in and as a singular. The only effective response to the fundamentalist challenge, then, would be to acknowledge politically the divinity of every singular. A cultural right is just the name given to this political acknowledgment.

A cultural right opens up a political space for the individual to pursue not the humanity which it has already become but the humanity which it has not yet transgressed itself into. In this sense, a cultural right coincides with what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.” The “right to have rights” denotes the right to “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.” Under the liberal system of rights the right to have rights is not recognized as such: it is not a free cultural space and a space of cultural freedom open to all. Rather, this right is denied by being assumed as a cultural fact that grants to some, and excludes others, access to natural and political rights, narrowing the possibilities of freedom for all. The “place in the world” where what one says passes from being insignificant, either because unheard or already said, to being significant, and what one does passes from being ineffective, either because ignored or already done, to being effective denotes a time and a space carved out whenever a form of legitimate rule is opened to the demands of those who do not want to be governed, those who desire no-rule, to individuals understood as singulars.

The space-time in which the right to have rights exists is that of a new democratic revolution. Foucault and Arendt have left us with the urgent task to think the “lost treasure” of our revolutionary traditions in order to be able to articulate the right to have rights, the right to be different, into the liberal system of rights that legitimate current forms of domination. Short of doing this, the ghost of Schmitt will linger with us for a long time to come.