Making a Difference: Meta-politics, Anti-politics and Political Ontology

The centrality, to our political discourse, of Muslim terrorism based, not just on claims of retaliation for past or present transgressions, but on assertions of the universal jurisdiction of the Caliphate, is the latest of a long history of signs indicating that war is no longer a matter of relations between states. WWII already signaled the beginning of the end of the modern European nomos of the earth (to use Schmitt’s term) and the international norms that accompanied it: trying the leading Nazis for actions committed as members of the German government, on the one hand, and the incorporation of guerilla warfare into the laws of war, on the other, were deviations from the traditional political order that were meant to preserve, but merely accelerated the degeneration of, that order. If war is no longer restricted to relations between states, then politics is no longer only, or, eventually, even primarily, a relation between citizens focused on the same state, as the proliferation of NGOs and elite powwows like Davos and other globalist fora makes obvious. Indeed, unless states suddenly get very good at fighting Islamic terror—something the pathological determination most Western leaders to import far more of it makes very unlikely—individual citizens, alone and in self-created associations and alliances, will increasingly take on the task of not only defending themselves against the jihad but at carrying out the reprisals and pre-emptive actions they consider appropriate. This won’t be a war of all against all (as if there ever could be such a thing), but a war, however dirty, of civilization against barbarism and savagery.

One effect of reducing the world to the war of civilization against barbarism would be to continue the dispersal of politics beyond its modern forms of containment, which ultimately means the utter elimination of politics. I don’t mean that people will no longer assemble, cooperate, confer with each other, argue about the best course to take, and so on, or that they will cease do these things within ever changing constraints—of course, we will continue to do these things, perhaps with a far greater seriousness and effectiveness than we do now. I don’t even mean that there will no longer be elections for various offices. What I do mean is that, assuming the war of civilization is being conducted with any chance of success, all deliberations will be directed to and decisions ultimately made by responsible agents delegated to perform specific civilization supporting and enhancing functions—not to representatives of society as a whole. (Such representatives may continue to exist—they will just become increasingly irrelevant—again, assuming the defense of civilization is taken on seriously.) This is because the ongoing frozen in amber civil war in liberal democracies that we call “politics” is only possible as a leisure activity once the gains of civilization have been secured and appear beyond threat. The truth is, the competing political parties in the democratic world have never really accepted each other’s legitimacy, other than perhaps during the brief periods when the parties have represented social classes that are clearly interdependent, but even then only to a limited extent; or, to the extent that the two parties cooperate so well as to become in effect a single, governing, party. The parties were formed in the civil wars that set in once the civilizing process had been sufficiently forgotten, and can always be resolved back into the presumably more elemental social identities (worker vs. merchant, free men granted rights by nature vs. churched beings, etc.) that have resulted from and mask the civilizing process. But these civil wars were only possible once external threats to civilization have been eliminated for the foreseeable future—the English and French civil wars (and then the Napoleonic wars, and so on) could not have taken place while the Ottoman Empire remained perched on the doorstep of Europe; by the same token, the ongoing simulations of those civil wars can only continue as long as no new external threat emerges. The party system of the Western liberal democracies barely survived the first half of the 20th century, and it may have only been the extraordinary American pre-eminence following WWII that held things together up until now. Not only has that pre-eminence come to end, but the American system is also no less in crisis than the Europeans’.

The models of Nature that were taken to precede and predetermine the emergence of society and the state in liberal political theories are derived from abstractions from civilized social relations—perhaps Marx was the first to make this fairly obvious observation. The same is no less true of Marx’s model of homo laborans, abstracted from the factory system emergent in 19th century England. The abstract individual property owner, acting according to reasoned self-interested; the abstract worker acting according to collective interest and self-conscious solidarity; the individual consumer on the marketplace driven by desire—the political theories embedded in our political institutions come down to little more than various combinations of these models. The only way to simulate debates is by playing one model off against another, since none of them models a form of legitimate disagreement. (There is no way of differentiating the map extracted from human nature from the territory of social action.) The models, meanwhile, can only function as models if we have forgotten the self-and other-directed disciplining violence that made them possible. Traditionalist theories (like MacIntyre, Oakeshott, Voegelin, Strauss, etc.) and postmodern theories (Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, etc.) have done a good job of dismantling the liberal ones, but have nothing to replace them with—indeed, they are at their best when they resist the demand for alternatives. Libertarian theories can serve as a powerful “regulating ideal” on any new social order (it will always be helpful to ask “how would this be done if there were no government…”), but not only have 19th century Britain and America been the only societies even vaguely approximating a libertarian order, not only there is virtually no public support in any contemporary society for anything more than bits and pieces of one, but libertarians have the same problem of accounting for the boundary between civilization and its others, based as it is on the same liberal abstractions.

Hannah Arendt made the interesting observation that most political theories are really attempts to eliminate politics. The Western tradition has never really broken with Plato in that respect. Where, indeed, is the space for campaigning, fund-raising, sloganeering, smearing, organizing, and so on, in a society ruled by Hobbes’s Leviathan? All basic problems have been solved. The same is true of Locke’s more liberal version of the same order, which seems to require nothing more than a policing agency that one imagines private citizens could arrange for themselves. Rawls’s veil of ignorance could ultimately be reduced to an algorithm determining which social order (or which tweaks of the existing order) would be most beneficial to the least advantaged within it—that is, his theory also represents a desperate attempt to get rid of the real stuff of politics, that is, irreducible disagreements. At the most, historical developments throw up new problems that must be discussed, but even in those cases there must be a right answer (even if technocratic expertise always masks cynical improvisation). The American founders’ desire to avert the formation of political parties (while grudgingly accepting and seeking to neutralize “factions”) represents a somewhat more moderate version of the same desire to eliminate politics: ideally, a virtuous public would elect honorable men to perform clearly circumscribed duties. Post-War pluralist theories are just balancing acts, taking for granted all the parties to be balanced. It has become fashionable (first of all, largely due to Arendt herself) to celebrate the give and take, unpredictability, open-endedness and so on of politics against the philosophers, but maybe the anti-political stance can be defended on the terms I am proposing here without sacrificing the human freedom and initiative Arendt wanted to preserve. The cold civil war of politics (leaving aside government as a massive patronage system, in which it resembles feudalism) only pertains to competing models of social order that have in common the assumption that the process of civilization has been completed once and for all. Once the boundary between civilization and its others becomes visible, politics is beside the point.

(As an aside, I’ll mention that the spread and maintenance of free markets is itself only possible on terrain cleared by civilization—the assumption that we can all be free, disembedded actors on the marketplace is a very clear sign of an unchallenged civilizational space and on the utter forgetting of that space. Interestingly, only the openly totalitarian object to the market as such—mostly, it is “distortions” of the market that are resented. Such resentments, then, either fit into the simulacral competition between social models I just discussed, or, in some, probably few, cases, represent resentments on behalf of civilization against barbaric encroachments. )

It would also make sense to claim that totalitarian anti-politics is actually the origin of modern Western politics, which is to say that the modern left, or “social justice,” is that origin (the French Revolution, amplifying the English one), with totalitarian right-wing politics (Nazism in particular) being mimetically parasitic on left-wing revolutionary politics (Bolshevism). Liberal democratic politics has never been more than an attempt to neuter and contain these tendencies. Politics, in that case, has been invented only so as ultimately to dissolve back up into the economy or race—which is to say, in a new form of bureaucratic savagery; or to successfully neutralize all active social forces and thereby itself as well in an equally bureaucratic and therapeutic hyper/post-civilization. All politics are attempts to reduce and exploit the differences that flourish under civilization by insisting that those differences are deviations from a model of justice derived from an anthropological simplification. Resentments are converted into demands for taxes on civilization to pay for deprivations of full anthropological presence, rather than expanded participation in civilization. A civilizing practice of anti-politics would resist all this simply by insisting on the truth that deferral and discipline sustain an upward virtuous spiral.

Still, in a sense a civilizational anti-politics would have to operate or appear as a kind of politics, at least until the totalitarian temptation at the origin of modern politics is extinguished. Civilization is the self-perpetuation and self-enhancement of deferral as discipline—in a civilized order, existing forms of discipline prompt others to invent new kinds. The left, meanwhile, is obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality. All differences for the left, therefore, are instances of stolen centrality (gradations of marginality), while all differences for the civilizational intelligence are markers of disciplinary increments. This conflict brings us to the most fundamental or ontological level of politics, where politics is distinguished from non-politics: the distinction between differences as a series of zero-sum games (which ultimately means they are not real, just arenas where death matches are staged) and differences as originary and generative. The struggle between defenders of civilizational intelligence and the stokers of political flames is the struggle to convert politics to pedagogy.

Why pedagogy? The difference between the more and the less disciplined is manifested as exemplarity: the more disciplined show the less the way. This may be done didactically, in closed spaces set aside for the purpose; or in indirect, suggestive, subtle ways. It includes apprenticeship, parenting, role modeling, forms of leadership and accomplishment. Pedagogy involves the intensified awareness and diversion of mimesis, and therefore makes explicit our dependence on future generations. The maintenance of civilization is therefore completely bound up with pedagogy, on the willingness both to exert it and to submit to it. And we are equal insofar as we are always doing both, because to teach is to learn how to teach, to learn from the student, which we can always get better at. In this way, we can see the hysterics of today’s victimary youth as a demand for more exemplarity—which might explain quite a bit (who wouldn’t want to rebel against such pathetic leaders?). Each difference they decry is for us a sample of the salutary effects of deferral and discipline.

Pedagogy directed towards entrance into and contributions to disciplinary spaces would provide us with all the differences we could ever imagine or desire, and space for all the deliberation, hypothesizing and argumentation needed to exercise and engage our intellects. It will always be possible to disagree in productive ways regarding the process of teaching and learning. And pedagogy is nothing more than the directing of attention from the objects we desire to the habits of deferral that make those objects possible, in the course of which new increments of deferral and new objects of desire, tied to what the Austrian economists call lesser “time preference,” are generated. The marginalization of the state and national and international law place each individual (in all of our associations) on the boundary line between civilization and barbarism, where politics is converted to pedagogy, at least on the civilized side of the line. It is clear what must be defended on that boundary: difference, as produced by discipline, and the inquiry (intellectual and esthetic) into the boundary itself. And what must be opposed: difference as evidence of victimization and therefore a fraudulent center. But “opposed” less in the sense forcibly removed then converted into hypotheses to which we submit the counter. (Force, of course, may be necessary to protect the spaces in which this procedure is made possible.)

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