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Barack Obama’s Upside-Down Schmittianism

18 Sep

Reading this post by David Cole—on Obama’s unauthorized war on ISIS—my mind drifts to the German political theorist Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt famously defined the sovereign as “he who decides on the exception.”

Long established and stable constitutional regimes presume and rest atop legal routines, social patterns, political order, normalcy: “For a legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist.” In such situations, political authority is constrained by a set of rules and its exercise of power is almost as predictable as the social order itself.

But there are moments in the life (and death) of a society that exceed the boundaries of these laws and routines, moments, as Schmitt says, when “the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” Such moments are ones of grave existential threat. The decision as to whether we are in such a moment—that is, whether we are confronting “a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state”—is not self-evident. Such a decision cannot be made in accordance with, cannot be prescribed or contained by, these laws and routines. Such a decision does not emanate from a constitutionally authorized office or conform to a preestablished list of specified conditions. It must instead by made ex nihilo; it necessarily “emanates from nothingness.” It is a decision that, in the very doing, sets out and enacts the grounds and norms of its own justification.

He who makes such a decision is sovereign.

I was reminded of Schmitt’s teaching, as I said, by Cole’s post on Obama’s unauthorized war on ISIS. Here’s Cole:

In his speech, President Obama avoided the word “war,” but that is the more common word for the kind of sustained military campaign he described. And under our constitution, the president cannot go to war without congressional approval except in narrow circumstances not present here.

Obama has given no indication that he intends to seek Congress’s authorization for airstrikes. There has been some talk of obtaining approval to send troops to train Iraqi forces, but Obama apparently thinks he doesn’t need any authorization to drop bombs from the sky with the aim of killing human beings—even in a country, Syria, where he plainly will have no permission from the sovereign to do so….On Meet the Press this Sunday, Obama claimed, “I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people.” The host, Chuck Todd, didn’t press him on where that asserted authority comes from. Congress certainly has not given it.

Under the Constitution, whether to use military force is Congress’s decision, not the president’s. The framers gave Congress the power “to declare war” and even to authorize lesser uses of force, through what were at the time called “letters of marque and reprisal.”…

There is one situation in which the president can use military force without congressional authorization—when responding in self-defense to an attack or an imminent attack. But Obama has not made that argument in announcing the campaign against ISIS. As he said on Meet the Press, “I want everybody to understand that we have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL. That’s not what this is about.”

I am quite sympathetic to Cole’s argument, but something about its relation to American history gives me pause. Take Latin America. In the last two centuries, the United States has intervened militarily in that continent literally dozens of times. In Mexico, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Cuba, and more. It has sent troops, occupied cities, killed foreign soldiers, overthrown governments, created new governments, and governed militarily. The history of the United States in Latin America is of one damn war, at least as Cole understands that term, after another. And only two of them declared by Congress. Both in the nineteenth century.

Thinking about Obama’s war on ISIS in the context of that history, it’s hard for me to summon anything but a “shocked shocked” indifference to the president’s disregard for the Constitution. I’m not proud of that, and I’m not trying to proffer a knowing cynicism against Cole’s quite sound legal arguments. It’s just the history that overwhelms me.

Which brings me back to Schmitt.

Against virtually everything Schmitt argued in Political Theology—he does offer this throwaway line as a parenthetical observation: “not every extraordinary measure, not every police emergency or emergency decree, is necessarily an exception”—in the Unites States, the legally and constitutionally prescribed path to war has been the exception, and the unauthorized, extra-legal (if not illegal) military expedition has been the rule. At this point, he who would decide the exception—that is, he who would be sovereign, he who would make a decision that “emanates from nothingness”—would be he who seeks a constitutionally authorized congressional declaration of war.

We thus confront a situation of upside-down Schmittianism, in which war is “the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition” and law “the power of real life” that might break through. Which could be grounds for hope, were it not for the fact that the law is almost as lifeless as the victims of America’s torpid, repetitive wars.

An Imperial Shit

19 Jun

Readers of this blog will know—I hope—that I have a nearly physical revulsion toward all things imperial and militarist. But sometimes I have a reaction that points in the opposite direction. When terrible things happen to other people in other countries, and the cries for humanitarian intervention mount, I feel an emotional tug: We should do something to stop those terrible things! But then I think about someone who lives somewhere that doesn’t house a planetary armory. Does my doppelganger in Costa Rica or Lichtenstein feel that same tug? I don’t mean the natural human empathy for people who suffer; I mean that combination of guilt and duty that makes one feel like a shit, a bad person, for not doing anything or for opposing those who want to do something. I’m curious about this—how the state’s possession of a global artillery, and its assumption of a global duty, insinuates itself into the inner life of the imperial citizen, how a humanitarian sense of guilt and responsibility is the privilege, the lived experience, of imperial power. At least as that power is experienced by its holders.

The Calculus of Their Consent: Gary Becker, Pinochet, and the Chicago Boys

5 May

The economist Gary Becker has died. Kieran Healy has a great write-up on Foucault’s engagement with Becker; Kathy Geier has a very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family. And some more personal reminiscences of taking a class with Becker.

Kathy mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?

In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.

No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.

But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. The MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees from Chile began discussions  about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. The purpose in meeting there would prove avowedly propagandist. As the organization’s own newsletter later acknowledged, the conference provided participants with an opportunity

for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).

Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak on a conference panel titled “Education, Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an early agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.

The Washington Post: America’s Imperial Scribes

4 Oct

Vo Nguyen Giap, the military leader of the Vietnamese resistance to French and American domination, has died. The Washington Post has a decent obituary, but this bit of language really caught my eye.  Listen carefully to the different verbs that are used to describe the actions of the US versus those of the Vietnamese, post-Geneva Accords.

At the Geneva Conference that followed the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was divided into two countries: north and south. In the north, the Communist Party ruled under the leadership of Ho. With the French colonialists out of the picture, an ambitious land-reform program was undertaken, for which Gen. Giap would later apologize. “[W]e . . . executed too many honest people . . . and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread. . . . Worse still, torture came to be regarded as a normal practice,” he was quoted as having said by Neil Sheehan in his Pulitzer-winning 1988 book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”

In the south, the United States replaced France as the major foreign influence. CIA operatives worked to blunt communist initiatives, and by the early 1960s, U.S. soldiers began arriving as “advisers” to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Men and supplies flowed southward from Hanoi, and indigenous guerrilla units throughout South Vietnam began raiding government troops and installations. The United States increased its level of support, which by 1968 had reached 500,000 military personnel.

So in 1954, Vietnam was merely “divided.” By no one. In the North, the Communists “ruled,” “executed” innocents, and “tortured.” In the South, the US merely “replaced” France as an “influence.” The CIA “worked,” American soldiers “arrived,” supplies “flowed,” the US “increased support.”

Sixty years later, America’s imperial scribes are still at the top of their game.

I feel about Henry Kissinger the way Edmund Burke felt about Warren Hastings

11 Sep

I feel about Henry Kissinger the way Edmund Burke felt about Warren Hastings:

We charge this Offender with…nothing, that does not argue a total extinction of all moral principle; that does not manifest an inveterate blackness of heart, died in grain with malice, vitiated, corrupted, gangrened to the very core….We charge him with nothing, that he did not commit upon deliberation;…They were crimes, not against forms, but against those eternal laws of justice….

…We have brought before you the Chief of the tribe, the Head of the whole body of Eastern offenders; a Captain-general of iniquity, under whom all the fraud, all the peculation, all the tyranny, in India, are embodied, disciplined, arrayed, and paid. This is the person, my Lords, that we bring before you. We have brought before you such a person, that, if you strike at him with the firm and decided arm of justice, you will not have need of a great many more examples. You strike at the whole corps, if you strike at the head.

There might have been a time in the American empire when that last bit was true of Kissinger. Sadly, no more.

It’s 9/11. Do you know where Henry Kissinger is?

11 Sep

Readers who grew up in the New York area in the 70s will remember the “It’s 10 pm. Do you know where your children are?” tagline.

 

Well, it’s 9/11, the 40th anniversary of the coup that overthrew Allende. Do you know where Henry Kissinger is?

Update (11:30 am)

Turns out, we do: he’s meeting with John Kerry about Syria.

Snitches and Whistleblowers: Who would you rather be?

10 Jun

Who would you rather be?

This guy?

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Or this guy?

Harvey Matusow testifying before Senate Internal Subcommittee

Harvey Matusow testifying before Senate Internal Subcommittee

The twentieth century was the century of Matusow, Kazan, and other assorted informers, informants, and snitches, behind the Iron Curtain, in Nazi Germany, in Latin America, in the United States. Everywhere.

Let the 21st be the century of Snowden, Manning, and more.

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