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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.

Settler Society, Global Empire: Aziz Rana and Nikhil Singh on the American State

14 Sep

Aziz Rana, who’s a professor of law at Cornell, is one of my favorite of the younger generation of political theorists who are transforming our understanding of some of the basic paradigms of political science. I discovered his work a few years ago, when I got a copy of his first book The Two Faces of Freedom. That book just came out in paperback. Since then, he’s been kind enough to share with me several chapters from his new project on a different tradition of American constitutionalism, one that we might call anti-constitutionalism or an alternative constitutionalism, that seeks to take down the text from its pedestal and put in its place, and that explores it came to its position atop that pedestal. He’s one of those theorists from whom, whatever he writes, I learn and come away with all sorts of new thoughts in my head.

In August, Jacobin published a really great interview with him, conducted by Nikhil Singh, about The Two Faces of Freedom. Some excerpts here; I urge you to buy the book.

• • • • • 

I argue that for all the basic transformations in the US in the twentieth century — from the rise of the administrative state to civil rights successes — the country’s internal institutions and external practices have retained settler structures. A key theme of my historical account involves the rejection of the idea that, even if settlerism oriented early American history, it has little to say about the present.

For many left-liberals, a common move is to recognize the country’s oppressive roots, but then to argue that through a combination of the New Deal in the 1930s and the so-called Second Reconstruction in the 1960s, the nation was in effect fundamentally transformed on free and equal grounds. So they reject a conservative reading of the founding as perfect and unmarred, but nonetheless participate in the overall creedal story of self-fulfillment and redemption.

My view, by contrast, is that creedal arguments gained prominence out of a sense of ideological uncertainty that enveloped the United States in the early twentieth century. In particular, the closing of the frontier and the country’s emergence onto the global stage with the Spanish American War raised basic questions about the future of colonial settlement as well as the meaning of American power in the world.

In this context, many American elites began to rally around a specific reading of American universalism as the defining characteristic of the community. This view separated European imperialism on the one hand from American global influence on the other, with the latter depicted as benign tutelage fundamentally in keeping with the basic interests of nonwhite peoples.

Such civic arguments steadily reimagined the country in more inclusive terms. But, critically, they also provided an ideological framework that allowed classically privileged American insiders to preserve the basic institutional structures of the polity — those of an increasingly completed settler project — while at the same time asserting greater authority internationally.

As a result, although the country’s identity shifted from a settler to a civic nation, the roots persisted — Americans never properly confronted the country’s colonial infrastructure or its imperial legacies.

Furthermore, all of this occurs in the context of an expansive bureaucratic state, a lasting institutional legacy of mid-twentieth century American political development. This administrative state is organized around an increasingly centralized presidential system and is both infused with corporate interests as well as insulated from mobilized popular pressure. I should note that I am avowedly statist in my politics; I believe strongly in the democratic potential of both the state and its bureaucratic infrastructure.

So the problem for me is not state power as such, but the corporatist mode of state power that dominates American politics. The rise of this particular form means that, paradoxically, just as marginalized communities in the past half century have gained formal rights and greater electoral power, the public’s overall capacity to direct large-scale economic and political institutions has seen a sharp decline.

The second type of pushback is that by describing the internal practice of self-rule within settler society as a rich account of freedom, I am, in effect, legitimating settler practices (the concern you highlight). I think this is a fair worry and one that I’ve struggled with.

My basic theoretical position is that freedom and subordination are inextricably connected to one another in any historical context. Moreover, groups understand the meaning of freedom in particular conditions in relation to those modes of oppression that are prevalent on the ground.

For me, the expansive notion of freedom as self-rule — as a condition of popular authority over economic and political life — which emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century, developed precisely out of close proximity to its living negations: slavery and native expropriation. Settler laborers in particular came to see freedom as more than just formal political and legal rights, but actual control over the conditions of production, economic independence, and democratic self-government. This was a robust vision, albeit deeply circumscribed given that the heart of settler ideology was that such freedom at root required native removal and exploited labor.

Thus, to universalize settler liberty — as I argue for in the book — would require a fundamental restructuring of American life. This is something radical critics themselves perceived at various moments in American history. It would mean thinking about how a democratic principle could actually govern all institutional sites and provide all communities with meaningful economic and political power.

Such an effort would transform, root and branch, settler legacies and living practices: from recognizing Indian sovereignty to fundamentally altering the structure of the economy to challenging the border as a closed barrier. The key thing to note is that such freedom, although emerging from a settler past, would no longer perpetuate settlerism.

This speaks to what I see as the dialectical character of freedom, where the conflict between an initial account of liberty and its opposition produces something new. And similarly, I would add that I do not believe that if we ever “universalized” settler freedom this would mean the end of subordination once and for all. Rather, in keeping with the dialectical vision, even successful projects of emancipation generate new legal and political orders that knit together secured liberties with emerging hierarchies.

First, a remarkable feature of US domestic conversations about capitalism and economic inequality is the extent to which they are often separated from conversations about the application of US power abroad. As just one example, take the issue of immigration and immigrant rights, a focal point of new labor organizing on the one hand and conservative reaction on the other.

The overwhelming tendency is to present immigration as an issue that begins at the national border, with virtually no attention paid to the particular histories, international economic pressures, and specific US foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place. The movement of men and women from their homes does not occur in a vacuum and is deeply tied to patterns of colonization and empire that stitch together the Global North and the Global South, as well as to the recent security politics of the US and Europe across the post-colonial world.

Why Arendt might not have read Benito Cereno (if she did indeed not read Benito Cereno)

12 Sep

For a change of pace…

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.

Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)

I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.

Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.

Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.

If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.

In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught usBenito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)

Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.

It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?

 

 

Capitalism and Slavery

1 Aug

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.

But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.

What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.

There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.

Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

The Higher Sociopathy

28 Jul

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it's now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?

A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

The Limits of Libertarianism

12 Jul

If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:

The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.

The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.

Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.

The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.

For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.

Update (1:15 pm)

Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.

Why Go After Women and Workers? The Reactionary Mind Explains It All For You.

30 Jun

On a day when the conservative majority on the Supreme Court takes direct aim at women and workers, I thought I’d quote these last lines from The Reactionary Mind:

Conservatism has dominated American politics for the past forty years….Consistent with this book’s argument about the private life of power, the most visible effort of the GOP since the 2010 midterm election has been to curtail the rights of employees and the rights of women. While the right’s success in these campaigns is by no means assured, the fact that the Republicans have taken aim at the last redoubt of the labor movement and the entirety of Planned Parenthood gives some indication of how far they’ve come. The end (in both senses of the word) of the right’s long march against the twentieth century may be in sight.

Also from The Reactionary Mind, on the private life of power:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been Adams’s: cede the field of the public, if you must, stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field. The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power—even at the cost of the strength and integrity of the state….

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose.

Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

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