Unending controversy, raw and existential, attaches to Carl Schmitt, but Paul Kahn cleverly (and, given his aims, rightly) avoids all, or almost all, of that by taking Political Theology as a pure reference text and simply rewriting it in his own idiom and according to his own inclinations. This is a bold move, which works well, though in the end I am not persuaded. And persuasion is in fact very much the name of the game, for Kahn is preoccupied with what he thinks of as “rhetoric”—philosophy and politics as dialogue and persuasion. Thus, he refers throughout to the inclusive “we,” an imagined community of Americans in general and liberals in particular. Because I do not belong to that community, I am not rhetorically addressed, which is not to say that the exercise fails to stimulate.
Schmitt’s basic idea, in the Theology, is that any normal constitutional order of “sovereignty” presupposes the abnormal, the exception, and the right to decide when that condition exists. Beyond the norm and the normal, then, there is no super-norm that informs all the others; there is only the lurking decision about the exception of existential emergency. That “space” becomes the overdeterminant of sovereignty. What makes this “theological” in a hidden way is that (i) actual historical developments turned Christian/religious notions into secularized concepts of the state; and (ii) those concepts, by analogy, include the premise of the miracle, here turned into the “exception.” Deism and liberalism eventually banished both God and the miracle from the proceedings, creating an agreeable façade of order, normality, rationality, science, legitimacy, and civilized conversation amongst those of requisite, recognized competence. The transcendent power is bracketed, the immanent will of the people or nation becomes constitutive.
Kahn’s riff on this is, strictly speaking, not a gloss; he has not set out to expand the contended body of Schmittiana. He wants instead to argue the case for Schmitt’s decisional exception and political theology in a contemporary U.S. liberal frame—a tall order. Moreover, he insists that such a Schmittian Ansatz inevitably serves to reveal “the sacred” element in the political. Rewriting the individual chapters of Political Theology in a dialogical (the “we”), and sometimes digressive, way, he makes many other points that I shall have to leave aside, such as his fascinating claims (to my amateur eye) about law and Hans Kelsen.
Nonetheless, I was surprised at the direction of Kahn’s argument. I had expected a reflection on the problem of sovereignty as such in the United States, viz. where it might reside. Schmitt himself invokes the well-known passages from Tocqueville to the effect that “the people” assumes the character of God, the beginning and end of all. Tocqueville, however, considered that religious element an optical trace of a moment that had, in world-historical terms, passed, whilst Kahn maintains the postulate of popular sovereignty (the premise, in a way, of the whole exercise), and thus the case for a political theology to account for it, that is, for the continued relevance of the very problem of sovereignty.
Yet this is where the U.S. itself (or, before the Civil War, themselves) famously becomes the “exception.” Who decides? “The people” is variously embodied in the United States, a purposely decentered system whose only nationally elected person/office is that of the president. It has never been obvious where the unity of the union actually lies. Massive violence in the form of a civil war, during which the great emancipator himself took the decision to suspend habeas corpus, decided the matter (if only partly). Still, the state is one thing, sovereignty another. The quasi-monarchical presidency is indeed the closest authority to embodied decision. Symptomatically, it is an authority conceived explicitly in the space of foreign relations. “We the people,” in the form of the president, have in fact decided on the exception—following from exigencies real and imagined—on many occasions, often with astonishing license and arbitrariness. This, quite clearly, is in line with the European model that forms the historical reference point for Schmitt: the advent of territorialized state sovereignties whose existential being is determined chiefly, not by domestic dangers, but by foreign ones. Let us call it the geopolitical imperative.
One might then grasp the trajectory of the United States as a jagged line of increasing “sovereign-presidential” power, a process whose very uneveness was conditioned, up to a point, by remarkable security, or the relative absence of the geopolitical imperative. A combined, dual “abnormality,” then, marks the normality of the United States, with some punctuating exceptions, all the way up until the 1940s: a relative “lack” of geopolitically charged institutions, along with the domestic state apparatuses that usually (meaning in the European context) go with them. Most states, well into the twentieth century, are, after all, all about war or the preparation for war. Inescapable invocations of Hegel to the contrary, the kind of state (as opposed to sovereignty) that did emerge in this case was actually effective, with law, mostly as autopoetic process, serving as state. Exceptional moments were typically occasioned either by the few events, sometimes artificially created, of foreign crisis (1798, 1812, 1846 [?], 1898, 1917-20), or by the domestic incapacity to deal with states’ rights and/or slavery (e.g., the nullification crisis of 1831, the Civil War).
World War II changes everything, creating the opening for what will become, after 1947, the national security state, based on the notion of a permanent exception in the name of global cold war, a peace that is no peace but no overt war either. In a word: the imperial presidency, we-the-people as articulated sovereignty in a battle of life and death. I myself think that this was objectively over (in an abstract, Schmittian sense) by 1963, but not many agree, choosing instead to parrot endlessly the conventional formula that “the end of the Cold War” is the same as the end of the Soviet Union, in 1989-1991. We-the-people, in any case, is up for grabs because of Vietnam and the cock-ups in the sovereign name of exception perpetrated by the Nixon regime. Whatever one’s periodization, however, it is obvious that the permanent “emergency” begins to fade structurally, what with regularized great-power management and the relative stability of mutually assured destruction (which Kahn takes, to the contrary, to be the very essence of the Cold War). Two attempts at abnormality, which I sometimes imagine as irrevocably postmodern, have thence been made to regenerate the exception: Reagan’s second Cold War, in the early 1980s, and W. Bush’s “War on Terror/ism.”
The former was really pastiche, but the latter offered up some novelty from our present viewpoint. For what, seemingly, could be more Schmittian than George W. Bush’s claim to global supremacy? We, the United States (meaning “I”), have the right to decide on the exception, the state of global emergency, and what can and must be done above and beyond the existing norm: that is about as straightforward a claim to sovereignty on a global scale as one can imagine. (Schmitt has indeed been accused, anachronistically, for having provided a frame for the neocons of recent times, though his name, of course, was never invoked.) Obama’s explicit pragmatism can then be seen as a return to “normality”—the judicious weighing of pros and cons in a spirit of multilateralism—if not to the financialized normality of Clinton’s globalism.
I think this is right up to a point but ultimately wrong: Obama’s pragmatism is a departure from exceptionalism (not a term I like, but that’s another story) in that the United States appears as a product of contingent historical circumstances having nothing inherently to do with any transcendent designs or predestined functions; but, at the same time, and by the same token, it is what it is, namely, the indispensable nation, the guarantor of order in the last instance, and so on. The end result is in some ways a more interesting Schmittian condition than the posture of George W. Bush: the last instance never comes, but it still exists; it is not dominant but still overdeterminant; the exception and the right to decide on it still hover above the proceedings of pragmatic bureaucracy.
All of which is both arguable and (at least to me) of the greatest interest. Kahn, however, is only intermittently concerned with the geopolitical imperative, because his central endeavor and argument is about Schmitt and the liberal political community, the existence and existential phenomenology of “the people,” and, above all, the character of “popular sovereignty.” Schmitt is famously anti-liberal, so Kahn recasts sovereignty specifically as “popular sovereignty.” His whole effort is grounded in the thesis that this kind of sovereignty still exists (in the United States), and that, contrary to received opinion, this condition is in turn not accountable for in simple terms of reason, contract theory, or interest group politics: the kind of “normal” perspectives that find rules, norms, law, adjudication, and interests at the heart of politics but leave no space for sovereignty or the exception. Kahn thinks the popular sovereign entails an irreducibly mystical element that has to do with faith rather than reason. The state (the nation-state, in fact) can demand in the last instance that its citizens sacrifice themselves on its behalf, that one be called upon to kill and to risk death in its name. Normative communities such as churches, Wall Street firms, and what not can do no such thing: “The state remains a site of life and death; its territory remains sacred ground; its history is a narrative of the self-revelation of the popular sovereign.” Hence, theoretically and methodologically, we need a political theology rather than mere political science of the purely secular kind. The state, incomprehensible in a solely secular frame, should be approached in two conceptual ways: genealogically and analogically. The first refers to the historical “translation” of religious (chiefly Christian, in effect) categories into secular ones (viz. God/the People), while the second locates atemporal, structural identities such as that between miracle and exception. (Kahn does not use the terms, but one might see this as a combination of the diachronic and the synchronic.)
The United States, against this background, appears in sharp contrast to Europe—more precisely, to ‘‘the European Union,” which so often arrogates the continental name to itself. Whereas the popular sovereign survives in the United States, the EU has become, or was always conceived to be, a normative compound of law, regulations, and ideology without any ultimate sovereign. No one will die for the EU. It is not sacred. The United States is sacred. One reason is that, unforgettably, it was created in and by Revolution, the ultimate exception. It is a nation-state under law created by the kind of faith, decision, and sacrifice that are expressed in Revolution (the experience of creation ex nihilo, as well as destruction). Decision of this order is thus not extralegal but intrinsic to the whole operation.
Kahn, then, wants to recover, or perhaps construct anew, a particular notion of the popular sovereign by using a political-theological frame without the anti-liberal politics—a Schmittian way of doing political theory but not a Schmittian politics to go with it. Hence, he departs most explicitly from the script once he reaches Schmitt’s arch-reactionary fourth chapter. The argument has now turned to Faith and Freedom, not to mention Choice. Faith precedes doctrine and theory; faith involves decisions and the exceptional; faith therefore involves freedom, which is what Kahn—rightly, in his own terms—assumes liberalism to be about. Sovereignty in a Schmittian frame, then, becomes a way of reconstituting the liberal community of citizens, the authoritative voice of the people, choosing in freedom amidst the ultimate, sacred commitment to, and necessity of, sacrifice. But, to use Kahn’s operative notion of rhetoric, how persuasive is this?
There is, initially, a combined archaeological and conceptual objection, or, at least, a question mark. Schmitt’s thinking is more genealogical than analogical. He wants to know how it is that liberal modernity ends up with such an anodyne theory of politics. He wants to know what it is about the translation of Christian frames and categories into putatively secular ones that renders the normative approach so pleasing and agreeable. So it is a two-pronged attack: demonstrating, procedurally, the antinomies of proceduralism (the decision on the exception is occluded, but it is nevertheless constitutive of the norm and the normal), and demonstrating, historically, how this occlusion came to be. Schmitt’s delineation of sovereignty is a polemic, most immediately against the bourgeois legalism of Kelsen and the neo-Kantians, against their timeless normativity and proceduralism. Like Hegel and Marx, he insists, against Kant, on the historical (or genealogical) as opposed to the timeless. Unlike them, however, he does so not by introducing the social, which inevitably cuts across formalism by injecting substance and actual content, but by revealing the theological origins and translations, the historical analogies, of current political concepts. The limitation of this approach is also its virtue: the relentless stringency of its peculiarly anti-sociological “sociology” of concepts. What it reveals is the typically depoliticizing and “normalizing” nature of bourgeois politics. I myself find that demasking operation useful from a socialist standpoint; but Schmitt can be useful from any number of standpoints, because his account does not take, or presuppose, a normative or ideological stand as such. Thus, while in the Theology he invokes, in the different idiom of original sin, de Maistre and Donoso Cortes, this is only one possible response—and not a necessary one—to his own genealogical diagnosis.
Notably, that response does not center on sacrifice and the sacred. In fact, this problem is not Schmitt’s. His opus contains no elaboration of it. Kahn thinks, by contrast, and almost by slippage, that all political theology presupposes the sacred. (His overlapping interlocutor here is Giorgio Agamben, whose take, however, goes in other directions; René Girard, meanwhile, is oddly absent, as, incidentally, are Hardt and Negri.) The obviousness of this connection strikes me as dubious. Natural law in the Thomasian tradition certainly presupposes sacred authority; but is the sacred/sacrifice its constitutive feature? In any case, Kahn’s account is less genealogical and more analogical: his political theology is one of contemporary identity, synchrony, its rhetorical aim being to assert the contemporary relevance of sovereignty and the sacred nature of politics. The focus on sacrifice and the sacred fits his phenomenological and existentialist orientation (ultimately with Kahn, we are in the realm of “experience”). A different kind of political theology, that of original sin or Hobbesian dastardly deeds, makes no sense to Kahn in the contemporary world, at least in the context of popular sovereignty. This dismissal may well be a little hasty, what with a Commander-in-Chief who likes to invoke Reinhold Niebuhr (not mentioned in Kahn) and the inevitable moral ambiguities of politics. The enabling uses of “ambiguity” and notions of ever-present “shortcomings” in moral fortitude and epistemological command have been well-known since the heyday of the Cold War, in the 1950s. Our current “pragmatics” are, from that angle, eminently theological in a Niebuhrian sense, though the rubric “Christian Realism” has predictably gone out of fashion.
One is confronted, then, by the liberal Kahn exalting the sacred nation/community as popular sovereignty, while the reactionary Schmitt says nothing at all about it. Schmitt’s preoccupation, seemingly a perfectly coherent Catholic one, is in fact not the nation, whether in its conservative, organic form or its liberal, popular one; it is the nature of the political and the sovereign, wherever. Arguably, part of the exercise of bringing sovereignty to the fore is precisely to unsettle notions of “the people” in any shape or form, and especially the kind that Kahn advocates. Kahn then complicates the picture. He recognizes that the postmodern condition—what he also refers to in quotation marks as a “post-epochal age”—militates against any Grand Analogy. Nevertheless, he insists, as he must, on the last instance of the sacrifice and the sacred, a last instance that actually comes or might very well come: the exception, our popular-sovereign decision to put our lives on the line.
I am sympathetic, in a way, to that argumentative impulse, but life (or “experience”) in the United States has gone in a very different direction since the 1960s. The ever-present notion of sacred territory corresponds inversely, one might say, to the willingness to sacrifice on its behalf. Ritualistic evocations of “America” (where else would politicians of all ilks end their perorations with the equivalent of “God bless America”?) and the deep-seated sense that somehow the United States is sacrosanct space—war, by definition, taking place elsewhere—are ways of being toward the world that mask an overwhelming desire, sometimes ferocious, to avoid all sacrifices: professionalized (class-based) military, ridiculously low taxes (especially for high earners), lax popular engagement, minimal obligations, a dislike for central authority bordering on hatred. The “exception” was extended into the 1950s by means of the Cold War (which was in fact the intention), but the last time the sacrifice was generally accepted was indeed the last: Vietnam. From then on, the geopolitical imperative has looked different. Accepting the globalism of the U.S. in one form or another is one thing; sacrificing for it is an altogether different one. Sovereignty, the right to decide on the exception, has thus typically resided in the geopolitical imperative, and it has been experienced on the outside. Few foreigners make any mistake about the importance of U.S. geopolitics and the “right” that it seems to embody.
Kahn is right not to see political theology as an attempt to read politics as a theologian (along the lines of Schmitt’s favorite reactionary, Donoso Cortes) but to insist on its analytical place in any account of the U.S. as a political entity. It is impossible to grasp the United States without a (genealogical) account of its secularized Christian frame. The United States is radical Protestantism writ large. To me, however, destinarianism, chosenness, messianism, covenantalism (to name but a few of the most obvious tropes) seem more pertinent than sacrifice and the sacred. I also agree with Kahn about the conceptual myopia of “the normative metaphysics of liberal political theory” as regards the non-secular. Permit me a personal anecdote, about a seminar talk on “European integration,” a perennial model-building topic of political science. A senior scholar in the field told us why his particular model explained it and others failed. Eventually, trying to be historical, I made bold and asked whether the model could account for the fact that the founders of what would become the EU were Catholics with a pronounced, postwar devotion to the civilizational and integrational precepts of a neo-Carolingian “west.” Nervous laughter ensued, intimating that this irrelevant comment was nothing less than a breach of etiquette.
Political theology, that being said, is never the whole. And Kahn recognizes this. When it comes to the whole, however, I must ultimately place myself, contra both Schmitt and Kahn’s own Rousseauian sovereignty, in line with the Hegelian-Marxist insistence on the centrality and determinacy of class and capitalism.
Tags: American exceptionalism, American history, Barack Obama, capitalism, Cold War, foreign policy, George W. Bush, history, international affairs, political theology, pragmatism, sacrifice, socialism, the sacred, U.S. Intellectual History, war