America agonistes

The exchange over the weekend between Rex and Fuster has helped me to organize some thoughts about American conservatism.  I hope to have something more hopeful or positive to say at a later time, but, in a way that I trust Rex at least will appreciate, for now I’m stuck in the tragical mode that he favors.

Responding to Rex’s comment (expanded into the “Cheer-up…” post) on America as the hero of Samson Agonistes, Fuster writes:

I think that we have a tremendous opportunity to use some of our money wisely right now in Pakistan to save some lives and salvage many more. i worry that a good start, with money and effort well spent, is going to lead to further tragedy in Pakistan as our money slows and our patience wanes and we associate ourselves with another bad bargain patch job.

The comment focuses Rex’s thought onto Pakistan, but I think that someone taking Rex’s point of view would, first, pause at that line about “our money” and “wisely”:  That would be our credit, not our money, and “wisely” ceased to be available as an adverb in this context, according to Rex, by 1971 at the latest with the end of the gold standard.  More significantly to me, because at a more fundamental level even than economics, the metaphor of America agonistes would apply Fuster’s concern universally:  The deliverer finds himself eyeless in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Washington DC, and Anytown, U.S.A. – wherever he might be found “at the Mill with slaves.”  Destructive self-destruction becomes his only option.  Nietzche’s observation that “man would rather will nothingness than not will” becomes our condition, increasingly our idea.

The mismatch between subjective ends and objective means in turn points to a deeper contradiction between two different national concepts – America as collective entity, able to do what’s right in its own eyes and carry it through to completion; and America as anti-state, its leadership and administration a semi-functional by-product or residue of merely aggregated individual self-interests that, at least until whatever catastrophe is fully upon them, can never adopt more than contingent and partial commitments.  This problem was the central challenge to democracy identified by de Tocqueville, yet also its central promise:

Under its sway the grandeur is not in what the public administration does, but in what is done without it or outside of it. Democracy does not give the people the most skilful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create:  namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders.

And wonders it has produced, but even de Tocqueville’s justified optimism acknowledges uncertainty.  We must now ask this:  What happens to that “restless activity” when it encounters “unfavorable circumstances” that, rather than being overwhelmed by spontaneous, un-directed energy, remain impervious to it, or, even more dispiriting, absorb it without limit and, if visibly affected at all, are exacerbated by it?  Understanding this question as a conceptual flaw in theories of absolute popular sovereignty, Tocqueville’s contemporary Hegel saw an incurable syndrome, and his diagnosis was eventually taken up by his witting and unwitting heirs among American progressives, liberals, and leftwing radicals.  It offers an explanation for the resort, by both the right and left, to extra-constitutional or ambiguously constitutional methods to cope with emergencies – economic crisis, political instability, war – and, increasingly, merely to handle regular business amidst permanent social-political crisis.

If a solution exists for this contradiction within American political concepts, as embodied in the Constitution of 1787, it implies a self-overcoming that American conservatism, which currently believes itself to be on the rise again, promises, if unpersuasively, to fight to the end.  If conservatism re-gains political power, its operatives will discover again a need to discard reflexive skepticism of the state, as they always have before, since hostility toward administration and the governmental center encumbers administration and government.  Unchecked, such hostility would become total self-hostility, an all-embracing self-skepticism that, consequentially implemented, would render collective action impossible.  For this reason the American right, in and out of power, turns ineluctably to nationalist and xenophobic passions.  Ideological anti-statism cannot express the need for unified purpose in any other way. American conservatives rely on rejection of the other and emotional self-assertion, first to appeal to the spiritual hunger of the populace, but just as fundamentally because American conservatism forbids collective recognition of other and self in any other form.

Unquestioning and uncritical acknowledgment of a military exception to the anti-statism of so-called “Constitutional Conservatism” magnifies the dangers of American conservatism’s contradictions – and not only to whatever enemies it encounters or creates overseas.  The exception separates mainstream conservatives from radicals and outcasts, but arms inchoate nationalism under the sign of self-ignorance – again the blinded deliverer.  It is indicative that the critique of fascism popular among contemporary conservatives, which seeks to define fascism as a phenomenon of the left, institutes a parallel “exception” – choosing to view fascism a strictly statist infirmity, while suppressing  the militarism, nationalism, racism, and glorification of violence that, for everyone else, including the fascists themselves, are definitional.  Conservative ideology thus preserves the fascist option for itself:  A political movement that idealizes a small state whose very incapacities are somehow expected to protect political freedom, in the shadow of an ever-expanding military-security complex and unrestrained and unchecked global economic power, is a political movement committed at its core to diversionary fantasies.  The unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable underlying and objective commitment is to someone, anyone else’s power for the sake of power, power unattached to, forever immune to, un-grasped by a formal constitutional system under democracy – whose only purpose in anti-statist conservatism is auto-nullification, self-emasculation, or, perhaps more like Oedipus than Samson here, self-enucleation.

We may have in the past been capable of great achievements, even without self-consciously grasped and implemented collective intentions, but only as a kind of afterthought to or objective remainder of ever-increasing abundance.  We might once have set out to turn Pakistan into a virtual 51st state, and have succeeded, hurling our sheer material productivity and “superabundant force” at desperation as we once hurled it at a continent and its prior inhabitants, at the South, at great adversaries in two or three world wars, and at a vast range of technical and cultural impediments to our economic and political advances.  In an era of relatively declining political and economic power, we may still experience the vestigial reflexes to make things right where the world seems to be getting them dangerously wrong, but the material basis for doing so has slipped away, and collective purpose remains unavailable:  We cannot conceive it, we lack the political forms to conceive and enact it, we  see ourselves as barred from attempting even to conceive of it.  We are not rich enough to go ahead and do whatever anyway while looking the other way.  We are not “we” enough even to look inward.  Each other eyes each other only. We are eyeless.

23 comments on “America agonistes

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  1. The Wiki article on facism contains a quote from George Orwell in 1948: “the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless … almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist'”.

    “Blood and soil” however has possibilities. One one hand the pluralism of the US should work against any meaningful “blood” ideology. On the other, the lack of pluralism on the right suggests it has some power here too.

    The Cordoba House controversy has become a blood and soil issue of the first rank. That it (allegedly) involves proposed monumental architecture in the shadow of obliterated, and then unrealized-memorial monumental architecture creates a situation made for the dopamine activation system favored by conservatives.

    Looking up in dopamine induced anticipatory ecstasy, unreflective conservatives are crushed to see a star in the darkened sector of the crescent moon.

    Culture becomes a stand ins for blood. Religion, almost always the side kick to blood, takes its natural place here.

  2. @ miguel cervantes:
    Maybe Geller remains Geller. Maybe you can point to a single thing the Imam said that you can argue against responsibly – that is, by justifying your disapproval or alternative viewpoint logically and morally. Or maybe you can’t.

  3. bob wrote:

    Looking up in dopamine induced anticipatory ecstasy, unreflective conservatives are crushed to see a star in the darkened sector of the crescent moon.

    Tell me more!

    I think I have this right as regards religion in Hegel: The problem with religion is when it appropriates prerogatives of the state (broadly conceived), when it seeks to act in place of the state according to its limitless perspectives which, when actualized, must always be arbitrary, according to their own concept. From the state, the citizen is to expect reason alone. Religion should coincide with the state remainderlessly as its spiritual truth.

  4. I’m going to paraphrase Nietzsche’s nostrum,If one is to fight the idea of History as a tragic process,beware that we don’t become tragic as a result of that fight. I think a lot about America and Agamemnnon, He set loose forces that led to the Conflicts of the modern world,however,he made two fatal,tragic errors,he ignored his Wife,and he forgot about the Forces that favored his enemy TROY,over Greece,those forces led to the formation of Rome,which conquered Greece. We have set loose forces,in our victories,that are leading to a new World Order in which we will be a second/3rd tier player. Is this Tragic,or Business as usual?

  5. Really casting doubt on the London and Madrid bombing’s source, repeating Michael Moore’s near trutherism, endorsing fellow moderate
    Quradawi, indicting us, but apparently not having any such rage against AQ

  6. @ miguel cervantes:
    “Near trutherism” – is that your new phrase for everyone who strays from the required child’s view of world history and major events, the view that isn’t even consistently held by its own sponsors, but is merely insisted upon from enemies designated for the pillory?

    You may not like it, but Qaradawi is considered one of the world‘s leading scholars. Where did the Imam “endorse” his views or characterize them as “moderate”?

    His remarks regarding the Madrid and London bombings are fully defensible, and have nothing to do with implying some conspiracist theory or serving some other dark anti-American or anti-West purpose.

    Your judgment of his feelings and purposes in analyzing AQ as he does, and his “indictment” of “us” reflects your imposed pre-judgment.

    Instead of throwing up an ideological barrage, why don’t you pick what appears to you to be the single strongest indictment of Rauf derived from those EARTHSHAKING statements?

    Incidentally, am I now justified in holding you responsible for all of your fellow sane person Geller’s views? You seem to spend a lot of time at her site.

  7. @ bob:
    Oh, and btw, Blood and Soil really is exactly right for the ultra-mega-super-mosque thing, what it’s pulled up out of the conservative unconscious, and why the latter seems worth opposing rigorously, to the bitter end… I wish I had thought of it, and may use it later on, perhaps in a re-written version of the above post.

  8. @ CK MacLeod:

    It’s the end of my cognitive day now, so most of this will have to wait. But Hegel was deluded mistaken to think the State and religion could coincide so. When has it been so?

    Certainly there have been many times when rulers asserted it was so. But it pretty much is going to end with “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”.

    And really, “reason alone” from the state?

    Religion has no natural direct relationship with the state except as an embodiment of national identity (ie frequently, before globilization, “blood”.)

  9. Yes his Doha based show on Al Jazeera is very popular, think of him as the Rick Warren of jihadists, Imam Rauf is very clever, that Columbia
    education served him in good stead, Michael Moore along with Ted Rall, floating the pipeline theory, was all about providing a justification
    for 9/11, to defend the undefensible, If one wanted to turn someone
    against their country, like happened to Hasan Akbar or Nidal Hassan, would you use a different strategy, this was part of the public diplomacy work that was so prized

  10. @ bob:
    It’s natural you would misunderstand, I think, Owl of Cognition aflight at dusk or no. At the unavoidable risk of oversimplifying the so absolutely simple it always needs to be made more complex to seem persuasive: For Hegel, religion embodies absolute truth inwardly, experienced as feeling. The state is the domain of reason and substantial freedom. The process of history coming to fruition in modern times/our times is the convergence in time of absolute truth and a human world that conforms to it freely, because for Hegel Christianity is the religion of freedom and reason, and the state should be the embodiment of freedom and reason.

    Religious devotion should therefore prepare the believer to seek and accept freedom and reason. The state should therefore allow the citizen to express and enact freedom and reason substantially.

    The mistake occurs when religion, or nominally religious individuals, seek to join their intimations of the absolute with the realm of contingency – resulting in various ills, including fanaticism, persecution, etc. When I have a little time, I’ll dig up a useful passage or two, but, in short, I think Hegel would agree with you more than it may seem.

    The difference is that while we in America speak conventionally of “separation of church and state,” in the Hegelian system church and state would be different aspects of or ways of addressing and understanding the same totality. Understood properly they can’t “meet” and shouldn’t ever overlap – it would be like trying to join outside and inside, or combine heads and tails. The violence in the real world that proceeds from the attempt to deify the state or statify the deity would be actualization of a parallel conceptual violence.

  11. Rex Caruthers wrote:

    Is this Tragic,or Business as usual?

    It would be tragic business as usual unless you believe that some greater purpose is served. So, in your example, Agamemnon and friends made a third error – which was apparently felt as an error by the Greeks themselves – that of wiping out Troy. Their culture was capable of sensing an ethical boundary they had crossed, but not of actualizing the ethical perception as a mandatory and universal ethic (instead they resorted to oracles, and finally just fell to stronger powers). Roman civilization advanced much further on that path, but fell short/reached the limits of its own principle – so the fall of Rome was also inevitable.

    I’m of course applying Hegel’s broad view of the phases of history. Within each phase, different nations may dominate particular eras. I didn’t glean any basis for determining that the American run had a date on it – 230 years from founding, 65 years of hegemony, isn’t really very long, though on the other hand human material progress seems to have sped up quite a bit during the (to this point) relatively short but highly world-evolutionary American ascendancy. In any event, we could decide that the American run was for all intents and purpose “over,” but that wouldn’t necessarily imply that the whole place was going to implode any moment. We might have a century or centuries to try to thumb a ride on someone else’s world-historical vehicle, if that’s what it comes to.

  12. WEll we’ve seen from Ben Bova’s successor chapter to the Voyager
    series, which posits a militant theocracy, arising out of global warmingand terrorist attacks, the truly battle scarred dystopian landscape of James O’Neil’s last novels, set in Florida, the ‘double expresso’ cyberpunk of David Williams ‘Autumn Rain’ arising out of a new Cold War,and the novels of Theodore Judson, notably the one where the Yellow jackets make their debut, all interesting places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to get stuck there, and then you have Ferrigno’s and Peter’s seemingly deranged dystopic visions, now counting from 1789 wehave another decade before everything goes pear shaped.

  13. The tool that has blinded,and crewcutted us is the misuse of Debt. Here,as simply as I can put it,is how that works.
    (1)Jobless claims are rising*,
    (2)manufacturing is slowing,
    (3)housing isn’t selling,
    (4)GDP is shrinking**
    (5)Investors withdrew $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year
    (6) a record number of people took hardship withdrawals from their retirement accounts in the second quarter.
    (7) Individual Investors feel that high-frequency trading, dark pools and complex derivatives have stacked the odds They’ve lost confidence in the markets.
    (8)capital-starved banks can conceal their losses from the public.
    (9)Securitization, derivatives trading, and repo market activity,despite “Financial Reform”are still the “PILLARS” of our financial structure.
    (10)The banking system is not funded on loans made from deposits, but through the exchange of high-risk securities with shadow banks in the repo market. Although This is the system that crashed in 2008,it has been rejerryrigged by the Obamas,rather than replaced.
    *whoever mentions the “REAL”unemployment rate,gets my vote
    **GDP/whoever has been reading my posts knows that there’s the possibility that our GDP is much lower than advertised

    The initial stake in our heart was the abrupt removal of our money from a legal relationship to Gold in 1971;the following explains why Gold is so critical to becoming unagonized,from the WSJ,no less

    And Finally,a more scholarly view of America’s Debt Albatross,

  14. @ bob:
    One of the best and most extensive discussions in the Philosophy of Right concerns just this question – the proper relationship of religion and state. Forgive me if I go a little long. I’d be briefer if I had more time to refine my comments.

    I’ll remind you again that in Hegel the “state” is often a much broader concept than just government + administration. It comprises the whole life of the nation as nation, the “second nature” created by human thought and creativity. though government stands at the top of the state, as where the state functions on its own behalf as the state, or representative of the interests of the state.

    In one comment that reflects interestingly on favorite quotes of the Founders among those who assert the importance of religion to constitutional democracy, Hegel writes:

    To say that the state much be founded on religion may mean that is should be based on and grow out of rationality. But the same proposition can also be misunderstood to mean that those human beings whose spirit is fettered by an unfree religion are best equipped to obey. The Christian religion, however, is the religion of freedom – although it may come about that this freedom is perverted into unfreedom under the influence of superstition.

    Take that, religious right!

    This goes back to Hegel’s belief, reminiscent of Locke’s, that Christian faith should mean the sanctity of the free individual mediating human particularity and universal truth. That’s my rough version of Hegel’s understanding of the meaning of the example of Jesus Christ – Heaven come down to Earth in the form of a single person/ideal individual who comes to stand for all free individuals (meeting an extreme end because in his moment representing the extreme opposite of the world as it was).

    The French Revolution for Hegel, and this is critical for Kojève, represents Heaven come down to Earth for everyone, for the first time actualizable through a rational state unfettered by inherited superstitions and class differences – therefore, the end of slavery, each person free not just to contemplate or experience the universal inwardly, but to substantialize freedom outwardly (and for Hegel, freedom without reason is a non sequitur, mere arbitrariness), the second nature as human reality brought into accord with the inward truth experienced emotionally and representationally via religion, understood intellectually via (his) philosophy, all “growing up” interdependently and simultaneously.

    I think it’s crucial to understand that Hegel’s praise of Christianity rarely – never in my reading so far – equates with praise of particular Christian rituals or “superstitions,” and sometimes includes heavy criticism – for instance in his bases for preferring Protestantism over Catholicism, which relies heavily on this same perception about religion not attempting to constitute a state. When he says that the citizen should expect reason alone from the state, he’s not saying “that’s how it always is and has been”: He’s saying that’s how it should be when the state is in its proper place and constituted and understood properly.

    Continuing from the above quote, selectively:

    If, then, the above proposition means that individuals must have religion in order that their fettered spirit can be more effectively oppressed within the state, its sense is a bad one… The state remains essentially different from religion, for what it requires has the shape of a legal duty, and it is indifferent to the emotional attitude with which this duty is performed. The field of religion, on the other hand, is inwardness; and just as the state would prejudice the right of inwardness if it imposed its requirements in a religious manner, so also does the Church, if it acts like a state and imposes penalties, degenerate into a tyrannical religion… If religiosity sought to assert itself in the state in the manner which it usually adopts on its own ground, it would subvert the organization of the state; for the differences within the state are far apart, whereas everything in religion invariably has reference to the totality. And if this totality sought to take over all the relations of the state, it would become fanaticism; it would wish to find the whole in every particular, for fanaticism is simply the refusal to admit particular differences.

    He concludes finally – my emphasis:

    Thus, religion as such should not hold the reins of government.

    You may recognize a similar process of reasoning to the one applied in the earlier discussion regarding Eastern religions, the bad side of the French Revolution, and what happens when one-sided universalism is misapplied to human institutions. Anyway, if you run across a copy of the Philosophy of Right, the above comes from section 270. The whole thing is around 15 pages long and very rewarding, though you might want to be careful about the versions available for free on the ‘net, which rely on some rather clumsy translations. I’m using the Allen Wood translation/Cambridge edition.

  15. Neuroscience is well on the way of establishing that reason and emotion are both necessary for what we think of as “rational decision making”.

    Hegel’s use of religion as a stand in for the emotions (inwardness) perhaps anticipates this. But taken on its own terms, I find it unstaisfactory. His conception of religion is religion removed from its own ground and yoked to the service of the state.

    So, from my view, the inevitability of the “turbulent priest” scenario stands.

    I wonder though if another interpetation is possible. Earlier I observed that religion can embody the national identity of a people. Poland, Ireland and Tibet come to mind.

    Each of these nations was dominated by another nation. Religion, the inwardness of the individual, became the unassailable fortress of the nation.

    Hegel’s Germany had Napoleon.

    More to come perhaps, but the Owl of Cogniton…

  16. bob wrote:

    His conception of religion is religion removed from its own ground and yoked to the service of the state.

    He says just the opposite. His conception of religion is that the state should stay out – the state should not pretend that it can be religion, do what religion does, and vice versa. Properly speaking, its own ground is beyond the state, and the state’s own ground is beyond religion. When people act on their faulty understandings, they tend to deform and disfigure both religion and the state.

    What happens to a nation when under another nation’s hegemony is an interesting problem, but religion as national identity would be different, I think, from religion as realm of inward connection to the universal – except to the extent, again trying to be Hegelian about it, that religion inspires the believers to seek freedom (and possibly reason). So when the state is under siege or largely destroyed, it becomes a natural location for incipient re-emergence of the polity. It’s also possible, and within the Hegelian framework necessary in a way that proves extremely disturbing to multiculturalists, for a more advanced state or concept of the state, including a more advanced religious concept, simply to obliterate and replace a weaker, more primitive one. Thus, for Hegel, Christianity was destined to wipe out paganism. In this framework, Islam was also a superior concept, thus its early advances, but inferior to Christianity in relation to the individual-universal-freedom dialectic mentioned above. His concept of Judaism is something else again – and not Marx’s. I’m still thinking about a more syncretical dialectic – provisionally how we could derive Hegel’s Chrisian concept from Buddhism, Islam, etc., without artificial additives.

  17. @ CK MacLeod:

    Yes, I misreaqd the quote.

    But still, to define religion as only inwardness is in fact to to deny its full and free expression. It is to yoke it to the intersts of the state.

    Neurlogically, religion functions using the same structures as in-group identification. Religion is the mechaninsm for devloping in group altruism, thereby stregthening the group.

    Many people are religious without being very spiritual, while others are spiritual without being religious. That it is also comon to be both obscures that they are 2 differnt phenonomen.

    Hegel confounds spirituality with religion. Religion is primarily a social
    mechanism, not an inward one.

  18. @ bob:
    I wouldn’t say Hegel confounds spirituality and religion. I would say he defines “religious” differently than we do in conventional discussion, and differently than many of his contemporaries would. So the social mechanism you describe is something that, following his framework rigorously, might deserve to be associated with civil society and a cultural inheritance – or even, if you’re going to attach them to neurochemistry, to the merely natural world, the world of things doing things to things, not to the truly (dialectically) human self-consciousness that acts upon itself and progresses in history.

    I agree with you that, to say the least, this view raises many questions, including ones as to its own adequacy. As I’ve noted, Kojève believes that the implications of Hegel’s system amount to atheism, since, taken seriously, little of what most people associate with “religion” passes Hegelian tests of soundness. For instance, Hegel logically destroys religious notions of an “afterlife,” and his philosophy tends to put a world spirit in the process of realizing itself in the place of an already-complete deity standing above or outside the world and yet acting on it magically. Such notions can instead operate as metaphors that correspond to intimations of universality and the latent potential of the self-realizing world spirit.

    There’s some question as to how open Hegel could be in his investigations – or wanted to be – especially given the political situation late in his life, about the full implications of his thinking vis-a-vis conventional religious notions. Kojève doesn’t feel any such restraint.

  19. @ Rex Caruthers:
    I think the material I quoted above speaks to the “opiate for the masses” approach – superstition that makes for more obedient citizens. There has been a lot of research – bob probably knows it a lot better than I do – about the neurochemistry of states of exaltation and fellow-feeling. When bob first started pestering us with this stuff – ;) – was when I first put ON TYRANNY higher on my reading list. The world pacified through pharmacology, or neurocapitalism as I think one bob-linked writer put it, is a brave new world that others have examined, but that we may be closer to. Strauss v Kojève address it without discussing pharmaceuticals per se, but rather in terms of the human-historical remainder that alone can matter to the philosopher and to itself, regardless of how many “problems’ have been solved by whatever state – tyrannical, Marxist, democratic, pharmaceutical, whatever.

  20. @ Rex Caruthers:

    Neurologically, religion (but not spirituality) uses the brain mechanisms also used in in group identification, preference for freedom rather than equality, greater stability of beliefs, among others. That is, religion operates out of the conservatively wired parts of the brain.

    Spitiuality operates out of the liberally wired parts of the brain. Just reverse the list above.

    As for the “opiate” part of it, the conservative brain looks more to authority figures in figuring out what to think. Having everyone on the same page certainly is useful a lot of the time. But it does slow down possibly useful innovation.

    One reading of Marx might be that he used Hegel’s method but transferred it to the liberal circuitry.

  21. bob wrote:

    One reading of Marx might be that he used Hegel’s method but transferred it to the liberal circuitry.

    Since Marx is often viewed as turning Hegel upside down, and alternatively as reversing him, I think that makes sense. In the theses on Feurbach, Marx explicitly describes re-directing materialism from contemplation to action and from the individual to the “social ensemble.” These seem to correspond to the neurological circuity you describe.

    Hegel would be attempting to view the alternatives as a totality. He wouldn’t deny that the philosophical view on that totality is only an aspect of it, and seemed to deny that philosophy could intervene. That seems to put him on the quietist side, opposite to Marx, and on the side of a classicist like Strauss, who believed that the philosopher must seek distance from politics (from the tyrant) – though that also meant in the modern world supporting the liberal democracy against totalitarian alternatives, since the former allowed for that distance. Kojève, writing long after Marx, of course, but sympathetic to him and his project, argues that philosophy not only can and must intervene, but that since Hegel’s time it has been comprehensively intervening, in cultural evolutionary time since human individual time is so limited: The philosophers create the presumptions of an intellectual or ideological paradigm that few are able even to recognize as such, much less question.

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