2nd Comment on “David Brooks: Better in the original German” (Schmitt and the neo-imperial moment)

(proofread version of comment at Crooked Timber)

Mr. Timberman @125 [Italics in original comment], “converting freedom into political [or any kind of] obligation” appears to translate as “converting freedom into its opposite.” If I’m obligated to you and yours at all – to put on a uniform and take up arms if war is declared and I’m summoned to serve, or even just to pay taxes or buy health insurance – then I am obviously in that way or to that extent less ideally free. Maybe you were already observing the contradiction with your italics.

I’m not preparing to argue against such compromises of ideal freedom in the manner of a Tea Partier. Nor am I about to  attempt a comment thread essay on the “mixed regime” and mass polities, a discussion whose terms I trust will be familiar to many or most of you. I’m simply emphasizing that the contradiction arises not just in columns by big-name moderate-conservative pundits, or in books by political theorists who were implicated in crimes against humanity, or every day on Fox News, but at the highest level of “metaphysical” abstraction, or at the very conceptual as well as historical origins of modern liberalism. I was trying to suggest as much in my “incomprehensible” remarks above, and the excellent comment by JCH, to which you link, puts the argument much more clearly.

We are history’s great experts at negotiation of this contradiction, but the point of relevance to the discussion of Brooks and Schmitt, and the argument that must be admitted at some point on their behalf, is that both are arguing against forms of ideological liberalism that do not acknowledge or only very grudgingly acknowledge the existence of any significant theoretical problem at all, resulting in a discourse – as well as in policy, rhetoric, and popular expectations – that in their view is not just unrealistic, but tragically detached from reality, leaving their “friends” perhaps dangerously unprepared for whatever next inevitable conversion of the (thought to be) free into the un-free.

This necessity is, as said, realism for the statist conservative: a rule of “reality.” In the real world, they believe, there really are decisively illiberal enemies of liberalism who are both prepared and capable of forcing it to convert itself into its opposite. One such familiar form of resultant self-alienation was alluded to in a comment above, on liberal ideology as a “cloak” for “the same old grosse politik,” but such hypocrisy would be merely one common form – actual hypocrisy – of the more general problem addressed by Schmitt and perhaps, if obviously less incisively and coherently, by Brooks. On this basis arises one of the great ironies, rehearsed on this thread, of brown-baiting Schmitt in reference to his writings in the ’20s, since they were composed well before his abortive join-’em phase, when he was in fact arguing for beat-’em: employ the highly illiberal measures included in the very liberal Weimar constitution on behalf of the liberal or mostly liberal or liberalist order against the “negative” parties including the extreme right. He happened to be saying, at that moment, and I think with some clear if heavily qualified sympathy for liberalist aspirations, “Guys, this is what you always do, always have done, and must and will sooner or later do, if you want to survive at all, and survival doesn’t mean, because it’s never meant, preserve a perfectly orderly and lawful regime of peace and freedom: It means preserve some type of self-contradictory or hybrid mess sustained by an order that, in addition to maintaining some space for your ideals, also maintains some space for my different ones.” It is, in short, a Hobbesian argument, but modified for modern mass society under pressure.

Both in the comments originally cited and all the more in the extensive further excerpts that Professor Robin supplies, Brooks is making a parallel Leviathan argument: We’re going to or ought to sacrifice some ideal liberalism-individualism for the sake of some reinforced nationalism-patriotism-statism (which latter configuration always includes and, according to Schmitt among many others – Arendt quite famously – rests on the potential for organized mass violence). He says, “You may not like the medicine, but it will be good for us for a number of reasons, and it will be necessary and some version of it simply will be taken, whether or not you’re ready to call it good.” Viewed in historical context, he goes on to say, the resort to illiberal measures won’t be in the least unusual, and there neither is nor ever has been any real alternative. The form of this argument also explains why Brooks is treated with such grave mistrust from the “constitutional conservative” and libertarian right.

I believe that Schmitt’s thought, on its own and “in translation,” became relevant again for one main and perhaps too obvious reason: Not because the state of the USA 1990-2014 greatly resembles the state of the Weimar Republic at any point, and not simply because the War on Terror saw an escalation in illiberal or “legal-exceptional” policy supposedly on behalf of Western liberal commitments, but because the collapse of Communism finally posed or allowed for the posing of the question of the American-led international liberal-humanitarian order unambiguously. Schmitt was perhaps the most penetrating political thinker from the other side during the last great crisis of liberal democracy in its Eurocentric form, prior to the ascension of the Americanized global successor. (Schmitt in his post-Nazi writings analyzes this historical process in careful detail, incidentally – in many ways it’s even more “timely” reading.) He provides a set of apparent answers that we have determined we must oppose, but which we, or often the people we have claimed we wanted to help, end up adopting or modifying to suit exigencies that always, one way or another, seem to arise.

While treating Brooks as Schmitt’s translator, Robin makes a version of the same charge against Brooks that Leo Strauss made in 1932 against Schmitt – the same charge frequently made against Strauss, and a charge that Robin himself often seems to be on guard against: of overly identifying with his subject, of admiring that which he pretends to detest and according to his own argument at other points ought to detest. (Obviously, unlike Schmitt and Strauss and Brooks, Robin has thusfar kept himself off the left-liberal proscription lists.) As for Robin’s specific claim, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Brooks’ stance is anticipated in Schmitt. On the other hand, so are a lot of other people’s, including, as we have seen right here on this thread, the stances of many of Schmitt’s self-styled enemies. The related but to me, and clearly to Strauss, more interesting question is whether Schmitt’s crypto-fascism (not a term used by Strauss, but I think clearly implied) and its intermediate enemy, ideological liberalism, define a shared horizon that we are in any way usefully able to think beyond without falling off the edge of the world.

10 comments on “2nd Comment on “David Brooks: Better in the original German” (Schmitt and the neo-imperial moment)

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  1. Ah your first mistake was to take David Brooks seriously, it could just be gas, it will pass and he will still be incoherent,

  2. Interesting article at Larval Subjects.

    Here, then, we see the relevance of Schmitt, perhaps, who has attempted to show how many of the concepts surrounding the modern understanding of sovereignty are, in fact, secularized theological concepts. Part of the project of atheology would thus involve overcoming a certain framework of sovereignty, thereby producing an anarchistic and communistic social framework. The structural isomorphism here is between the sovereign and God, where the sovereign, like God, “decides the exception”. Insofar as the decision of the sovereign– a decision that both decides what circumstances are exceptional and decides whether or not to count the exceptional as belonging –is without ground or ultimate justification, it has the form of a secularized miracle.

  3. Weimar was except for the 1923 period, typified by progressive social policy, and rather loose economic policy, Smoot Hawley did away with the latter, forcing Bruening’s Hunger Chancellor austerity, and disrupted the former, the Godwinism really doesn’t apply here, except in the way that the left, the analogs of the Occupy Movement, did try to destroy the center Social Democrats,

    • Weimar policy generally was vastly encumbered by the war settlement. Comparing Occupy to the German hard left is wildly disproportionate, even if any protest movement that disdains the electoral process, and is indifferent to whatever impacts on its closest ideological kin within the system, counts somewhat as a “negative party.”

  4. In that sense, 2012 was an Occupy election, but the coalition it brought to power, was too fragile, for the project they intended, hence the collapse of gun control and other regulation,s

    • Analogies seem a bit strained there, but it’s certainly true that the coalition brought to power, if that’s the right word, was too fragile to achieve much via legislation. The Ds have enough power to keep the Rs from undoing too much. The Rs retain enough power to keep the Ds from doing anything at all, except where the executive retains freedom of movement, mainly in areas where the Ds least like to have freedom of movement, with the possible exception of climate change policy, which, if you believe Chait, is where the only action is, all but invisible.

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  1. […] bob points us to an entry by Levi Bryant concerning “atheology”2 at Bryant’s blog larval subjects. Of particular interest for us is Bryant’s use of Schmitt’s famous statement from the beginning of chapter 3 of Political Theology, on the origins of “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state.” Though Bryant does not have much to say about Schmitt directly, or for that matter about political philosophy prior to the day before yesterday in France3, Bryant does accurately convey Schmitt’s position in general terms, in the context of remarks on the “theistic structure” of popular atheism – a kind of persistence of the deity sub rosa, reminiscent of the God Whom or who or which Nietzsche feared would dwell immortally in grammar. Yet on an further investigation it becomes clear that Bryant inverts Schmitt, or draws a conclusion diametrically opposite from Schmitt’s. […]

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