again as to the irrational underestimation by rationalists of the rationality of irrationalism

“The Temporary Name” points ((


The Temporary Name 03.22.14 at 3:26 pm

In any case, any form of government seems to attract and empower the very sort of people it is supposed to suppress, and employing the pathological to suppress pathology doesn’t seem to have worked out very well, as witness the history of the United States in the last half of the 20th century, for one of myriad examples.

In the last half of the 20th century domestically? It wasn’t such a bad run. Raining death upon millions elsewhere was criminal of course, but at home things got much better economically for most people until the 80s. and rights for other-than-white-males were constantly expanded. What government-free portion of the world did as well?

)) to a few of a series of embedded presumptions in a comment by “Anarcissie,” ((


Anarcissie 03.22.14 at 3:11 pm

A set of generic points. I’m using ‘government’ to refer to an overt, legitimated institution whose powers including the origination of coercive force. By ‘state’ I mean all those institutions, relations, processes, and so on, which the government creates, defends, and regulates, for example corporations — and even families, to the extent that these are instituted by the government.

There seem to be two arguments here for government and the state. One is that it is necessary or at least preferable to have a permanent institution to suppress certain behavioral pathologies, for example, the polity generated by a group of truculent Hell’s Angels in a bar fight. This need, if it exists, could be satisfied by the sort of minimal state envisioned by Nozick (for instance). In this arrangement, when the government tortures, imprisons, or kills someone, it is only as a supposed last resort, and this is all it ever does. In other words, we have a fantasy which I am unable to take very seriously, although as we know some people are fond of it. Hence the bar-fight proof doesn’t do much for me. In any case, any form of government seems to attract and empower the very sort of people it is supposed to suppress, and employing the pathological to suppress pathology doesn’t seem to have worked out very well, as witness the history of the United States in the last half of the 20th century, for one of myriad examples.

The other is that the state is the way to get big, important things done. My dissatisfaction with this proposition is twofold: first, I don’t see any logical upper limit to the possibilities of self-organization. Second, as mentioned before, the government remains credible only as long as it at least occasionally exerts its powers in a sovereign, arbitrary manner, that is, people have to be knocked off now and then to show that it can be done. So these big projects, if they can truly be carried on only by the state, are marked with blood. That raises a moral issue: how many people are we going to kill in order to have really big airplanes, fly to the moon, and so on? We might even be able to compute the necessary ratio of executions to a given size of airplane.

)) and, naturally, responds on the basis of a few of his or her own, but, rather than try to establish some sort of objective standard for a judgment on a nation’s “doing well,” while instead simply noting that by many standards the USA has done quite obviously and remarkably “well” and especially as of the late 20th C., I’d rather look at the prejudices coloring the last paragraph of the comment in question, not to single out Anarcissie personally, but because I believe they’re illustrative.

Addressing the second of “two arguments… for government and the state,” that “the state is the way to get big, important things done,” Anarcissie expresses a “twofold… dissatisfaction”:

[F]irst, I don’t see any logical upper limit to the possibilities of self-organization. Second, as mentioned before, the government remains credible only as long as it at least occasionally exerts its powers in a sovereign, arbitrary manner, that is, people have to be knocked off now and then to show that it can be done. So these big projects, if they can truly be carried on only by the state, are marked with blood. That raises a moral issue: how many people are we going to kill in order to have really big airplanes, fly to the moon, and so on? We might even be able to compute the necessary ratio of executions to a given size of airplane.

The first fold of A’s dissatisfaction with this second argument is that there is “no logical upper limit to the possibilities of self-organization.” It is unclear to me why the lack of such a “logical upper limit” would be especially problematic in itself. It can’t be that we’re supposed to be greatly troubled by the existence of an unbounded set – can it? Is the idea that organization at higher or ever higher levels or to greater degrees must be taken as intrinsically undesirable? Why? Maybe the basis of dissatisfaction is aversion to big, powerful institutions at all. The sentiment is common enough in democratist thought, and especially in anarchist and libertarian thought, but it is not the only possible sentiment. Contrary attitudes, instincts, and impulses – safety in numbers, pride in belonging, identification with the powerful, and so on – seem at least as common, and quite functional in numerous respects. Who is to say that one set of sentiments is more valid than another? By what compulsory standard?

The second dissatisfaction is more relevant to the original subject of this discussion (and to “john c halasz”‘s/”JCH”‘s unanswered questions, too), since it points to the way that the political-theological seems to invert broadly-speaking-liberal presumptions, which have always encountered a special difficulty administering the concept of sacrifice. The problem, a central problem since Hobbes and for every system haunted by the ghost of “metaphysical individualism,” is that there never can be, strictly from the perspective of the individual, a sensible justification to give up one’s “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness/property” for the good of others or for any other reason. If such rights are truly “inalienable,” then how could we ever go about “alienating” them? The understanding that we must be prepared to do so anyway, and that to possess our liberties we must be willing also to give them up, is the declared foundational paradox of American liberal democracy (and from the perspective of the master-slave dialectic the cognitive pre-condition for the rise of the “common people” and eventually the proletariat against their “betters”). Every re-declaration – the premise is and apparently must be continually re-stated – again poses the impossible argument that there is or might be just such a sensible or rational justification, and is always also implicitly a further argument, again contradictorily, for the pre-eminence, even as a rare and merely potential pre-eminence, of the social and as it were ego-external; for that which is greater than the narrow interest of the individual life and death; for participation or the idea of participation in that which, from the point of view of the individual – the one who knows he or she is immediately, merely presumably identical to all others in that respect – requires a leap of faith or acceptance of fiction or representation, or belief in things unseen, most fundamentally his or her or finally only my simple and necessary assumption of the other’s or your (potentially equally or more important) subjectivity.

This self-contradiction within the real-existing liberal self is also how in Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, even as watered-down by the likes of David Brooks, the lethality of human beings, as the categorical question immediately arising in the question for the individual of his or her own life/death and its potential meaning, determines and uniquely distinguishes the realm of politics from the extremes. …And the next thing you know I’m down on my knees and dipping babies in water and anthropomorphizing the weather…. and calling bloody ground “hallowed” ground. 

It is scandalizing and inconceivable for the committed liberal that people still think or come to think such things and believe those things and act on their basis, not just in everyday life, which is bad enough, but to the point of giving up their own lives and taking other people’s lives. It is even more scandalizing that so many people, maybe the vast majority, hold to such views more powerfully and stubbornly than they hold to the self-evident truths of liberalism. It is more scandalizing still for the liberal to recognize that the success of the liberal project depends on the successful mobilization of such utterly non-liberal ways. Possibly the most scandalizing realization of all, the one that must be repressed and ignored, for the liberal – here very much including and especially including the radical, the anarchist, the rationalist, the atheist – is the degree to which the liberal in his or her own mind relies on the same structures of belief.

The people do not experience that same difficulty, as a rule, or perhaps they are less insulated by liberal rationalism from the primordial given-ness of mortality as its own supreme question. They already intuit that “marked by blood” is the most precious marking – for the same reason not to be spread around irresponsibly, and never to be underestimated. Historically, the inability to process the rationalism of such irrationalism as also rational and to approach it as in some instances, potentially the most important ones, as more rational than the rational, has been the most irrational thing about rationalism, a major factor in the political and intellectual failures of leftism and libertarianism, both when barred from power by seemingly irrational opposing and external forces, and, possibly worse, when initially successful but proven unable to cope with where even able to recognize the liberals’ own actual inclinations.

…which observation returns us to JCH’s reiterated questions on the origins of legitimacy and power:

One of the basic questions I’ve been raising here is, just how much “legitimation” of “authority” is required for any state to still “hold power”, operatively function? (Contrary to j.s., I don’t think I’ve made any of the conflations he identifies). Or IOW what happens when the “legitimation” of a state collapses? We’ve seen that happen in any number of circumstances, historically and geo-politically speaking. The case of the Soviet Union and its “satellite” regimes, (communist party-states, in which not even the “nomenklatura” and its apparachniks believed in its reigning ideology or Byzantine “political theology”), is a recent case in point, though none of them, (with the singular exception of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was a much “freer” and developmentally accomplished regime), are much to be mourned. But then what happens in the resulting “void”? TINA? Perhaps bog-standard (neo-)liberals are as clueless as monarchist legitimists once were.

The mystery of sovereignty, as will be gleaned from Schmitt’s political-theological thought, and as is very well explained by Schmitt’s recent interpreters – Paul W. Kahn and Giorgio Agamben I think most prominently – is that one never can know for sure who speaks for sovereignty, or who speaks it into being, until, and to the extent, the voice is obeyed. The power that mostly rules in peacetime is inertia, same as it ever was, today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, until the challenge is made, never exactly in a form to be fully anticipated, and is, or is not, answered. Someone shouts, “Those who love the state, follow me!” – and is followed, or is ridiculed, or is ignored… or maybe no one bothers to shout… and the great nation dissolves, the citizens or former citizens being left to discover whatever other, almost always lower social-organic level at which its successors are able separately to rally.

Experience and the movies say that many skeptics, outsiders, and self-styled rebels, if the call to serve and sacrifice ever comes, will discover new old motives to join the throng, maybe never admitting why even to themselves. In our era still the most effective call, the one that people kill and die for, goes out to “the nation.” The state is generally, in all but the rarest instances, as little interested for that purpose in the particular explanations given or accepted as it is in its foot-soldiers’ strategic advice.

3 comments on “again as to the irrational underestimation by rationalists of the rationality of irrationalism

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  1. Oddly, the thread is still open. I don’t know why, because I’d thought threads were usually shut down by timer, while all the above and below threads have been shut down. The second to last comment is by Bruce Wilder, an economist/MBA type, and left-liberal, who gets something of the “contradictions”you’re exposing. If you hurry over, you might still get the booby prize, the precious “last word”


    • Thanks for the tip – and for dropping by.

      I’ve always thought having the last word was best to be avoided. Being proved the greatest fool, or booby, is bad enough. Once or twice before I’ve put an hour or so into a comment for a blog discussion, then hit “post,” only to be shut out completely when the music stopped.

      …but maybe I’ll give a try anyway, since the truth is, whether it’s here or there, I do find the discussion completely irresistible.

    • Don’t know if you subscribed to this thread, or will be dropping by again, but, just in case you did or do, I want to say that the following is a great blog comment (if I said so at CT, they’d probably tell us to “get a room” – so, may this be that room…):


      john c. halasz 03.28.14 at 4:17 am


      The utter superciliousness of your hissy-fit here is unsurprising, but not unremarkable. Why do you assume that no one here has any coherent conception of “political liberalism”, (though contrary to your academic specialization, “liberalism” was never just a political “theory” or doctrine, however retrospectively constituted or construed), and are merely working from caricatures of the “true” doctrine? Obviously, no one has read “everything”, but your insistence on the “true variety” of your chosen “tradition”, just as well applies to those “traditions” that you would oppose. (And that is why, though I’ve never read everything you’ve ever written, having read a fair sampling here and elsewhere, I simply don’t trust your “authority”: I think it displays what above I termed a “lack of hermeneutic probity”).

      But the issue here hasn’t been any lack of or failure to understand the “liberal tradition”. It’s been how it can generate the “authority” of the state out of its own resources. Not how it can circumscribe the arbitrary rule of “absolutist” sovereignty, but how can it generate such “authority” from the “rights of man”, whether understood individualistically or “democratically”. The issue has not been whether or not “liberal-democratic” states can generate sufficient allegiances so as to prosecute wars. (I know of at least one self-proclaimed “liberal-democratic” polity that is ready-willing-and-able to jump at the opportunity). The power over life-and-death is just the traditional conception of the sovereign, (which Schmitt made clear was in crisis), and physical death is just one marker of human finitude, ( which also applies at another level to collectives and not just individuals). That liberals have grappled with such questions over the years is obvious; that they have come up with any really and definitively convincing “solution” to the problem is not, (assuming they recognize it as a “problem”).

      But what is really irritating and presumptuous about your outburst is this:

      “In other words, far from being a sign of greater realism or more muscular reasoning on the right, it’s a sign of romantic longing. That often overlooks the evidence right before the romantics’ eyes.

      Why I find this discussion frustrating is that rather than simply acknowledging that they want a politics that’s more vital and heroic and meaningful, and fessing up to all that means, a lot of people on this thread dress up what I think is essentially a combination of quasi-religious sentiments and schoolboy juvenalia as this oh-so-profound critique of a shallow thoughtless liberalism. A liberalism that somehow or another managed, despite its centuries-long hegemonic reign (that’s the other odd assumption in this thread), not to come up with a credible account of why it is that citizens obey the state.”

      So it all comes down to “romanticism” and a quest for “intensity” and “heroic”conceptions. Umm… no. That’s just philistinism, in typically CT collective fashion, (though I don’t know if Holbo or Quiggin is the worst “violator” in that regard). That anything that might be “excessive” and conflictual, such that it can’t be simply damped down, and subjected to “reflective equilibrium”, in which all our beliefs, (which, of course, are cognitive entities), can be rendered coherent, and thereby detached from any worldly engagement, while possessing prosaic “clarity” that is unavailable to the hoi polloi, must thereby be declared “romantic”, (in ignorance of the application of historical-cultural categories), is just a sheer solecism. (Aside from the mere bibliographic fact that Schmitt penned early on a critique of “political romanticism”). You, CR, don’t seem to have a good handle on polemics and more specifically, ad hominem arguments, and their uses and abuses, which are not always fallacious, but do need to be handled with care. (In general, it is better to read for “intentions”, even though they are just another “text”, than secret, concealed motives, which are an endless quest). There are plenty of reasons to be interested in “Schmittian” questions, (as opposed to preferences or “solutions”), that have nothing to do with the reduction to motives that you crudely prefer. (Do I need to link to recent commentaries on the Ukraine crisis?). And, contrary to B.W., it’s not just more-or-less material, i.e., economic, surpluses that are at issue, but “cultural” surpluses as well, i.e. those “resources” that go into the formation of socio-cultural “identities”, (which are never reducible to mere bodily, nor material existence). Even though you scoff at any notion of any “liberal hegemony”, (which in the U.S. at least, peaked with the “madly for Adlai” crowd, whose intuitions Rawls belatedly encoded, even though Nixon implemented their peak policies), that’s precisely what’s at issue here. Because the idea that “modernity”, in some pre-destined fashion, arrives at and culminates in “political liberalism”, is rather out-of-date, (even as Schmitt, who certainly was aware, not just of the rising tide of “democracy”, but had certainly read Weber’s account of sociological differentiation, as well as responding to Lukacs, grappled with such issues to the point of being driven into the “total state”). In fact, it’s precisely liberals who’ve been oblivious, for the most part, and have been the last to get the news, about the displacement of liberal by neo-liberal hegemony, in which the sovereign state becomes suborned by global corporate-capitalist interests. So might not the interest in Schmitt have something to do with those who already knew the “news” before it arrived, and were aware of the possibilities of collapse, not just of “legitimacy”, but of, as I put it above, operative functionality of the “sovereign” under which we must labor? I end up being, to lay some cards on the table, a reluctant and ambivalent neo-Hegelian statist, for a whole host of reasons, not the first, nor last being AGW. But the idea that the terminus ad quem of human history is the “liberal” individual and his/her rights, because progress, is just “the higher fatuity”.

      So you’ve provided a fine example of “repressive tolerance” here, even as you hypocritically lament the decline of “public intellectuals”,- (but why not “organic” or “specific” ones?),- even if all public-political utterances are necessarily hypocritical, because of the constraint that they must address the “public interest” rather than any personal one. But I’ve offered plenty of reasons here, to support my assertions, none of which amount to any sort of “obscurantism”. Rather I think the stick is in your own eye. But then perhaps intelligence, like consciousness, is a much more distributed property than you would be inclined to “authorize”.

      Just to add some footnotes here, the assumption that the individual was subordinate to the state, wasn’t some strange appeal by Schmitt, but very widely held amongst those he was addressing, even amongst German liberals and social democrats, (which was, after all, a “mass” party). In fact, that obedience to the prince was part of one’s Christian duty, (which was to be “justified” by faith alone), was standard Lutheran dogma. And is Hume, though clearly an Enlightenment thinker, really a liberal one? The sort of moderate “common-sense” skepticism he espoused, (to escape his own panic at radical skepticism), is very much in line with a certain strand of conservatism. And Kant, who somewhat wrongly is considered to be a culmination of the Enlightenment, and who has iconic status as the source of certain strands of liberalism, nonetheless, out east, was very much cast in the Prussian authoritarian mold. And, of course, the notion of a “counter-Enlightenment” tradition is even more unstable than an “Enlightenment” tradition. But the notion that “modernity” involves increasing secularization, (even as lots of standard modern liberal ideas originated in the wars of religion), is somewhat belied by the persistence of reactionary religious fundamentalism, (in ever more tech-savvy and updated modes). That requires something more than crude “militant atheist” eliminationism, (which is really neo-neo-positivism), and ought to motivate something of a re-examination of the “religious” sources and contexts of the emergence of secular ideologies, which the “old” atheism, based in anthropological criticism, and thus both more knowlegeable about and more “sympathetic” to the issues involved, was more adept at. Needless to say, that has nothing to do with “mysticism”, other than the thoroughly “rational” kind.

      Lastly, I was somewhat disturbed by MacLeod’s comment, citing torture and drones as if necessary consequences of any Schmittian conception of sovereignty. But I think that goes back to what I said above about arguments from expediency trumping moralistic ones in such matters. Not least because they would involve understanding opposing “moralities”, including those of the enemy, which goes to how counter-productive such measures really are.

      Wish I had the time to parse the above in detail, but have got to go re-stock them shelves. Really… both…

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  1. […] Mattski, and Anarcissie (@241 and various) and others: Following from the mention of Kahn’s work and specifically his focus on […]

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