Twice more into the breach: Hume, Kahn, Schmitt; faith <-> violence (un/reason)

1. Intro by way of a response to Mr. Halasz at the Crooked Timber thread:

@239: The Wikipedia entry on Kahn is a good capsule summary. I often wonder why, given that he’s a distinguished professor at Yale (not some wayward internet nobody), and given further that his work is in its way quite topical and unusually clearly written, his name doesn’t come up more often. I think it may have something to do with the fact that his analysis is somewhat inconvenient for our customary political conversations, and that his conclusions somewhat contradict his own avowedly liberal preferences, forcing him into intermittent apologies to his friends and colleagues, and leading him to adopt for his own part a pessimism of the liberal intellect, optimism of the liberal will similar to Charles Taylor’s. In short, he’s very good at explaining how sovereignty-based political orders work, why they call for and receive sacrifice of life (and other forms of ritualized or quasi-ritualized violence like torture), and why they still make the world go round, but he’s not good at providing encouragement to idealists and ideologues.

2. (Re-)extended discussion on the connection between faith and violence in relation to political theology and anarchism (to be revised and annotated as time permits):

@240 Mattski, and Anarcissie (@241 and various) and others: Following from the mention of Kahn’s work and specifically his focus on “sacrifice,” the link between faith and violence is more profound than a simple one-way transaction. I want to say more “complex,” but in another way the problem is that it’s so simple and immediate we have a hard time talking about it directly, even while we never actually stop talking about it. This connection also goes to the larger speculative discussion about the state-as-we-know-it and theoretical alternatives, and points to a particular liberal blind spot characteristic at least as much of those on the fringes of modern liberal discourse – anarchists, libertarians, communists, and their early modern precursors – as of those at the moderate and compromising center. This blind spot or possible blind spot is centrally evoked in the Schmittian challenge to liberalism, and understanding it might help to explain Schmitt’s claim that the political is uniquely defined by the potential for lethal violence.

Setting aside Anarcissie’s presumption of a necessity for “arbitrary” exercises of power, the question of “blood sacrifice” attaches to the notion of a “higher” or “broader” (we might also say “more basic,” or “eternal,” etc.) meaning of life and death, the death or life that points beyond itself. The ability to demand and to perform an authentic sacrifice rests on the notion of a reason for being beyond “merely being” (also beyond “mere being”) or of a meaning of “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness/property” necessarily resting beyond the horizon of any individual’s own life, liberty, pursuit of happiness/property.

The political-theological not only meets but tends to overpower and overwhelm the political-philosophical, or the rational-liberal, on this ground, since the “side” whose believers will die and (usually) kill for their beliefs possesses distinct advantages in any actual political struggle over the side that cannot produce a reason for doing so, or, put differently, that depends on mere reason as understood within the limitations of liberal thought for doing so.

The same mechanism, the ability to act on “faith” and in mutual confidence, on a firm basis of shared and effectively reflexive expectations, and so on, supplies the historical solution of the coordination problem, in diverse settings – thus the common utilitarian justifications for religion (it gets the job done). Fortunately or not, what makes cooperation possible for peaceful or anyway practical purposes, at sacrifice of labor and will, makes cooperation possible for aggressive purposes or war, up to and including “supreme sacrifice” and the demonstration of “no greater love.” How can we presume that justification of the latter sacrifice is simply false or inauthentic without implying that the former must also be inauthentic? One implies the other, and without them we are left with nihilism, since if nothing means anything and everything means nothing, then, if we’re consistent, we should be utterly indifferent to the fate of the world, and finally indifferent even to our own meaningless failures to remain consistently indifferent: The Humean proposition that reason alone cannot motivate action extends to any action of moral judgment and the political resistance it might engender, or, as he famously put it, “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” (My own view is that everyone here still arguing on these matters, especially those ever schooled in common social-scientific reductions of the “fact-value distinction,” should read or re-read Hume on the origin of government from the Treatise of Human Nature.)

Since there are, however, actually few to no true nihilists, we’re left with the prior state of play. Whether thought “truly” meaningful or not, those notions of the meaningful are all we have, and apparently will determine our actions whether or not in some perfectly consistent sense they “ought to.” (As Hume concedes.) We cannot expect those ill-equipped on either score – to accept the justifiability of any sacrifice at all for the common purpose that may not be the individual’s first preferred purpose or satisfactorily “reasonable” purpose, and to accept the justifiability of supreme sacrifice – to prevail in a contest against those who do not experience this difficulty. Furthermore, as long as resources are not available to all in superfluous abundance, there will be contests, and whatever differences there are will define what matters at all, will constitute the basis for a “life and death” struggle.

This is not an argument for a fascistic cult over “free people,” but a recognition that a free people whose freedom embraces “higher” etc. bonds as real bonds, as bonds no less real than any other human constructs, including specifically the construct of the primacy for right of the category of the individual (metaphysical individualism underlying modern liberalism including all or most modern anarchism), will discover advantages: not marginal advantages, but every advantage in the world, since these are also, as noted, the criteria for the organization of great projects, the trans-generational continuity of law, the general expectation that promises will be kept and pacts observed, the promise of “eternal life,” and so on.

The free or so-called free people may excel in some forms of working and fighting more than others, it may develop superior skill at “making the other bastard die for his country,” it may in fact seek and achieve obscene “kill ratios” on its own behalf: The sacrifice of the enemy to the national god, even or especially the goddess of democracy, mostly suffices, even if it’s never completed without at least the willingness to offer one’s own head. Even, for example, many of the most ardent critics of the American drone assassination program, who focus on loss of innocent life, sooner or later will also be found complaining about the “cowardice” of remote control killing, though they may be deluded if they think that higher levels of risk to the combatants necessarily implies less combat.

It would seem logical and rational to think so, that mortal danger would be an effective barrier, rather than an ineluctably powerful force of attraction, but it needs to be the latter only for a few, if need be only for one “last man,” to re-inaugurate the entire cycle, never mind that the barrier, to remain a barrier, requires someone willing and able to embrace the moral and physical danger from its other side.

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    1. […] to – in short: “no true liberal praxis” – see also comments on “Hume’s finger.” I have explored the problem elsewhere, always dealing with definitional complications […]

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