When interest in political theology began to emerge on the Christian Left and Center Left in the 1960s, those engaging the discipline were at pains to distinguish not just their specific theological positions but their entire set of questions and concerns from those which motivated the “Old Political Theology” of the NAZI jurist Carl Schmitt. This concern is reflected in the outstanding status questionis prepared by Francis Schussler Fiorenza in 1977 (Fiorenza 1977/2012), which makes it clear that the Schmittian problematic is simply one among many possible approaches, whether to a theology of the political or to what he and his associates call a “consciously political theology” as opposed to the unconsciously political theology which is created when theologians do not understand the social basis and political valence of their claims.
Specifically, Fiorenza identifies the following political-theological paradigms:
- The tripartite distinction between mythical, philosophical, and civic or political theology associated with Varro (cited in Augustine 427/1972),
- Augustine’s doctrine of the Two Cities (augustine 427/1972),
- An Enlightenment doctrine centered around natural theology and civic religion (Locke 1690/1967, Rousseau 1762/1962) ,
- The political theology of the Catholic Restoration, within which he situates Schmitt, but which also includes the much earlier and somewhat different work of de Maistre and de Bonald (Bonald 1796, Maistre 1775-1821/1965,
- The German political theology of the 1960s 1970s (Solle 1974) and
- Latin American liberation theology (Solle 1974).
To these, even restricting ourselves to the limited historical and civilizational frame which Fiorenza analyzes, I would add, at a minimum:
- Thomistic political theology, both in its original form, and in its Baroque and social Catholic/Christian Democratic incarnations (Goerner 1965, Gilson 1968), and
- An entire spectrum of Protestant political theologies including, at least, early Lutheran and Reformed political theologies, the competing liberal and Evangelical political theologies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Neo-Orthodoxy, and an entire sub-spectrum of fundamentalist political theological, from Dispensationalism through Reconstruction and Dominion (Niebuhr 1951).
If we were to bring the typology up to date, we would need to add:
- The Communio theology which developed in reaction to Latin American liberation theology (Ratzinger 1984, 1986) and
- Radical Orthodoxy, which is distinctive in proposing the Church rather than the State as the architectonic political paradigm, (Milbank 1991).
All of this, furthermore, presupposes that we addressing only Christian political theologies. It does not consider the vast range of Islamic political theologies which have informed on the global political scene in recent years, or the various Jewish political theologies which have shaped Christian polities and which led, through the triumph of Zionism to the establishment of a Jewish State which has in turn become a significant point of political-theological interest to both Christianity and Islam. Nor does it consider the Indian, Chinese, Southeast and Northeast Asian, Indigenous American and African domains which make up far more than half of humanity.
And yet contemporary discourse around political theology in the broader academy has been dominated by precisely the Schmittian problematic, as indicated in the work of Agamben, Baidou, and Zizek, and to a lesser extent Foucault and Derrida, among others, in a way which makes Fiorenza’s Eurocentric typology seem quite cosmopolitan in character. We will have the opportunity to return, in later chapters, to analysis of these various political theologies and the social interests they represent. It is the aim of this section to explain clearly just what Schmitt did that has been so been so captivating for the academy, as well as its links to the broader hermeneutic ontological and structuralist-poststructuralist lineages of which his followers form a part. We will also ask why it has been so captivating and show just how profoundly dangerous this problematic, in both its “Left” as well as its Right forms, has become.
To anyone who has followed the careful process by which the Right in the United States has cultivated a “bull-pen” of conservative and especially conservative Catholic intellectuals to help it map its road back to power since its defeat in 1932 and the failure of the “Business Plot” in 1933 to overthrow Roosevelt and install a fascist regime (Reimann 2017), figures such as Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger represent a familiar type. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the democratic revolution of 1918, in which significant elements pressed for the transfer of power to workers councils on the Soviet model, and which even for the mainstream of the Social Democratic Party which opposed the Soviet model was part of a strategy for a peaceful transition to socialism, the ruling classes began plotting their restoration. Then as now the conservative Catholic small and petty bourgeoisie provided the intellectual shock troops for that restoration. Little did they know that they would also shape the direction of the Left a century later.
Writing in the 1920s, during the Weimar Republic, Schmitt advanced a pair of theses which have come to dominate political-theological discourse. First, he argued that all modern political concepts are simply secularizations of theological concepts (Schmitt 1922/2005). Second, he argued, against historic natural law theories and more recent concepts of popular sovereignty, that “the sovereign is he who decides the exception (Schmitt 1921/2014).”
The first of these claims is, despite the enthusiasm it has excited among secular intellectuals unaware of their own religious heritage, actually quite unremarkable. Nearly all the great thinkers of the Enlightenment saw themselves as working to realize in the secular arena the principles and values of the Christian (or the Jewish) tradition. Thus Locke grounds his doctrine of rights on the concept of property and his concept of property on the divine act of creation —and humanity’s limited participation therein. Even as he undercut the historic arguments for the existence of God, Kant insisted that the moral principles of Christianity, at least as he understood them, were, in fact, obligatory on the basis of reason alone. And Hegel argues that
The divine spirit must interpenetrate the entire secular life: whereby wisdom is concrete within it, and carries the terms of its own justification. But that concrete indwelling is only … ethical organization. Hegel, G.W.F. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (Hegel, G.W.F. 1830/1971 3: 552).
Indeed, Marx himself —Schmitt’s ultimate adversary— says essentially the same thing in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction (Marx 1843/2009). Philosophy grasps the rational kernel in religion, and politics —in the form of the proletariat— realizes philosophy.
The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.
The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy. (Marx 1843/2009)
It is only the fantastic and untenable character of the claims made by both of the principal secular projects of recent centuries —technocratic or humanistic— to effectively deify humanity, whether through scientific, technological and economic progress or by creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny, which has led those championing those projects to keep the theological, or rather theotic, character of their aims largely hidden —another issue to which we will return later.
Schmitt’s second claim is more serious. In its original context it lays out the juridical groundwork for Hitler’s suspension of the Weimar Constitution in 1933 in the Enabling Act or Reichstag Fire Act and thus for the whole NAZI regime. Here Schmitt is arguing that modern constitutionalism is a secularization not so much of Christian as of Roman ideas, though the specific points he cites are, for example, reaffirmed in Catholic theology (Aquainas. Summa Theologiae. I-II:95:4). Specifically, in the Roman tradition, laws were enacted senatus popolusque, “by the people and the elders together.” Potestas or power belonged ultimately to the people, without whose consent no law could be effective, even if in practice this popular consent was given as the result of significant economic and rhetorical manipulation. But the validity of the law rested on the auctoritas or authority of the Senate, which determined whether or not it was in accord with higher principles which, in the Roman context, were rather ill defined, but which in a Catholic context would later become identified with natural law and in a liberal context with natural rights or established constitutional principles. In this sense the juridical role of the Senate was more like that of our Supreme Court than that of most contemporary “upper houses” of parliament.
Roman law had a provision, though, which allowed the Senate to temporarily suspend the rule of law in the case of a public emergency, and to appoint one or more “dictators” who were free to act as they saw fit in order to protect the Roman state. In the profoundly aristocratic (and thus anti-monarchic) political culture of Republican Rome, it was taken for granted that no one would abuse this power and risk the loss of respect on honor from his peers which, assuming command over sufficient land and labor to guarantee the ability to devote one’s life to philosophically informed civic engagement was understood as the chief social good. But of course it was precisely this provision which through a complex series of events allowed the “dictatorship” to become permanent in the form of continuing military imperium which was, officially at least, created in order to protect the institutions of the Republic, and which eventually assimilated not just the popular potestas but also the senatorial auctoritas to itself.
It is Schmitt’s explicit endorsement of this final move which constitutes his embrace of the NAZI Fuhrerprinzip, the embodiment in the Fuhrer of the senatorial auctoritas which Roman dictators never had under the Republic and which they gained only gradually and de facto under the empire.
This is, we should note, part and parcel of the same broader project as Heidegger’s hermeneutic ontology, especially in his later thought after the “turn.” Heidegger’s early critique of metaphysics, set forth in Problems of Phenomenology (Heidegger 1927) and Being and Time (1928) focuses on the failure of thinkers, beginning with Plato, to grasp the distinction between Being and beings, and instead attempts to theorize Being as the beingness of beings –i.e. it thinks Being in entitative terms. Where the pre-Socratics, according to Heidegger, were able to think the self-manifestation of Being, something he associates with the term physis or nature, Plato and Aristotle increasingly use the language of morphe (form) and energeia (actuality). Form, and especially the Good or the “form of forms” is, for Plato, what really is and that in terms of which this world of appearance must be explained and judged. Aristotle goes even further down this road, arguing that it is form which actualizes matter, bringing things into being. Rather than simply allowing Being to manifest itself, to present itself as a question, it is reduced to something other than Being, something which can be comprehended –and once comprehended, used to ground our own process of making, our own process of bringing into being. Indeed, as Heidegger points out, the very notion of morphe derives from the language of the craftsman: it is the look or appearance given to something by its producer. Energeia, similarly, is rendered in German as Wirklicheit, from the root for work. Metaphysics thus grounds technology, and the larger technological mode of relating to the world.
Later (Heidegger 1941) Heidegger modified both his historical analysis and his philosophical position. Increasingly identifying ancient Greek and German romantic thought, he claimed to hear in Plato and Aristotle echoes of the earlier Greek aletheia or unconcealment of Being and located the crystallization of metaphysics in the “translation” of Greek thought into Latin, the language of road builders and empire makers, a crystallization which is completed in the Middle Ages when Being is identified with the supreme maker, the Christian Creator God. This process culminates, of course, in Thomas, who is the supreme philosopher of the “ontotheologic,” the universal causal-explanatory system in which Being is simply an instrument for explaining and ultimately manipulating entities. Modern metaphysical theories, such as those of Descartes and Hegel –or for that matter Marx– differ only in giving human rather than divine subjectivity or labor pride of place. Nietzsche’s claim that the world is just the “will to power” is simply the culmination of this long metaphysical tradition, and offers just one more formulation of the first principle.
Being, for the later Heidegger, manifests itself in a people only through the voice of the few who help it to discover its “god,” a sort of mythos under which Being is revealed.
… the essence of the people is its “voice.” This voice does not, however, speak in a so-called immediate flood of the common, natural, undistorted and uneducated “person.” The voice speaks seldom and only in the few, if it can be brought to sound … (Heidegger >1934/1989: 319)
A Volk is only a Volk if it receives its history through the discovery of its god, through the god, which through history compels it in a direction and so places it back in being. Only then does it avoid the danger of turning only on its own axis … (Heidegger >1934/1989: 398-399).
The result of Heidegger’s move is, we should note, in no sense a global abandonment of metaphysics, but rather a change in its aim. Where historic metaphysics terminates in the concept of Being as Such or its transcendental equivalents —the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and the One— in order to explain the universe and order human action, Heidegger argues instead for interpreting Being in its concrete historical unconcealments. Now this might seem entirely harmless or even attractive. After all, when we encounter another human being, we like to imagine that we do not begin by trying to explain them or use them to explain anything else, but rather attempt to understand them intersubjectively —something which requires interpretation. Beginning with explanation seems like an objectification and even an instrumentalization. But this is not really how we proceed. We first make a strategic and tactical estimate of who a person is —of their interests and networks and capacities— and what they intend, something which entails causal analysis and explanation. Thus, if the someone knocks on our door in the middle of the night (or at mid-day, for that matter) we do not simply welcome them in and begin a deep conversation, aiming at intersubjective understanding. We first need to know who they are and why they are there. After all, some people who knock on doors in the middle of the night arrest those they find and send them to death camps … Indeed, even if the individual approaching us is a colleague at the office rather than a stranger in the middle of the night, we want to make an estimate of their intentions before we decide how much to share.
But there is more. Let us say that the individual in question is planning to round up your people, gas them, then burn them in ovens. If you are going to resist you need not only to understand this person intersubjectively; you need to know why they are doing what they are doing so you can develop an effective strategy for resistance. And you need to ground a principle of value in terms of which the genocide can be authoritatively condemned. To put it in terms of Roman Law, both potestas and auctoritas depend on metaphysics as science or explanation: on demonstrating the ordering of the universe and everything in it to Being and to the Good. Rejecting metaphysics as science or explanation leaves us with no alternative but to accept the auctoritas of Being’s latest unconcealment, even if that unconcealment takes the form of Hitler, and seek guidance for our actions only through an interpretation of that unconcealment. Heidegger’s “gods” or “voices” of the people are the metaphysical equivalent of Schmitt’s Sovereign, which decides on the exception and which possess in themselves (and not as interpreters of Being) the auctoritas to define the principles which will govern the social order.
We will, in a later chapter, see that a similar problem afflicts “modern science” —or at least its architectonic discipline, mathematical physics— which has been largely left behind explanation in favor of formal description —and the physical interpretation of mathematical formalisms.
It should be apparent by now just why Schmitt was so pivotal in the NAZI road to power. Like Heidegger he was able to interpret the rise of Hitler in terms which were attractive to a large conservative Catholic and Romantic constituency which had no doubt envisioned a “restoration” that looked very different from the one they got.
But why has Schmitt so captivated the Left, especially in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union?
In order to answer this question we need to know that Schmitt’s 1921 essay On Dictatorship — and to a significant extent his entire body of work— was, in fact a response to an earlier essay —The Critique of Violence— by Walter Benjamin, which addressed a critical gap in revolutionary political theory. The problem is this. Historically socialism understands itself as building on and completing the liberal and democratic projects, not as simply negating them. And central to these projects is the establishment of rule of law. This includes a legal framework which protects the rationally autonomous individual and which specifies a format of representation by which the “people” can elect the government of the day and make and change laws. But the laws which protect the rationally autonomous individual also protect the property owner, and indeed generally define rights in proprietorial terms. And both the formats of representation which specify democracy and the objective conditions under which political struggle takes place reflect a balance of power in which the exploiting classes —the aristocracy and especially the bourgeoisie— retain a significant advantage. How, under these circumstances, do we carry out an authentically revolutionary transformation which expropriates the bourgeoisie and brings the proletariat —the vast majority of “the people”— to power, and which sets in motion the decommodification of labor power necessary to realize the ideal of self-determination which motivated not just the socialist but also the liberal and democratic projects to begin with?
Liberal theorists generally resolve this question by appeal to some sort of natural rights theory —to the laws of nature and nature’s God—- or else to some other strategy (such as Kant’s categorical imperative) for grounding moral principles prior to any social contract. But of course the principles to which they appeal are precisely those which ground the private property rights which in turn make Capital possible. So a breach with positive law is permissible —but only when Capital is threatened. Democratic theorists such as Rousseau thus went further and grounded rights themselves in a social contract which is itself the product of democratic —or even revolutionary— processes. This puts on the table, as it were, the possibility that the political order is itself ultimately the product of violence even if it aims to contain such violence in the future. And this was precisely the opportunity which was seized by the Catholic “traditionalists” de Maistre and de Bonald who argue that it is indeed violence which is the foundation of any possible social order, and that the one legitimate form of such violence is the divine violence of the sacrifice on the cross. We can already see that this road leads us to Schmitt.
We have argued elsewhere (and will argue even more forcefully in this work) that the only consistent way to ground revolutionary transformations, especially when they require action outside of positive law, is on the basis of a robust if radically historicized natural law theory (Mansueto 2014), which is what we believe Marx actually outlined in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction and the Communist Manifesto, but which he left radically underdeveloped. And this in turn requires a metaphysics of Esse. Now most social democrats and the communist right (the tradition of that includes Bukharin and Bogdanov, Gramsci and Silone) have taken such an approach in practice, gaging cautiously what degree of change is appropriate based on a careful reading of the social conditions. Thus the debates on the Left regarding whether or not the “objective conditions” existed for a socialist transition, or for some other more partial step in that direction. But others have followed the example of Rousseau and the French Revolution and grounded the legitimacy of the revolution and the revolutionary regime which emerges from it in revolutionary violence as such, a violence which Rousseau’s sociologically more acute critics on the traditionalist Right correctly identified as literally or symbolically divine in character, in that it does not simply represent but actually defines justice. And this is precisely what Benjamin does in The Critique of Violence. Specifically, Benjamin identifies what he calls a divine violence, which aims at the constitution of justice outside of any possible positive law. It is this and this alone which can be the mediating term between one legal regime and another. There is thus a deeply rooted connection between the revolutionary left and the traditionalist right, one that goes back behind Benjamin and Schmitt to Rousseau and the traditionalists. While Benjamin —and later Derrida— argue for a “violence” which transcends the Law in the name of Justice, Schmitt argues for a violence which suspends the Law in the name of Justice. Neither can tell us what Justice is and neither believes it can be grounded.
Now neither Benjamin nor Derrida actually engaged in or directly advocated revolutionary violence, and while Benjamin might have had he connected with the Resistance rather than committing suicide, it should be clear that the poststructuralism is by no means actually a revolutionary ideology. Derrida’s advocacy of “divine violence” means something else. In order to understand what it means, we must identify the precise social basis and political valence of poststructuralism generally and of the poststructuralist fascination with Schmittian political theology. And this, in turn, requires that we analyze the class composition the historic socialist and communist movements to which poststructuralism is largely a response.
While there can be little doubt that the industrial proletariat did, in fact, provide much of the mass base of both the social democratic and communist wings of the movement, and while it has always been peasant movements which have brought communist parties to power, the leadership of the socialist and communist movements has historically been drawn from what Marx and Engels called “the bourgeois ideologists.”
Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole (Marx and Engels 1848/2000).
This is the same group that Marx earlier identified as Philosophy, which he called the “head of the revolution (Marx 1843/2009)”. It is also Hegel’s “universal class” of liberally educated civil servants. It is what we are calling the “humanistic intelligentsia,” (those trained in and attempting to live from —or at least devote their lives to the practice of the liberal arts and in particular the humanities and the humanistic social sciences). And while in the nineteenth century—and to a lesser extent even today— elements of the humanistic intelligentsia were and are derived from the bourgeoisie as such, this group (which is a social category and not a class), is predominantly petty bourgeois both in their origins and in their class position and, as capitalism develops, is subjected to increasing proletarianization. By this we mean that, on the one hand, unlike the proletariat as such members of the humanistic intelligentsia enjoy significant creative control over their work, but like the proletariat they see this control gradually slipping away, by way of attacks on academic freedom and faculty governance in universities, the decline journalism as a liberal profession, etc.
Since this is the group which actually does social theory and philosophy, we do well to take into account its specific interests as we analyze its theoretical products and assess them as political strategies. And by the early twentieth century the humanistic intelligentsia had three well defined political options on the table. The first was what we might call “professionalism,” i.e. a privileged, semi-autonomous role based on the exercise of one’s specific discipline within the context of bourgeois society, on the condition that it remain “value neutral,” i.e. that it provide advice regarding the means to ends which are determined by others: nominally “the people,” acting through democratic structures, but in practice the bourgeoisie. This is the option represented by Weber in Science as a Vocation (Weber 1919/1968) and is what today we often call a technocratic orientation. This option generally involves an alliance with the liberal and advanced, technocratic bourgeoisie and, in practice, with the more fully proletarianized elements in the population by way of social liberal and social democratic parties. The second option was communism —a bid for all-sided global leadership based on an alliance with the proletariat and other exploited classes, aimed at ending for everyone the commodification of labor which was the principal form of capitalist oppression experienced by the humanistic intelligentsia. In the context of this option, the humanistic intelligentsia trades some of its autonomy (actually a lot) for a global leadership role in the context of a Leninist vanguard or Gramscian counter-hegemonic party —again in alliance with the proletariat as such, the peasantry if there is one, and often in popular fronts with the liberal bourgeoisie. The third option was Romantic Reaction —an alliance first with absolutist monarchic and aristocratic and later with imperialist and colonizing bourgeois elements who, the intellectuals in question imagined, promised a return to a less instrumentalizing, preindustrial, precapitalist past. This is, of course, the option of the traditionalists de Maistre and de Bonald, of Nietzsche, and ultimately of Heidegger and Schmitt who, however, introduce a new element to the strategy. (Lukacs 1953/1980).
As King and Szelenyi (King and Szeleny 2004) have suggested, an integral part of professionalism as a class strategy is artificially maintaining the scarcity of professionals. This is something physicians, for example, have done very well, attorneys reasonably well, and academics very poorly. We are, after all, in the business of training our own competition. Pierre Bourdieu makes a compelling case (Bourdieu 1988/1991) that Heidegger’s famous obscurantism, something which has since been mimicked by scholars throughout the humanities, was designed to confer on the philosopher an oracular mana which set him apart from ordinary humanity and, in effect, made doing philosophy inaccessible to the vast majority of people.
By the 1920s and 1930s the contradictions of historic socialism were becoming apparent. State ownership of the means of production turned out to be a means not to the decommodification of labor power but to the full proletarianization of the entire society. And Stalin began systematically liquidating precisely those elements with the humanistic intelligentsia who actually insisted on exercising the critical rationality which had drawn them to the socialist project in the first place. But this was also the period, of course, during which fascism was ascendant, as a cluster of political formations around the world drew on the alienation and authoritarianism generated by the commodification of labor power to legitimate the destruction of not just the socialist but also the liberal and democratic projects, and to militarize their societies in pursuit of the colonial empires which Capital needed in order to survive. Intellectuals like Heidegger seemed to imagine that they could leverage their philosophical obscurantism into a privileged position within, or even hegemony over, the fascist regime.
The Frankfurt School, with which Benjamin became associated played a critical role in this situation. On the one hand, the Frankfurt School represented “petty bourgeois socialism” par excellence. Drawn from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, many of its members had studied Weber and studied with Heidegger and they were profoundly sensitive to the fact that the critique of capitalist instrumentalization could easily be turned on actually existing socialism. And their organic connection to the proletariat was very limited at best. Nevertheless, despite some ideological problems —such as Benjamin’s fascination with divine violence and Adorno’s radical pessimism—they maintained their commitment to the socialist project. And Fromm’s (Fromm 1941) analysis of the links between the alienation engendered by the commodification of labor power and the authoritarian personality structure on which fascism depended are critical to understanding not only historic fascism but what has followed.
After the defeat of fascism, the liberal bourgeoisie —increasingly, it seems likely, under pressure from occult networks on the far right— broke the popular front and imposed on the humanistic intelligentsia a return to professional “value neutrality” which increasingly included an implicit or explicit “anticommunism” clause. Many of those who submitted —especially those who came from places of privilege themselves— found positions of honor and responsibility in the social liberal order; those who did not were marginalized. Meanwhile, however, the rapid expansion of higher education created a new “mass intelligentsia,” which could not really be accommodated within even the also expanding ranks of the professional middle class, at least not at the levels of that class which provided the professional autonomy which the student generation of the 1960s saw being exercised by “the best and the brightest,” who were actually a small, privileged stratum. This was the social basis for the student movement of the 1960s (which actually extended well into the 1970s, and which had a significant “afterlife” in the 1980s). And it is not surprising that the Frankfurt School, with its focus on resistance to the alienating impact of the commodification of labor power and its distance from the rest of the working classes, was an inspiration to this movement.
But just as the mass student movement was edging towards socialism, it became apparent that historic socialism was irredeemable. Krushchev’s reforms beginning 1956 represented a break with the worst of Stalinist repression, but if anything seemed to move the Soviet bloc further away from the communist ideal of the decommodification of labor power. The Maoist alternative catalyzed the excitement of many in the 1960s and 1970s, among other things precisely because it targeted the persistence of commodity production under socialism, and led to the formation of an entire Maoist “new communist movement.” But it soon became apparent that Maoism was, if anything, vastly more repressive, especially for the intelligentsia than Stalinism. Stalin murdered those he saw as a political threat. The Cultural Revolution targeted the entire intelligentsia, regardless of its political orientation or practical activity, even at the cost of nearly destroying Chinese Civilization. And while some of the later Third World national liberation movements, especially in Latin America, engaged a range of new constituencies, embracing, for example, a significant movement of radicalized Catholic clergy and laity, and largely avoided the creation of a monolithic single party state, they too turned out to be mostly about creating a national state bourgeoisie rather than about liberating people from the need to sell their labor power in order to survive.
In the Soviet bloc the process was a bit different. The humanistic intelligentsia welcomed periods of reform —1956, for example, and in a more limited way 1968, but was inevitably pushed to the side as reforms were either crushed or the opening they created reserved for technocratic managers rather than humanistic advocates of decommodification. By the mid-1980s, when Gorbochov made it clear that real reform was coming, the humanistic intelligentsia in the Soviet bloc had largely given up the dream of “socialism with a human face” and facilitated the collapse of the system and a capitalist restoration.
This is the point at which the political valence of the poststructuralist appropriation of Schmitt (and Heidegger) becomes clear. Beginning in the 1960s a group of French intellectuals pioneered a new strategy for the humanistic intelligentsia: what we might call “critical professionalism.” Critical professionalism allows the humanistic intelligentsia to criticize the increasing proletarianization of their own stratum, while refusing to engage Capital, and thus abandoning the rest of the proletariat and working classes. We see this illustrated most clearly in the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault (Foucault 2007) argues that while premodern states aimed only a control over territory, modern states exercise a detailed control over bodies which he calls biopolitical. Thus ancient empires merely taxed their citizens; modern states (or rather the modern corporations which modern states protect) aim at total control of the production process. This thesis, which certainly points to something real but, we will argue, also misunderstands it, became the basis for the strange politics of an entire generation of the humanistic intelligentsia which aimed at resisting proletarianization without resisting Capital, or indeed without even mentioning its existence. Indeed, it is incontestable that historic socialism also represents a practice of biopolitics, so poststructuralism comes off seeming even handed and, if it not as enthusiastic about capitalism as the Right would like, this made it relatively unobjectionable. Heidegger’s obscurantism was maintained as a way of promoting the artificial scarcity of professional deconstructionism, and we have the humanistic academy which took shape from the 1980s onward —perhaps earlier in Europe.
Agamben’s work is located in this context, largely as an extension and correction of Foucault, who was his teacher. Specifically, Agamben argues that modernity represents not a modification of the concept or aims of of Sovereignty, but rather a shift from a discourse around Sovereignty and politics to a discourse around economy. This shift, he argues, is located genealogically in the emergence of a Trinitarian theology which distinguishes between God’s Being, identified variously with the Trinity as a whole or with the Father, and his activity or the divine economy, identified with the relations between the Persons of the Trinity or with the Son. This shift points to the emergence of an immanent order which depends not on the establishment or application of principles or of law but on the concrete, empirical resolution of particular problems.
The strategy worked —for Capital. An entire generation of the humanistic intelligentsia (or more) was cut off from the struggle against Capital and focused on “deconstructive” activity which it understood as liberating but which was actually aimed at disarming the Left. But the strategy did not work for the humanistic intelligentsia itself. Graduate programs continued to churn out doctorates and universities cut tenure track lines and shifted responsibility for most of their teaching mission to adjunct faculty and a lower caste of largely unprotected “teaching faculty.” And the handful who got tenure assisted their employers by denying it to anyone who questioned the poststructuralist orthodoxy. Seeking allies, poststructuralist academics offered their theories to the women’s movement and to movements against imperialism and racism, which had the effect, in turn, of cutting these movements off from any possible alliance with the proletariat. It also promoted an “allergy to power” as itself instrumentalizing and oppressive, which condemned those who took this route to political impotence.
The result is an absurd situation in which very comfortable humanistic academics earning large salaries and still enjoying very significant autonomy (on condition that they not deploy it against Capital) talk about revolutionary violence and say other things which sound incredibly revolutionary —but intend nothing. Are they merely soothing their consciences by occasionally nipping at the hand that feeds them? Or are they up to something more sinister? The method we advocate is focused more on analyzing concrete impact than it is on ascribing intentions. Here two points are in order. First, political theology in the Schmittian mode has largely displaced the liberation theologies of the last century which, whatever their failings (which we will discuss in a later chapter), advocated a politics focused on the self-liberation of the proletariat and the peasantry. Where liberation theology got people reading Marx, Agamben, Baidou, and Zizek have them reading a fascist, just as Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze did before them. Second, while there has been a resurgence of interest in “socialism” during the past decade, very significant elements of this new maximalist left have flirted or worse with the alt-right and especially with the New Axis of which Vladimir Putin is the public center. For “genealogists” such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Agamben this would, in fact, be enough convict. But at present we will leave the matter in the form of a question.
Over the course of the following chapters we will offer an alternative account of what a consciously political theology should look like —one which situates humanity’s struggle for self-determination in the broader context of our desire for Being and which demonstrates the ways in which Christianity has hegemonized this desire in the interest of Capital, while engaging the political theologies of other spiritual and civilizational traditions. And this will allow us to settle accounts with poststructuralism and Dark Liberation by way of a more rigorous argument. But before we proceed, we need to consider the question of method.
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