alien & sedition.
Monday, February 26, 2007
  Enemy Mine

So at the very end of last week's TWICO I mentioned Peter Berkowitz's bizarre attempt to declare Alan Wolfe the Ann Coulter of the left. Now I see that Wolfe has rather effectively fired back.

The dispute was triggered by Wolfe's review, for the New York Times, of Dinesh D'Souza's stupid little book. Berkowitz demonstrated a basic grasp of sound moral logic by denouncing D'Souza's atrocity, but he couldn't help trying to play the moral equivilance card by looking for similar sins on the left. Specifically, Berkowitz objected to Wolfe's suggestion that conservatives should publicly renounce D'Souza and his thesis (not a bad idea, considering that D'Souza is still the "Rishwain Research Fellow" at one of the most influential conservative think-tanks in America - imagine, for instance, if Ward Churchill were on staff at the Brookings Institution). According to Berkowitz, it turns out Wolfe is just as bad!

Why? Because of an essay Wolfe wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago, in which he used the work of German conservative philosopher Carl Schmitt to analyze the tactics and strategy of the Rovian Republican party. Schmitt joined the NSDAP in 1933; to Berkowitz, the use of Schmitt's writing to discuss the GOP is tantamount to calling Republicans Nazis, which is just as bad as anything D'Souza has said about the left.

I haven't read the original Wolfe essay, because I don't have a subscription to the Chronicle. But I know exactly the point Wolfe was trying to make. In fact, I'm cursing the fact that I'm an obscure blogger, because I've been making the same argument, using the same text - Schmitt's The Concept of the Political - for a few years now myself. I got there first! Okay, I'm over it.

Schmitt wrote the essay in 1932, a year before he joined the Nazis. It has been interpreted in various ways, though most prominently as a call for national unity as against an alien "other." As an analysis of politics, however, it's considerably more subtle than that. Schmitt - and I don't have the book with me at the moment, so I'm going from memory - argues that the fundamental dynamic of politics is the "friend-enemy" distinction, that is, the opposition between those who are not bound up into the same system of sovereign authority. This is "politics as war," though it needn't be actual war - just conceived as an existential confrontation. In a sense, one might think of it as a rebuke-in-advance to John Rawls' liberal "overlapping consensus," which arranges a conception of politics around how disparate philosophies can achieve public common ground. Schmitt's priority is the existential exclusion of one political group by another. Interestingly, one could argue that had Weimar Germany taken Schmitt more seriously - or had there been time for them to do so - his points could have helped save the Republic, by illuminating to the liberal government the need for a crackdown on its illiberal enemies.

Wolfe, from what I understand, uses Schmitt to argue that certain conservatives have developed a well-formed conception of politics-as-war, of existential confrontation between themselves and liberals - even if liberals don't see it. Berkowitz characterizes Wolfe's argument as follows:
The supposed fascism of today's conservatives, argues Wolfe, helps us understand their electoral successes: "Conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political." For conservatives, he contends, "politics never stops" and is driven by rank partisanship indifferent to the public interest; liberals are "unworthy of recognition"; rights must be trampled upon and the power of the state to deal with emergencies must be relentlessly expanded because "conservatives always find cases of emergency." By contrast, claims Wolfe, liberals such as himself seek consensus, believe in pluralism, honor toleration, question their own convictions, and respect individual rights.
Of course, my guess is that Berkowitz is misrepresenting Wolfe from the first sentence of that paragraph - did Wolfe really "suppose" that conservatives were fascist? Schmitt's theory is a useful tool of analysis in the same way as many other theories: as a metaphor, a pure-state representation of dynamics that, in the real world, do not function so purely. Certain conservatives can operate in a way that is reminiscent of Schmitt's friend-enemy conception of politics - this does not mean that they are "fascists" per se (though it does put them in dangerously illiberal territory, but we've seen plenty of evidence for that).

Berkowitz simply doesn't want to acknowledge the depths to which much right-wing discourse has sunk:
It is risible, therefore, for Wolfe to seek to assimilate Ann Coulter's vitriol and Bill O'Reilly's grandstanding to Schmitt's concept of the political. They are writers and talkers, often shouters, public performers, and certainly culture warriors. But they are no more disposed to take up arms against the left than is the left disposed to take up arms against them. In their acceptance, for all practical purposes, of individual rights and the democratic process, they are, from a Schmittian point of view, liberals indistinguishable from Wolfe himself.
Thus, he says, "Wolfe's contention that conservatives are animated by the spirit of a Nazi political theorist is scarcely less incendiary or more defensible than D'Souza's claim that the cultural left forms a de facto alliance with al Qaeda."

That whizzing sound is the point, flying by a good foot or two over Berkowitz's head.

An amusing irony of this - one that Wolfe points out - is that it's the radical left that has most enthusiastically taken up Schmitt's work these days. I first read Schmitt as part of a class I was taking with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, whose work - which most famously includes a book called Hegemony and Socialist Strategy - exists somewhere at the intersection of Gramsci and Foucault (incidently, one could argue that some modern conservatives - whether consciously or not - emulate the ideas of Gramsci as much as those of Schmitt). Laclau and Mouffe draw on Schmitt specifically because they can use him to reject the ideas of liberal theorists like Rawls and Jurgen Habermas. I've since come to see L & M's "radical democracy" as both hopelessly esoteric and, insofar as I can figure out what it's supposed to be, rather illiberal. But they certainly understand the concept of politics-as-war (they just don't fight it very well), and nobody can describe them as fascists.

Wolfe responds to Berkowitz with a mixture of sadness and derision:
In the world according to Peter Berkowitz, there are no right-wing bloggers calling the president's critics traitors, no Swift-boating of Democratic candidates, no violations of civil liberty associated with our Republican president, no authorized leaks of the names of CIA agents, no dramatic increase in the use of presidential signing statements, no use of torture, no suspension of habeas corpus, no breaks with our historic allies over such methods, no biased editorial pages and networks, no Rush Limbaughs, no vigilantes patrolling our borders, no invented quotations from Abraham Lincoln, no manipulations of intelligence, no appeals to racial and religious bigotry.
The larger irony of this dispute, though, might be in how Berkowitz's dishonest attempt to paint Wolfe as outside the pale merely reaffirms Wolfe's thesis: it's yet another maneuver in the right's campaign of politics-as-war.

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