Now that it is over, the vicious political battle that raged these past two weeks over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court appears less significant for its outcome than for what it revealed about what we might term the “deep culture” of America.
What it revealed, in effect, is that this deep culture, which according to much contemporary theory, is supposed to sustain as well as support those institutions we understand as “political”, has now disintegrated. The process of confirming a justice to the high court, a once august institution designed by the nation’s founders to underwrite the entire procedural apparatus whereby the core moral and social values of a “people” could be steeled against all sorts of partisan malice and intrigue, became an open amphitheater for some of the most unscrupulous methods of political chicanery, the most shameful styles of oratorical posturing, and the most odious forms of personal attack and recrimination.
The trajectory of this descent into the abyss has been long in the making. The politics of personal assault that re-energized what until the last moment had been an unsuccessful assault on Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy was not at all unprecedented. It made its debut in the Presidential campaign of 1992 when accusations of sexual assault and misconduct were hurled against Bill Clinton, reaching a climax in the impeachment fracas of the late Nineties. Then, as well as now, allegations of abominable behavior toward women were weaponized in the face of a perceived failure to move the political needle strategically.
We do not at all make this point to diminish the trauma and horror of sexual predation toward women, which has been part of the covert political landscape, not just in America, for generations, and is now thankfully seeing the light of day. But bringing it out of the closet only as a radical “supplement” to conventional political tactics, and then using it selectively for partisan ends (as happened in both contexts) not only neutralizes its warrant to mandate outrage, but demonstrates how it is still not really taken seriously, even by those who raise their voices the loudest. Hypocrisy is always truly non-partisan.
What distinguishes the present contretemps from events two decades earlier, however, is the raw, pandemic hostility that has come to permeate the political discourse as a whole, a hostility for which the vilified public figure is but a convenient metonym, or (as Jacques Lacan would say), a “sliding signifier” which proved incapable of finding its proper referent. In less than week the anti-Trump enragées turned their fire away from the contentious persona of the President himself, training it not only on Kavanaugh, but on Republicans overall and on a variety of demonic political and conceptual abstractions of this day and age, such as “the patriarchy.”
During the 1990s the energy of the opposition was centered almost entirely on Clinton himself. When Clinton survived the onslaught, the fierce odium politicum began to ebb for a season, and Clinton went on for a time to become a distinguished statesman in the manner of certain former presidents. The political system out of which the ferocious partisanship had temporarily erupted was never really called into question.
But this time it was not only the “system,” but the very metapolitical dark matter supposedly binding the system together invisibly that came into view as the target of passionate obloquy. For example, New York Times op-ed columnist Alexis Grinell, blasting the defection of Susan Collins (R-Maine) in cementing the final vote to approve Kavanaugh’s confirmation, went so far as to denounce all women who did not go along completely with accusations against Kavanaugh as “gender traitors” who “who put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status.” Thus the Resistance itself appeared to have morphed within the twinkling of an eye into a cacophonous chorus claiming sundry intersectionalist atrocities with Trump himself rarely named, yet fulsomely taking the rhetorical high road while evaporating into the political night like the fading smile of a Cheshire Cat.
As Carl Schmitt first proposed in his 1932 essay The Concept of the Political, the notion of democracy as constituted by some kind of Rousseauean “general will” is spurious and self-contradictory. It is the fractionation of this will that gives rise to the politics itself, which derives ultimately from what Schmitt termed the “friend-enemy distinction.”
Politics does not consist in some collegial push toward a symmetry of individual or group interests, as classical liberalism understood it. Rather, politics arises when natural modes of differentiation within society itself turn “hyperbolic,” as Jacques Derrida noted in 1994 in his own tortured reflections on Schmitt. Marx himself understood that class divisions arise from certain natural scissions, especially gender divisions.
But politics, as Schmitt envisaged it, is only possible when these divisions are self-consciously activated with the aim of their ultimate reversal, or erasure. “Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis,” Schmitt wrote, “transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.” (37) Thus Schmitt’s notion of the friend-enemy distinction as the motivating force of politics overall comports with Marx’s own “messianic” vision of the revolutionary dissolution of all those oppressive structures that are held together by the “mystical” power of the ideological “superstructures” these divisions engender.
In Marx’s perspective, of course, all such divisions ultimately boil down to the relations of labor production and to the forms of “alienation” or “self-othering” (Entäusserung), which the distortions of such relations inevitable generate. And it is by becoming collectively conscious of the significance of these divisions, not to mention the intensification of group affects arising from such an awareness, that the mobilization of political action becomes possible in the first place. On that score both Marx and Schmitt manage to facilitate the deconstruction of the familiar idea of “politics” as an urbane logic of compromise and negotiated consensus.
But “division” may not be as fruitful for the formation of the political machinery as we imagine, if we read Marx not through the lens of Schmitt but that of Hegel in the manner we find in the work of the French philosopher Étienne Balibar. In a careful exegesis of the early Marx of the 1840s, who systematically strove in the midst of the fraught revolutionary situation in Europe at that time to immanentize Hegel by turning him “on his head,” Balibar argues that the real political project of our era – and perhaps any era – amounts to an incision of the sign of universal community within division.
The ability to name this incision is to take the concept of the political one crucial step further beyond the Schmittian – and we might add also Clausewitzian – definition of the politeia as essentially polemos, or “warfare.” Left on its own, the Schmittian politeia degenerates into an open-ended kind of warlordism, the inexorable consequence of a failure to realize within the immanent frame of politics as a whole the necessity of inscribing the concrete universality Hegel understood as the gist of the theory of “right.” Minus a theory of right, politics as a kind of friend-enemy “hyperbolicism”, as Derrida terms it in his Politics of Friendship, eventuates in violent anarchy, or (as in the case of Germany one year after the publication of Schmitt’s book) in fascist totalitarianism.
According to Balibar, the issue of whether this grim form of “negative dialectics”, as Adorno called it, prevails comes down strictly to how a theory of right, as the ultimate conceptual register of concrete universality, is applied in each instance. The friend-enemy dynamics foster either an implosion of the deep cultural valuations that found a theory of right or a “sublation” of the pattern of negative dialectics into a condition of community that embeds difference – “I am who am We, We who are I”.
That was always at the same time the essential formula for Marx’s revolutionary notion of the proletariat as the “universal class.” It was the class in which all other classes – and also perhaps gender, ethnic, or cultural divisions – were sublated at the moment of the messianic transformation into stateless – and classless – communism. “In Hegel, but after Rousseau,” Balibar writes, the ‘I’ has become a property that belongs to each and everyone, or to whatever citizen-subject, but on the condition that he or she is ‘indivisibly’ part of the ‘common.’” (135-36).
The “citizen-subject” is the phrase Balibar employs to characterize the transmutation of the concept of the political in the modern period of world history as a theory of right that does not merely distinguish, as Roman as well as European colonial law did, who “belongs” and who does not. It is the struggle of “subjects” to give to themselves a common law, or legitimacy (i.e., a model of immanent sovereignty), that both comprehends and incorporates their fierce antagonisms. It is, in effect, the distinction between Hobbes and Rousseau. But it is also corresponds to a theory of the unity of the real and ideal that can neither be merely historicized nor dismissed as an ideological foil that functions to diminish the material divisions and discordances within any given society.
Balibar insists that “to understand that this subject (which the citizen will be supposed to be) contains the paradoxical unity of a universal sovereignty and a radical finitude, we must envisage this constitution—in all the historical complexity of the practices and symbolic forms which it brings together—from both the point of view of the State apparatus and that of the permanent revolution.”(39)
A ”permanent revolution”, therefore, would be one in which the real tensions and divisions of a degenerate social order, one that has lost its profounder cultural moorings, do not effectively nullify the theory of right that has been implicit from the beginning. One could even go so far as to argue that even the Russian and Chinese revolutionaries, violent and sanguinary as they turned out to be in both the short and long term, still relied on an historic, if not indigenous, theory of right as the realization of a certain kind of political universality which Marxist dialectics merely concretized in the given situation.
Certainly, Lenin’s notion of the “soviets” was not some import from the Hegelian-Marxist lexicon of the nineteenth century, but an ancient Slavic thought-image of popular solidarity that somehow incarnated what could already be found in the Grundrisse.
But what became apparent this past weekend was that no theory of right could be asserted either to defend or oppose the particular political actions that were put in play. What we witnessed instead was a frenzied psychodrama of freely associated and previously unrecognized (at least in the political context), and often personalized, grievances rampantly running the gamut from society’s failure to take survivors of sexual assault seriously to the prevalence of “rape culture” to the posturing of Brett Kavanaugh toward his accusers to the Machiavellian machinations, not to mention the presumed perfidy, of both the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee .
This toxic tsunami of collective enmity toward the generalized Other, which only occasionally found a specific focus and even less so prompted a concern with argument or evidence, provided a genuine symptomatology that we are only just beginning to decipher. It is something far more troubling than what might be implied in the oft-repeated cliché last week certain people have “gone crazy” or lost their senses. In politics people routinely become angry, even insensate.
What was apparent from the beginning was that the question of what was “right” in these particular instances had been completely unmoored from any pretense to a conception of right in the larger juridical, or political, sense.
Perhaps Schmitt himself was correct when he offered the somewhat cryptic observation that the concept of the political itself rests on the Pauline notion of the katechon, that mysterious figure who constrains iniquity among humankind until he finally releases his grip, only to usher in the chaos or “tribulation” that precedes the parousia, or “Second Coming” of Christ. It is this lack of restraint, in both matters of speech and matters of behavior, that seemed to be the grim order – or disorder – of the past week.
What these “signs” or social symptoms portend for the immediate future perhaps can only be contemplated with eyes uplifted to heaven.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.