Political Romanticism

by John Holbo on July 17, 2006

First, I’d just like to say that this post about Leo Strauss and fascism at Balkinization is interesting. Scott Horton has translated an odd letter, written by Strauss on the occasion of his emigration under anti-semitic pressure: "the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme to protest against the shabby abomination."

Moving right along, I just read Carl Schmitt, Political Romanticism [amazon]. And now I’m telling you I had the slightly unusual experience of coming to a work by a familiar author, on a (fairly) familiar topic, with really no strong sense whether he would be for or against.

Let’s consider why a thinker like Schmitt might be for. From The Concept of the Political: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” This antithesis is ‘relatively independent’ of others: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, profitable and unprofitable, right and wrong.

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation …The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral party. (p. 27)

This could be deemed – or could lend itself to – something that might be ‘political romanticism’. The refusal of the possibility of any ultimate rational, neutral, disinterested frame. The anti-universalism. The focus on will and striving, transforming politics into an ‘existential’ drama; the assertion of autonomy from conventional moral categories, indifference to the profit motive, insistence on intensity. Finding value in the primacy of friend/enemy could fit with Carlyle-style praise of ‘great men’. The play of friend/enemy might be the enabling condition for existential greatness.

Well, anyway.

As it turns out, Schmitt is contemptuous of what he calls ‘political romanticism’. This was the other possibility: that realism trumps romance, in Schmitt’s eyes. He has a great deal of rather humorously slighting things to say:

In the romantic it is not reality that matters, but rather romantic productivity, which transforms everthing and makes it into the occasion for poetry. What the king and queen are in reality is intentionally ignored. Their function consists instead in being a point of departure for romantic feelings. The same holds for the beloved. From the standpoint of romanticism, therefore, it is simply not possible to distinguish between the king, the state, or the beloved. In the twilight of the emotions, they blend into one another. In both Novalis and Adam Müller, the state appears as the beloved, and the poeticizing of the science of finance that they bring off lies in the consideration that one should pay taxes to the state just as one gives presents to the beloved. (p. 126)

I think he’s bluffing. Has anyone written a poem romanticizing tax time? It would be fun to try. Please have a go in comments. (Then send the happy results as a valentine to Jim Henley or some other needy libertarian suffering from low blood pressure.)

Well, anyway, it turns out the trouble with romanticism is that it is ultimately all talk, no action, a sort of liberal ironist parlor game, lots of castles made of words. When it manages to get out of the house at all, it exhibits an occasionalism, a narcissism, an immature theatricality. (The introducer uses Norman Mailer, in 1967, marching on the Pentagon – Armies of the Night – as a paradigm of what Schmitt disapproves.)

"The lack of consistency and the moral helplessness in the face of each new impression have their basis in the essentially aesthetic productivity of the romantic. Politics is just as alien to him as ethics or logic" (p. 146). Do you see the irony? According to Schmitt, politics is alien to ethics and logic. (It’s a matter of friend/enemy.) So why should moral helplessness be such a handicap? Interestingly, Schmitt salvages some of those aforementioned orphaned reasons why he might have been a political romantic and invents a corollary category of: romantic politician. "A person who is not essentially a romantic can be motivated by romanticized ideas, and he can place his energy, which flows from other sources, at their disposal" (p. 146). As an example he settles on the case of a student – one Karl Ludwig Sand – who assassinated someone named Kotzebue.

As a student, he joined in the popular romanticism of his time, which was already idyllic. He was an enthusiast for old folk songs, and he glorified the Middle Ages with its authentic rectitude. He believed in the ideals of freedom and country without any romantic reservations. To this honorable man, Kotzebue – the old agent of Russia, greedy and malicious – appeared as the enemy.

Kotzebue seemed ‘Gallic’, like a traitor or spy. Apparently he was rather senselessly killed.

The act was certainly motivated by political ideas. But the fact that the choice fell directly on Kotzebue can very probably be explained by the consideration that for Sand, the "scoundrel" had become the symbol of baseness and vileness. He had become a romantic construct …The immortal type of this politics of romantically constructed opportunities is Don Quixote, a romantic political figure but not a political romantic. Instead of seeing the higher harmony [getting caught up in superfine liberal ironizing, for example], he was capable of seeing the difference between right and wrong and of making a decision in favor of what seemed right to him (p. 146).

In short, Sand was a Culture Warrior. It is this fixed compass – a sense of justice – that Schlegel and Müller and others are said to lack. (So the romantic will romanticize revolution, then restoration, then revolution again. It is occasional.) Basically, romanticism is deserving of respect so long as it is a vehicle for expressing friend/enemy political energy. The irony of Schmitt taking this line, getting moralistic about the need for ‘a sense of justice’ seems obvious. Because this sense of justice is really just an aftereffect of a sense of the enemy. So there is no reason to suppose it is correlated with justice. Is taking an essentially arbitrary position and sticking with it better than picking an arbitrary position and changing it frequently?

Do you think that friend/enemy causes more stupidity in the world of politics, or does romanticism – stupid symbolic politics and aesthetic reactions to events – cause more stupidity on the world of politics?

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abb1 07.17.06 at 12:15 pm

Romanticism causes more stupidity and the ‘friend/enemy’ thing causes more harm.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 12:34 pm

Schmitt’s thought is inimical to me, not only politically but also philosophically and methodologically — so much so that I often doubt that I understand what he’s trying to say, even though he writes clearly enough.

It seems, though, that at every turning point in his intellectual development he took the turn which validated conflict and violence, including extralegal conflict and violence. He rejected all the little fudges and fictions and pieties that made civil peace possible — not because he was against fudges and fictions and pieties, but because civil peace wasn’t a goal for him.

I’m not sure that Strauss was far separated from Schmitt. I understand him to have been a German reactionary who was traumatized by the Nazi regime, and avoided having to change any of his fixed ideas by blaming liberal democracy for Hitler. (I think much the same of Adorno, who seems to spent his later life, most of all, trying to maintain as many of his German bourgeois avant-garde leftist prejudices as he plausible could.)

I’m not fair to any of these guys, and my reading of them has been far from thorough, but I’ll be going with my gut feeling until I’m given reasons to change it.


Jay Conner 07.17.06 at 1:05 pm

How do I love taxes ?
Let me count the ways..
I love them to the bredth and depth my bank account can reach,
And yet beyond, well into credit’s realm.
I love them to the level of my state’s most ardent need, both day and night.
I love them freely, as they freely fall, on rich and poor alike.
I love them purely, for their own sweet self.
I love them with a passion put to use to settle life’s old scores.
I love them with a childlike faith that they are good.
I love them as they render unto caesar,
And thus express the wisdom of old saints.
I love them with my flesh, and bones and skin, my very hide,
Which they may freely take, and often do.
And for the grace of audit, which computes
the very open boundary of my love

And if God choose,
I shall but love them better after death


Jim Henley 07.17.06 at 1:53 pm

It seems to me the first passage from Schmitt completely explains the actually existing “Global War on Terror.” It’s an adventure in “romantic productivity.”


gr 07.17.06 at 1:59 pm

I don’t think that Schmitt believed that one is free to choose one’s enemies. In any case, the passage you quote from COP doesn’t suggest such a view. All it says it that political enmity is not reducible to moral or economic or aesthetic difference.

To believe that enmity can then only be a result of arbitrary subjective choice is precisely what makes one a liberal (or romantic), in Schmitt’s view. He is concinced that this belief is wrong, but this conviction, as he points out, inolves a theological view of human nature and human history that is itself a matter of faith, not of philosophy.

I don’t sympathize with Schmitt’s view, but there seems to be no open contradiction between COP and the attack on romanticism.


soru 07.17.06 at 2:05 pm

How about Kipling, Legend of the Foreign Office?

Mentions taxes, in the context of romanticising imperialism…


Anderson 07.17.06 at 2:26 pm

As I tried rather unsuccessfully to say over at Balkinization, being pro-authoritarianism and skeptical of liberalism wasn’t exactly confined to Nazis in 1933.

There were plenty of smart people who believed, even feared, that liberal democracy was a flash in the pan, and that either fascism or communism would be the eventual master of the earth.

So, whatever one’s ultimate evaluation of Strauss, I wouldn’t zero in upon a letter from 1933.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 2:34 pm

There’s also Strauss’s letter to Schmitt asking for an introduction to Maurras, a French rightist who a decade later would be lucky to escape hanging as a Nazi collaborator. And there’s also the fact that there’s no apparent evidence of a renunciation or a change of heart after 1934. While in the liberal-democratic US, Strauss did not condemn liberal democracy, but he did say that true philosophers should be tactful and sly in what they say to their protectors, and only express their true ideas in a veiled way.


Daniel 07.17.06 at 2:41 pm

Hannah Arendt once told me that Leo Strauss looked in the stars and saw that Hitler had to come to power. Seems she was closer than I realized at the time.


mcd 07.17.06 at 2:59 pm

Romanticism in politics is another word for utopianism. It can be reactionary (dreaming of returning to a society that no longer exists) or revolutionary (dreaming of a society that hasn’t existed yet). It has the idea of longing for something Totally Different, and the focus on ends, of disdaining whether one can achieve those ends anytime soon.

“Friend vs. foe” is simply part of any political conception of society whatsoever. Any statement of “this is how things should be” involves the knowledge that there are interest groups who will oppose you because it doesn’t serve their interests.

So everyone here is being “realistic” are celebrating “moderation” and keeping things more-or-less as they are. But that’s a politcal position, which the writers think will benefit them, and which therefore will have others who are hurt by it, and thus be opponents, or enemies.

I like it that #2 finds political romanticism “inimical”, but declares he will go with his gut feeling. That’s being a good romantic!

People always talk of a universal rational political position which all rational people ought to accept. May I have an example?


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 3:32 pm

No, I find Schmitt’s thought inimical. As I said.

My first impression of after reading Schmitt — biography aside — was a very bad one. I still am not sure that I completely understand what he’s trying to say, but I will stick with my negative judgement unless someone gives me a good reason to change my minds. And likewise for Strauss.


abb1 07.17.06 at 3:33 pm

“Friend vs. foe” is simply part of any political conception of society whatsoever.

True, but “existentially something different and alien” seems a bit overboard, doesn’t it.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 3:34 pm

“Friend vs. foe” may be some part of any political position whatever, but the way Schmitt makes it the central idea of politics was highly inauspicious, and history emphatically confirmed the bad omen.


Anderson 07.17.06 at 3:36 pm

There’s also Strauss’s letter to Schmitt asking for an introduction to Maurras, a French rightist who a decade later would be lucky to escape hanging as a Nazi collaborator.

Gracious, Strauss wanted to *meet* a famous right-wing intellectual. Obviously Strauss was a fascist!

Again, we don’t get much from this guilt-by-association stuff. Strauss surely ought to be evaluated 1st & foremost by his published writings.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 3:41 pm

That was the only person in France Strauss asked for an introduction to, and I believe that he said in his letter that he was the only one he wanted to meet. And Schmitt himself was already a Nazi by then, though Strauss did not know it. And in the new letter at Balkin, Strauss describes himself as a fascist. He also expresses a disdain for all the other refugee Jews in France.

Only so much special pleading is possible before you start to look silly. This is not a non-question or a paranoid accusation. Straussians may have an answer, but they should bring it forward.


jayann 07.17.06 at 3:52 pm

Gracious, Strauss wanted to meet a famous right-wing intellectual.

I think you mean “famous anti-Semite and (Camelots du Roi) rabble-rouser”. An intellectual one, yes.


josh 07.17.06 at 4:01 pm

Well, it would make sense for Strauss to ask Schmitt for an intro to Maurras, given Schmitt and Maurras’s politics. Strauss did, in fact, meet a number of other intellectuals in France, whom he seemed (at least in later years) to esteem more than Maurras (among them Alexander Kojeve, who to the extent that he’s classifiable at all, wasn’t exactly in the fascist camp – though he also was no liberal). I don’t think that one can conclude that Maurras was the only intellectual Strauss wanted to meet, or that Strauss’s intellectual sympathies were limited to the far Right, from that one letter.
That said, Strauss undoubtedly was pretty far to the Right in the ’30s. Then again, he was also on very good terms with, and was supported by (including, decisively, for his post at Chicago) by the esteemed democratic socialist R.H. Tawney. So, again, I’m not sure how much we can conclude from association …


Anderson 07.17.06 at 5:04 pm

describes himself as a fascist.

I think the actual post at Balkinization is much more balanced than some of the comments have been. But allow me to say I’m not trying to dog John Emerson here; he’s a good guy, and I just think I’m making a fairly obvious point that flirtation with fascism was not uncommon in 1933 and doesn’t in itself make Strauss a fascist.

(Yes, Maurras was a kook, but a respectable kook by the standards of the day. T.S. Eliot admired him, and while Eliot’s own politics are far from exemplary, I don’t think he could be called a fascist.)


Adam Kotsko 07.17.06 at 5:06 pm

Does it seem to anyone else that “sarcastic minimalization” is especially characteristic of the right?

You don’t see anyone saying, for example, “Oh heavens me, Stalin didn’t want his enemies to have control over society — does that really make him a tyrant?”

(I’m well aware that the left has characteristic tropes, but those of the right are more obvious to me. I do not object in principle to the use of rhetorical tropes.)


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 5:12 pm

Adam, a dearth of Stilinists has impoverished your political education.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 5:13 pm

Often called “Stalinists” by those who can’t read Stalin’s native Georgian language.


John Quiggin 07.17.06 at 5:14 pm

“But that’s a political position, which the writers think will benefit them, and which therefore will have others who are hurt by it, and thus be opponents, or enemies.” (emphasis added)

A nice illustration of the link between Schmittian/Straussian thinking and the zero-sum assumption. The central failure of “realists” in this sense is the failure to realise that the use of force in politics is a negative-sum game.


john c. halasz 07.17.06 at 5:25 pm

It might be helpful to note that political romanticism was the favored posture of thinkers on the German Catholic right, which is one of the main targets of “Political Romanticism”. Of course, abroad there were currents of revolutionary romaniiicism on the left, which, in turn, were criticized from still further left. So Schmitt is performing a characteristic operation of criticizing political currents of both left and right by re-deploying criticisms they make of their opposite numbers. But I think it’s fair to say that Schmitt intended his notion of clarifying and consequential existential decisionism as a kind of political realism, upholding the “seriousness” of the political, aimed not just against romanticism, but legal positivism, as well.

The “famous” distinction of friend from enemy as the criterion of the political realm is a bit more complicated than might at first appear. Aside from being attached to a state-centered conception of politics, with the classical notion of sovereignty, “inalienable and entire”, as the “organized monopoly of legitimate violence”, and seeking for the basis of the legal order of the modern state in crisis in the “concept of the political”, the intention is to provide a means for “defining” the political distinctively as an “autonomous” sphere, (such that contents from other cultural spheres can enter into the political and partake of its dynamics of intensification without the political being reducible to those spheres or their concerns), but, at the same time, as Strauss notes, Schmitt is rejecting, in his concept of the political, the standard German neo-Kantian view of culture as comprised of differentiated autonomous value spheres, (which Strauss characterizes as “aesthetic”, but might perhaps better be construed in line with Heidegger’s critique of metaphysical subjectivism). In other words, though the political is a distinctive sphere, it is not just one such optional sphere amongst several with their own criteria, since in the political is encountered conflicts of whole ways of life. What Schmitt rejects is any merely “superstructural” conception of politics. (A lot of his early basic conception seems to have been cribbed from Lukacs). That is why the political is figured as an “amoral” realm, since it involves a conflict of moralities rooted in the permanent potential of violence, (not its actuality), and since it constitutes a kind of distinctive “ethics” of its own distinct from private morality. (And the over-moraliztion of politics is itself morally and politically damaging). That might also explain Schmitt’s evocation of “justice”, which for him would not be a matter of free-floating normative speculation, but rather would presumably refer to an interpretation of “dike” as the order and authority required for the legality/legitimacy of the state.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 5:37 pm

By prioritizing the political and state sovereignty, defined in terms of violence, autonomy, and the friend-enemy distinction, Schmitt just seems to stack the cards in favor of war, coups-d’etat, suspension of the law, and so on. It seems to me that there are different heirarchies he could have set up which would have been less skewed in the direction of bloodshed.

I’ve been doing a fairly casual survey of Europe, especially Germany, between 1900 and 1932, and I’ve been astonished at the anger and bloody-mindedness which was widespread then (along with irrationalism, occultism, and extreme lifestyles.) It really makes the Sixties look pretty innocuous.

The nations themselves were all primed for war, which eventually arrived for no particular reason except that it was structurally inevitable. (OK, I exaggerate.) As far as I can tell, WWI was started by nice, sensible, repectable, ordinary people who were bloody minded by education, tradition, and social position. And to me, this was the turning point of European history — not Hitler or the Holocaust, which were late extreme effects.


Gene O'Grady 07.17.06 at 6:12 pm

The philosophical background is a little beyond me, but it might be worth noting that “someone named Kotzebue” was the author of the theatre piece that became Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and another piece (I can’t recall the name) that is now known only from association with Beethoven. At least I now have a little imprecise context on why someone would have assassinated a mediocre playwright.

By the way, pace John Emerson, the sixties were innocuous.


Steven Poole 07.17.06 at 6:30 pm

Once you have the concept “friend”, the world automatically divides into friends and not-friends. But you need a further step to translate “not-friends” into “enemies”. All the silly, fluffy romanticism in the world is not as pernicious as that step.

A propos of Strauss, I note a curious connection between one of his books and my own.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 6:49 pm

“I submit in all seriousness that surrender of the critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas.”

That’s Buryeat.

One of the costs of Straussian esotericism is that you only get the real teaching once you have been initiated and are trusted to maintain the security of the message. So you might read a bunch of Strauss’s books, and conclude that Strauss did not believe that representative democracy was a good political system, and you might even agree with Strauss. But if you run into your favorite Straussian and explain that you believe that Strauss had really destroyed the philosophical case for representative democracy, you’ll get a double take. And you won’t know whether it was because your reading of Strauss was incorrect, or whether you had blundered by saying something liek that out loud.

So arguments with Straussians end up being very difficult to follow, because you really never know where in the esoteric-exoteric topology you happen to be standing at any given moment .


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 6:58 pm

August von Kotzebue was a very well-known author in his time, and a very prolific one, but he was a political reactionary and served many years in the service of the Czar of Russia (usually but not always openly so).

His son Otto V.K was an arctic explorer, and there are a sound and an Inuit village named for him in Alaska. He tried unsuccessfuly to find the NW Passage.


mcd 07.17.06 at 7:21 pm

#25: “Once you have the concept “friend”, the world automatically divides into friends and not-friends. But you need a further step to translate “not-friends” into “enemies”. ”

Absolutely. And that step is (in their widest senses), the realm of politics, of social policy, of law.

On an individual level one can have an abortion or not, or smoke marijuana or not. But in a given society, these things are either legal OR illegal. And whichever it is, there’s an “other side” who lost. And their loss is enforced by the force of law. If abortion is illegal, you can be arrested for getting one, and if it’s legal, you can be arrested for blocking the entrances to abortion clinics. If the #21 poster wishes to disabuse me of zero-sum thinking (which I indeed do), he can explain how marijuana and abortion can be legal and illegal at the same time.

On post #21: When you refer the “use of force in politics” are you referring to both legitimate and illegitimate force? To violence AND force AND coercion AND indoctrination?


Steven Poole 07.17.06 at 7:28 pm

But you need a further step to translate “not-friends” into “enemies”.

Absolutely. And that step is (in their widest senses), the realm of politics, of social policy, of law.

I don’t quite agree. Though it’s common these days to stoke up fear about an “enemy within”, viz., a class of people who commit a fashionably frightening sort of offence (for instance, in the UK, the “anti-social”), I don’t think it’s logically necessary to regard those who flout the law as “enemies” rather than, for instance, “friends or not-friends who have erred”.


John Emerson 07.17.06 at 7:34 pm

Schmitt believed that the government’s use of force, meaning primarily physical force and violence, could not be restricted by law, and that the government could suspend the laws when it was judged necessary. But he got to this position by a route which seems to make repressive force the fundamental essence of the political, and seemed to think of the state as primarily defined by its use of force against external and internal enemies. Granted that the monopoly of legitimate violence is part of most definitions of the state, Schmitt’s slant (or filter) seemed to privilege this part of the definition over everything else, to the point of forgetting the rest and giving a violent interpretation to everything government does (and while giving “the political” primacy over everything else.)

This strikes me as an example of the kind of tendentious essentialism that anti-essentialists rightly oppose. The German thinkers seemed to have this fetish about getting as deep as possible and finding The Essential, and some of their contempt for liberal democracy is because L.D. does not go deep enough. But Schmitt’s choice of something to count as The Essential looks biased and destructive to me.


minneapolitan 07.17.06 at 9:15 pm

Alas, Timberites! Where is the poetry? Can it be that I, an anarchist in private industry, am only the second person to pick up the gauntlet and respond with a poem romanticizing taxes? Well, here’s my offering anyhow: (Note: this is supposed to be a Spenserian sonnet, but it appears that this comment program has its own ideas about where the line breaks should go.)

On Taxes

When April bares its blossoms to the world,
Those tulips brief but lusty in display,
Atop the bureau or the desk still furled,
Tax forms, schedules, and all receipts shall stay.

But ‘pon the Ides or maybe just before,
Worker, owner, pensioner — they must pay.
Unhearing voicemail many shall implore,
Vexation makes us equals all this day.

Curse not, and come November have your say,
On how these tarrifs should be wisely spent,
On police, roads, the schools or any way,
Inside the proper scope of government.

For taxes, though they do take out a bite,
Succor the weak and show the world our might!


minneapolitan 07.17.06 at 9:17 pm

Okay, never mind about the line breaks, just an artifact of the preview function.


john c. halasz 07.17.06 at 11:31 pm

I’d probably have to take objection to John Emerson’s day-long series of comments, in terms,- (very un-Straussian),- of a lack of historical sense. Not only is there a need to understand a body of thought over against it’s historical context, but there is an irreducible quotient of unmasterable fate in any political-historical thinking, since we “necessarily” live within history,- (if not History),- and there is no secure knowledge of the future. In other words, the same condition of history, however remote, that applies to “us”, applies to “them”. (It’s that forgetfulness of “fate” that constitutes the besetting “sin” of liberal modernity).

Sure, Schmitt was obsessed with the decay of his inherited tradition of sovereignty in Latin Christendom, which had kept the European peace and provided a measure of political constraint and “authority”, even as he was shocked by the “invasion” of the “social” upon political concerns. (Compare to Arendt). But the focus on the strange alchemy between violence and legitimation contained in the notion of sovereignty, however seemingly outmoded nowadays, can scarcely be replaced by “the rule of law, not men”, since, not only does the legitimation of the rule of “law” depend upon “men”, but the very existence of a public-political realm depends upon the existence of some enforcement power, such as the state. Hence the conception of the political as an arena of conflict. (Otherwise, the “rule of law” is reduced to the medium of a technical-instrumental concern with property and administration). The fact that violence must be admitted into the “equation”,- (and on Schmitt’s earlier account only as a potential that “determines” the character of political behavior),- does not amount to an endorsement, but rather a description. (The characterization of “sovereignty” as the capacity to decide the “exception”, aside from leaving open the holder of such capacity, refers to the tortuous conundrum of maintaining the Weimar constitution, as the placeholder of German national sovereignty, in the face of a divided parliament/electorate, much of which refused that very constitution, the context being article 48 of that same constitution). In short, to speak with Foucault, it’s not that political violence constitutes the exception, but rather that the normalization of such violence constitutes the rule.

I’m not speaking as a fan of Schmitt,- (probably I agree 60-80% politically with “Zizka”),- but only in the name of accuracy of interpretation, and of what can be learned from “the enemy”. But, at least, it’s good to be reminded that “liberal democracy” is not the natural and inevitable condition of mankind, that “liberal” and “democracy” were traditionally regarded as contradictory terms,- (just ask the Chartrists),-, that the existence of “liberal democracy” does not automatically confer legitimacy upon it or its projects, that so-called “liberal democracies”, in the light of the collapse of the public sphere, might just as well be regarded as technologically manipulated plebiscitary mass “democracies”, and that the potential for violence underlies all political arrangements, not least because it underlies “law” and “right”.


mcd 07.17.06 at 11:46 pm

What about the classic country/western love song “I’ll Waltz Across Taxes with You”?


ben alpers 07.18.06 at 12:14 am

Accountants are blossoming or dancing where
The books are not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor profits lost by the unaware,
Nor blear-eyed spreadsheets saved by midnight oil.
O TurboTax, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the radio buttons, the EasyStep, or the scroll?
O income swayed by write-offs, O loopholes’ cracks,
How can we know the taxer from the tax?


John Quiggin 07.18.06 at 2:32 am

mcd, I was writing briefly to make the point about your implicit reliance on zero-sum assumptions. It’s obviously true that there are some legitimate (in the sense of being both beneficial and legal within a constrained constitutional system) uses of force by states, such as collecting taxation to finance public goods.

So, let me start with the observation that war is inherently a negative-sum activity and the empirical fact that, in practice, aggressive war is almost invariably a negative-return activity for the inhabitants of countries that undertake it, Germany in the first half of C20 being a striking example. Schmitt and similar thinkers manage to construct logical frameworks that insulate them from crucial facts like this.


Glenn Bridgman 07.18.06 at 3:28 am

“So, let me start with the observation that war is inherently a negative-sum activity and the empirical fact that, in practice, aggressive war is almost invariably a negative-return activity for the inhabitants of countries that undertake it, Germany in the first half of C20 being a striking example. Schmitt and similar thinkers manage to construct logical frameworks that insulate them from crucial facts like this.”

This, I think, is absolutely crucial. Schmitt is the paradigm case of a thinker caught in a political milieu which retains the possibility of a locally positive-sum war, even when the economic reality no longer allows such an outcome. IIRC, there was a book released in 1910 arguing that European war was no longer possible due to the importance of economic interconnections and the damage war would inflict on them. The havoc wreaked by WWI seems to indicate that it was the exception which (almost) proved the rule. It isn’t that war and conflict is no longer possible under Schmittian terms, but rather that the economic reality no longer insists on the friend-enemy distinction which Schmitt theorizes as fundamental.

I think there is an important connection to be drawn here between Schmitt’s failure and Fukuyama’s “The End of History” thesis. Ascertaining the precise nature of this connection is difficult though, especially given Schmitt’s status as a distant antecedent to the Straussian/neoconservative tradition which “The End of History” is supposedly part of.


abb1 07.18.06 at 3:41 am

…war is inherently a negative-sum activity…

It’s a nice thought, but is it always true? Not intuitively. Take the US civil war, for example – you could argue either way, but most observers would probably count it as a use of political violence with overall positive result. Or American revolutionary war – not an aggressive war, but still political violence.


John Quiggin 07.18.06 at 4:25 am

By “inherently negative sum”, I’m simply referring to the tautologically true proposition that both sides could be better off if they agreed to the actual outcome without fighting the war.

Empirically, it may be more interesting to ask whether there are positive net gains relative to the status quo ante. My answer is that this is rarely true for either side, and almost never true taking both sides into account. As Angell wrote in The Great Illusion, alluded to by Glenn above, this is more true in a modern economy than in ancient times when movable loot mattered more.

But as Glenn observes, Schmittians don’t dispute this claim on empirical grounds, they just define it out of existence.

Moving on to trickier ground, and away from the topic at hand, it’s hard, I think, to claim that both the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War yielded net benefits: after all, the first created the preconditions that necessitated the second.


Steven Poole 07.18.06 at 4:32 am

The German thinkers seemed to have this fetish about getting as deep as possible and finding The Essential

Well, but often the French too, for example. I’ve long had the vague thought that such tendencies may be connected to the possibly varying emphasis that specific languages place on Big Abstract Nouns (or, in German, Bigabstractnouns). Has anyone investigated this properly?


novakant 07.18.06 at 5:06 am

the historical significance of the murder of Kotzebue is that it served as a pretext for the Carlsbad decrees


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 5:30 am

Sovereignty in Latin Christendom, which had kept the European peace….

Sovereignty is the sticking-point for me with Schmitt and also makes Foucault’s “Society must be Protected” difficult for me to follow.
Sovereignty strikes me as an inherantly unstable concept (or a “contradiction”). How many sovereigns can there be in this world? Genghis Khan said “Only one sun in the sky”, and that makes sense.

After the Peace of Westphalia there was a multi-state system with the renunciation of claims to a European empire for 150 years, and then Napoleon made his try which was squashed, and then there was a period of British hegemony, and then the Germans made their couple of tries. My point is that whatever peace there was came from the muti-state system required a weakening of sovereignty (and Christian unity) even though the states’ power over their subjects was afoten almost absolute.

I remember when the EU was being put together George Will huffed and puffed about the lss of sovereignty of the European nations, and I asked, “Why should George care? Why should anyone care except the sovereigns?” (In particular, I asked whether anyone at all cared about Belgian sovereignty; Belgium has existed for a couple of centuries, but in what sense has it been “sovereign”? — The answer, which I didn’t know at the time, is that the Vlaams Blok was caring about Belgian sovereignty already as I spoke).

Sovereignty seems inherently particularistic and conducive to warfare, and in 1914 the various European sovereignties did what sovereigns do.

So anyway, it seems to me that the reaffirmation of sovereignty was not a reasonable response to the 1914 disaster, just as a more thorough illiberal critique of liberal democracy was not a reasonable response to the 1918-1932 disaster.

In the commentaries to the two Schmitt-Strauss books in English, the Weimar Republic’s inability, because of its commitment to legality and due process, to suppress violent anti-State movements was raised as the motive for Schmitt and Strauss. If I were sure that the two of them had given the Republic a fair shot I might feel differently. The lesson I drew was that you can’t impose democratic forms on a people which does not want it — Weimar democracy was easy to see as an imposed foreign burden, like the reparations. (The thing that most shocked me during my informal study was the unmistakable lack of enthusiasm for democracy among German centrists like Weber and Thomas Mann — “Confessions of a Non-political Man” — and perhaps Schmitt and Strauss should be grouped with them, though I somewhat doubt it, and they both opposed Weber’s conception of the State.)

The ironies have piled up to Heaven by now, because our home-grown Straussians have recently been amazed to see that that our Iraqi Weimar Republic isn’t working very well. In the same way, During the Reagan-Dubya administrations I’ve been tempted at times to give in, and agree that demagogic populism proves that liberal democracy is no damn good, but when I went to my Straussian friends to confess my democratic errors, I found that they were all pimping for Reagan and Bush. So Guelphs were now fighting Guelphs, and Ghibellines are fighting Ghibellines.

On top of that, one Strauss defender instanced McCarthyism as proof that Straussians were too subject to persecution, just like al-Farabi and Spinoza. I was willing to grant the Straussians equal status with crypto-communists, but I don’t think that that was what was wanted. (Strauss did oppose McCarthy, presumably as a raving populist demagogue with Nazi sympathies — McCarthy after all ultimately accused Gen. George Marshall of treason — but unless he had changed drastically since his Schmitt period, I’m pretty sure that Strauss supported a more responsible suppression of Communists).

The point I had been trying to make was that Straussian dissembling is not justified in the absence of actual persecution. Al-Farabi and Spinoza had good reasons to write in code (called “Aesopian language” by Czarist writers), but Strauss really didn’t. What at issue for Strauss was a high position in a major university, and what was at issue for his students and grandstudents was political power. Not persecution.

In some sort of broad historical way I might be able to forgive Strauss, though he did not accept historical thinking of that kind, but I sstill think that there’s something fishy about his message to America; it’s as though the credentialed failure was giving lessons to the self-taught success. As for Schmitt, it seems to me that he was just one of the many blind, violent, bloody-minded, intellectual actors impelling interwar Germany toward some kind of gruesome apotheosis, and even Strauss probably was saved from that fate only by an accident of birth.


abb1 07.18.06 at 5:43 am

OK, please let me know in advance when it looks like I’m trolling again, but I just can’t agree with:

..rarely true for either side…
…this is more true in a modern economy than in ancient times when movable loot mattered more.

which is used as a basis for painting these guys as irrational. They are not irrational.

In the modern economy Iraq, for example, has over 100 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, easily extracted. Sold at $75/barrel it brings you $7.5 trillion (probably much more as oil prices will beat the inflation). If that is not a lot of movable loot worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.

Now, I suppose it’s true that the Iraq’s population could try to give a portion of it away and thus avoid violence/negative-sum result. War is a racket, as they say. This happens all the time. But obviously once in a while it has to be fought out, just to find the equilibrium, to determine the current level of relative strength/weakness of the actors.

So, in this view of the world it goes something like this: war->realighnmet based on the results->period of stability->next war.

Thus a war for the most part is not used simply to loot and plunder in the course of it, but it sets the boundaries for looting and plundering during the long period of post-war stability – until the next war. This is a way to avoid a permanent war, permanent negative-sum game – and limited war is an important part of it.

Is not illogical or irrational, it’s a sort of realism.


John Quiggin 07.18.06 at 6:17 am

Granted that “war for oil” is the most plausible possible case for a profitable war, it’s instructive to observe how unprofitably candidates for this class (Indonesia in East Timor, the Falklands/Malvinas, Iran-Iraq, Chechnya, GW I [specifically, Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait) and GW II) have turned out, particularly for the party that initiated hostilities. And the same point is true more generally: countries that avoid war do much better than those that throw their weight around.


novakant 07.18.06 at 6:32 am

The lesson I drew was that you can’t impose democratic forms on a people which does not want it

Hmm, I’m afraid that’s not correct, at least not without quite a few qualifiers. The German people of the Western zones certainly didn’t mutate from nazi-supporters to fervent adherents of democracy in the month of May 1945 or 1949 respectively – they certainly didn’t want democracy, yet they got one and a great one at that. The german people of the Soviet zone weren’t any different form their democratic counterparts to be in the West initially, yet they ended up with something very different, and not so great, altogether.
There is good evidence that the majority of West-Germans didn’t really embrace democracy up until 1968 and that a majority of people were basically still stuck in the mindset of the Kaiserreich, the same authoritarian thinking that led to the downfall of the Weimar republic. Yet, democracy was flourishing and democratic institutions were functioning and all of that under the thumb and with the financial support of a foreign occupying power.

N.B. I’m not interested in drawing parallels or finding differences with Iraq, since I find most such historical comparisons, from both sides of the spectrum, silly.


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 7:07 am

Well, Novakant, I think that people who are incapable of drawing historical comparisons are silly. So there. We’ll have to agree to disagree.

The post-WWI failure to impose democracy on Germany strikes me as a better analogy to Iraq than the post-WWII success. Perhaps the T-34 tanks massed on the W. German border, combined with the fact that Germany was exhausted and most of the Nazi militants and loyalists had dutifully gone to their deaths, caused the W. Germans to conclude that democracy was a lesser evil. (Was there significant real opposition to denazification? I’m certainly not knowledgable about that, but it seems that what actually happened was “effective consent”, which didn’t happen after WWI. If the reason for the difference was a more heavy-handed occupation after WWII than after WWI, then I stand corrected).

That certainly didn’t happen after 1918, and considering that the Germans had had experience with parliamentary government already, and many of the prerequisites of democracy were already therey, even Germany in 1918 was a better prospect for democracy than Iraq is now.

East Germany is something of a red herring here; I wasn’t arguing that it’s not possible to impose a communist occupation government on a defeated nation.


John Holbo 07.18.06 at 9:13 am

Thanks for the fine poems, minneapolitan and ben. (And Waltz across Taxes works too. I’m a big Bob Wills fan, so I like that one.)


John Holbo 07.18.06 at 9:15 am

Oh, and thanks to Jay, too. (I don’t think I’ve missed any other poems upstream.) I’ll try to respond to some of the other comments later as well.


Barry 07.18.06 at 10:32 am

“Granted that “war for oil” is the most plausible possible case for a profitable war, it’s instructive to observe how unprofitably candidates for this class (Indonesia in East Timor, the Falklands/Malvinas, Iran-Iraq, Chechnya, GW I [specifically, Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait) and GW II) have turned out, particularly for the party that initiated hostilities. And the same point is true more generally: countries that avoid war do much better than those that throw their weight around.”

Posted by John Quiggin

Which is only semi-relevant; the most relevant thing is how well do the *decision-makers* come out? For the USA’s latest war, Bush II, the GOP and much of the economic/religious crony system have done quite well.


Bruce Baugh 07.18.06 at 11:46 am

I wanted to nod in agreement at John Emerson’s comment upstream about the virulent hatred in a lot of early 20th century writing and add a comment that struck me while seriously researching the literature of and about the Great War from about 1916 on through the rise of the fascist powers.

Too many of the people who wrote (often movingly and with real insight) about their betrayal by the warmaking powers…without acknowledging that they had themselves been enthusiastic boosters of the whole thing earlier. Or if they do, they couch it purely in the language of deception by others, and not of having made bad choices for which they are responsible. We’re getting this again now with regard to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The body of work by people who say “I backed the desires and people who made this possible, and I chose badly” is quite small. Presumably it will be after any such conflict; I just found the parallels between these two cases pretty striking.


mcd 07.18.06 at 11:51 am

By “inherently negative sum”, I’m simply referring to the tautologically true proposition that both sides could be better off if they agreed to the actual outcome without fighting the war. (#40, John Quiggin)

Yes, and if the Nazis had only agreed to reduce themselves to rubble and help the US initiate the Pax Americana…

And if the antebellum slaveholders had only agreed to abolish slavery and reduce southern states from being among the richest in per capita income pre-war to being among the poorest post-war…

And if the French aristocracy had only agreed to abolish themselves and give all their assets to the French masses…

And if Saddam had only agreed to put himself on trial for crimes against humanity…


abb1 07.18.06 at 12:34 pm

‘Saddam on trial’ is an event of no significance. But he could stop acting out and submit more or less unconditionally to the Great Father in Washington. That would’ve saved a lot of grief to a lot of people.

And yes – the French aristocracy could save their necks by giving away some of their assets and privileges.

John is right that most of the outcomes can theoretically be negotiated, and they often are (for example: de Klerk, Gorby), but it requires realistic assessment on the both sides.


novakant 07.18.06 at 12:46 pm

people who are incapable of drawing historical comparisons are silly

well John, I’m certainly not incapable of drawing historical comparisons, in fact, most people are capable of doing so:

cheerypick a historical event that has some similarities to a current event, play up those similarities, play down the differences and disregard dissimilar historical events, present it as proof for some generalization you have made long before looking at those events

I could do this all day but I find it very rarely sheds light on anything but the preconceptions of those engaging in such undertakings, so why bother

as for Germany, I don’t see how the Weimar Republic had been imposed by foreign powers (the reparations were, but the republic was very much homegrown), so a comparison to Iraq is strange, to be frank I’m not sure what you’re talking about;

your general point, that you can’t force democracy on people against their will is disproven by post WW2 Germany, because it was forced on them, so it comes down to how we define “against their will” – now it’s true that the Germans were defeated und exhausted and would have accepted almost anything a that point, but a modern democracy certainly wasn’t what most people wanted either (see Stauffenberg’s plans) and while they played along nicely for lack of any alternative, significant parts of german society also tacitly rejected the new system and tried to retain as many parts of both the Kaiserreich and the Nazi era as they could – until the sh#t hit the fan in the sixties


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 2:43 pm

I’m pretty sure that the postwar constitution was effectively forced on the Germans, though the individuals who wrote it were German. There was immediate violent resistance and defiance both from the left and the right, and little apparent enthusiasm for it from any sector of society. I come to the latter conclusion from reading things by moderates such as Thomas Mann.

However, my studies have been pretty haphazard and from this point on I will defer to anyone who knows more than I do. Novakant does not seem to be such a person, however.

Expanding a dogmatic rejection of historical analogies to greater length doesn’t make it any more compelling. A lot of writing about history is analogy, and some analogies are good and some bad. It’s quite possible that my original analogy wasn’t that great, but specific arguments against what I said are more convincing.


novakant 07.18.06 at 4:52 pm

the battles that led to the Weimar Republic and would continue throughout its existence had been fought in Germany since 1848; the Thomas Mann of the “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen” was hardly a “moderate”; what all of this has to do with Iraq escapes me


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 5:21 pm

So what was Mann, in German terms? Certainly not a Leftist, certainly not a Nazi, so he’s in the 30% “other” category, no? What was that category called? Were there any liberals or moderates at all left in Germany, or did thay all migrate to Minnesota and Wisconsin after 1848? Who was it that wrote the constitution, then?

Did you just say that the Weimar Constitution was not in any way imposed by the victors? If it wasn’t, then I’m wrong on that point.

The analogy is that Germany got a liberal constitution in 1919, but it failed because so few people wanted a liberal constitution. By 1932 2/3 of the Germans supported anti-democratic parties., and as I have said, even the other 1/3 seems to have been half-hearted.

Is it far-fetched to point out that in Iraq, those who want a liberal democratic constitution are also few, and that those who would work to destroy it are many?

I use the 1919 example because the Iraq-democracy hawks use the post-1945 successes as an argument for their plan, and I’m just introducing the 1919 failure into the equation. This is hardly a profound idea, but not really as unintelligible or stupid as you claim.


josh 07.18.06 at 5:54 pm

I think it’s questionable to peg Thomas Mann as a ‘moderate’, or anything else, since his politics changed rather a lot over the course of his life. He was something of a conservative and nationalist — though not an extreme one (so he was moderate in that sense) — earlier on; later, in reaction against the Nazis, he moved further to the left, ending up fairly leftward indeed (anti-Communism as ‘the basic stupidity of the twentieth century’, and all that).
I’m also not clear what ‘moderate’ means here. If the majority of Germans were fiercely nationalistic, would that make people who were averagely-fiercely nationalistic rather than exceptionally-fiercely nationalistic moderates, and internationalists — however gradualist and placating — extremists?


John Emerson 07.18.06 at 6:09 pm

My terminology for Mann may have been wrong, but my point about the absence of support for liberal democracy seems to be, if anything, strengthened. I have found no actual evidence for my claim that the constitution was an imposed one, but the weakness of subsequent support for it suggests that it must have been. How was the assembly which wrote the constitution selected?


derrida derider 07.18.06 at 8:57 pm

Yeats got it right on the interwar period:
“The Best lack all conviction
While the Worst are full
Of a passionate intensity”

It really was a period of extraordinary intellectual dishonesty.

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