There is no human politics without some kind of consciousness of it, however false or inadequate that may be. And we can be sure of this falseness and inadequacy as an underlying condition of our politics against which we are constantly bound to struggle. One might almost say: no politics without false consciousness and the struggle against it. Hence also that incessant to-and-fro over the common good. Politics is not like breathing or digesting or being pulled by gravitation of which we need not be aware at all. It is not a natural kind whose identity and character is fixed independently of our thinking, willing, imagining, and understanding. Politics is, to say it differently, a hermeneutic enterprise and how we understand and interpret it is one of its constitutive features. Because of this, the fortune of politics is tied to that of our political concepts and our political judgment. It follows, in particular, that the current uncertainties and confusions of our political thinking are an integral aspect of the political crisis in which we find ourselves and that we will not resolve the one without addressing the other. This point is easily missed, for we find ourselves overburdened with practical problems and thus overlook that our political concepts are also in crisis and that the one crisis bears on the other. We need to remind ourselves in consequence again and again that our conceptual confusions and misunderstandings are inseparable from our most practical, down-to-earth political problems.
It is for this reason also that the thinking of our political philosophers calls for attention, if we are to understand the state of our politics. What those philosophers offer us is not a view of political reality from outside, but an integral element of it. This holds of the normative theorists who see themselves as standing above and detached from the political ground; it holds equally of the political naturalists who understand themselves as politically neutral scientists and also, of course, of the political diagnosticians. The diagnostician is, in fact, the one most likely to grasp that our thinking about politics is itself something political. The presumed detachment from politics claimed by the normative theorist and the political naturalist are for the diagnostician characteristic illusions of political thinking, aspects of our false political consciousness which themselves call for political diagnosis.
“What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the prologue to her 1959 book The Human Condition. In a decidedly diagnostic tone of voice, she appealed to five experiences as cues to the state of contemporary politics: the launching of the first satellite into space, the scientific endeavor to create artificial life, the increasing mathematization and formalization of the sciences, the use of computers to do our thinking and speaking, and the automation of factory labor – a curious mixture of a singular technological breakthrough and various scientific and technological developments, none of them political in the straightforward sense. Arendt was sure, however, that they all led to the same diagnosis: an increasing alienation of human beings from their own world – from the earth, from the natural life cycle, from human understanding, from their own inner mental life, and finally even from the conditions and objects of their working existence. In consequence, she was certain, the preconditions of political life were being destroyed as well. Far from wanting to detach political philosophy from experience, as the normative theorists had been trying to do, Arendt, the diagnostician, sought out such experience in order to elicit from it how we are to assess our political situation.
The threats she perceived to our existence as political beings motivated Arendt to consider again and again what the meaning of politics was. This was the question she pursued in The Human Condition; it might be in addition the one that had started her off as a political philosopher. In this chapter I will focus on Arendt’s struggle with this one question while I give the rest of her work a deliberately selective treatment. Like Schmitt and the other diagnostic thinkers, Arendt never aimed at an overall account of her thought and such an account would, probably, also not have been in her spirit. Her writings were almost always provoked by striking occasions (such as the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem) and they spun diverse and loose strands of thought without ever weaving them into a tight single cloth.
Politics has a temporal dimension in that it is a field of action and these actions occur in time, have a temporal extension, and are temporally ordered. That much is obvious to every political agent. Politics also has a historical dimension in that the actions that define it are temporally unique events, are datable, and can be perceived, described, and analyzed as parts of a single narrative. But this is not necessarily understood by those engaged in such actions. They may be thinking of themselves as engaged in day-to-day struggles without seeing those struggles as belonging to a uniquely unfolding chain of events.
The temporality and historicality of political events are of no special concern to normative political thinkers. The political naturalist may have an interest in both, but his concern with time and history tends to be narrow and specific. This is certainly true of Aristotle. He speaks of the invention of the polis as a unique event; he thinks of the preferability of the constitutional order of the polis as historically variable; and in his Constitutions of Athens he maps out a constitutional history of the democratic Athenian state. But for all that, historical considerations remain marginal in his treatment of politics. Biologically oriented political naturalists like de Waal are interested in evolutionary history but tend to take a truncated view of human history as if it were a mere extension of the evolutionary process, evolutionary history pursued by other means. In contrast to both political normativists and political naturalists, the diagnosticians have an intensive interest in the historical aspect of politics. I have sought to make that evident already in the writings of Marx and Nietzsche and will continue to emphasize this point in my discussion of Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault. But the diagnosticians’ concern with history is a specific one, determined by their diagnostic intentions. Nietzsche’s word for this approach to history is “genealogical.” Genealogy is meant to be a history of the development of a practice or an institution or a concept, one that is concerned with the present state of that practice or institution or with the present use of the concept and that seeks to understand this present condition in terms of how it came to manifest itself historically; genealogy is furthermore meant to lead to a critical reassessment of the practice, the institution, or the concept under investigation.
Carl Schmitt is a most controversial figure. Contention swirls, admittedly, around everyone who has ever reflected on politics. The disputatious character of politics spills regularly over into invective against the political philosopher. Think of Socrates, Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and others. But Schmitt is more seriously controversial than most and that for both intellectual and biographical reasons. He is so for his uncompromising challenge to some of our most deep-seated political assumptions; he is even more so for his engagement with Hitler and the Nazi regime and his opportunistic anti-Semitism. One critic has, in consequence, dismissed his entire work as so deeply flawed that “no part of Schmitt’s own oeuvre is unproblematic – an isolation (or sanitization) of certain parts is impossible.”
There are reasons for disagreeing with that conclusion. Schmitt is such a multi-faceted figure that his thought cannot be said to be an indivisible whole. His oeuvre is anything but an organic totality from which no part can be isolated. Though he wrote voluminously on politics for more than fifty years, he never tried to condense his ideas into a single treatise. His best-known work, The Concept of the Political, is an essay of a mere 58 pages and its numerous revisions illustrate the permanent fluidity of Schmitt’s thinking. Schmitt wrote, in fact, invariably in response to the moment, not from a presumed “objective,” “detached or scientific” point of view. In all this he was closer to an aphorist like Nietzsche than to Hobbes whom he often invoked as an inspiration. I find it difficult, in any case, to believe in the unity of thought or the person. Our beliefs never form a totality in which the parts are organically and necessarily connected. What we call our system of belief is always only a field of dispersed convictions and concepts which we imagine to be held together by an unbreakable link. With Wittgenstein I want to say of my knowledge: “I have some evidence, but it does not go very far and is of a very scattered kind. I have heard, seen, and read various things.” The belief in the unity of the person is just as untenable – philosophically hallowed but nevertheless confused. Drawing once more on Wittgenstein, I am inclined to think that such a unity is impossible to reconcile with the multiplicity of our sensations, feelings, thoughts, intentions, expectations, etc.
Diagnostic practice never proceeds under ideal conditions. It is challenged to succeed at each of its steps. One has to ask: What phenomena were accessible to the diagnostician? Did he or she attend to the really significant ones? Did he or she describe and analyze them in an adequate language? Did he or she construct a compelling genealogy? Is his or her prognosis trustworthy? Is his or her diagnostic prescription realistic? Uncertainty inhabits political diagnosis and defines its natural limits and, indeed, that of all political philosophy since there is no viable political philosophy beyond diagnosis. Diagnosis also models, in a more conscious fashion, the everyday practice of forming political judgments. The uncertainties evident in diagnostic work thus carry over into all political judgment and thus into all politics.
There are epistemological and ontological reasons for this uncertainty and we need to examine both, even though (or rather, because) our political philosophers, including our diagnosticians, largely bypass this kind of inquiry. We need to speak of politics as a domain of uncertainty, in addition, because the raucous voices of certainty usually dominate actual political debate.
The ontology of uncertainty
Our political uncertainties stem from layers far below the surface of political life. (No wonder then that our political philosophers do not want to consider them.)
Our political order is in flux, perhaps in crisis, and possibly even in peril and that not only here and there but globally so, not only in unstable regions but equally in the most settled states. The signs are easily recognizable. The world’s population, now at 7.2 billion, is set to rise quickly by another 50 percent. This growth, unevenly distributed across continents, is bound to create new poverty, new needs, and new political demands, plausibly also large-scale migrations and perhaps even war. In its course, traditional structures, values, and understandings are quickly dissolving. At the same time, technological change is not letting up, affecting economic, military, and political power in unpredictable ways. Environmental degradation remains also uncontained: the pollution of the air, the earth, and the sea proceed afoot and these affect lives, living spaces, and resources in ways that burden the political sphere. We see the economic weight between developed and developing countries shifting with consequences for global power relations. What adds further weight to all this is that we are also affected by increasing confusion about the nature and meaning of politics. We are uncertain about what to ask from politics – expecting too much of it or too little. We are equally uncertain about what it demands from us, what sort of commitment it calls for. It appears that our concept and conception of politics have lost their mooring.
Many political causes call for attention, and engagement on their behalf is surely admirable. But political activism is never enough. Even the most energetic engagement will come to nothing, if we lack political judgment. We can be effective only once we have reached a coherent verdict on what needs to be done and a proper assessment of the situation in which we find ourselves. We certainly can’t advance the human condition if we lack a conception of the common good. Much stands in the way of recognizing this – our eagerness to proceed to action, our unwillingness to stand still for reflection, as well as wrong ways of thinking that have accumulated around our political practice. In consequence, we won’t be able to improve our political condition unless we first change our minds. Our political activism calls for political analysis and political analysis, in turn, for political criticism.
I begin in this chapter with a critique of the normative tradition in political philosophy and will continue in the next one with a critique of political naturalism. On the way I will seek to describe an alternative kind of political thinking – one that is diagnostic in style and hermeneutic in outlook.
I am turning to Foucault last because he was the youngest of the three diagnostic thinkers I am considering and his political experiences refer us to more recent times than Schmitt’s or Arendt’s. We can say schematically that the First World War and its aftermath provided Schmitt’s formative political experience and that Arendt’s came from the time before, during, and after the Second World War. Foucault was born in 1926, and was thus old enough to have taken impressions away from that war, but he derived his political impulses mainly, in fact, from the social, cultural, and political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I discuss Foucault last also because he advanced the diagnostic practice beyond Schmitt and Arendt and specifically in its genealogical aspect. Schmitt had used genealogy sporadically and in an unsystematic fashion. Arendt had employed it more fully but still only in a conjectural manner. Only in her first book on totalitarianism had she pursued her genealogical investigation in a scholarly spirit. In later writings she had merely outlined a genealogy of modern society with her account of human life in action, work, and labor. She had sketched also a genealogy of political disillusionment from Plato through Christianity and the modern age to her own time. But those narratives remained largely speculative in content and “philosophical” in style. Foucault was to drive genealogy a great deal further in a research-oriented direction being “enamored of libraries, documents, reference works, dusty tomes, texts that are never read, books that are no sooner printed than they are consigned to the shelves of libraries where they thereafter lie dormant to be taken up only some centuries later.”
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