Giving Flesh to Democratic Abstractions

Carl Schmitt, the German legal and political philosopher and sometime apologist for Nazism, famously argued that there was no such thing as liberal politics, only a liberal “critique of politics.” One does not have to agree with Schmitt’s irresponsible and extremist reduction of politics to the most radical enmity between friend and enemy to recognize a significant element of truth in his assertion. The founding heuristic device of modern political philosophy, the “state of nature,” posits an original condition of humanity shorn of both politics and moral obligations. These imagined humans are not social and political animals, as in classical political philosophy, or creatures of a transcendent and beneficent God, as in the biblical tradition. They are rather free and equal “individuals” without any intrinsic ties or bonds. 

As a result, liberal political discourse in the broadest sense of the term (including that of contemporary left-liberals and many conservatives) oscillates aimlessly between the state and the individual, and has difficulty making sense of more natural forms of human belonging. The state rescues disconnected human beings from the “inconveniences” of the state of nature, as John Locke called them, and accumulates power in the process. Liberalism thus enhances both individual rights and state power, often in the name of “emancipating” individuals from traditional limits and constraints. As Trevor Shelley points out in his lucid and welcome book, Globalization and Liberalism, modern political thought as a whole has difficulty articulating, or even acknowledging, the “we” that falls somewhere between the individual and the state, or increasingly even making sense of the political realm that exists “between the particularism of the individual and the universalism of humanity.” The most radical and consistent forms of modern thought aim at what the 20th century Hegelio-Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojève called the “universal and homogenous state,” where some find globalized bliss and where others more astutely see the threat of unprecedented forms of despotism, hard and soft. 

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