Wednesday, December 29, 2004

What's Wrong with Academic Leftists?

I've mentioned before that I'm grappling, although ineffectively given my lack of experience with philosophy, with the doctrines of Foucault and other modern thinkers and their implications for contemporary political problems.

I'm currently reading Law, Pragmatism and Democracy by Richard Posner, who I believe has brilliantly captured the essence, not just of how American democracy works, but why it works as it does. Its peculiar structures, facturing power into a babel of competing institutions and the simultaneous empowerment and limitation on both majority and minority opinions make it fairly unique among the world's democracies. Defenders of the system as it is are regrettably rare, among socialists, centrists, libertarians and conservatives.

I think this is one book that doesn't repay my usual hurried scanning, so I take it slowly and carefully. It's extraordinarily rich in insights, so I think I might just post a list of some of the best quotes from it, as Brian has recently done with A T Q Stewart's The Shape of Irish History.

Posner mentioned the German legal theorist (and unapologetic Nazi) Carl Schmitt, which sent me to his entry in Wikipedia and thence to this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education which brought together some threads of my recent thinking and offered one suggestion for why the political thinking of many academic leftists is so contemptously anti-liberal.
Given Schmitt's strident anti-Semitism and unambiguous Nazi commitments, the left's continuing fascination with him is difficult to comprehend. Yet as Jan-Werner Müller, a fellow at All Soul's College, Oxford, points out in his recently published A Dangerous Mind, that attraction is undeniable. Müller argues that Schmitt's spirit pervades Empire (2000), the intellectual manifesto of the antiglobalization movement, written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri...

Telos, a journal founded in 1968 dedicated to bringing European critical theory to American audiences, had started a campaign in the 1980s to resurrect Schmitt's legacy, impressed by his no-nonsense attacks on liberalism and his contempt for Wilsonian idealism. A comprehensive study of Schmitt's early writings, Gopal Balakrishnan's The Enemy, published by the New Leftist firm of Verso in 2000, finds Schmitt's conclusion that liberal democracy had reached a crisis oddly reassuring, for it gives the left hope that its present stalemate [i.e. the triumphant dominance of liberal democracy and fairly free markets as the only desirable model of political economy, as Fukuyama rightly advocated, but didn't prove in The End of History and the Last Man] will not last indefinitely. Such prominent European thinkers as Slavoj Zizek, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Derrida have also been preoccupied with Schmitt's ideas. It is not that they admire Schmitt's political views. But they recognize in Schmitt someone who, very much like themselves, opposed humanism in favor of an emphasis on the role of power in modern society, a perspective that has more in common with a poststructuralist like Michel Foucault than with liberal thinkers such as John Rawls.
My apologies for any lapses into incoherence, as I'm both paddling the shallows of a very deep sea of theory and feeling pretty exhausted tonight.