I come late to the discussion of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, and will add only a few brief remarks before the conversation closes down. In part, this is because Jean-Claude Monod has already said, and quite eloquently, much of what I would have said—if you want my larger view, that is, see Monod. Like Monod, I find Kahn’s book as a whole less coherent than some others have.
One issue I want to raise, though, is the specter of American exceptionalism that haunts the book. Haunts, actually, may be too mild a word, since Kahn enthusiastically embraces the exceptional nature of American politics and law, and does so in absolutist terms (perhaps this is just the unfortunate sign of the legal mind at work, as is also the case in Schmitt). Of course, much of the book is devoted to pointing out how “extra-legal” America’s use of violence for political ends is, as opposed to that of Europe, while the typical right-wing elaboration of American exceptionalism tends to avoid this issue in favor of a reliance on the USA’s special, God-given dispensation to address the evils of the world wherever they occur. Even those who do not directly invoke the divinity or the duty of foreign adventurism in expressing their high regard for the country nevertheless often slip into a discourse in which the Sonderweg of the United States is dearly held. Kahn’s is a more sobering account of that Sonderweg, though it still weirdly (as Monod points out) ends up discovering a notion of freedom in Schmitt that could be appropriately applied to America’s exceptional (and exceptionally permanent, for Kahn) “state of exception” where extra-legal violence is concerned.
But it seems to me that all versions of political exceptionalism, whatever the ends to which they are put, are fundamentally wrong-headed. That is, no one would deny that each nation, even each Western liberal democracy, is somehow unique—France’s religious and courtly heritage is obviously quite different from Britain’s national (if we can call it that) Bildung. But if we are going to be historically circumspect and careful, then it does us little good to make such differences absolute. No matter how large the gap when it comes to legal or constitutional formations and predispositions (Napoleonic and codified in France, common-law to a large extent in the UK), we also need to acknowledge how far nation-state structures and geo-political exigencies create remarkable similarities (for example, France and Britain, despite chauvinist claims on both sides, ran empires with similar goals, similar legal chicanery, similar brutality, and similar denouements; both countries today attack the Islamic veiling of women in ways that would be unthinkable in the US; both are highly secular, and so on).
And yet Kahn has no difficulty speaking in absolutes about the US. “The juridification of politics is the leading idea of the Western European political order today. To the question of whether there can be sovereign action beyond the rule of law, European institutions have answered with a resounding no. All political violence is limited to law enforcement: no exceptions.” By contrast, Americans “live comfortably with their long history of citizen sacrifice in national wars,” so that popular history is the history of “violent force against enemies,” which is then “endlessly reinforced” when “Americans take their families to Valley Forge and Gettysburg, and even Omaha Beach.” (For the record, I have been to none of these places.)
I have read these passages numerous times, and I still do not get the supposed appropriateness of the contrast on page 16, the “on the one hand, on the other hand” structure that Kahn presumes is obvious to his reader. Yes, I agree, Americans do wave flags more than Europeans, and yes, as Kahn suggests, they do not see their history through the prism of the concentration camp or bombed out cities. But how the notion of “sacrifice” in war—and “sacrifice” is a crucial term in Kahn’s argument—came to be a uniquely American characteristic, one clearly absent on the Continent, remains a historical puzzle in Kahn’s book. It is as if this sense of “sacrifice” derived solely from the constitution (and I mean this in both the conceptual and legal sense) of the US, whereas its absence in Europe is also fundamentally constitutional. But this makes a hash of twentieth-century political history.
First, as should be obvious, the idea of “sacrifice” for the nation (or the city-state) goes back at least to Pericles. Second, modern European history is in many ways nothing but what Kahn (referring only to the US) calls “the long history of citizen sacrifice in national wars.” The scale on which French and German “citizens” (and they were that) sacrificed themselves during WWI alone dwarfs by orders of magnitude all American “sacrifices” in the last hundred years. We will not even begin to talk about Soviet or German “sacrifices” in WWII, or the sacrifices of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific or in kamikaze squads. Only one American war even comes close—the Civil War—and this of course was the one war not fought against foreign “enemies.” Given the level of the carnage, it is little wonder that Europeans have less of a taste for foreign adventurism than Americans do today. But even this reluctance did not happen overnight (even the Europeans, that is, learn slowly). French soldiers continued to sacrifice themselves in large numbers in Vietnam and—with a fairly enthusiastic use of extra-legal torture against their “enemies”—in Algeria in the 1950s. Of course, outside Europe, Korea and Vietnam made the sacrifice of citizens against foreign enemies something of a sacred cause. The Vietnamese were far more enthusiastic about sacrificing themselves for their nation than the disaffected Americans were between 1965 and 1973—the results prove it, I think. It would be hard to show that the Americans were more willing than the French to sacrifice themselves in Vietnam, and both were less willing than the Russians were (for a time, at least) in Afghanistan. The enthusiasm among British citizens for war in the Falklands was palpable and was far greater than Americans’ willingness to sacrifice themselves, in a comparably ridiculous war, in Granada. Had I the time or space, even a cursory discussion of Israel, where the willingness of citizens (again, in a Western European sense) to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation remains unabated to this day—just try throwing stones over the border—and far outstrips, say, US citizens’ willingness to sacrifice themselves in defending the border with Mexico. (Ok, in Arizona, I agree, there are some folks who may feel this way, but even big-chested Rick Perry in Texas has more or less admitted, to the dismay of the Tea Party, that he will not lay down his life to defend El Paso from Mexicans.)
When Kahn writes about the exceptional and unique nature of Americans’ willingness to sacrifice themselves, even in extra-legal circumstances, for the nation, and then traces this willingness back to the unique nature of the US’ political constitution, I cannot avoid thinking of the great Viennese scholar Otto Brunner, perhaps the most important follower of Schmitt, völkisch thinker, and Nazi-identified historian of the Third Reich. Brunner’s summa is (in English) called Land and Lordship: Fundamental Questions on the Territorial Constitutional History of Southeast Germany in the Middle Ages. Like Kahn, Brunner accepted Schmitt’s definition of the political as the opposition of friend and foe; like Kahn, he accepted the irreducibility of political theology in the liberal state, that is, the state defined by the opposition of state and society. Like Kahn, he believed that the unique political constitution (both conceptual and legal) of a particular people (in this case, the Germans) was completely unsuited to the dominant liberal nation-state juridical and political order of Europe, an order based (just as Kahn himself puts it) on the idea that the rule of law and the state’s consequent monopoly on violence (only the state’s violence is permitted, and it is only permitted when it is lawful—no exceptions) is the essence of justice. And like Kahn, Brunner argued that one people, and only one people—the Germans—were constitutionally incapable of following the rule of such a European order of nation-states, and hence needed to reclaim a sense of freedom in the extra-legal use of violence, such as could be found in feuds and clan retribution, in the sense of the sacred that binds them organically to the soil and to one another, and most of all, in the sacrificial loyalties of the medieval Austrian Reich. When Kahn writes, late in his book, that “political authenticity, as it emerges in a study of political theology, is that experience of the unity of being and meaning that marks the presence of the sacred,” Brunner would have agreed wholeheartedly. And Brunner would also have agreed with Kahn that, alas, such an “experience” could not be found among the liberal nation-states of Europe, though he certainly hoped, in 1939, that Germany would soon show Europe how it might be achieved.
Kahn surely shares little of Brunner’s rabid, expansionist, and anti-Semitic nationalism. But his critique of the modern liberal nation-state from the vantage point of political theology is of a piece with much that has appeared recently, a fair amount of it deriving from both Schmitt and Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” which rejects both the earlier natural law tradition and the positive law of the nation-state. From the work of Giorgio Agamben, for whom the inevitable denouement of the nation-state is totalitarian Nazism, to the “Red Tory” revanchist theology of John Milbank, and the delirious Christian Stalinism of Salvoj Zizek, a certain strain of academic theory has emphasized that the nation-state after Hobbes rests on an absolutist basis—a monopoly on violence—that its own constitutional presumptions must constantly disavow under the guise of “lawfulness.” Ironically, Brunner’s own deeply conservative, National Socialist thinking is in complete agreement with such indictments. Yet what Brunner demonstrates at the same time, albeit unintentionally, is that the attempt to find a final solution to the aporia of the liberal state’s political theology—its seemingly endless and irresolvable process of secularization—may be far worse than the aporia itself.