The enemy is an idea—at least in part.
But who speaks of “enemies” anymore? Isn’t the human race beyond such low, petty, potentially violent concerns?
No. It will never be. It cannot be. As long as there will be man, he will have friends and enemies—individual men no less than groups of men.
Lately a group of dishonest men have taking to dismissing this concern as “Schmittian,” after the German political philosopher Carl Schmitt. But this is just their way of calling their own enemies “Nazis.” These sophists forget—or deliberately obscure—that Schmitt’s core insight follows Plato, who gives three definitions of justice in Book I of the Republic, the central being that justice is helping friends and harming enemies. Only this definition survives as Plato proceeds to elaborate his political philosophy.
Schmitt was a Nazi because he joined the Party, not because he understood that politics cannot be separated from—can never fully rise above—the friend–enemy distinction. Or, if believing in the friend–enemy distinction makes you a Nazi then Plato was a Nazi, too. As was virtually every thinker in the Western tradition. We expect this kind of malevolent lunacy from our leftist enemies but not from (former) ostensibly rightist friends. Therefore let this be understood: anyone who today dismisses the concept of “enemy” is himself an enemy, for he aims to deceive and, via that deception, to harm—either by design or out of delusion.
Schmitt was a Nazi because he joined the Party, not because he understood that politics cannot be separated from—can never fully rise above—the friend–enemy distinction.
Our enemy—the idea of which I write—denies the existence of enemies. Like the devil, it is seductive and promises great goods. It preaches universal brotherhood, global unity, a “borderless world.” Also like the devil, it has many names: liberal international order, rules-based international order, new world order, neoliberalism, among others. But its truest name is “universal and homogenous state” (uhs). To speak more precisely, the uhs is the underlying philosophic idea; the others are epiphenomena, attempts to make concrete in deed what the uhs prophesies in speech.
Under the rubric “liberal international order” (lio), this idea has been much in the news lately. It is held to be an unalloyed good, the totemic structure of our time, the only thing standing between humanity and ruin. It is also said to be under constant attack from President Trump and his allies and friends. This latter claim is even true, depending on which understanding of “liberal international order” is meant, for there is more than one.
The concrete meaning of “liberal international order” is the collectivity of institutions created in the immediate post–World War II era. But what really matters are not just the institutions themselves but also—perhaps more so—the underlying philosophy or ideology that gave rise to them, plus their methods of operation.
The initial—and ostensible—purpose of the lio in this understanding was to do for Europe (and Asia) what the Peace of Westphalia, the treaties that ended the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Congress of Vienna had done previously: end a conflict, reconcile enemies, and create decades of peace. In this respect, the lio may be understood as one of many similar efforts in a long line: a temporary solution to a temporary problem, adapted to the particular circumstances of its particular time.
Occasionally statesmen are tempted to think more grandly of their present, and pressing, task and to dream of “making the world anew.” And sometimes the settlement to a particular problem does, in fact, fundamentally change the world. The Treaty of Westphalia not only ended the Thirty Years War, it created an international system based on the principles of state sovereignty and foreign non-interference in domestic affairs that lasted centuries and that, in attenuated form, still stands.
The architects of the lio held their own work in still higher regard. They, or many of them, thought they were building not merely for decades or even centuries but for all time. To this hubris was added another, and wholly new, element: ideology, the desiccated, doctrinaire codification of philosophy.
To this hubris was added another, and wholly new, element: ideology, the desiccated, doctrinaire codification of philosophy.
It’s an unsettled—and perhaps unsettlable—question how many architects of the “liberal international order” thought of their project in these terms: permanent, unassailable, aligned with a new and superior understanding of nature. Did Jean Monnet intend his modest European Coal and Steel Community to become the European Union behemoth? Likely he did. But if so, it is a non-trivial detail that he declined to say so to the broader European public. Indeed, never having stood for elected office at all, he relieved himself of the bothersome necessity of having to explain his program to any but a handful of international elites, nearly all of whom supported it.
One architect of the lio, however, never found circumspection either necessary or to his taste. Alexandre Kojève emigrated to France from Russia at an early age, a White fleeing the Reds. Which is ironic, given Kojève’s later self-identification as a “Stalinist” and credible, if unproved, allegations that for thirty years he spied for the ussr.
Kojève is today known principally for three things. First is the influence of his famous lecture course on Hegel, taught in Paris in the 1930s and attended by a rogues’ gallery of students who would go on to become some the most destructive intellectuals of the twentieth century, including Sartre, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Weil, and Beauvoir. Foucault and Derrida—too young to have attended the course in person—later claimed Kojève as a major influence. Though in fairness, it should be noted that Kojève’s influence was not entirely malign. No less than Leo Strauss regarded Kojève as one of his few worthy philosophic opponents, and other attendees of those lectures included Queneau and the eminently sober Raymond Aron.
Second is the content of those lectures. In them, and in his subsequent writings, Kojève claims to have “fixed” Marx by bypassing him in favor of Hegel, whose own errors Kojève also claims to have fixed. Not a modest man, to be sure.
Third is Kojève’s longtime work in the French bureaucracy, in a rather nondescript office under a vague title that belied his importance. One of Strauss’s students, Stanley Rosen, described Kojève as “the Mycroft Holmes of France.” That is, he was to the post-war French government what Sherlock’s older, smarter brother was to the Victorian Whitehall: the decider. Except Kojève was real. Rosen quotes one of his favorite sayings: “De Gaulle decides on relations with Russia and the force de frappe; I, Kojève, decide everything else.”
A central contradiction in Kojève’s thought is his claim on the one hand to have “fixed” or moderated Marx, and his unapologetic Stalinism on the other. Certainly, Kojève tolerated and even excused Stalinist excesses in his own rhetoric. He seems to have taken Hobbes’s dismissive comment that tyranny is merely monarchy disliked to mean that there is no fundamental distinction between just and unjust rule; there is only sovereign power or its lack.
And yet Kojève often seems to have gone out of his way to praise more “moderate” examples of his preferred polity in contrast to Stalin’s ussr; for example, in his famous debate with Strauss, he held up Portugal’s Salazar to show that Hegelian utopia need not rest on a foundation of (too much) terror. Something in him intuited that terror doesn’t sell.
Many of us comfort ourselves with the thought that Marxism cannot be done “soft.” If so, that would indicate that the means necessary to support it, because so brutal, will always be unpopular, making any Marxist regime unstable and short-lived. Tocqueville’s famous warning about “soft despotism” seems not to apply, and not merely because it was penned decades before Marx wrote, but also because it describes a regime so much less harsh, less anti-natural than Marx’s.
Kojève turns all this—and more—on its head.
Yet Kojève’s greatest “achievement” appears to have been to bridge the gap: to take what Tocqueville meant as a warning and to transform it into a recommendation. For the ancient philosophers, tyranny is a danger coeval with political life. Man can avoid it for a time—perhaps even for a long time—but we can never eliminate the possibility. When and where tyranny arises, the classics recommend mitigation, making the best of a bad situation. Essentially, they urge the tyrant—for his own good and for the good of the ruled—to govern like a legitimate king, to treat the polity as if it were his estate. At most they concede that some tyrannies are in a sense necessary in a “post-constitutional” situation after the breakdown of an established order, but are just only in the sense that deserved punishment is just.
Kojève turns all this—and more—on its head. Necessary mitigation becomes a positive good; deserved punishment is elevated into the “end of history”; and Marx’s dystopia is reimagined as the “universal and homogenous state.” Which is, in concept, exactly what it sounds like: universal (aspiring to cover the entire globe), homogenous (treating, and working to make, everyone the same), and a state (the world’s sole wielder of sovereign power).
The philosophy underlying all this is deep and complex and—with one exception, explained below—needn’t detain us here. It’s the popularized version—the ideology—that matters, many of whose basic tenets will be instantly recognizable as the conventional wisdom of our globalist elites, the Davoisie:
Political and economic integration among states reduces causes of conflict.
Integration also reduces “friction” and therefore costs of doing business.
Integration leads to greater efficiencies in the allocation of monetary and human capital, and of other resources.
Integration is therefore always good, and the solution to almost any problem is more integration.
Diversity, inclusivity, and equity (“DIE”) are necessary for integration to succeed and also are positive ends in themselves.
Only in an integrated environment—and therefore the more extensive the better—can these positive ends be achieved and maintained at their fullest.
These last assertions derive from Hegel’s concept of “recognition,” viz., that “history” is driven by the struggle of each and every person to achieve “recognition” of his/her/“their” (if ever there were a time to assault the English language with idiotic pronoun misuse, this would be it) personal claim to dignity by all other persons. In the ideologized version under which we currently live, that requires the mass redistribution of honors in the name of tolerance, fairness, and redress.
One can easily see the Marxist elements of this system: e.g., its universalism, insistence on leveling, the way it sees all history through the sole lens of past injustice or group struggle. Its most notable non-Marxist feature—its contempt of the proletariat and exaltation of an oligarchic ruling class—is explainable not merely by the desires of the ruling class (for every ruling class prefers to be rich rather than poor) but also by the clever way that neoliberalism has (mostly) substituted Marxism’s redistribution of wealth with the redistribution of honors.
It may sound dystopian and terrifying to us, but it is a source of inspiration and hope to millions.
The qualifier is necessary, because some wealth redistribution still goes on—though not at the scale, or with the intent, anticipated by classical Marxism. Rather, the point under neoliberalism is to tie the “wealth” (however meager) of some to their allegedly retrograde refusal to grant “recognition” to others—specifically to the “diverse,” the downtrodden, the “unincluded.” This is why neoliberalism finds it permissible to celebrate the destruction of certain (let us call them Red State or “flyover” or “deplorable”) communities. Like the peasant in Marxist theory, the modern “deplorable”—however penniless or powerless he may seem or believe himself to be—remains a stubbornly retrograde force who cannot be persuaded to abandon his “privilege” and so must be crushed.
We must not underestimate the appeal of this vision. It may sound dystopian and terrifying to us, but it is a source of inspiration and hope to millions. Some of those millions simply look past the necessary heavy-handed intrusiveness—the demonizations, the propaganda, the censorship, the anarcho-tyranny, the double-standards, and various unfairnesses—on which the system must rely. Others relish these as features, not bugs.
But supporters of this new regime all agree that it offers at least one great good: the final, long-awaited, and much-longed-for coalescence of humanity (or at least the good parts) into one universal siblinghood. It’s no accident that the official anthem of the European Union is Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as set to music by Beethoven (alle Menschen werden Brüder)—nor is it an accident that the European Union recently began an effort to criminalize the “denigration of the European Union and its symbols.” Though one wonders how long the “gender-specific” language of Schiller’s poem will be allowed to stand unexpurgated.
I wrote earlier of a contradiction in Kojève’s thought. We find another nestled within the contours of neoliberalism. It is, as noted, universalist and seeks universal siblinghood for all humankind. It holds this to be the highest and most obvious good. It therefore does not know what to make of the hold-outs, those who like their particularity and don’t want to give it up. Are such people simple flat-earthers?
In any case, how can one form a brotherhood with those who don’t want to be brothers? But remaining with them or getting rid of them each poses a mortal threat to the project. Keep the deplorables around and they’re likely to drag the polity in the “wrong” direction, toward nationalism and populism, away from neoliberalism. Kick them out, or separate from them, and you’ve admitted that your brotherhood has failed, its universalist pretentions are phony. The mere existence of hold-outs—whether inside your polity or outside in another one created for the purpose of holding out—is a standing rebuke that cannot be tolerated.
This (in part) explains the weeping over Brexit, Trump, the Yellow Vests, and the resurgence of nationalist politics throughout Europe. These acts of defiance are unwelcome signs that the vaunted “end of history” has not yet arrived, and worse, may never arrive. The only way to square the circle is to assume that they are manifestations of sabotage by “wreckers” who, once dispatched, will no longer stand athwart progress. Which is the operating assumption, for now.
Trump’s signature sin is not merely to side with but to give voice to—to lead—the defiers. This is why his every word is condemned as a dangerous solvent on the supposedly unifying and stabilizing forces of globalization.
But if one begins from different premises—from a belief in eternal human nature—one understands the defiance differently, and is buoyed by it. Even on Hegelian terms, it’s possible to understand the defiance precisely as arising from resentment of neoliberalism’s refusal to “recognize” deplorables or their concerns. Yet a truer understanding would be that, while the deplorables do crave recognition, they do so not on Hegelian terms but on human terms. They wish to have their equal natural humanity recognized, of course, but also their status as husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, co-workers and friends, and—last but not least—fellow citizens.
Trump’s signature sin is not merely to side with but to give voice to—to lead—the defiers.
If we are to define a “deplorable” as a hold-out from neoliberalism, the lio, and the uhs, then we may say that he holds out in part owing to his stubborn insistence on the ineradicability of the distinction between countryman and foreigner, citizen and alien, and—in the final analysis—between friend and enemy. There will always be nations, which means there will always be friends and enemies. Mankind is not, cannot be, and therefore will never be a universal brotherhood. To the neoliberal, this thought is retrograde. To the deplorable, it is not a thought; it is nature—no more to be despised or attacked than wished away.
This—I believe—inexpungible opinion among the larger portion of mankind is a great good, a reason for hope. It is a reason (one among many) why the project of universalist homogenization must fail—a failure to which anyone concerned with the fate of human freedom should look forward.
But this should not be taken as license for complacency. The fact of that failure’s inevitability must not be allowed to obscure the vital point that when the failure occurs matters a great deal. The longer this goes on, the greater the toll it will take, and the harder our recovery will be.
This suggests the necessity of action, of resistance. That action can take many forms: spiritual, memetic, intellectual, organizational, political. But at the end of the day, to defeat an idea requires not just a better idea—which we have—but one marshaled in the service of a superior reality, a true and appealing vision of a real nation with real communities, real commonalties, real bonds of civic friendship, and a real sense of who we are, and who we are not.
We have that, too. Or, we used to. Our supreme and most pressing task is to remember it and get it back.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 5, on page 28
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