“Sovereign is he who decides the exception.” Among serious students of political philosophy, at least on the Right, these may be the most famous words of the twentieth century. That sentence opens this work, Political Theology, which consists of four linked essays, bound by the theme that most exercised Carl Schmitt in the early 1920s—the edge cases of sovereignty. In the post-World War II decades, such questions seemed very remote and theoretical, part of the turmoil of a benighted age we had left behind. But we were wrong, about all of it, and Schmitt was right, that this topic is universal and timeless. Thus, from Schmitt we can learn much that we can be sure will be directly applicable to the 2020s.
A review by me of this book has been published in the excellent journal IM-1776. The first paragraph, and a link to the entire review, and the journal itself, can be found below.
We are not a serious society. Our ruling class are men of no substance, lacking all knowledge and incapable of competent action on any front. The masses, while they sense a great deal is very wrong, are distracted by propaganda and ephemera. We feel we can afford to be unserious, because all of us lead lives of unprecedented material comfort. Any lack is eased by speedy delivery of sedatives designed to mask and hold down chthonic spiritual despair. To be sure, we do not lack for heralds of the coming storm—but we, high and low, have forgotten what a storm looks like. Read this book and you will remember, and you will also know what it is to live in a serious society.
What role should technology—the complex of machines and computers that undergirds our world—play in our future? This is a crucial question, and among thinking people today there exists a distinct split. Some, such as James Poulos in his soon-to-be-released Human, Forever, call for fully accepting that technology exists and is not going away, while refusing to surrender our humanity. Others, such as Paul Kingsnorth, entirely reject what he calls the “Machine,” and intimate that our technology-dictated future is an anti-human grotesquerie, followed by inevitable total collapse. Theodore Kaczynski falls squarely into this latter category, and this, his famous Manifesto, outlines what should be done—goals he notably took to heart.
I recently wrote about what might happen after an American Caesar, a radical reconstructor of our polity, arose. And in these days of American humiliation and accelerating decay, a Caesar is viewed by many, if in quiet tones, as a kind of solution. But is Caesar, Michael Anton’s Red Caesar, merely a coping mechanism for the Right, a fantasy meant to replace the dead hope of a restored American founding? Is Caesar an encouragement to eschatological passivity, our equivalent of the Twelver Shia hidden imam, who when everything is at its worst will arrive to set the world aright, without any action needed by us? No, and today I will tell you why.
Dictatorship, in the form of Caesarism, is in the American air. I have recently written on what, in practical terms, an American Caesar would do; I will soon tell you how likely our Caesar is, and why. As it happens, I am at the same time working my way through all the books of Carl Schmitt, in their order of original publication, and his next book up, Dictatorship, published in 1921, clarifies the historical and legal-analytical part of what is unspooling before our eyes. We cannot be better informed, analytically at least, than by pondering this work of the peerless German, whose book, as always, puts to shame today’s mostly insipid political and constitutional analysis.
An article by me, “What to Do When Caesar Comes,” has been published in the new magazine Asylum, along with pieces from others, including Lord Conrad Black and Bronze Age Pervert. The theme of this first issue is the changes that may come, and my article is, no surprise, about what we can expect in the coming new dispensation. The first paragraph, and a link to the entire magazine, including my contribution, are below. (I encourage you to buy the print magazine; a free PDF is also available.) (Credit for the image of Gaius Julius Caesar to Daniel Voshart, whose photorealistic images of Roman emperors (and one proto-emperor), generated by computer-analyzing extant images, are very valuable and interesting.)]
Christopher Lasch died before this, his last book, was published, twenty-six years ago. Lasch was a man out of time, a refugee leftist who nonetheless refused to embrace what passed for conservatism in the post-Communist false dawn, the main feature of which was idolatry of the invisible hand. No surprise, his message was rejected by its intended audience, America’s intellectual class. Now, however, every one of the problems with our society he identified has grown monstrous, far beyond the power of any dragonslayer to kill. Thus, this book is, at least now, less prescription and more an intellectual history of how we failed as a nation.
To my excitement, Carl Schmitt is coming back into fashion, or at least into notice. Last week, for example, an excellent piece by the Swedish renegade leftist Malcolm Kyeyune received wide attention. It revolved around Schmitt’s concept, from The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, that when a regime must prove its legitimacy empirically, it is doomed. Kyeyune concluded that, just as the “bourgeois kings” of Schmitt’s analysis were doomed because they had lost intrinsic legitimacy, so has, and is, our own regime. Now I wish I had thought of and made that point in my own recent review of that book. Ah well. Instead, today you will have to be satisfied with my reflections on another book, Schmitt’s first, Political Romanticism.
The American Right, like all outsider political movements, has long been susceptible to Gnosticism. This usually manifests as the belief that a small group of wise initiates can see through rationales for political action and find hidden knowledge, of the real reasons men and societies act as they do. Sometimes those reasons are the machinations of the Illuminati, or the Freemasons, or the Lizard Men. More often, they are prosaic, and although economic Gnosticism is the most frequent type, another common gnostic belief is that power is the only real driver of the actions of men, and all other rationales in politics mere epiphenomena, lies designed to conceal the hidden centrality of power. The Machiavellians is James Burnham’s exposition of this latter Gnosticism.