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Against Passion
James Meek

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
Harper, 160 pp, 19.00, August, ISBN 978 0 06 269743 1
The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction by Mark Lilla
NYRB, 166 pp, 9.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 59017 902 4

What is identity politics? Is it, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, a part of society you dont like
thats fighting for its interests as fiercely as yours does? Or is it, as Mark Lilla puts it in The
Once and Future Liberal, a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and
exclusionary self-definition? The book belongs to the genre of responses to Donald Trumps
election in which liberal American academics turn their rage on their own intellectual-
political class. Lilla argues that the pursuit of identity politics by liberal graduates,
brainwashed by their teachers into a self-centred world-view that filters all issues through
their own bespoke set of oppressions, has crippled the Democrats, distracting them from the
struggle for institutional power at county, state and congressional level. For Lilla, the
Democrats failure to win elections isnt a consequence of bad candidates, or fake news, or
Russia, or the Democratic establishments chumminess with the billionaire class, or people
thinking too many immigrants are coming in and too many jobs are going out. The reason is
that liberals havent established an imaginative, hopeful vision of citizenship all Americans
can believe in. Instead they have scattered, spending themselves in the hermetic purity of
causes.

Lilla portrays Americas colleges (he is professor of humanities at Columbia University) as


dark, suspicious places where debate has been smothered by political correctness and use of
the pronoun we is anathematised. The great movements for justice in Americas past, in civil
rights and gay rights and feminism, he says, worked through political institutions to right
wrongs. They sought equality in citizenship. Those who joined them wanted to be part of
things, to have the same opportunities and freedoms as straight white men. But during the
1970s and 1980s, encouraged by left-wing professors who were inspired, in turn, by French
thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida, a new politics disseminated from university campuses
that rejected such binding concepts as citizenship and duty. It emphasised the special status
individuals could acquire by virtue of their claim to a particular identity, whether related to
gender, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or body type, or disability, or chronic medical
condition:

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James Meek reviews The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla and... https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n23/james-meek/against-passion?utm_sour...

Whats extraordinary and appalling about the past four decades of our history
is that our politics have been dominated by two ideologies that encourage and
even celebrate the unmaking of citizens. On the right, an ideology that questions
the existence of a common good and denies our obligation to help fellow citizens,
through government action if necessary. On the left, an ideology institutionalised
in colleges and universities that fetishises our individual and group attachments,
applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of
a universal democratic we.[*]

It is the solipsism of liberal identity politics, according to Lilla, that is responsible for the loss
of a generation of young liberal activists. Instead of getting out among the people with an
inspiring message about advancing together, caring for each other as citizens with common
goals, young left-wing graduates seek self-validation in movements that emphasise, through a
claim of oppression, the inherited differences that set them apart. For them the unit of
political activism is the romantic self; its fullest expression, the urban demonstration in
support of a particular cause, as big and boisterous as possible. They are romantics, Lilla says,
and not in a good way. We need no more marchers. We need more mayors. He calls the
Black Lives Matter movement, set up to challenge police brutality against black people, a
textbook example of how not to build solidarity, and, using a term from an article by Tom
Wolfe from 1970 about blacks who exploited white guilt to get municipal handouts, accuses
the movement of using Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent.

Its true that the Democrats, to put it mildly, have a grass roots problem. Long before Trump
became president and the Republicans cemented control of both Houses of Congress, the
GOP was tightening its grip on power at the state level. Each American state has a mini-
congress and head of state of its own, the governor. Out of 99 state legislative chambers
(Nebraska, uniquely, has a unicameral legislature) the Democrats now control only 32; only
16 of the 50 governors are Democrats. During Obamas two terms in office, Democrats at
state level suffered a net loss of almost a thousand seats. While the progressives were out
occupying Wall Street, it seems, the Republicans were occupying the country.

Theres a large assumption at the heart of Lillas case. He presents it as one argument that
liberals obsession with identity politics prevents them making: a universally appealing case
for a civic, communitarian America. In fact, hes making two arguments: first, that liberals
have such an obsession; and, second, that it is identity politics which is to blame for liberal
no-shows in the battle for the hinterland. The assumption being that if liberal activists spent
less time on movement politics, protests and single-issue campaigns in the coastal cities,
theyd have more time to swarm over small-town Illinois, doorstepping swing voters to chat
about the Democratic state senatorial candidates exciting tax plans. That might happen. But
it is just as likely that if energised young liberals, the passionate romantic idealists Lilla
regards with such hostility, were discouraged from identity politics, they would drop out of
politics altogether; that instead of turning a diverse, chaotic, squabbling host of overlapping
campaigners into a disciplined army of moderate civic foot soldiers, you would extinguish the
very force that keeps the Democrats going.

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James Meek reviews The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla and... https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n23/james-meek/against-passion?utm_sour...

If you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the
people you care about, Lilla advises activists, its time to descend from the pulpit.

You need to visit, if only with your minds eye, places where wifi is non-existent,
the coffee is weak, and you will have no desire to post a photo of your dinner on
Instagram. And where youll be eating with people who give genuine thanks for
that dinner in prayer. Dont look down on them. As a good liberal you have
learned not to do that with peasants in far-off lands; apply the lesson to Southern
Pentecostals and gun owners in the mountain states Impose no purity tests on
those you would convince.

He rather undercuts this message a few pages later:

Whatever might be said about the legitimate concerns of Trump supporters, they
have no excuse for voting for him. Given his manifest unfitness for higher office,
a vote for Trump was a betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it his voters
were generally clueless about how our democratic institutions work All they
seemed to possess was a paranoid, conspiratorial picture of power.

No purity tests, then, except for the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump.

Its true that passion has become a cheap commodity, a stale marketing word and a banal
political accessory; and that justification by passion risks opening the way to justification by
anger. It is right to be wary of those who bring to political activism an egoistical yearning for
personal transcendence. But it is hard to distinguish the charlatan, the poser and the ego-
tripper from the genuine idealist who wants to do good and whose passion may be sincere.
The generalisations of Lillas polemic elide such subtleties. In previous books he has been
fastidious about the complexity of the past, and scathing about the reactionary mythologising
of past golden ages; here he skates over the differences between the various historical
manifestations of identity politics, making a simplistic division of the past hundred years of
American political history into a Roosevelt dispensation and a Reagan dispensation.

The phrase identity politics is often traced back to the statement issued in 1977 by the black
feminist Combahee River Collective, which declared itself to be struggling against
interlocking systems of oppression based on race, sex, sexuality and class. We realise, they
said, that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation
are us This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity
politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly
out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody elses oppression. Barbara
Smith, one of the women who drafted the original Combahee statement, pointed out in 2015
that they hadnt come up with the term identity politics to exclude anybody, only to get
themselves included. Yet the phrase was seized on by conservative commentators and has
mutated to acquire the pejorative sense in which Lilla uses it. What began as self-
proclamation has become a charge levelled by the designator at the participant. The

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James Meek reviews The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla and... https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n23/james-meek/against-passion?utm_sour...

participant makes an assertion of oppression, and a claim for fair treatment; the designator
makes the accusation that the participant isnt really oppressed, just making an unreasonable
demand for treatment that is not so much fair as special.

The distinction Lilla makes between the black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which was
seeking equal citizenship with whites, and Black Lives Matter, which he admits is also seeking
equal citizenship with whites (in the sense that blacks as well as whites have the right not to
be shot by the police for no reason), is unclear. It certainly isnt a distinction Barbara Smith,
an active participant in desegregation since she was a schoolchild in the 1960s and a strong
supporter of Black Lives Matter, would recognise. Lilla doesnt appear to notice the similarity
between his attitude to Black Lives Matter that they are an aggressive, impertinent crowd of
identity politicians who, for all the legitimacy of their demands, need to be more patient and
quiet down and the queasy attitude of those white moderates in the 1960s whom Martin
Luther King lamented in his famous letter from jail in Birmingham, Alabama were more
devoted to order than to justice.

The thing is, Smith told Curve magazine earlier this year,

everyone has an identity historically, culturally, politically and economically


based and you cant get rid of that. You cant run away from it. What we meant
as feminists of colour in the Combahee was not that the only people who are
important are people like ourselves. The reason why we asserted identity politics
so strongly at that time at the time black women were so devalued and so
marginalised that nobody thought we counted for anything was that no one
thought it was legitimate for us to have our own political perspectives, or that
there was even a political perspective to begin with. Where were black women to
stand? That was the point we were making.

Is it really possible to find a period in the life of any country when there wasnt an aggrieved
minority ethnic, class, gender or sexuality-based, geographical, linguistic, sectarian
seeking both recognition and acceptance? Might it not be that majorities are themselves
aggregations of minorities brought together by scepticism towards the grievances of others?
Might it not be that identity politics is just what politics has become or what it always was,
in a way that has only now become impossible to ignore? The formal structure of US politics
may still be binary, Republican v. Democrat, and it is a binary world of liberals and
conservatives that underpins Lillas book, but the reality, as in all world democracies, is that
politics is no longer one-dimensional, conducted along a left-right axis, but multi-
dimensional. Its been a struggle to come up with terms for the new landscape as snappy as
left and right. The University of North Carolinas Chapel Hill Expert Survey, for instance,
has since 1999 been plotting European party ideologies on a double axis one left/right, the
other calibrated with what it calls the GAL-TAN dimension, standing for Green/Alternative
/Libertarian-Traditional/Authoritarian/Nationalist. Its unwieldy, and not very accurate:
nationalist, in Europe, can mean two very different things, and a modern Green government
would be extremely hostile to libertarians. But the broad effort is the same whoever is making
the attempt: to try to conceptualise the new politics in a single framework that incorporates

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economic and cultural axes. The economic axis leads from communitarianism, in which
citizens are compelled in their own best interest to contribute equally to powerful state
structures that meet many of their needs, to libertarianism, which holds that each individual
is responsible for their own welfare and their own luck, and must not be compelled to help
others. The cultural axis goes from traditionalism, in which citizens are bound by custom,
cultural heritage and divinely revealed natural justice (with a big stick for deviants) into
observing time-honoured concepts of gender, class and race, to liberalism, in accordance with
which all humans are granted equal rights, together with the freedom to be different where
that doesnt restrict the freedoms of others.

In the United States and Britain, two countries notably struggling to keep up the pretence of
one-dimensional politics, Labour and the Democrats are united by communitarianism, the
Republicans and the British Conservatives by libertarianism. Each party is divided between
traditionalists and liberals; each knows that its supporters on one axis are liable to cross party
lines on the other. At one time the moderate centrists Lilla yearns for only had to face the
enemy to their front and watch that they werent stabbed in the back by the radicals at their
rear. Modern centrists like Hillary Clinton and Ed Miliband looked isolated because they
were: they were surrounded. Its too late to call for activists to abandon movement politics in
favour of some ideal of politics-politics when movement politics is what all politics has
become. And not just at the top level: the Tea Party, Momentum, Ukip and the Scottish
National Party have shown that movement politics is capable of entering city hall peacefully
and passionately.

There is a further problem, which Lilla sidesteps: the awkward issue of identity politics in the
age of globalisation. If you frame identity politics as a self-indulgent distraction from the
vital business of creating a shared vision of America that all Americans can believe in, youre
not only taking identities of gender or race or sexuality out of play; you are also taking for
granted what it means to be American. In a world without the internet or cheap air travel, in
a world before there was a global higher education system, in a world where capital couldnt
shop around for the cheapest labour and the lowest taxes, in a world where governments
didnt provide their citizens with pensions and healthcare that could be compared to those in
other countries, you could get away with that. But we dont live in that world today. It is the
extreme fluidity of capital, cultures and people that has created todays multi-axis politics,
and to dismiss a preoccupation with race or gender or sexual orientation as identity politics
while maintaining an unquestioning investment in ones nationality is cloudy thinking.

It can only be coincidence that publication of a new book by Lilla tends to signal that
something terrible is about to happen in the United States. His work on thinkers who provide
intellectual cover for tyranny, The Reckless Mind, was, he notes ruefully in an afterword to its
recent reissue, originally published on 9 September 2001. The Stillborn God, about the
separation of religion and state, appeared as the 2007-8 financial crisis erupted from the
business section onto the front page. The Shipwrecked Mind, about reactionaries, popped up
last year, just before Donald Trump became president. The Once and Future Liberal is
unusual in being a response to a crisis, rather than a burst of ideas that happens to go off

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James Meek reviews The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla and... https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n23/james-meek/against-passion?utm_sour...

against the background of a crisis, like a firework display amid an artillery barrage.

Lillas earlier books are meticulous, elegant and erudite studies of mainly dead, mainly
European thinkers. He cruises the libraries like an academic blue whale, filtering the ocean of
scholarship for the krill of insight. There is a connection not overt, but perceptible
between his crisp analyses of various thinkers reprehensible steps away from the path of
enlightenment and his recent attack on fellow liberals, even though hes dealing with
opposites. On the one hand, the philosophers corruption by an excess of zeal for an all-
encompassing Truth about worldly affairs. On the other, the students corruption by an excess
of zeal for a single political Cause, rooted in a solipsistic concern for personal definition,
which explicitly excludes the idea of action embracing a whole political universe. In fact, the
connection is clear enough: Lilla doesnt like the zeal. He mistrusts the conjunction of reason
and passion.

The Shipwrecked Mind, Lilla writes, is a product of my own aleatory reading random
would presumably have sounded too random. All the same, a random reader may be looking
for something particular. If thinkers can be divided into hedgehogs with one big idea and
foxes with many ideas, scholars who delve into thinkers may be reading foxily or hedgehog-
wise taking on board whatever they find, that is, or looking everywhere for versions of a
single essential manifestation. Lilla is a hedgehog, and the recurrence that fascinates and
disturbs him is the passage of the philosopher to a neighbouring realm of thought (the
political, for instance, or the religious), a journey prone to corruption by a surfeit of faith, or
emotion, or romanticism, or personal desire, or myth-making.

In The Shipwrecked Mind, the delusion masquerading as reason takes the form of nostalgia,
the reactionarys visceral and dangerous faith in a lost golden age that never was. Lilla picks
out Eric Zemmour, author of Le Suicide franais (2014), a best-selling dose of apocalypse
auto-gratification enumerating the myriad self-inflicted wounds that have doomed France,
including birth control, the end of the gold standard and conscription, halal food in schools,
the smoking ban, the EU and the surrender to Muslims across the board. He writes about
Brad Gregorys popular book The Unintended Reformation (2012), which fantasises medieval
Europe as a kind, loving, harmonious place infused with a universal Christian spirituality,
which the Reformation then destroyed, condemning us to the hellhole of modernity. He
writes about Leo Strauss, the German-born founder of a school of political science in the
University of Chicago, who maintained that the greatest thinkers are bound to be dead, and
that it is only through detailed study of their work and their often cryptic teachings that a
neo-aristocratic cadre of the enlightened might temper the ignorance of todays pseudo-
democratic masses. These ideas, Lilla says, were appropriated and distorted after Strausss
death in 1973 by American neo-conservatives wishing to identify the United States as the new
avatar of Athenian wisdom.

Lilla contrasts the American story of Strauss with the German story of Martin Heidegger,
another believer in a prelapsarian philosophical idyll although where for Strauss Socrates
was the good old days, for Heidegger Socrates was where the rot set in. Lillas essay about
Heidegger opens The Reckless Mind, his first book about great thinkers gone bad, and it is in
his account of the relationship between Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers that his

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sense of the proper boundaries of philosophy emerges more clearly, along with his fascination
for what happens when they are violated.

The three first intersected in Germany in the 1920s, when Heidegger was the brilliant young
philosopher and teacher in Marburg, Jaspers his slightly older, slightly awed philosopher
friend, and Arendt the student on the brink of her own life as a thinker. She attended
Heideggers lectures and for a few years, during which Heidegger published his masterpiece,
Being and Time, they carried on an intermittent affair. Jaspers supervised her dissertation.
In April 1933 Heidegger became rector of Freiburg University; the following month he joined
the National Socialist Party and became an active and eager Nazi.

After the war both Jaspers and Arendt seemed to regard the unrepentant and self-pitying
Heidegger as beyond redemption, belittling his ideas, which ostensibly sought to renounce
the metaphysical as a new form of superstition and mysticism. But in the end it was only
Jaspers who held to the break with his old friend. Arendt decided she couldnt do without
Heideggers friendship; they maintained an on-off relationship from 1950 until her death in
1975. She found ways to praise his greatness and helped get his works translated into English;
he wrote her poems. She didnt talk to him about his Nazism. Why?

The word passion crops up a lot in Lillas essay. More than forty years after first seeing
Heidegger speak, Arendt wrote of that early encounter: We are so accustomed to the old
opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of a passionate thinking,
in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback. Trying to account for
Arendts behaviour, Lilla writes: She knew that Heidegger was politically dangerous but
seemed to believe that his dangerousness was fuelled by a passion that also inspired his
philosophical thought. Jasperss rejection of Heidegger, Lilla thinks, made him a better
friend than Arendt:

[Jaspers] felt betrayed by Heidegger as a human being, as a German, and as a


friend, but especially as a philosopher he saw a new tyrant enter his friends
soul, a wild passion that misled him into supporting the worst of political
dictators and then enticed him into intellectual sorcery Jaspers displayed more
care for his former friend than Hannah Arendt did, and deeper love for the
calling of philosophy.

All these concerning passions: Arendts personal passion for Heidegger, Arendts belief in the
desirability, the possibility, of passionate thinking, Heideggers yen for fascism as a
possessing wild passion. These are the fires that Lilla believes threaten the wise soul, though
they are also the fires whose heat quickens his own interest.

It wasnt always as easy as it is today to portray the impassioned as noble and the
dispassionate as ignoble. At various times the hero has been the philosopher who calmly
drank the hemlock, the saint who quietly went to excruciating martyrdom, the stoic, the one
with the stiff upper lip, the rational, the reflective, or, more recently, the resignedly,
knowingly, sceptically witty, the worlds Elizabeth Bennets. The word enthusiasm was
borrowed from the Greek in the 17th century as a term of abuse for those Christians who were

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seen as intoxicated by personal revelations of the divine who were, in other words, too
passionate. We have come far since then. Lilla gives a nice sense of what the modern
dispassionate would be up against in his commentary on the Russian emigr Alexandre
Kojve in The Reckless Mind. Kojve, who held court among the intellectuals of Paris before
the Second World War, was an apostle of Hegel who believed that either Stalin or the United
States it didnt matter which was in the end bound to establish a peaceful, prosperous
global order. Whatever the content of intellectual discourse, what was of vital importance to
Kojve and his initiates was that they were engaged in passionate thinking. Lilla quotes
Georges Bataille as saying that each encounter with Kojve left him broken, crushed, killed
ten times over: suffocated and nailed down. Bataille felt it necessary to validate an
intellectual experience by redescribing it in bodily terms to purify a synaptic encounter by
rendering it hormonal.

In an epilogue to The Reckless Mind Lilla writes about Platos failed attempts to check the
tyrannical impulses of the ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius, who had philosophical aspirations.
Plato warned that the souls of weak-minded intellectuals are prey to the lure of eros, a
passionate yearning for a truth they cannot reach which, accordingly, drives them mad. It is
reasonable to argue that passion is the label on the key that unlocks the door separating the
philosopher and the tyrant. It is true that passion is the last defence of the intellectual
charlatan. The trouble is, passion is also a word to describe the emotional medium through
which, in our modern, most un-Athenian democracy of one person, one vote, a political
movement ultimately rooted in ideas can refresh the thinking of the electorate.

The most thought-provoking essay in The Reckless Mind deals with the German legal scholar
and political theorist Carl Schmitt. Schmitt joined the Nazi Party at about the same time as
Heidegger, in May 1933, and became an enthusiastic pamphleteer, proselytising for the rights
of the German Volk to unite in racial purity under a National Socialist Fhrer. He caught the
eye of Hitlers future transition team in 1932 when he pleaded the last pre-Nazi German
governments case for emergency powers to rule Prussia. (He lost.) He went on to defend
Hitlers massacre of political opponents on the Night of the Long Knives, even though one of
those killed was a close friend of his. At a conference held in 1936 to discuss the ways non-
Jewish German lawyers might best make things hot for Jewish Germans, he suggested
clearing library shelves of books by Jewish authors. By warding off the Jews, he said,
quoting Hitler, I struggle for the work of the Lord.

Still, the Nazis didnt consider him tough enough, even when he came up with a legal basis for
Germanys territorial expansion. He fell from favour. After the war he was detained by the
Americans and the Soviets, responded to interrogation with arrogant self-justifications, was
released, and went home to Westphalia. He died there in 1985, aged 96, quite unrepentant;
his private notebooks, published a few years later, showed him a virulent Jew-hater even after
the war.

Schmitts Nazi past didnt stand in the way of his intellectual rehabilitation after the war, and
while he is, according to Lilla, little known in the US, he is considered in Europe (and, Lilla
wrote in an intriguing article a few years ago, by the Chinese intelligentsia en masse) one of
the great 20th-century political theorists. He writes well; more important, Lilla argues, after

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the war he was the last German standing who wrote cleverly about such things as sovereignty,
national peoples and war. The right-wing case for studying Schmitt is that he exposes as fake
the ideal of liberalism of a tolerant global continuum of individually diverse but equally
entitled human beings, their identity rights protected by laws based on universal values:

When they try to cultivate liberalism while neglecting the genuine foundations of
a political order, the results are disastrous, especially in foreign policy. Ever since
the two world wars, Western liberals have considered war unthinkable. In the
view of Schmitts conservative admirers, this only means that war has become
more thoughtless, not less frequent or less brutal.

Partly for the same reasons, Schmitt has also been useful to certain thinkers on the left
Derrida, Kojve, Alain Badiou, Jacob Taubes and, more recently, Slavoj iek. Schmitts
appeal at this end of the spectrum is his evocation of a force that smashes the liberal faade of
the dominant class, his endorsement of the virtue of antagonism when there is a ruling elite
to be overthrown.

In isolation, elements of Schmitts political philosophy can be made to sound reasonable,


even wise. His 1920s critique of war waged by liberal governments on humanitarian grounds
that it implicitly renders their opponents inhuman, and thus marked not for defeat, but
extermination found a resonance in the years around the turn of the millennium. But taken
as a whole, his ideas are ghastly, no less so for the directness and brilliance with which they
are expressed. Schmitt doesnt object to war, only war waged by liberals. War, per Schmitt, is
neither necessary nor inevitable, but states only have meaning in so far as they are
perpetually on the brink of fighting one. His very definition of politics is based on the idea of
enmity. Where aesthetics distinguishes beautiful from ugly, and morality between good and
bad, he writes in The Concept of the Political (1932), politics is the skill of distinguishing
friend from enemy. For Schmitt, Lilla writes, a collectivity is a political body only to the
degree that it has enemies. And for Schmitt, theres no middle ground. In his words, if a part
of the population declares that it no longer recognises enemies, then, depending on the
circumstance, it joins their side and aids them.

Because the Volk is defined by enmity, and is always on the edge of a war, a point is bound to
be reached in the life of a liberal democracy when its faith in peace, love and understanding is
shown to be misplaced, and it thereby loses its authority. A natural sovereign takes over: a
conceptual dictator, perhaps in the form not of a person but an event, unfettered by laws or
universal principles, a decider (hence Schmitts doctrine of decisionism). But the sovereign
isnt simply rescuing the Volk from the shilly-shallying of flabby liberals: it brings the Volk
out of a state of blasphemy, since a society defined in enmity is the natural order imposed by
God. The biblical injunction to love your neighbour, Schmitt says, certainly does not mean
that one should love and support the enemies of ones own people. And as Schmitt made
clear in 1938 in an attack on Thomas Hobbes, the particular enmity God had decreed for the
Volk was towards the Jews, the greatest beneficiaries of the liberal order, the providential
enemy.

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There is much that is Schmittian in the ascent of Trump. Distinguishing friend from enemy is
what the new president does. His favourite ideologues preach contempt for liberalism,
embrace the idea of a world filled with enemies of America, and want those enemies not
merely to respect American might, but to fear it. Yet what I kept thinking of, reading Lillas
essay on Schmitt, was Brexit: how a liberal democracy with a seemingly robust
representational and judicial system, which is used to balancing innumerable interest groups
and projects and regulations, suddenly found itself subjugated overnight, for a generation at
least, to the one-word answer to a 16-word question. A small majority of the British Folk
found its providential enemy in the European Union, and Brexit stands mutely sovereign over
all, enclosing Parliament rather than being enclosed by it.

Not only that: just as Schmitts apparent realism about a world divided into friends and
enemies gives way, on closer inspection, to an anti-Semitic, un-Christian divinity egging
humans on to war, the supposedly hard-headed, commonsense ideologues of Brexit turn out
to be pushing a pagan religion of British ancestor worship, a mythology of British
exceptionalism projected onto a future that is built on faith alone. A lot of people bought into
it, and that shouldnt be surprising: such metaphysical ideas as patriotism, self-identification
with the heroism of ancestors in wars you didnt fight in, the oneness of land and people, the
holiness of flags and symbols and colours, the special sanctity of certain tombs and
landmarks, the rites of pilgrimage to sites hallowed by the past presence of mythologised
characters in a national story, the sense of belonging in a landscape and the fear of defilement
by non-belongers are present in some measure in most voters. Calling it culture doesnt
quite capture the fact that even the least religious among us is likely to have neo-religious
feelings, and that even the most Christian or Islamic or Jewish is likely also to have a stake in
such pagan notions as patriotism.

In his essays about philosophers gone wrong Lilla is highly sensitive to the signs that a
thinkers lurch into politics might be caused by an excess of neo-religious enthusiasm, of
passion, of romantic yearning for the Beyond. Theres no reason here for him to stray from
his narrow focus on the intellectual heights of 20th-century Germany, France and the US to
consider the hundreds of millions of people who have, since the advent of universal suffrage,
been obliged, however briefly, to come up with a personal political philosophy, and act on it
in the polling booth. But when, as in The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla moves onto the
ground of practical politics, the voters philosophy, the voters beliefs and the voters passions
must be taken into account, not just their ability to receive rational ideas rationally. Instead
he prefers to scold the activists whose own romantic yearnings may be liberals only resource
for connecting with those they have alienated.

[*] Still, theres plenty of invoking going on. Hillary Clinton, in her Democratic nomination
acceptance speech in 2016, used we 88 times and our 95 times.

Vol. 39 No. 23 30 November 2017 James Meek Against Passion


pages 21-26 | 5595 words

ISSN 0260-9592 Copyright LRB Limited 2017 ^ Top

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