Schmitt, Weber, and the 2010 midterm election

It is a professor’s dream to have his or her narrative of history validated in real time. What could be better? Having my students read Max Weber’s “Religious Rejections of the World” and Carl Schmitt’s “Concept of the Political” and then to have the privilege of lecturing on these essays the day after power and mass media proved their innate superiority over the rule of law and rationality. I could not possibly have hoped for a better outcome than this last fall when I was setting up this semester.

There is only one problem with this narrative. The events and processes about which Weber and Schmitt were reporting are now, almost all of them, over a century (and some over a century and a half) old. The state’s command over life and death? Old School. The reduction of politics to power? Been there, done that. So, where does that leave us?

I think that it is terribly important that students in IAS 45 (and lurkers from PEIS 101) recognize the profound difference between ideal and reality; that we recognize that the rule of law, though a laudable ideal, is, and has for some time been, a fiction. This election appears very much like all others for the past century. To be sure, in 2008 we thought something else might be in the works. But we were wrong. Obama is, at best, a centrist Democrat who relied upon the likes of Summers, Geithner, and Emanuel to run his show. Which only proves my point. Same as it ever was.

But, here is the point. If you recognize this disconnect between ideal and reality, if you see how Schmitt’s and Weber’s interpretations stand closer to the truth than the ideal splashed across our TV screens, then this places several important choices before you as students (or lurkers). You could simply suck it up and accept a reality that you knew was always there, facing you down. So what? Democracy is for idiots, for the weak, for dreamers. We live in the real world. Get used to it. It is our job to use that rhetoric for the advantage of our clients.

Or, you could face this reality down and use it to better understand the historical and social reality that it will be your job to explore and understand more deeply. Don’t worry about the actual political or social or economic consequences of this reality. Use it to promote better scholarship, better understanding, a more accurate reading of the world around you.

Or, you could take these realities and ask yourself (in the very brief time you are given here) how you might reshape some corner of the earth to bring your ideal better into line with the reality laid before you; in which case, I am sorry to say, you are bound to fail. And, yet, it could be that this failure bears clearer and better evidence of what it means to be fully human than either the cynicism or the utilitarianism of the the first two paths.

Or, there is always the power of the state over life and death, and the power of politics over rational discourse.