Liberal Pacification and The Phenomenology of Violence


Ilan Zvi Baron, Jonathan Havercroft, Isaac Kamola, Jonneke Koomen, Justin Murphy, and Alex Prichard


Violence is on the increase. Contrary to liberal IR theorists, we argue the spread of liberal institutions does not decrease violence but increases and transforms it. In our article, Liberal Pacification and the Phenomenology of Violence, we propose a new theoretical framework that reveals the liberal peace is in fact liberal pacification. 


Many liberal scholars contend violence has decreased in recent decades. These arguments range from the vast IR literature on the liberal and democratic peace to Steven Pinker’s influential book, Better Angles of our Nature (see also Pinker’s Enlightenment Now). Yet these optimistic pronouncements appear at odds with the violent turmoil of our time, marked by refugee crises, ecological devastation, financial collapse, nuclear proliferation, drone warfare, widespread government repression, police violence, mass incarceration, a grotesque concentration of wealth on a planetary scale, the rise of the far right, and much more.


Why are liberal scholars’ conclusions so at odds with the growing sense that violence is endemic thought society? We argue this disjuncture stems from the ways that scholars conceptualize violence.


International relations scholars make many claims about violence. Yet we rarely define it. To address this silence, we offer a typology of three distinct kinds of violence: direct, indirect, and pacification. We argue that the field has only developed the tools to examine direct violence (when a person or agent inflicts harm on another) and indirect violence (manifested through the structures of society). We propose a third understanding of violence: pacification. Using a phenomenological methodology, and drawing on anarchist and post-colonial thought, we show that the violence of pacification is diffuse, inconspicuous, intersubjective, and structured into the fabric of society.


Both direct and indirect accounts of violence are limited, we argue. To understand why, consider the following thought experiment. A man enters a home with a gun, points the gun at the family, and begins to make requests of the family. The family, intimidated by the implied threat of the gun, complies. Is this interaction violent? Most people would probably agree that it is; the implied threat of force terrorizes the family. Understandings of direct and indirect violence focus on measured effects of violence. Any physical violence committed by the gunman would be understood direct violence. Any causal, lasting yet largely unseen effects (e.g. a heart attack induced later by the stress of attack) might be considered indirect violence.


Yet neither direct nor indirect conceptions of violence adequately capture the violence of this scene. The family being attacked might be a white South African family who live within a gated complex. The barbed wire crowning the compound walls, the bars on all the doors and windows, and the private security guard posted out front are everyday examples of how this family lives in constant fear of exactly such a gunman. The assailant might come from a family that suffered under apartheid’s racialized social order and might not have benefited from the society’s democratization and liberalization. If the gunman scales these walls and inflicts wounds — physical or otherwise — then one would clearly say that violence occurred. But what if the barbed wire, barred windows, and private security guard successfully kept the gunman at bay? While the family goes about its daily routine, is the world any less violent? The presence of walls and barbed wire might mean that instances of observable violence decrease, but the society remains — in its very lived, material and psychic forms — structured by violence. Acts of violence do not only inflict physical and psychological harm, they also restructure the social and political world. Violence constitutes the worldhood.


Let’s take a different example. Rapid and historically unprecedented increases in economic inequality since 1970 have coincided with the pacification of militant political opposition to such inequality. The dynamics of rioting, guerrilla warfare and assassinations throughout the first half of the twentieth century exposed increasing discontent with perceived systemic injustice, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. These forms of violent political resistance have been suppressed in liberal society over the past fifty years. A restructuring of social relations has led to a displacement and co-optation of violent protests against the perceived injustices of the world order. The overall discontent has not gone away, but opportunities to challenge oppression through “any means necessary” are increasingly foreclosed upon.


We offer a third conception of violence to make sense of this. The hallmark of this third type of violence—pacification—is that the structures of domination ensure that resistance in the form of direct violence against this order is less frequent. Intersubjective relationships in global politics are restructured by implicit and explicit threats, global surveillance, imbalances in military power, displays of military might, occupations, blockades, nuclear deterrence, terrorism and counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, sanctions, trade disputes, and embargoes, to name a few examples. When IR scholars focus solely on discrete acts of physical harm and quantifiable events, such as body counts, they do not capture the restructuring consequences of these acts.


The liberal restructuring of social and political worlds may lead to fewer acts of direct violence if the restructuring deters agents from engaging in direct violence. Liberal restructuring might also lead to less quantifiable physical harm, direct or indirect. However, the absence of visible forms of (direct and indirect) violence may actually be an effect of an intensification of a third form of violence, namely pacification.


We show that most IR scholars only account for direct and indirect violence and equate the decline in that kind of violence with peace. We demonstrate that the spread of liberal institutions does not necessarily decrease violence but transforms it. Our phenomenological analysis captures empirical trends in human domination and suffering that liberal peace theories cannot account for. We reveal how a decline in direct violence may actually coincide with the transformation of violence in ways that are concealed, monopolized and structured into the liberal order. The paper therefore calls for new methods of data collection and analysis that make it possible to better understand the process of pacification.


How can Nietzsche help us understand the rise of right wing populism in the U.S.?


Scholars have been fascinated by the Tea Party since it first emerged on the American political scene in the spring of 2009. While some have dismissed it as simply a repackaging of conventional American conservative populism, many have been struck by how effective it has been in remobilizing the Republican Party base in the wake of the Democratic electoral landslide of 2008. Most of the scholarship has focused upon the demographic make-up of its members, how it combines elements of elite and grassroots political mobilization in new and innovative ways, how it is a racialized response to the election of the first African American President and how it might connect with more militarized elements of the American far right. Less attention has been paid to the question of whether or not a specific ideology might be driving support for the Tea Party. When ideology is explicitly addressed, authors tend to note a peculiar contradiction in core beliefs of Tea Party supporters: the Tea Party seems to embody an odd fusion of libertarianism and social conservatism. While we agree with previous scholars who observe that the Tea Party does not have one unifying ideology, we believe that political scientists have so far underestimated or incompletely specified the unique ideological drivers of Tea Party support.

            In a recently published article in Social Sciences Quarterly with Justin Murphy, we argue that a crucial ideological factor explaining support for the Tea Party is what Friedrich Nietzsche called "misarchism" in reference to the political philosophy of Herbert Spencer. (for a more detailed analysis of this ideology see this unpublished manuscript by Havercroft). As we explain in detail below, distinct from both libertarianism and social conservatism, misarchism refers to an aversion to government combined with support for the state and traditional morality. Consistent with the expectation of a misarchist dimension in American attitudes, factor analysis on nine variables from the 2012 American National Election Time-Series Study (ANES) reveals that attitudes toward state power are positively intercorrelated with attitudes toward traditional morality. Though neither are strongly intercorrelated with attitudes toward government, the factor underlying support for the state and traditional morality (which we call "moral statism") is strongly and negatively correlated with the factor underlying support for government. These results are consistent with the Nietzschean diagnosis of misarchism as an ideological structure which combines support for the state and moral traditionalism on a dimension which is distinct from, and opposed to, attitudes toward government. Our findings have important implications for our understanding of right-wing ideology in the United States and they help to resolve the puzzle of the Tea Party's still poorly understood and contradictory ideological components.

            While we completed this analysis prior to the election of Donald Trump, we believe that our research points to an important ideological driver of far right populist movements in the U.S. Paul Walsh, however, has drawn out the connections between our analysis and the rise of Donald Trump. This piece is also an interesting exercise in mixed-methods as it combined ideological analysis by a political theorist with quantitative analysis by an empirical political scientist.


We tried to write an academic article in a day. You won’t believe what happened next.


In June 2106 I co-organized a workshop at the University of Southampton with Justin Murphy. Our objective was highly unconventional: we invited the participants to try to write an academic paper together in a single day. The product of that workshop has now been accepted for publication at International Studies Quarterly. You can access a pre-print version of that paper here. What follows are my reflections on the process of writing that paper, from the initial inspiration for the workshop through the final acceptance in a peer-reviewed journal

About five years ago Isaac and I were commiserating over beers at a conference about the inherently alienating experience of being academics. I was just coming to the end of the rather exhausting and demoralizing tenure track process at the University of Oklahoma, and Isaac Kamola had just landed a tenure track job after what was a long hard job search in the post-financial crash academic hellscape of a job market. We weren’t quite veterans of the academic conference circuit, but we weren’t exactly rookies either. And we were both struck by a similar observation – the typical conference experience involved spending the weeks before a conference frantically assembling a paper to circulate to a panel and discussants who were too busy with their own projects to pay much notice. Then you had to spend the days prior to your panel stressing about a presentation, only to give it to a room of a handful of disinterested colleagues. Maybe (if you were lucky) you would get a question or two in the 10 – 15 minutes left in the session that sort of kind of touched upon what you said in the paper, but was really about what the question asker was interested in – before everyone dashed off to the next event on the conference schedule. Then you were stuck with the puzzle of what to do with this paper you had bashed out under such tight time constraints – I guess send it off to a journal and hope that reviewer two was feeling kind that day? And then repeat. It was alienating in the way that Marx spoke about alienation – the papers we produced both felt deeply personal, yet stopped being our property. They ended up as things to submit to journals, hopefully get published somewhere, so we could put them on our CVs, maybe if our institutions were feeling generous they would pay the Open Access fees, otherwise they would be pay walled, owned by some multinational publishing conglomerate who would send threatening letters to us if we posted a version too close to the published version on or some other academic repository service. If we did this enough times, and our department was nice, we might get tenure. Which is certainly better than what the factory workers that Marx was thinking about when he coined the term alienation got, and better than most people in precarious employment get today, but really is a strange way to go about writing things. It is also alienating (and Marx foresaw this too in his concept of alienation) because the conference experience, the job market, tenure, and peer review are all competitive experiences. Certainly debate and critique are important avenues for testing and confirming ideas, but somewhere along the way these processes have become institutionalized, to the point where questioning in conferences often aim at destroying the scholar, not just the scholar’s idea, and gate keeping is not so much about maintaining quality as it is about making sure the right people, with the right connections, and the right views get and maintain access to the increasingly scarce resources like tenure track jobs and publications in high quality journals. This institutionalized adversarialism turns scholars against each other in subtle and not so subtle ways, making the production of knowledge isolating (especially if you work in a field such as theory where the norm is solo-authored work), often feeling like nobody cares about a paper you’ve poured your soul into for months, perhaps years, on end.

            Out of that shared sense of alienation came an idea: what if we flipped the whole conference on its head? At the time the idea of flipped classrooms were all the rage – the idea was to post lectures online and then have the students do the homework in class time while the teacher came around and offered support. What if rather than coming to a conference with a pre-written paper to share, people came with nothing but themselves, met some fellow scholars, and together they tried to write a paper from scratch? What if (and at this point we were many beers into our conversation) we got a group of people together and we agreed to write a paper in a day?

            Time passed, I moved to England. I went to a BISA in 2015 with Alex Prichard and we had a very similar conversation about how alienating conferences are. It triggered my memory of the conversation with Isaac, and I told Alex about our idea. He was enthusiastic about the idea – I believe his exact words were “That’s fucking brilliant! You should do it!” So I emailed Isaac the next day (I still have the email). And we agreed we should give it a go. Our first attempt was to pitch the idea to the International Studies Association as a workshop associated with the ISA annual convention. Isaac and I spent a good month on the proposal, and it was promptly rejected. Undeterred I went to our director of research, told him my idea, and he said he would offer us some funding for the project if we ran it at Southampton.  Now with some money to spend we set out trying to organize a one-day workshop. At this juncture a surprising obstacle appeared – we had a very hard time recruiting people to work on this project. We received many polite declines to our invitation for the workshop – perhaps everyone was busy that day in June. But my strong suspicion is that our initial proposal came across as bonkers – “Would you like to come to Southampton and try to write a paper in a day with us?” In the end we managed to get seven people to commit to coming to the workshop. The invitation was deliberately open ended – we did not want to specify in advance what the paper would be about. Instead we wanted each scholar to write a short 500-word statement about what they were interested in at the moment. We also asked them to share any bibliographies they may have for a shared Zotero folder and encouraged each person to bring an artifact.  That was it. We wanted everyone to bring what they had, and then we hoped a conversation would ensue that would lead to the production of a paper. At the last minute two of our participants pulled out for personal reasons. So in the end it was just Isaac, myself, Justin Murphy, Alex Prichard, and Ilan Baron. Alex from the get go saw this as anarchism in practice – and there is some truth to that. Ilan was “baffled but intrigued”, Justin was sold on the “a paper in a day” premise. I just wanted to see if it would work.

            The structure of the workshop was pretty simple: each person presented their statement, we listened without critique the first round, and then we had a brainstorming session to try to narrow down to a common topic. We zeroed in on a shared suspicion about the liberal peace hypothesis, and we had Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature as our foil. Interestingly we all had a sense that Pinker was wrong, but none of us could fully articulate why we thought he was wrong.  We agreed to free write a critique of Pinker – we took about 45 minutes to do that. Then we shared our ideas with the group, and then agreed upon a rough outline and argument. We divided the paper up into 5 sections and each of us agreed to write one of the sections. By 4pm we met to assemble our drafts and we had a 6200 word document that largely followed the outline that we had agreed upon at lunchtime. To be honest it was not terribly good and it definitely read as if five different people had written something and slapped it together, but it wasn’t terribly bad either, and it did say something that was new to us. We went off to dinner and agreed that as a next step each of us would take the paper for an additional day over the summer, rewrite it, and try to shape it into a workable draft. Over the course of the summer we managed to do this. We would circulate the paper around from writer to writer, revising the document, until we had something that we felt was ready to share. Over the next month each collaborator took their turn with the paper and by late July we had a 12,000 word draft that we were ready to share. At this point we debated what to do, and agreed that we should recruit a reader for feedback. Jonneke Koomen had offered to read a draft and give us comments. So we decided to take her up on the offer and offer co-authorship in exchange for her participation. Going back through the emails, there was a bit of debate about this point (co-authorship). Although when she came back with those comments everyone was eager to add her to the group.

In the initial drafting phase there were really three intense periods: the day of the workshop itself, the month after the workshop, and then the period after Jonneke’s comments when we revised the paper for submission. In my spare time I coach junior curling (the boys team I coach is four time England Under 21 national champions). I’ve taken several coaching courses over the year and one core concept in coaching is “team dynamics”. In short the coach’s job is to get the team to function well as a unit. It is a delicate balancing act where each person’s contributions have to be recognized, but you also have to make sure that each person is doing his or her role, not everyone can do everything, but everyone has to do something, and each something has to be unique, and help build to the overall goal.  As this project progressed, I was struck by how we became more and more like a team. One of the best definitions of a team I’ve learned over the years is “A group of individuals coming together to achieve a common goal”. What began as an experiment in changing the conference experience morphed into a goal of getting a published article. Another key concept I’ve picked up from coaching is the idea of a team dynamics performance wheel. Basically a team needs to go through four stages in order to function as a team. The four stages are forming (the process of getting together, and getting to know one’s team mates), storming (the process of fighting both about what the team is trying to accomplish, but also what the acceptable behaviours are), norming (whereby the team establishes explicit norms about what are acceptable behaviours), and performing (the team follows its self-imposed norms and in so doing achieves its goals). A lot of sports films follow this formula. I also see an implicit democratic theory in the performance wheel, and an implicit constructivism. Perhaps I should have spared myself the seven years of graduate school and done a three-day coaching course instead.

I digress into sports coaching to note that over time we started to follow this performance wheel. To my mind there were two critical junctures for the group. The first, and to my mind most important, was the commitment in the month after the workshop to complete a round of revisions that turned a rough draft into a paper we could share with a colleague. From there we were within spitting distance of a draft article. Oddly though as we got closer to publication the work seemed to increase, not decrease. Towards the end of the process Justin quipped to me “How to write a paper in a day, and then spend two years re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing”. And this points to the second critical juncture. As we got the readers and editors reports back we often had very different interpretations of what to do. Oddly our worst dustups happened after the two conditional acceptances. If I look at the disagreements they really focused on two issues – one was workflow and the other was voice. Workflow consisted of who was going to do what next. Early on we had a discussion about this, and settled on a circulation queue as our basic norm. We would generate either by Skype or email a list of things that needed to be done to the document, and then would circulate the document from person to person, then review and progress the document to the next stage. That got us all the way to a submission to ISQ without many problems. It was after we received the R and R from ISQ that things became more difficult. First there were vast differences in how we interpreted the decision letter. This prompted a meeting at ISA and then a long Skype call to agree on revisions. We eventually broke this deadlock by creating a spreadsheet that listed each revision request in the decision letter and then assigning it to a specific author. Rather than trying to rewrite the whole thing together we divvyed it up into specific tasks to revise individually and once the whole draft was completed we gave it to Ilan and Jonneke who read through the text line by line.

            We submitted the revised version in August 2017 and received a conditional acceptance in November 2017 (almost a year from the initial submission). Oddly this is where I think things started to break down from a teamwork standpoint. Normally a conditional acceptance is the end of the process. It is normally a matter of some light revising per editor guidelines and then on to the proof stage. I think two things happened at this stage. First our conditional acceptance was almost entirely about the voice of the manuscript. Because we had six different authors, it was very clunky in terms of writing style. It often shifted tone and style, and we also had significant differences in writing cultures. The US in particular favours an active voice, strong sign posting writing style, whereas the British style can be a bit more literary. The reviewers and editor also flagged us for being too much of a literature review. Part of this is writing style. I suspect part of this is also because we had six different authors bringing their respective literatures to the article that it led to more summaries of arguments than average. We oddly spent more time rewriting for style than we did on the first two drafts for substance. We also almost missed the submission deadline as we struggled to revise the paper. There were whole new arguments introduced into the conditional acceptance draft and the entire text was reworked one more time. We thought at this point we were done, but only two weeks late we received a second conditional acceptance, which I had personally never experienced before.  At this point I got very frustrated – I think we all did. The requests from the editors were very clear, but there was disagreement amongst us about how to implement them. In the end we opted for a dictator – i.e. one person should have final say about how the manuscript would be shaped. It is interesting that a project that began as a collaborative experiment in knowledge production ended in dictatorship (although the democratic theorist in me would point out that for the Romans the dictator was an office established during a time of crisis to protect the republic from threat either internal or external). I was appointed the dictator by the group and in the end Ilan and I got into a workflow where we would call each other on Skype and work during the day. By our count it actually took us 50 hours of writing to revise the manuscript. We then handed it to Jonneke to line edit, and asked the others for comments. This time the manuscript was accepted without condition.

            In the end this approach succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I never would have imagined generating an article in one of the top journals in the discipline out of a one-day workshop. In some ways it did save time at the beginning. I would say from the workshop through the initial submission I worked less on the article that I have on any other. So the division of labour was very effective at this stage. Even the R and R seemed to go fairly smoothly. It was only as we neared final acceptance that the workload seemed to ramp up, and I think this is the product of two things. First I think detail work is best left in the hands of one person. If I were to do it over again, I think I would have gone to the dictator model earlier. I would recommend that the group just appoint one person to write through the whole manuscript in a single voice and style, and then to have a second member proof read closely. I think the multiple inputs at this stage really led to diminishing returns. Part of this may also have been the result of the editorial team at ISQ are sticklers for good writing, which is not the case at every academic journal. In the end I think the results are really good. It is the best written manuscript I’ve ever published, and that goes down to the collaborative effort. If you have six scholars all going over the same script, it ends up being very clean in the end. But part of writing style also goes down to authorial voice, and each writer is going to have a different voice.

            A few more technical things we learned along the way. Version control became a very serious issue early on as we began circulating drafts. Eventually we settled on a system of a shared Dropbox folder with each author saving a new version with the date of revision in the title. We also established a clear circulation order and timeline. I think that helped everyone stay on point. There was a bit of shared monitoring in the sense that if author 1 had completed his or her tasks and turned it over to author 2, author 2 felt responsibility to build on author 1’s work and the pressure of needing to get revisions to author 3 by an agreed date. The other big issue was workflow and citations. People have very different ways of writing, and working with six different styles was challenging at times. I tend to free write very poor first drafts and then clean up as I go. Others like to outline and elaborate on an outline. A bit of discussion at the outset about writing process and how we would proceed might have helped. We ended up settling on modifying word documents because that was the one software system with which everyone was familiar, but some effort at the front end to learn about a collaborative writing system may have saved time long term. Second people had very different systems for citations. Some of us use Zotero, others just write citations in manually. In this project we ended up with over 180 citations, which would be unwieldy and a lot of work if we were entering manually. But again I think some time spent on learning a shared reference manager system would have saved time at the end.

            These reflections are largely about process. That is what I did not anticipate about this project: that the problems would not be in writing a paper, but in managing the writing styles of six busy academics. The writing itself was actually very easy. I still have the original draft article from the workshop and all the main ideas are in it, just not clearly expressed or very polished. But the ability to get six people together to come up with an idea worked very easily. I can’t imagine ever having written this paper myself. There are certainly parts of it that contain ideas I’ve been thinking about, but there are other sections about authors I’ve never read or that do technical work that I’m incapable of doing. It is a weird experience to read an article and see it as mine yet not quite mine. Several times – after the article had done a full round or circulating with my peers –I’d open up the file and say to myself “Damn, who wrote this? This is amazing!” There is no doubt in my mind that the outcome, by collaborating with five other very smart colleagues, was far greater than anything I could ever have achieved myself.


Comments on Andrew Norris’s Becoming Who We Are: Politics and Practical Philosophy in the Work of Stanley Cavell


The following text was originally delivered at the 2018 meeting of the Western Political Science Association.

Norris’s Becoming Who We Are begins with the observation that Cavell’s contributions to political philosophy have not received as much attention as they should have (2). While acknowledging three works that draw significantly on Cavell – Pitkin’s Wittgenstein and Justice, Strong’s Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration and Dumm’s A Politics of the Ordinary – the impetus for Norris’s text is to draw our attention to the political aspects of Cavell’s work. Norris’s observation confirms my own anecdotal experience. When I tell fellow political theorists that I work on Cavell, I’ve been met with three different kinds of response. They too have read him and made use of his ideas in their work. They have read him and either “don’t get him” or see no use for him in political theory. Or they have not heard of him at all. From personal experience, the third group is by far the largest. The first group is the smallest (I note that two of the three authors Norris cites as drawing upon Cavell are on this panel today). It is the middle group though, that is the most interesting.

            One theme that runs throughout Norris’ book is the trope of philosophical conversion – beginning with a discussion of Cavell’s own conversion to Ordinary Language Philosophy with his encounter with Austin (p.19), through Cavell’s conversion to a life of “meaning every word he says” (p. 42), to the idea that a claim to community is an attempt at converting one’s fellow citizens (p.138), to the exemplar in Emmersonian perfectionism shaming me into attain my unattained yet attainable self (p.212 -4). One could say that the “not getting Cavell” report is of one who has not yet, and perhaps never will, be converted to the Cavellian enterprise and the practice, more generally, of ordinary language philosophy. This immediately raises the question of why some seem to be converted to Cavell and others not. (As an aside: the language of conversion that Norris deploys is of a philosophical conversion not a religious one – although the language has obvious resonances with religion.) Norris invokes Socrates’ idea of philosophy as a kind of turning around (p.38 -40). Cavell describes it as “a mood” that “all of the sudden you feel”. Wittgenstein describes this feeling as “aspect dawning” and speculates that those who do not feel it are “aspect blind” (PI, part 2, sec. 11) -- in a manner akin to being colour blind. In the case of Cavell, the conversion, or turning around might involve two steps. The first is to take on Cavell’s (and by extension ordinary language philosophy’s) vision of language, best experienced by grasping the significance of his question “Must We Mean What We Say?” and then one must see how this projects into our (by which I mean political theorist’s) conversations about freedom, authority, autonomy, the social contract, responsibility, recognition, America, and judgment (to name just a few political themes in Cavell’s work).

            The great achievement of Norris’ book is that he guides the reader through both steps in the conversion. The first two chapters are a careful elucidation of Cavell’s interpretations of skepticism and ordinary language philosophy. While neither of these aspects of Cavell’s work is obviously political, both have implications for Cavell’s understanding of human subjectivity and politics. Without first grasping how Cavell responds to the challenge of skepticism and to the uncanniness of the ordinary one cannot grasp how Cavell develops the political implications of ordinary language philosophy. One cannot understand what he means when he says that when we search for our criteria we are making “claims to community”. These two chapters masterfully unpack some of Cavell’s most philosophically difficult work, situating him in the intellectual context of Ordinary Language Philosophy and explaining the relevance of these ideas for political theory. The subsequent chapters explore what is entailed in making a claim about who we are as a political community, and then exploring Cavell’s development of Emersonian perfectionism as his most significant contribution to political thought. I found that I learned much this book, and my hope is that it will convert others to the political philosophy of Cavell. Since Norris is already preaching to the choir when I read his text, I do not have criticism so much as calls for elaboration. I will focus on two issues that emerge in chapter three.

            The two questions that I wish to raise about this book concern the question of what kind(s) of freedom operate in Cavell’s political philosophy, and what kind of democratic theorist Cavell may be. The first question arises in response to Norris’s discussion of liberty. Norris argues (rightly) that according to Cavell, “American political culture is . . . characterized by a false understanding of its own values” including the value of freedom (100). The value of freedom that has become hegemonic in the U.S. since the 1950s (following from Hayek, Friedman, and Berlin) is the idea of negative freedom, freedom as doing what one likes. Norris argues that part of Cavell’s impetus for drawing upon Rousseau is is to draw out the relevance of freedom as autonomy as an alternative, truer value for American political culture. On this reading of the social contract, “The recognition of consent is thus the recognition of one’s political identity, of one’s attempt to live in concert with others – to achieve one’s autonomy alongside and with them” (98). This understanding of freedom is clearly at play in Cavell’s re-reading of the social contract, in his work on moral perfectionism, and in his turn to the transcendentalists for a vision of what American political culture might be. Furthermore, Norris is absolutely right that the reading of Rousseau as a proto-totalitarian by classical liberals such as Talmond and Berlin is a grave misrepresentation of what freedom as autonomy means. Yet Hannah Arendt raises a similar critique of Rousseau’s concept of freedom – namely that Rousseau’s emphasis on the will as the site of freedom is anti-political. In her critique she points out that in Rousseau’s ideal state, the general will is generated without communication. In Book II Ch.3 of The Social Contract Rousseau writes that “[i]f when a sufficiently informed populace deliberates, the citizens were to have no communication . . . the deliberation would always be good” (Rousseau, 156 emphasis added). Furthermore Rousseau thinks that “for the general will to be well articulated, it is therefore important that . . . each citizen make up his own mind” (Rousseau, 156). Arendt’s point is two-fold. First Rousseau’s conception of freedom abstracts politics from the “elaborate framework of ties and bonds for the future”, and in so doing makes the will the only faculty that is relevant for politics (Arendt, p.164). Democracy slips very quickly into decisionism. Second, by preventing communication between citizens, political action becomes impossible. There is something very un-Cavellian about a form of freedom that sees communication within its community as corrupting the body politic.

            So my first question is: how can we reconcile this aspect of Rousseau’s concept of the general will (that it is generated through private deliberation, and public communication is too be discouraged) with Cavell’s emphasis that working out who I am and who we are requires a constant process of “responsive engagement with others as we attune ourselves to one another and the world around us” (Laden, p.9) – a process that can only happen through conversation? Norris very briefly acknowledges this tension between Rousseau and Cavell (p. 113), but if Arendt’s reading of Rousseau is correct, then Cavell’s conception of freedom must exceed Rousseau’s. There must be some kind of freedom as action in Cavell’s version of the social contract in addition to freedom as autonomy. So I would like to hear more from Norris about how he thinks Cavell’s emphasis on conversation modifies Rousseau’s concept of freedom as autonomy.

            The second question concerns the role of disagreement in Cavell’s account of politics. Norris mentions that one critique he encounters is “that Cavell’s vision of politics is one in which there’s almost no room for extended disputation or enduring conflict between differing views” (p.120). I can report that when I’ve presented Cavell’s work I have on occasion had similar responses: “How is Cavell different from Habermas?”, “Isn’t Cavell just a liberal?”, “How is Cavell different from Rawls?” These types of questions often leave me puzzled, because I’ve never seen Cavell as a “consensus theorist”. Disagreement has been central to Cavell’s work since the beginning. I note, for example that the opening to “Must We Mean What We Say?” describes the dispute between analytic and ordinary language philosophy as “like friends who have quarreled, to be able to neither tolerate nor ignore one another” (MWMWWS, 2). It strikes me that this description of disagreement captures how Cavell is neither a deliberative democrat seeking consensus as the telos of political argumentation, nor an agonistic theorist that seems argumentation as fostering “relations of adversarial respect” (Connolly 2002, x). The crucial difference is that these two branches of democratic theory do not differentiate between different kinds of agreement, whereas Cavell, following Wittgenstein (PI 241) distinguishes between agreement in opinions and agreement in “forms of life”. In one of the more famous passages from Cavell’s work, he writes that “[h]uman speech and activity, sanity and community, rest on nothing more, but nothing less” than “all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’”. He describes this vision as “terrifying” because disagreements in forms of life are possible (although unusual – perhaps out of the ordinary). Assuming that my reading of this passage is correct (Cavell never uses the phrase disagreement in forms of life to my knowledge), then political disputes could be of two kinds – disagreement over opinions and disagreements over forms of life. The former are the realm of mere policy disputes, but the latter are about “becoming who we are” and determining whether “we” can continue to function together as a community – the kinds of disputes that bring to the foreground the social contract, or call into question Nora’s marriage to Thorvald. The rebuttal to those who think Cavell leaves no room for extended disputation or enduring conflict is that in grounding his philosophy and his politics in forms of life, he leaves politics permanently open to disagreements over forms of life.  Yet this raises a question about where such a politics is headed. Is the purpose of becoming who we are to reach a state where there are no more disagreements in our forms of life? I can think of some of the disagreements that Norris cites (e.g. Kid Rock’s defense of displaying the confederate flag, Rick Santorum’s decision to bring his still born child home to be shown to his young children (p.135), or the attitudes of the slave holder) as forms of life that should go away. But other forms of life – e.g. those of indigenous communities, linguistic minorities such as the Quebecois, LGBTQ communities – must remain in some form of disagreement with hegemonic forms of life if these communities are to survive and flourish. I think it is that tension between forms of life we find deplorable and forms of life that we find laudatory that leads to the misreading of Cavell as leaving no room for dispute or conflict. Yet, how do we remain open to laudatory disagreements in forms of life while putting behind us the deplorable ones?


Comments on Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World


The following text was originally delivered at the 2018 meeting of the Western Political Science Association.

At the outset I want to thank Char for inviting me to participate in this round table. I have to confess that I was intrigued by the possibility of reading and commenting on a book about the history of the devil in Christian theology and how it might relate to political theory. Char insisted that this book has much to teach political theorists, and after reading it I agree with him. Kotsko describes his book as a work of political theology that follows in the tradition of Schmitt and Agamben to examine how secular political concepts originate, often in surprising ways, in theological concepts. The point of such an enquiry is twofold – first to explore how both politics and theology attempt to offer a “total account of their respective fields” so as not to reduce a theory to the idiosyncrasies of a single author (12). The second is to explore the general state of conscious of an epoch to uncover how concepts are sites of power struggles within a given era, and how our present understandings of these concepts are often shaped in hidden ways by these forgotten power struggles.

            In the case of Kotsko’s analysis, the figure of the devil is one site where theologians have tried to square the problem of evil (i.e. that God is all good; that God is all powerful; and that evil exists in the world). Yet how the Judeo-Christian tradition understands the devil shifts from era to era depending upon power struggles both within the church, and by the church against its political rivals. In this exploration of the devil, Kotsko engages with numerous political themes including: freedom, conquest, liberation, revolution, slavery, punishment, sovereignty, legitimacy, and the recognition of minority religious groups. Kotsko also weaves together close reading of the Bible and theological texts with close readings of such diverse political theorists as Agamben, Derrida, Engels, The Federalists, Foucault, Hobbes, Kant, Mills, Nietzsche, Rawls, and many more. To see familiar figures from political theory read alongside Christian theology was truly thought provoking at every turn, and I can’t possibly do justice to such a rich text in such a short period of time.

            So rather than trying to grapple with Kotsko’s theory as a whole, I want to zero in on one provocative idea that he presents us with – what he calls the Satanic Social Contract. This is an idea he first raises in his discussion of the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century theologian who argued for universal salvation of all humans. According to Kotsko, “Nyssa’s account of how Christ saves us from the devil . . . anticipates social contract theory”. In Nyssa’s account Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden find themselves in a position akin to the state of nature. Their free consent binds “themselves and their descendants to obey their sovereign [the devil] in perpetuity” (81). Kotsko pushes the analogy between the social contract further when he observes the “the possibility of submitting to the devil is inherent to human freedom, just as for the social contract theorists the establishment of a concrete political order is at once a contingent historical achievement and a natural outgrowth of human needs and capacities” (81). The significant dis-analogy between the Satanic Contract and the Social one is that, at least in Hobbes, death – or at least the fear of a violent death -- is what drives subjects to submit to Leviathan, whereas in Gregory’s account death results from the contract with Satan and is not feared but seen as “therapeutic in intent” as it is necessary to destroy the body to purify the soul. In Gregory’s reading Christ does not only solve the problem of human sinfulness, but by acting as a ransom payment from God to the devil, Christ liberates humans from the bondage of their contract with the devil.

            Kotsko draws on the social contract tradition in two other passages in his text. The first considers the idea of the social contract in early monastic thought. Kotsko argues that early monastic communities represent a kind of social contract. When Constantine moved the Roman Empire towards the official recognition of Christianity this led to a political problematic for Christians. During the Apocalyptic era Roman authority had often been taken as symbolic of the devil. With Rome now becoming Christian, and Christianity shifting from a position as a persecuted minority religion to a hegemonic religion within empire asceticism became a substitute for martyrdom. These early ascetic communities were constituted by voluntary social bonds, freely entered into by members who renounced the sensual world as a means of eliminating “oppression and injustice” (86). Drawing upon Agamben’s reading of early monasticism, Kotsko argues that these orders were not merely alternative forms of the social contract, but alternatives to the social contract. Implicit in both Kotsko and Agamben’s readings is that monasticism represented a form of anarchism, whereas the social contract tradition, as it establishes state authority is “effectively an instrument of subordination and restraint” (87).

            Kotsko’s third reading of social contract occurs in his analysis of Augustine, Anslem’s, and Aquinas’s explanation of the fall of the devil and the founding of the earthly city. Kotsko observes, “free will is the decisive factor in explaining the devil’s responsibility for his own state” (131). The association between freedom as individual choice and the founding of the earthly city is explicit in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Anslem. As Kotsko notes, both the fall and the founding require a distinction between two stages of history: a now inaccessible original position (the state of nature and the Garden of Eden) and a politically qualified states that may or may not be escapable. Both involve a surrender of freedom to enter the commonwealth. And both treat their citizens as if they have consented to the laws of the commonwealth as a way of making them morally accountable for their submission. In drawing the analogy between this medieval reading of the fall of the devil and the founding of the earthly city, Kotsko notes that in both instances (medieval theology and post-Rousseau social contract theory), there is a move from a historical context to a greater degree of abstraction. The function of the abstraction is partly to justify how people find themselves in their present social roles. Kotsko writes, “Like the good angel [of medieval theology], the Rawlsian subject is granted freedom only on condition of a prior submission (to the terms of a thought experiment)” (133). Both the angels of the medieval account and the reasoning subjects of Rawls’ account appear to have consented to their social roles beforehand, and part of the function of the social contract and its implicit view of freedom is to make the citizen responsible for an order to which he has no recollection of consenting. Kotsko concludes his reading of the social contract in conjunction with demonology by asking a most provocative question: “If Rawls is the angel, then who are the demons” (137)? And he replies by citing Pateman and Mills to argue that those whom the liberal democratic order will not recognize as rational (be it on gendered or racialized grounds) function as the excluded demons of the social contract.

            This reading of the social contract through the political-theology of the devil has much to offer political theorists, but I will highlight three key insights. First, Kotsko shows us (political theorists) how submission to the social contract rests on human free will. This understanding of free will in Christian theology asks the question: how can a person/or angel be held responsible for their actions, and how can they be blamed for their moral failings and their sin? Second, the recovery of the social contracts of early monasticism points to a possible non-compulsory political community as an alternative to the state form with its emphasis on compulsory subordination and restraint. Third, the linking of Rawls to demonology draws our attention to how the social contract constructs itself through excluding or marginalizing groups.

            To this I would add two points from political philosophy that I think could press Kotsko’s analysis in further and perhaps more provocative ways. I offer these comments not in the spirit of saying the Kotsko got the political theory wrong, but as suggestions for other ways of reading these traditions in the hope that it will provoke further conversation between political theory and theology. The first concerns the claim that the concept of free will is used to assign blameworthiness to an actor. Kotsko’s point echoes one made by J. L. Austin in his essay “A Plea for Excuses.”

            Austin’s point is that much of moral philosophy ignores the important role that excuses and other modifiers play in our everyday moral arguments. Austin describes speech act such as pleas, defences, justifications and excuses as “extenuations” (Austin 1979, 175). In his elaboration on Austin’s approach to moral philosophy, Cavell adopts the term “elaboratives” (Cavell 1999, 296). Both Austin and Cavell in introducing these terms are critiquing the tendency of many analytic moral philosophers to reduce morality to a set of propositions that are then scrutinized for their logical validity. This approach is not so much wrong, as a fundamental misunderstanding of how people moralize in their day-to-day experiences. One thing that is lost when philosophers move from the exploration of ordinary speech acts to abstract propositions is the subtle yet significant ways in which modifications of various moral claims are used in our moral arguments.

            Austin believes that by focusing on excuses, the philosopher can come to see how philosophy has misunderstood the nature of freedom. Normally, in ethics, freedom implies that the actor possesses some kind of capacity to choose how to act. Because of this ability to choose ‘freely’ the actor can be held responsible for the action. Much of philosophy focuses on freedom as a positive property that an agent possesses. For example, philosophical accounts of freedom focus on the capacity to do something (i.e. positive freedom) – or on the absence of external constraints upon acting (i.e. negative freedom) (Berlin 1969). However, Austin believes that by focusing on excuses, we quickly see that freedom is not only “used to rule out the suggestion of some or all of its antitheses”, nor is it simply “a characteristic of actions” (1979, 180). Instead, what is crucially overlooked about freedom is that it is “the name of a dimension in which actions are assessed” (Austin 1979, 180). The fact that freedom is a dimension of the normative assessment of actions means that the freer people are held to be in their ability to act – i.e. in their ability to choose how they act – the more responsible they are held to be for the results of the action. When one tries to excuse an action (or to be more precise, when one tries to excuse the consequences of an action), one offers reasons for why one is not responsible for what happened. Normally one accomplishes this by explaining why one was not free in that particular circumstance.

            The advantage of bringing Austin’s view on freedom, action, and excuses into this discussion is to complicate the binary between freedom and blameworthiness that is established in the medieval reading of the devil’s fall. Certainly theology must also have its space for excuses that enables the sinner to not just repent, but to offer mitigating circumstances for his actions. I would suggest that there are two possible sites to begin such an exploration. The first might be in how the devil is occasionally used to excuse an action – i.e. “the devil made me do it”. The second, and this is only a hunch as I have not read Paradise Lost since my undergraduate days, would be to see how the devil tries to excuse rather than justify his fall. Part of Austin’s point is that how we defend and elaborate our actions when they come under moral scrutiny is as much a struggle over how much freedom (and hence responsibility) we have, as it is about our moral blameworthiness.

            The other question concerns how Kotsko imagines the social contract. We are presented with two standard interpretations of what the social contract was – either a pre-scientific natural history (as in Kotsko’s reading of Hobbes) or as an abstract thought experiment as in Rawls. But I want to suggest that there is a third way of reading what social contract thinkers are doing, a reading that follows from Stanley Cavell. In the Claim of Reason, Cavell observes that the philosophical search for criteria – the principle by which something is judged or decided as being something – is a claim to community. He then links the search for criteria in linguistic philosophy quite provocatively (in a way quite similar to what Kotsko has done here) with the question of the social contract, and the puzzle of “how could I have been party to the establishing of criteria [or a social contract, or original sin] if I do not recognize that I have and do not know what they are” (22). In making this move, Cavell suggests that the conventional reading of the social contract – the one inherited from Hume’s critique of Locke and echoed by Kotsko – is either “devious” or question begging (i.e. in assuming the question of the social contract is why must I obey the state, it assumes that I have consented to the social contract, when clearly I have no recollection of having done so). Instead, Cavell suggests, “What I consent to, in consenting to the contract, is not mere obedience, but membership in a polis” (23). To ask “why I ought to obey the state?” is always bound to disappoint, as it will come at the cost of occasionally breaking other commitments – to friends, God, family, lovers, oneself. Furthermore because, as Cavell observes, it is a poorly kept secret that all societies are imperfect, an appeal to obedience based upon the advantages of citizenship simply makes no sense. And Cavell argues that the classical social contract theorists in posing the idea of the social contract where not imagining a pre-history, or conducting a thought experiment to justify obedience but instead asking: “given the specific inequalities and lacks of freedom and absence of fraternity in society to which I have consented, do these outweigh the ‘disadvantages of withdrawing my consent” (Cavell, 24). The effect of this question is twofold: it simultaneously binds me to my society (establishes my membership in it, and hence my responsibility for it) while also putting “society at a distance from me, so that it appears as an artifact” (Cavell, 23). I take Cavell here to be saying that the distancing of the social contract is what enables critique, both of my society, but also perhaps of my responsibilities for not having done enough to have righted my societies failings. If we follow Cavell and take the social contract to be a question of membership and the personal responsibilities that asks of me rather than a question of why I ought to obey, then how does this complicate the reading of the social contract in the Prince of this World?