1. On the History of Telos
For many years, the Telos has been regarded as one of the leading journals of the New Left in the US. At the beginning, it was often seen as the journal of the American followers of the Frankfurt School, founded by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Could you tell us when, by whom and in what circumstances it was started and give us some historical background, explaining in particular the evolution of its relations with the second generation of the Frankfurt School (Jurgen Habermas)? And how do you and the people you work with define yourselves? What themes interest you most?
Telos was not founded in 1968 as an American organ of the Frankfurt School. It was meant to provide the New Left, at the time embroiled in internal discussions about its ideological identity, with a rigorous theoretical perspective and a clear sense of direction. The name comes from Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences — a work written in the mid-1930s, which did not become well-known until the late 1950s, and was not translated into English until the early 1970s. By 1968 in the US, however, it had influenced a few New Left students increasingly dissatisfied not only with the Vietnam War, the crass consumerism marketed as a cross-cultural eschatological placebo, and what passed for critical thought in American universities, but primarily with the predominant nihilism and meaninglessness. This helps explain why, from the very beginning, there has been a political tension between the journal and the New Left, which at that time was increasingly influenced by Marxism-Leninism, but also between the journal and a readership not always familiar with the theoretical references of the editors and writers.
Although, from the very beginning, we made every effort to translate into English at least some of the major authors from which we drew our inspiration, our efforts to de-provincialize a student culture cretinized by three decades of the intellectual Cold War were not entirely successful. The main ideas of Western Marxism, Critical Theory, and Husserlian phenomenology were absorbed only gradually within the academic market-place, and were de-activated and mainlined by a resurgent Marxism and the predominant welfare-state liberalism, which only confirmed Critical Theory’s thesis concerning the system’s immense ability to integrate all opposition. At any rate, along with the whole of the New Left, we knew what we were opposed to — consumerism, Stalinism, authoritarianism, racism, exploitation, etc. — but we had not even begun to prefigure any alternative to the status quo. The vague sense that Western culture in general and American society in particular had lost their bearings and needed to rethink themselves in terms of their traditions and values only suggested a need to reappropriate and to rethink the past. It did not automatically generate either a common social analysis or a clear political project. This is why it could be articulated only in terms of the kind of radical discourse predominant at the time.
Sophisticated as it was, Husserl’s account of the crisis of Western civilization only called for the regrounding of a forgotten project, whose teleology, however, still defined modern society. Yet, his vindication of the primacy of the lifeworld, the doxa, and intersubjectivity not only provided an immensely superior theoretical foundation for the critique of alienation — a concept which had just been rediscovered, following the publication of Marx’s economic-philosophical manuscripts, and popularized through the immensely influential work of Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man — but also for the Western Marxism of the early 1920s, which we assumed wrongly to have been prevented by the Third International from developing into the kind of theoretical orientation we desperately needed. Only gradually did we realize how, despite its philosophical sophistication and contrary to Merleau-Ponty’s reconstruction of its history in The Adventures of the Dialectic, this version of Marxism was really no alternative, and led directly into the Bolshevik apotheosis. At that time, however, such a cultural and philosophical reappropriation of Marxism immediately clashed with official Marxism-Leninism, which had long since degenerated into nothing more than a legitimating ideology for Soviet imperialism. It dismissed alienation as a mere economic epiphenomenon, which would disappear automatically with the abolition of capitalism and wage labor. This simultaneous rejection of the economism of orthodox Marxism and of the capitalist degradation of mass culture to a marketing device defined the original Telos project and led to its identification with the Frankfurt School which, at that time, meant primarily Marcuse’s works, and then only those he had published in English.
In the 1960s, the early work of the Institute for Social Research was hardly known in the US or even in Germany. Only a few of Adorno’s literary essays, some of his contributions to musicology, and his unbearable musical compositions were readily available. The Institute’s explosive analyses of the 1930s and early 1940s had suffered the same fate as the rest of German culture. Despite their obvious oppositional stature, they had been dismissed as inextricably embroiled with the genesis of Nazism, and thus banished from theoretical discourse. What little of their social and political criticism was available was deceptively conformist, e.g., some of Adorno’s embarrassing contributions to The Authoritarian Personality — crude attempts to analyze anti-Semitism and Nazism as collective pathologies, rather than confronting them as historical phenomena sui generis. Thus, unlike Dialectic of Enlightenment, which indicted liberalism as but another expression of the same modernist involution culminating in Nazism and Stalinism, The Authoritarian Personality automatically legitimated liberal ideology as “sanity” and “normality”: the standard against which all socio-political thought should be evaluated.
At the dawn of the Cold War, the devastating implications of Dialectic of Enlightenment — tracing the New Deal, Nazism, and Stalinism back to the same modernist roots — left its two authors in the unenviable position of associating the political system of the country in which they had sought refuge from genocide with that of the one from which they had escaped. No wonder they made sure it would not circulate beyond the Institute’s restricted circle. At the time, such an exercise in self-repression was probably the only viable option. After all, they could not count on any support from official communist parties which, with the exception of a few isolated groups of emigre scholars hopelessly attempting to vindicate the Left’s original emancipatory vision, were at that time completely under Moscow’s control. Even Dialectic of Enlightenment’s theoretical precursors, e.g., Lukacs’ History and Class-Consciousness and Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, had been checkmated out of the picture by a Stalinist censorship often enforced by firing squads. Habermas, who seems to have read everything in sight, reports that, as a student (before Horkheimer threw him out of the Institute) he knew of the existence of only one copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment safely locked away. Consequently, not even insiders like him had a chance to read it.
Only in the late 1960s, when all of these works were finally republished in Germany, did it become clear to what an extent the most explosive parts of One-Dimensional Man were actually poorly recycled versions of Dialectic of Enlightenment and other equally obscure ideas developed in the 1920s and 1930s. But, by then, it was too late. The damage had been done. Encouraged by Marcuse’s lingering Manicheanism, which, despite everything, still saw the Soviet Union and socialism as potentially emancipatory, the general reception of this legacy was primarily as a sophisticated variation of a Marxism allegedly repressed first, by fascism and Nazism in Europe, and then, by the American establishment during the Cold War as part of the general obliteration of the Left. In addition to occluding the most interesting features of the Frankfurt School, which identified modernity and the Enlightenment as responsible for catastrophic involutions such as Nazism and Stalinism, this idiosyncratically American reception fed right into the predominant Left-liberal ideology, according to which all social problems were blamed on lingering pre-modern residues whose systematic elimination was hypostatized as the only “progressive agenda.”
Since the New World had no feudal past, conservatism in the US was never associated with the ancien regime or the aristocracy, but with the same capitalist interests — those of the revolutionary bourgeoisie — that traditional conservatives in Europe had been fighting throughout the 19th century. Within this context, it was all too easy to confuse Dialectic of Enlightenment’s devastating critique of modernity and liberal ideology with merely another version, even if immensely more sophisticated, of the Marxist-Leninist critique of capitalism, despite the fact that, in Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analyses, socialism and communism were dismissed as even more advanced stages of the very same bourgeois cultural involution that had resulted in fascism. This is how the most radical features of Critical Theory — the vindication of difference, particularity, and otherness, all pre-modern residues –were transubstantiated into their exact opposites under the banner of “rationality,” “equality” and “inclusiveness.”
To its credit, Telos never bought into this Marxist mainlining of the Frankfurt School. On the contrary: from the very beginning, it cautioned against any such facile and deceptive assimilations of Critical Theory. It is not an accident that Telos sought not only to unearth, but also to critically evaluate the Frankfurt School’s early work. Thus, Telos not only translated and published much of Marcuse’s work from the late 1920s, but also went on to criticize its initial Heideggerian foundation and its Freudian replacement after the 1950s. It is also no accident that the very first evaluations of the Frankfurt School bear revealing titles such as “From Tragedy to Farce: The Return of Critical Theory” –warnings concerning not only the impossibility of transposing hic et nunc a theory developed in Europe in the 1930s to the US half a century later, but also pointing to the theory’s unresolved internal contradictions.
Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s critique of modernity and of the Enlightenment could be sustained only if grounded on the kind of traditional foundation embodied in what Husserl had articulated as the lifeworld and the doxa — precisely the same theoretical horizon that had been discredited, because of its instrumentalization by Nazism and fascism. While it would have been unthinkable for Jewish exiles to develop a critique of their host country from the same general viewpoint deployed by their potential executioners, a generation later Telos felt sufficiently removed from the fascist experience to be able to consider it a closed historical chapter. This may have been a tactical mistake, since it has resulted in constant charges of right-wing sympathies by a dogmatic Left unaware of, or unwilling to confront its troubled historical trajectory and, therefore, disposed to confuse efforts to develop a sound theoretical foundation for the Left (understood as the critical opposition to late capitalism as well as Stalinism) with its outright rejection — a typical Marxist-Leninist reaction.
This is but another reason for Telos’ initial affinity with Marcuse. In the mid-1920s, before Nazism was even a serious political threat, Marcuse (at the time Heidegger’s assistant) had attempted to develop precisely such a foundation. His 1928 “phenomenology of historical materialism” sought to legitimate historical materialism as the logic through which tradition unfolded, disintegrated during its bourgeois phase, and eventually became reintegrated and transcended under socialism, with the overcoming of alienation and the generalization of the kind Of individuality hitherto attainable only by a social elite. The emphasis was not merely on economic transformation, but primarily on the recovery of a Being lost and forgotten, because of the generalization of commodity fetishism. This unmistakably Hegelian reconstruction of the trajectory of Western civilization presupposed a post-capitalist modernity understood not as a break with, but as the fulfillment of a pre-modern project embodying universal destiny. Far from advocating the abstract individuality predicated on “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” Marcuse postulated the Aufhebung of the Western tradition into a vague new synthesis fulfilling its promises.
The appropriation by National Socialism of the Western tradition as exclusively Aryan, the demonization of Jews as the unscrupulous agents of modernist disintegration, and Heidegger’s joining the Nazi party put an end to Marcuse’s efforts. After 1932, it was no longer possible to appeal to a tradition that had resulted in Nazism, and it became necessary to find a different foundation from which to indict a modernity at that time identified increasingly with capitalism, anti-Marxism, and Americanism. Already in the mid-1930s, the Institute as a whole began to gravitate toward psychoanalysis as an alternative to the kind of tradition being vindicated at that time in Germany as part of the Conservative Revolution — an amorphous movement of intellectuals, completely unknown in the post-WWII US and largely forgotten until recently even in Germany, critical of modernity and tendentially symphathetic to Nazi-like solutions (even though many of them never became Nazis, and some even became active opponents).
Despite the fact that, from time to time, discussions of the relation between psychoanalysis and Marxism appeared in its pages, Telos never accepted the substitution of psychoanalysis or of any other deterministic approach for the traditional foundation. This is why it was also hostile to the kind of Heideggerian phenomenology that Marcuse had appropriated and that remained an inextricable part of his later theoretical horizon in the US (especially its much misunderstood critique of “technology”). The “Being” Heidegger wanted to vindicate seemed to us empty and therefore meaningless. Ali meaning was seen to be constituted by particular traditions in the attempt to access an inevitably elusive “Truth.” Stepping out of these traditions also meant foreclosing the possibility of grasping at least that minimal “truth” achievable in the inevitably frustrated effort to capture it. At any rate, this hostility may have had to do with the fact that we never forgave Heidegger for being a Nazi throughout his life and for having tried to access Being by deploying the swastika and going along with the Fuhrer’s Aryan phantasies.
This refusal to accept any arbitrary substitution for that phenomenological foundation encapsulating the Western tradition also explains the later rejection of Habermas and his linguistic turn, while always remaining sympathetic to John Dewey and pragmatism (despite the capitulation of his followers to the modernist lures of the New Deal). There was an initial flirtation with the “second generation” of Critical Theory, since it presented itself as the Frankfurt School’s main legacy. But, it did not take long to realize that it was the paradigmatic product of that de-Nazification which, on the intellectual level, had translated into an indiscriminate de-Germanification of culture. We soon realized the extent to which this “second generation” had rejected all of the original ideas of “the founding fathers,” in favor of an eclectic reconfiguration of Critical Theory as a synthesis of American social science and English analytic philosophy. All that seemed to have survived was the German accent. Telos actually split on this issue, and the followers of Habermas eventually left the editorial board.
What had happened was not a betrayal of the original ideals, but probably the only viable political accommodation with contradictions the forefathers had left unresolved. The theory of alienation, the dialectic, negative thought, the great refusal — all had been discarded in favor of a recycled liberalism predicated on neo-Kantianism and presupposition metaphysics. Adorno himself can be held responsible for such a theoretical involution. After all, he never could deal effectively with the dialectic, even after he tried to patch it up with the “negative” quantifier. It could not possibly work. The dialectic makes sense only as the trajectory of the already achieved Absolute. But, for Adorno, the trajectory of Western civilization could not be reconstructed from the viewpoint of the Absolute (which had turned out to be modern totalitarianism), but only from that of the Atom Bomb. This is why, whenever his philosophical speculations reach an impasse, he jettisons Hegel in favor of Kant or Nietzsche. In this sense, Habermas and his followers simply took the next step, dismissed the Hegelian legacy altogether, and went on to reinvent the previously despised “bourgeois ideology,” now rebaptized as the theory of “civil society.”
Telos chose the populist path. If, short of the achievement of the elusive Absolute, all that dialectical reconstructions can yield are trajectories reconstructed from the viewpoint of distinctive traditions, i.e., particular narratives, the alternative is not limited to the arbitrary hypostatization of yet another phony universality — liberal proceduralism or warmed-over natural law — ultimately predicated also on hidden particularistic assumptions. A more honest approach, the one initially chosen by the American “founding fathers” when they drafted the US Constitution (and is once again gaining legitimacy in the wake of the post-modern critique), consists in recognizing the irreducible plurality of cultures, understood as collective codified modes of giving meaning to life, the nominalistic or fideistic foundations of all universality (“In God We Trust”), and the realization that even this de facto rejection of universality is itself the product of a definite cultural project: the Christian heritage in general, and Protestantism in particular.
This is how, after a long journey through European philosophy, Telos rediscovered an America most Americans had themselves long since forgotten. Its populism was essentially democracy minus any dogmatic assumptions — liberal or religious — transcending those shared by a particular society whose political status is determined precisely by such an axiological horizon. It acknowledged the legitimacy of particular cultures to structure themselves in whichever way they chose, independently of any transcendental axiological boundaries, themselves necessarily predicated on particular cultural traditions. This meant that even a Nazi society could not be deemed “evil” in the abstract. Thus, it could not be destroyed on the basis of any arbitrary universal mandate, but only by another society or group of societies regarding Nazism as unacceptable. This is how American federalism originally came into being: in order to allow as much freedom as possible, within a contractual arrangement spelling out how different autonomous societies (the states) agreed to relate to each other. The same goes for American pragmatism. It does not reduce merely to the acknowledgement that there are many ways to skin a cat, but, more importantly, especially in a young Dewey deeply steeped in New England puritanism, to the realization that, whether or not to actually skin it is a function of particular doxa internalized in the life-world of a particular community and codified in its traditions, customs, and institutions.
This populist/federalist turn, of course, rubs against the predominant ideological grain. Ever since the Civil War, the American political elite has harbored imperialist aspirations that could be fulfilled only by establishing precisely the kind of strong central state that the anti-federalists had sought to avoid in order to protect their cultural and religious particularity. As for what remains of the Left, it has yet to come to terms with the Soviet collapse, which is still interpreted primarily as a case of poor management, rather than as another chapter in the unfolding of the dialectic of Enlightenment and the creeping irrationality of bureaucratic “rationality” in the absence of traditional normative structures. Uncritically committed to a dogmatic rationalism predicated on the unacknowledged liberal premises of abstract individualism, the economistic reduction of all social problems to uncontrolled capitalist greed or the irrationality of traditional residues, and the achievement of equality as the summun bonum, the Left still confuses real communities of autonomous individuals, bound by a common axiological framework, with the totally administered society, characterized by unrestricted inclusiveness, enforced rationality, and endless therapy for all dissidents. It is not an accident that the vindication of populism and federalism is considered to be a legitimation of irrationality and provincialism or, for those still believing in the metaphysics of “progress,” regression and reaction.
The situation is not much better with what remains of the Right, which is even more fragmented and confused than the Left. When, in direct opposition to neo-conservatives, who dismiss it as a form of proto-fascism, populism is embraced by conservatives outside academia, it is usually as an excuse to shake off liberal encumbrances and to pave the way for precisely the sort of things the Left and the neo-conservatives fear the most: nativism, covert racism, religious dogmatism, and the kind of ethnocentrism which, in other parts of the world, has led to “ethnic cleansing.” The same goes for federalism. It is accepted as a means to weaken the central government, only to be forgotten in favor of a nationalism seeking to reduce all particularity to an arbitrary, idealized standard (an Americanism hypostatized to the kind of WASP irredentism responsible for the genocide of Indians, slavery, xenophobia, etc.). Thus, within the remnants of the Right, a libertarian wing reducing all traditions to the cash-nexus coexists uneasily with a fundamentalist Christian wing seeking to shove the Bible down everyone’s throat, paleoconservatives actually seeking to vindicate the virtues of a classical, pre-Welfare-State liberalism, and neo-conservatives concerned primarily with safegarding the status quo against further cultural decline.
Consequently, today Telos thrives outside a mainstream which mostly does not understand it, does not appreciate it, and, because of the widespread prosperity generated by new technological innovations, need not take it seriously. Safely mothballed in universities, most intellectuals write articles no one reads, debate issues no one cares about, and continue miseducating students in dire need of official certification (who are actually acculturated not by the universities, but by the culture industry). Seemingly obsessed with seeking to resolve self-perpetuating pseudo-problems of race, class, and gender, most intellectuals, posturing as the self-righteous opposition, while, in fact, legitimating the totally administered society, are even worse off than Gregor Samsa, who at least was troubled by his strange metamorphosis. Presumably, it beats the hell out of holding a regular 9-to-5 job. Within such a context, Telos remains the project of a few intellectuals and of a limited readership still interested in Truth, and optimistic that, despite the general cultural decline, there are still a lot of possibilities for a society so mesmerized by its material success to be able to ignore or even to formulate its spiritual impoverishment.
2. The Right-Left Split
You have devoted a whole issue to erasing the Right-Left split, which, in fact, seems more and more obsolete with regard to a certain number of emergent problems like globalization, federalism, ecology, etc. What do you see as the fundamental causes of the progressive dissolution of this old antagonism? Is it going to disappear completely or is it going to retain some political, economic, or intellectual — or perhaps even psychological and moral validity? Has this split had any significance in the past and, if so, what? Could we talk about “Left” and “Right” in the singular? On the other hand, how do the various strands of “Left” and “Right” differ? Would you still consider yourself to be on the “Left”? What designation would suit you best?
The categories of “Left” and “Right” are paradigmatically modernist. It is not an accident that they date back to the French Revolution, and that they fade with the decline of modernity. In the early 19th century, the distinction referred primarily to the relation to the French Revolution, with the Right defending the status quo ante, and the Left the new bourgeois regime. Later, after it became clear that there was no way to restore the ancien regime, the categories came to characterize the split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But, even that became obsolete with the development of social-democracy and the integration of the labor movement into the system at the turn of the century. Subsequently, the Bolshevik Revolution introduced a seven-decades long distortion, which only now is beginning to disappear, whereby Left and Right were identified with political regimes based respectively on capitalism and socialism. The capitalist turn in communist China and the predominance of social-democracy in the capitalist West indicate the extent to which the reduction of politics to economics presupposed by the distinction was a Cold War fraud. Consequently, after 1989, the distinction has become increasingly blurred: it lingers on by default, pending the development of better alternatives and of a political climate that will make it possible to recast the political in terms other than those deployed by the ruling elites. In other words, how to reconfigure the political is itself a political issue, whose outcome is a function of political struggle.
Today, the Left/Right split remains as an ideological smokescreen concealing the real distinction: between neo-liberals (as well as neo-conservatives) and communitarians. The former are committed to ever-growing state intervention, bureaucratic rationality, and the bourgeois values of abstract individuality, formal equality, social justice, representative liberal-democracy, and unrestricted inclusiveness. This is the ideology of the therapeutic New Class, camouflaging its axiological particularity as universal truth, proceduralizing politics, and privatizing morality. The hypostatizing of bourgeois values to universal truths warranting their imposition on dissidents, now degraded from political opponents to pathological or criminal cases, is part of that general process of depoliticization entailed by the liberal project from its very beginning: the reduction of politics to administration. The latter (communitarians) insist on local autonomy, direct democracy, cultural particularity, and traditional values of solidarity, belonging, and the identity of politics and morality. Opponents are neither pathologized or criminalized, but classified as “enemy” or “friend” and treated accordingly (within various kinds of confederal, federal, or international agreements) or ostracized, confronted, and, in extreme cases, maybe forcibly coerced.
This political realignment is only beginning to take shape in a world still overwhelmingly under a liberal hegemony that insists on reducing it to Left and Right. Yet, the communitarian/liberal distinction is by no means new; it dates back to the origin of modernity, and was articulated for decades at the turn of the last century in German sociology in terms of Gemeinshaft and Gesellschaft. More concretely, it is embodied in two fundamentally different political systems, which, unfortunately, have become increasingly confused in the 20th century: French statism and American federalism.
The liberal reduction of political to economic categories has meant a major distortion of the very relations of domination that the bourgeois revolution sought to eliminate. With the neutralization of politics into administrative proceduralism, economic domination became hypostatized to the only kind of domination, effectively occluding the much more pervasive political domination that characterizes the modern world. Contrary to the Panglossian claims of the communication theory of the “second generation” of the Frankfurt School, the political arena is not a seminar room where equal opportunity to participate guarantees democracy. It only guarantees democracy among those with sufficient cultural capital to participate. All others are, at best, represented by New Class spokesmen, who have no trouble translating and concretizing the vague and often confused sensibilities of the polity they claim to represent into part of their own agenda, thus systematically excluding them from the democratic process. This model was best embodied by the French Jacobin state which, under the pretense of safegarding the interests of an undifferentiated Third Estate, sought to destroy all cultural particularity, homogenize the population into an undifferentiated mass of abstract individuals (celebrated as “citizens”), and introduce a mode of bureaucratic domination more pervasive and effective than anything in the past. Bolshevism and Stalinism are only the most extreme expressions of this model, whose “new and improved” versions, with a human face, are the Welfare State and social-democracy.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Telos discussed these topics at length, through its “theory of artificial negativity,” a long process which eventually led to the rediscovery of the original American federal model. Beginning with the concept of “the totally administered society,” we accepted the claim of Marcuse and the first generation of the Frankfurt School that bureaucratic rationality managed to obliterate all opposition and turned into its opposite: generalized irrationality. What they had not understood fully, however, was how, ultimately, such an outcome was unstable and self-destructive. They had not grasped how this logic unfolded through the systematic obliteration of that cultural otherness which, in relation to the system, functioned effectively as a control mechanism to keep the bureaucratic apparatus relatively rational and efficient. Thus, the success of the many variations of the Jacobin model were caught in the contradiction that, the more they succeeded in expanding their bureaucratic mode of domination, the more they eroded essential control mechanisms, thereby undermining the conditions necessary for their effective reproduction. But these systems were far from collapsing, because, primarily in the US, the erosion of that cultural particularity was buffered by the development of a state-sponsored opposition. During the 1960s, in some form or other, practically all opposition movements were subsidized by the government, from students to civil rights groups. This “artificial negativity” was able to perform the same regulatory functions previously carried out by cultural particularity. Unfortunately, the “artificial” character of this negativity, i.e., the fact that it was inextricably bound with the bureaucratic apparatus, eventually embroiled it in the very corrupt dynamics it was meant to rectify, thus nullifying whatever regulatory role it was meant to perform.
For artificial negativity to be effective, it was necessary for it to be loosened from the bureaucratic apparatus as much as possible (as was done in the 1960s), and, in so doing, to allow the resuffacing of real oppositional cultural particularity qua authentic negativity. On the basis of these and related analyses, throughout the 1970s and 1980s Telos was probably the only journal to forewarn of the coming collapse of the Soviet and other East European regimes, not out of military defeat, as projected by the far Right and even by some deviant Leftists such as Cornelius Castoriadis, or as a result of the kind of internal workers’ uprising fantasized by the few remaining Trotskyists, but because of terminal bureaucratic involution. The inevitability of the collapse was predicated on the fact that, unlike in the US, where artificial negativity and what Marcuse had labelled “repressive tolerance” forced the apparatus to retain a modicum of formal rationality, in the Soviet Union there was nothing of the kind. The result could only have been an accelerated unfolding of the trajectory of the crisis and a collapse under the weight of exceptional demands (the need to match Reagan’s remilitarization strategy) and/or attempts to rationalize the system by liberalizing it (glasnost and perestroika). The same logic was seen to be operating in the US, where, however, hard-to-eradicate traditions of local autonomy and opposition to centralization played a powerful katachontic role, thus slowing the unfolding of the rationality crisis and providing time and space for radical internal reforms.
Through further reflection on this conflict between central power and local resistance, a topic at the time articulated most effectively by Christopher Lasch, Telos rediscovered the much maligned American populist tradition and, with it, ante helium American federalism as a radical alternative to liberalism and Jacobinism. Such a model, eclipsed after the Civil War by Lincoln’s centralist reinterpretation, was communitarian in character, predicated on Jeffersonianism and the kind of local autonomy and direct democracy of puritan New England. In fact, before the Civil War, the main political division was not between Left and Right, but between centralizers and Jeffersonians (and later their successors), i.e., between what today would be called neo-liberals and communitarians. In the late 18th century, the major debates concerning the drafting of the US Constitution were not about a presumably “progressive” Left and a conservative Right, but between those who wanted to preserve local autonomy, cultural particularity, direct democracy, and self-determination, and those wanting to create a strong central state with a powerful army and an integrated economy. Only after the Civil War, when the victorious North embarked on a project of rapid industrialization and nation-building, did the communitarian model embodied in the original federal system become progressively replaced by a variant of the French model, although such a project was never completed, as can be seen in the struggle over the status of the 10th Amendment, both in the Supreme Court and whatever public sphere remains outside the culture industry and the mass media.
The end of modernity and the delegitimation of Jacobinism renders Left and Right meaningless political categories, and paves the way for the reactivation of an even older American model which, today, is much more useful for understanding political dynamics. Events such as the recent uprisings against the WTO in Seattle make no sense if analyzed as either a Left or a Right phenomenon. Both the remaining socialist sectors of the Left and the far Right supporters of Pat Buchanan were violently against the proceedings, and a closer scrutiny of their motivations, with the exception of an opportunist organized labor seeking a self-serving protectionism, reveals deep communitarian longings and an attempt to regain a modicum of self-determination — despite all the questionable arguments put forth in defense of their particular positions. The same can be said about any number of issues, from abortion to pensions and health care. The imposition of the Left/Right interpretive grid only serves to distort these issues and to pose the problem solely in terms of alternative New Class ways of managing them, without ever challenging New Class rule.
Thus, despite the fact that there have been systematic efforts to redefine communitarianism as an upgraded version of the Left by various Etzionis and Sandels, it resists such academic reductions and finds expression in all sorts of new political phenomena difficult to interpret by means of the old dichotomy. While Telos does not have, and never has had a collective political position shared to the letter by all of its editors and collaborators, its political sympathies are predominantly communitarian in the above-discussed sense, which helps explain the consistency with which it is attacked by what remains of the doctrinaire Left and many soi-disant Rightists.
3. Carl Schmitt
Telos has published 2 special issues devoted to Carl Schmitt. Taking into consideration the fact that Schmitt has always been violently criticized by the representatives of the Frankfurt School (with the possible exception of Walter Benjamin), from the outside this “rediscovery” may have appeared surprising -at least for those not familiar with the fact that, e.g., in Italy Carl Schmitt has long been a point of reference for Left authors. This adds up to the fact that Carl Scmitt’s thought seems distant from your editorial line with respect to several points. Schmitt is inspired by the counter-revolutionary tradition (Donoso Cortes), which certainly does not fit your profile. Because of his theory of sovereignty and of the homogeneity between representatives and represented, he is considered to be a thinker of the nation-state, while you support federalism. Finally, his geopolitical theory (confrontation of the “great maritime and continental spaces”) led him to support a European “Monroe doctrine” and condemn all forms of American interventionism in Europe (which means that he would have disapproved of the war NATO waged against Serbia, which, on the other hand, you supported). How did your interest in Schmitt come about and what parts of Schmitt’s thought have generated this interest? What aspects of his work do you consider obsolete, minor, and wrong? Have your special Schmitt issues provoked a debate among your readers and collaborators? How has all of this been received?
The members of the Frankfurt School were honest and intelligent people. But they were not perfect. Adorno’s editing out Benjamin’s footnote to Schmitt, and Otto Kirchheimer’s refusal to allow George Schwab to write about Schmitt must rate among some of their lesser intellectual achievements, especially since this type of censorship could not possibly have worked and, in fact, had no impact in preventing the eventual introduction of Schmitt’s ideas in the US.
There was nothing on Schmitt in English before 1970, when Schwab’s book, The Challenge of the Exception, finally appeared, well after Kirchheimer had died in 1965 and could no longer prevent its publication. Yet, many Telos editors had been exposed to Schmitt’s ideas even before the journal first appeared in 1968, through a quirk of fate. In the mid-1960s, Mitchell Franklin, a former Dean of Tulane University Law School, came to teach philosophy in SUNY at Buffalo. A member of the American legal team at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, Franklin had become acquainted with Schmitt’s works, and they had made a great impression on him. As a hard-line Stalinist, Franklin regarded Schmitt as a major political adversary, whose brilliance made him all that more dangerous. Yet, Franklin never explained either what made Schmitt’s work so profound or why it was so dangerous. Later, when one of our editors, Gary Ulmen, who was a close friend of Schwab and, through him, had not only become acquainted with Schmitt’s work but also with Schmitt personally, suggested publishing a special issue on Schmitt, we jumped at the opportunity. Of course, there was considerable opposition to this project, mostly from our Habermasian editors, who knew only about Schmitt’s Nazi past, but were unwilling to go any further with the matter. At the time, we knew nothing of the Italian Left’s reception of Schmitt and, with the exception of a few editors who resigned shortly thereafter, we could not have cared less whether Adorno, Kirchheimer, or Habermas would have approved of such an undertaking.
Of course, along with everyone else who approaches Schmitt for the first time, we also tried to read him as a Nazi. It did not work. It made much more sense to read him as a profound critic of liberalism and as a political theorist. But even that did not lead us to Schmitt’s more provocative and original ideas, since most of what is written on Schmitt focuses almost exclusively on the concept of the political and the critique of parliamentarism. Only later did we discover his constitutional theory, his vindication of Ordnungsdenken, his political theology, his reconstruction of the history of international law, his account of legality and legitimacy, his concept of Grossraum, etc. –positions having nothing to do with Nazism and which are extremely useful to analyze the contemporary world. Yet, we never read him as the theoretician of the nation-state. Even though Schmitt regarded the state as one of the major achievements of Western civilization, already in 1927, in The Concept of the Political, he realized that it was becoming obsolete as the locus of the political, after its instrumentalization by particular social interests. Subsequently, in the early 1930s, in his reflections on the development of the total state, things became even more complicated with the acknowledgement that such a state had become incapable of distinguishing between what is political and what is not.
By the time Schmitt drafted his political “Testament” (1943-44) — “The Plight of European Jurisprudence” — the era of the sovereign state was definitely over. At any rate, already in 1939 he had begun theorizing about Grossraume and the kind of geopolitical configurations that would obtain following WWII. While not exactly Grossraume, the two main “spheres of influence” that came into being with the onset of the Cold War testify to the sagacity of his views. In the age of the Internet, the nation-state lingers on as a political corpse waiting to be buried. The recent Haider scandal is only the latest indication of the obsolescence of national sovereignty — a conclusion Telos had reached much earlier, which explains, among other things, why we had published that part of Verfassungslehre dealing with “The Constitutional Theory of Federation.” While Schmitt’s view is that federations are inherently unstable, and either evolve into a national state or eventually disintegrate, we argued the opposite, i.e., that federations are the only kind of political organization which, while problematic and conflict-ridden, allow an heterogeneity of communities to coexist and to thrive without compromising any more of their cultural identity than they wish.
The business about “homogeneity” is more problematic and has been the subject of endless internal discussions. Practically all Schmitt detractors seeking to peg him as an unreconstructed Nazi invariably point to homogeneity — understood along ethnic and racial lines — as definite proof for their case. Yet, while Nazi ideologues invariably interpreted homogeneity in terms of race and ethnicity, such is not the case in Schmitt. The political unit is defined by its adherence to a common set of values, and the political itself has to do with the friend/enemy relations obtaining among political entities so defined. Schmitt’s homogeneity is fundamentally axiological and not, at least on the surface, all that different from Habermas’ Vetfassungspatriotismus. The main difference, of course, is that, for Habermas, constitutional values are essentially the abstract norms of legal positivism, arbitrarily established through the free discussion of New Class intellectuals, while, for Schmitt, these values are embodied in an internalized traditional substratum which determines individual mentalities and is normally lived pre-reflectively, as part of the lifeworld.
This question is all that more important in the US, where, from its very beginning as a political entity, ethnic and racial heterogeneity has always played a decisive role. This is why Telos has focused on federalism, understood not as the centralized administrative apparatus that the US federal system has become, but in the original sense of a minimalist government regulating the interaction of relatively autonomous political units. Anything like the present system, with its intrusive bureaucracy and endless regulations, intensifies the spiritual crisis associated with the substitution of consumerism and mass culture for that plethora of what Schmitt called “concrete orders” (and cannot be reduced to the now increasingly fashionable, state regulated “civil society”), without which society degenerates into nihilism, opportunism, and meaninglessness.
This reading of Schmitt, not as the theoretician of an imaginary sovereign state ruling over a racially and ethnically homogeneous nation, but as the political realist aware of the central role of decisions in politics, may help explain why the overwhelming majority of the editors supported NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. It was neither a matter of enforcing “human rights,” which are always excuses concealing hidden realpolitische agenda, nor of supporting “American imperialism.” In fact, from the viewpoint of objective American national interests, intervention in Kosovo was an outright mistake by an administration with no clear vision of its international role. Within such a context, how are intellectuals with no political influence to behave in such a situation? Does it make sense to deal with this question in geopolitical terms, pretending to be agents of, or to speak for a US government one disagrees with on practically every issue? A more realistic and humble alternative was simply to take a moral stand based on the proposition that everything possible should be done by anyone to prevent genocide, or, at least, the sort of things that the Serbs were doing in Kosovo.
All arguments predicated on national sovereignty are disingenuous, especially when applied to a badly patched-up historical accident such as the former Yugoslavia, meeting none of even the most minimal criteria of common language, religion, values, customs, etc. to qualify as a viable political entity. While the justification for NATO intervention in terms of guaranteeing regional stability or “human rights” may not have been compelling, the defense of the ex-Yugoslavia’s national sovereignty is even weaker. As for the kind of European Gross-raum prefigured in Schmitt’s writings, it was an interesting project, but hardly a political reality. Telos has supported European unification, but not as the creation of another centralized apparatus, duplicating already redundant national bureaucracies, all based on Delors’ version of the Jacobin model. During the Kosovo crisis, it would have been much more appropriate for the EU to take responsibility for guaranteeing at least a minimal regional stability in the Balkans. But, so far, all the Brussels bureaucrats seem to be capable of doing is castigating what they perceive to be politically incorrect governments, such as the Austrian, or dictating how cheese should be made or wine bottled, in order to legitimate the various decrepit, social-democratic regimes in most of the EU countries. NATO intervention came about primarily because, having concluded that some action had to be taken, Europeans alone were unwilling, unprepared, and unable to do anything about what threatened to became yet another mini-Holocaust.
As for the reception of Telos’ reading of Schmitt, it has been, predictably, negative. The academic establishment has not progressed much past the 1960s, when a Kirchheimer would exercise his authority to prevent students from reading and discussing Schmitt. As for the available English literature on Schmitt, with a few rare exceptions, they routinely chastise him as a Nazi, worthy only of scorn and condemnation. Any attempt at a balanced reading leaves the author open to the slander of being an extreme rightist, even in the case of scholars with impeccable liberal credentials such as Schwab and Bendersky. As long as Nazism and fascism are not regarded as closed historical chapters, Schmitt will remain the misunderstood bete noir he has been since the end of WWII, and American political thought will be the worse off because of it.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the country of “really existing socialism,” the Soviet Union, we have been living under constantly changing historical conditions. Western capitalism seems to have lost all adversaries able to hinder its historical rise. The current technological turmoils (in biotechnology, telecommunication, computer science) give it a new vigor, symbolized since the 1990s by “globalization” and the “new economy.” This globalization, however, has been the subject of contradictory interpretations. For some (such as Fukuyama), it means the “end of history,” because the Western system (market-technology-human rights) will gradually expand throughout the world, with only local micro-nationalisms to compete with; for others (such as Huntington), modernization is not the same as Westernization (or Americanization), and we are moving toward a fragmentation of the world into big competing civilizations, which are the potential sources of numerous conflicts. What is your interpretation of globalization? How do you interpret the collapse of communism? What impact could a theory critical of this globalization have, taking into consideration the homogenizing power of the new mass media and the progressive disintegration of the old historical subjects of modernity (i.e., collectives acting in history: classes, peoples, etc.)? How would you describe the state of the world today?
It is interesting that, from the viewpoint of the French New Right, the post-communist era is interpreted in exactly the same terms as the hegemonic liberal Left: as an era when “Western capitalism seems to have lost all adversaries.” This presupposes not only a reading of the 20th century as a struggle between capitalism and socialism (or between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, with the de facto ruling New Class effectively concealed), but also privileges economic over political or cultural categories in explaining the unfolding of recent events. Posing the question of globalization in these terms already implies as its only possible answer the prefiguration of an economic, rather than a political or cultural answer. As in the readings of orthodox Marxists, presumably the cultural-political superstructure will develop automatically out of the new economic base. When all is said and done, it will still be a matter of capitalism versus some form of socialism, or a system where the state somehow runs or regulates the economy. This economistic way of posing the question guarantees that the only viable answers will be those which cannot threaten the status quo.
But what if, following Dialectic of Enlightenment, one approaches globalization in terms of the logic of modernity or, along with the libertarians, reduces capitalism merely to a neutral means? Then, the collapse of communism must be understood in rather different terms: as the misuse of that means, or as its degradation to one of its less efficient variations. What become primary are, first, the political decisions responsible for this misuse and degradation; and second, the cultural frameworks legitimating these political decisions. From this viewpoint, not only does recent history begin to look rather different from the way it is usually interpreted, but the future also loses its apocalyptic, gloom-and-doom character. Capitalism and globalization will cease to be cultural threats, not when the various, increasingly weak and irrelevant nation-states will be able to contain them, but only if particular cultures become once again sufficiently strong to produce autonomous individuals able to make rational choices. McDonald’s will disappear from France, not because of Mr. Bove’s raving and vandalism, but only when French food will be provided as fast and as efficiently to a discriminating population impossible to manipulate through the culture industry.
1989 did not mark merely the collapse of an inefficient and irrational mode of economic organization; it was the beginning of the decline of bureaucratic centralism as a pathological institutional reconfiguration of the Western project along hyper-rationalist lines, predicated on the eradication of all traditional cultural residues. Thus, the end of communism prefigures the end of modernity as the objectification of the Enlightenment project. Contrary to optimistic scenarios, such as Fukuyama’s or Huntington’s pessimistic forebodings concerning clashes of civilizations, globalization is neither a promise nor a threat. Today, in the age of the Internet, it is already history. Focusing on globalization as the forts et origo malorum is a Trojan Horse concealing a more fundamental problem having to do with the inability of traditional cultures to adapt quickly enough to new, objective world conditions, and the new relations of domination they have brought about. The cultural disintegration resulting from these developments paves the way for colonization of consciousness by the mass media and the culture industry. Those who see this purely as an economic phenomenon can only propose as remedies other purely economic measures accelerating, rather than inhibiting the cultural disintegration that originally precipitated the crisis. Socialism and other economic attempts to contain globalization can only worsen the inefficiency and corruption of an already over-bureaucrated capitalism, without in the least contributing to the reconstitution of the disintegrating cultures.
What accounts for this systematic distortion of the very formulation of the problem? Cultures disintegrate, and the remedies prescribed only seem to accelerate the disintegration. What has happened is that the problem of traditional cultures in the process of disintegration has become a bone of contention between “those who have,” and are interested only in homogenizing people into manipulable consumers and compliant producers, and “those who know,” who try to defend these people merely by transforming them into more discriminating consumers and better paid producers, rather than into active subjects able to reconstitute their culture. No matter who wins, particular cultures are doomed. Reduced to a squabble among different groups of modernizers, or to the question of globalization, the real issues never even surface. After all, from the modernist viewpoint, all traditional cultures are nothing but “superstition and myth,” the quicker forgotten the better. It is not an accident that neither side in the recent Seattle struggle about the future of the WTO could suggest any viable solution for the crisis they sought to address, and there was no coherence whatsoever within either of the two camps.
Except for instances of military conquest or the kind of reckless colonial expansion following the discovery of the New World, globalization can have detrimental consequences only in a context of prior cultural and political disintegration. In the same way that McDonald’s can undersell French food only because of efficiency and if local consumers have forgotten how to discriminate between industrially prepared ground meat and fois gras, capitalist penetration everywhere in the world is possible only if local conditions allow it. Natives will not work cheaply for Nike in Mexico or Indonesia if they can make a better living some other way. As Rudolf Hilferding pointed out almost a century ago, given the logic of capitalist development, the huge discrepancy between working conditions and wages, between, e.g., undeveloped or destroyed countries, can only be temporary, as the trajectory of the post-WWII German and Japanese economies or those of Taiwan and South Korea have demonstrated.
Even in the worst case scenario, it is unlikely that globalization will bring about nothing but the homogenization of the world, the degradation of all people into abstract individuals, the increasing domination of the center over the periphery, or the reduction of all social relations to the cash-nexus. No society can thrive as a mere aggregation of abstract individuals interacting solely as rational economic agents. As Sartre emphasized even at the lowest points of his fellow-travelling days, the old theory of alienation stipulated not only that the logic of commodification can never erase all subjectivity, but that, long before it approaches universalization, it triggers counter-tendencies. The current resurgence of concerns with ethnicity, religious revivals, localism, etc. are only some of the symptoms of a more general reaction to the crisis of modernity and the desperate search for alternatives. Contrary to the forebodings of all the Cassandras identifying globalization and the crisis of modernity, the overcoming of the latter will not mean the reversal of the former, the overthrow of capitalism, or the development of radically different economic alternatives. Postmodern capitalism will thrive even more than the modernist variety, and will have no trouble adopting to communitarian frameworks or federated systems predicated on direct democracy and autonomous individuality, while post-modern versions of socialism or statism are not likely to be any more successful than their predecessors.
Today’s contradictions of material prosperity coexisting with spiritual misery, growing economic inequality, geopolitical chaos, and the disintegration of a Western rationalism that has lost its grounding are first and foremost cultural and political phenomena. They are the product of dislocations requiring rapid adaptations and innovations from slow-changing cultures whose legitimacy, however, can in no way be challenged by the instrumental rationality of modernity. That Enlightenment through which modernity dismissed all other traditional cultures as “superstition and myth” is itself grounded on foundations no more legitimate or universal than those of any other culture. Thus, it is only a matter of how effectively these traditional cultures can integrate science and technology, rather than modernizing out of existence altogether. There is no incompatibility between monotheism and the computer, or nuclear physics and mysticism. Since living cultures develop organically, their adaptation of the latest scientific and technological innovations need not necessarily mean “Americanization,” understood as the adaptation and substitution of a flashy foreign culture for local ones — the real fear of all those who demonize globalization as a covert Americanization of the world.
When all is said and done, “Americanism” is not a culture, but an attitude. Contrary to European misperceptions, “America” is no alternative to Europe, but its future. It is the sum total of European cultures and others trying to coexist in a world where homogeneous or homogenizing nation-states no longer make sense. Although they have become the best known symbols of a political laboratory whose work is far from done and often misdirected, Hollywood in not the US and Coca-Cola is just another soft-drink. As the prosperity of advanced industrial societies depresses birth-rates and encourages immigration from less-developed societies, they will all confront the US cultural predicament and the kind of problems in the process of being resolved in the New World. That is when, from being perceived as a problem, Americanism may well become the solution.
5. Federalism, Populism
Two themes often appear on the pages of Telos, especially in your writings: federalism and “populism.” Those two political theories, which are coming back in full force after the decline of socialism and nationalism, have been defined and interpreted in different and often contradictory ways. How would you define your “populist federalism”? Does it continue past tendencies or doctrines? Who are its theoreticians? Is “populism” a modern or post-modern phenomenon (post-modernity representing the passage from the world of peoples, states, and nations to the world of continents, communities, and “networks”)? What precisely is the main adversary of this “New Class,” often designated by populism? What do you think about the emergence of an “Alpine/Central European populism,” combining an economic ultra-liberalism with forms of identitarian vindications, sometimes bordering on xenophobia (Haider, Lega Nord, etc.)? What do you think of the evolution of the American federal state?
Federal populism or populist federalism is nothing new. Any analysis of the original meaning of either “populism or “federalism” immediately reveals that genuine federalism presupposes populism, and that a viable populism can be articulated politically only within a federal framework. In today’s brave new world of political science, however, they have come to mean the opposite. Generalizing from a particularly traumatic historical experience, the Civil War, American political thought has managed to transform these concepts so that they now conform to the ruling ideology, whose main objective since that time has been the erosion of what was distinctive and original in the American political system: direct local democracy and minimal centralized government.
Thus, today, in ordinary discourse, federalism in the US (as well as in the European debates about the future configuration of the EU) has come to refer to the centralization of power, which explains why there is so much opposition to it. Originally, it meant precisely the opposite: a contractual arrangement among autonomous political entities to better manage matters of mutual concern: defense, foreign policy, commerce, money, etc. The semantic shift in the US dates back to the post-Civil War period, when the victorious North criminalized the defeated South as “rebels” and deprived it, along with the rest of the states in the federation, of the sovereignty and prerogatives that the federal Constitution was meant to guarantee. At that time, federalism began to refer no longer to the limited authority of the centralized government over the various federating units concerning a clearly spelled-out number of tasks, but to the unlimited hegemony of the center over the states, now practically degraded to mere administrative branches.
The same happened to populism. In response to the unbearable new relations of domination imposed after the Civil war, not only by Washington, but, even more, by Northern industrial and financial interests, populism came about in the South and the Midwest as local reactions attempting to vindicate the kind of cultural, economic, and political particularity in the process of being eradicated. Unfortunately, it came to include extra-legal groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan, initially formed as self-defense organizations meant to redress the inevitable injustices of the Northern occupation forces and their successors. D. W. Griffith’s famous film, “Birth of a Nation,” did so good of a job in depicting the original self-defense character of the Klan, to the point of de-emphasizing its subsequent terrorist and xenophobic involution, and thus implicitly condoning both the brutality of slavery and the Klan’s role, that eventually the film was dismissed as paradigmatically racist and an apology for White Supremacy. Worse yet, populism’s localist and regionalist character gradually gave way to universalist pretenses, thus sealing the fate of the movement as terminally authoritarian, undemocratic, and racist. Until Lawrence Goodwyn and Christopher Lasch set the record straight, American political science (especially after the publication of Seymour Martin Lipset’s influential text, Political Man and Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform) interpreted populism as a proto-fascist movement threatening, rather than defending American political ideals. Old stereotypes, however, are difficult to correct. Thus, even today social-democratic historians such as Michael Kazin insist on presenting American populism as the forerunner, rather than the opposition to the massive political centralization brought about by Progressivism and the New Deal.
This diabolical semantic reversal of the meaning of populism and federalism has, since that time, played a clear ideological role in helping to displace the primacy of democracy and federalism of the original American political model in favor of the liberalism and nationalism of the current liberal-democracy, without having to acknowledge any breaks in continuity with the 1776 US Constitution — a clear-cut case of what Schmitt described as “legal revolutions.” More generally, the American Civil War exemplifies the kind of problems bedeviling federations. The inevitable tension between the central government and the federal units tends to resolve itself, in exceptional cases involving, e.g., the fate of industrialization in the US, with the disintegration of the federation, its evolution into a unitary state, and the violent subjugation of the separatist units by the rest of the federation (i.e., what a disintegrating Yugoslav federation has attempted, but has not been able to accomplish). It worked in the US in the mid-19th century, when it became impossible to negotiate peacefully about the political implications of Northern industrialization, its relation to the Southern agrarian economy, and the abolition of slavery. It is an irony of history that, almost a century and a half later, the US has intervened in the Balkans through NATO to prevent the very same kind of development that has drastically changed its role in the 20th century: from a paradigm of freedom and self-determination into an imperialist super-power.
This does not mean that, in some way, subsequent developments were not possible outcomes of efforts to resolve ambiguities inherent in the US Constitution. Such a fundamental document could not prefigure every possible development and, consequently, contains conflicting elements which can be the subject of politically contradictory interpretations. While not in principle irreconcilable, when identified with particular socio-economic interests or regions, these contradictory interpretations can polarize the federation, resulting in a violent confrontation through which one side imposes its particular interpretation by force. This is precisely what happened in the US in the 19th century, but not in Yugoslavia at the end of this century. The hermeneutic problem undermining the federal character of the US Constitution is built into the very structure of the document, which privileges states’ prerogatives in all instances not specifically assigned to the federal government, while simultaneously guaranteeing individual rights and empowering the center to do everything necessary to carry out its assigned tasks. Since practically everything is in some way or other related to federal tasks, such as the regulation of commerce, it is not difficult to imagine how the federation could be transformed readily into a de facto unitary state under the proper political-historical conditions.
Since the conclusion of the Civil War, the combination of an expanding Northern capitalism and a growing New Class necessary to run the central administrative apparatus has been attempting to transform the US federation into a nation-state, against widespread grass-roots resistance. Although never elegantly articulated and often embroiled with questionable practices, such as racism, xenophobia, etc., this resistance has proven surprisingly strong. It could be defeated decisively only under emergency conditions, such as economic crises of the magnitude of the Great Depression and various wars — the two cases which have contributed the most to the disintegration of American federalism and to a massive centralization of power in Washington. Thus, while distorted beyond recognition by an intelligentsia whose very existence has become inextricably tied to the fate of the central government, and constantly eroded by the “motorized legislation” it incessantly produces, populist federalism thrives in American small towns and as part of whatever can be described as “Americanism” -despite the fact that its most spectacular expressions tend to be what the central government and the mass media invariably succeed in criminalizing as “isolated” pathological cases: Waco, the Oklahoma bombing, the Unabomber, etc.
This federalism has very few astute theoreticians, usually marginalized out of academia or even within the government, when they accidentally manage to rise to positions of power and prestige as part of questionable extraneous agendas (e.g., Clarence Thomas). While generally dismissed by modernist ideologues as a pre-modern residue hindering the development of an all-encompassing world government — the new, post-modern totalitarianism with a human face — the traditional version of federalism promises to make a comeback. With the unraveling of a modernism held together by consumerism, hedonism, and the remnants of traditional cultures, particularity resurfaces by default, as the only viable means to deal with what, from an altogether different perspective, Habermas described years ago as the motivational crisis and its institutional otherness: the rationality crisis. Only well-regrounded traditional values can provide an alternative to the nihilism and meaninglessness inherent in modernity. The return of authentic federalism is further necessitated by the fact that the very stability of the “totally administered society” requires this kind of “negativity” as an internal regulatory mechanism guaranteeing system rationality, which explains all the academic chatter about depoliticized theoretical placebos such as “civil society” and multiculturalism, understood as oxymorons meant to mainline particularity as state-sponsored projects. In the long run, however, their artificial character only strengthens the central state, thus accelerating, rather than contributing to the solution of the crisis of modernity.
Both civil society and multiculturalism are New Class devices to contain particularity within the predominant relations of domination by recasting and defusing whatever oppositional charge cultural particularity may have. Strict government regulation of the voluntary associations constituting civil society through fiscal policy, state financing, and, when all this fails, outright repression or enforced privatization, ensures that none of the grass-roots dissatisfaction translates into effective political challenges. It is not an accident that even the most local of neighborhood associations turn out to be training grounds for wannabe bureaucrats, and that whenever religious institutions or groups seek to translate moral tenets into political demands they are immediately ghettoized out of the public domain by appealing to contrived, strict readings of the constitutional separation of church and state. Similarly, by universalizing and, therefore, immunizing against any challenges liberal values such as human rights, formal equality, and abstract individuality, the liberal deployment of multiculturalism and civil society reduces cultural particularity to gastronomical idiosyncrasies and folkloristic details. Substantial cultural traits, such as patriarchal family structure, strict sexual codes, hierarchical authority, unusual religious practices, etc. are all routinely trumped by the enforcement of liberal values hypostatized to universal norms and constantly translated into legal injunctions. Far from being neutral, this universality is the ideology of the New Class, and it entitles those who have access to it — professionals, experts, intellectuals, etc. — to enforce it on whomever deviates from its mandates. Consequently, any vindication of authentic cultural particularity immediately confronts this New Class as its enemy — an extremely powerful, but morally bankrupt enemy, with no teleology other than the instrumental generalization of the current nihilism, hedonism, and meaninglessness that, in its more lucid moments, it does not really believe in.
As for the possibility of the development of an “Alpine/Central European populism,” Telos is the only journal in the US which has devoted special issues to Lega Nord and the French New Right. The reason for this is that these expressions of a resurgent European (not “Alpine/Central European,” which smells too “Aryan” for comfort) populism seemed for a while to be the most promising candidate to undermine the terminally corrupt European central states and to reconfigure Europe as a federation of much smaller regions or localities able to practice direct democracy and to articulate a genuine cultural particularity. Cultural particularity, however, does not refer to a closed universe, but to a dynamic tradition, inevitably engaged in a continuous dialogue with other similar cultures, and able to learn and to change organically as a result. In other words, this means that Lombards in Italy accept the Sicilians living among them as their equals, Saxons in Germany regard the local Turks as their peers, and Bretons in France respect Algerian immigrants as permanent neighbors.
Communities have nothing to do with race and ethnicity, but with their particular histories, modes of interaction, institutional orders embodying common values, and a shared future. Far from becoming more ethnically, racially, or linguistically homogeneous, these communities are heading in the opposite direction. There is nothing undesirable about a Normandy with some of the Normans speaking different Arabic dialects in addition to French, wearing whatever public attire they deem appropriate (within the parameters of common decency), praying in Mosques or respecting the Sabbath. These ever more common types of ethnically and racially diverse communities are inevitably conflict-ridden. The conflicts they confront, however, need not be destructive. The time when Romeo and Juliet die in the closing act is oven Nowdays, they may divorce, or Romeo may have an affair with his secretary, but, more often than not, they live happily ever after. As with the early Middle Ages, when paganism gradually faded into a flexible Christianity able and willing to integrate it, or with the American experience of the productive co-existence and interaction of a large variety of peoples, Europe will be all that stronger with new, ethnically, linguistically and heterogeneous organic communities unencumbered by a New Class universalizing everyone into conformity. A Europe of such regions and communities will also be able to compete more effectively with the US and other future geopolitical powers. Despite its own bureaucratic involution and attempt to adopt a Jacobin model, the US, because of its deeply ingrained traditions of local autonomy and individual responsibility, remains much more free and open than any European country, and has been able to achieve an economic dynamism and a cultural hegemony Europe will be able to match if and only if it federalizes along populist lines. Unfortunately, the ghost of Nazism still hounds Europe. Even more than in the US, any efforts to reconstruct the continent along regional lines will be branded tendentially fascist. Of course, Haider’s unnecessary provocations about the Nazi full employment policies or the personal integrity of some of the SS personnel do nothing to discourage these charges, any more than do Bossi’s opportunism, corruption and bombast. In time, however, these populist movements may develop a better quality of leaders. If they do, Europe may well be on the way of transcending its “weaker sister” status vis a vis its stronger brother across the ocean.
6. Communitarians-Liberals/ Intellectual Debate in the US
Since the publication of John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice, about 30 years now, political and moral philosophy in the US seems to have had a revival, whose quality, seriousness, and breadth has created a situation rather different from that of political science in Europe. The most popular debate contraposed communitarians (Sandel, McIntyre) to liberals (Dworkin, Rawls), but there are also other tendencies, like the “republicans” (Strauss, Skinner), the “populists” (Lasch), the “libertarians,” the “paleoconservatists,” the “neoconservatists,” etc. From a European perspective, where such debates over ideal political form are clearly less numerous, and sometimes even non-existent, such a breadth remains a dream. What is your opinion about these scholarly debates? To which tendency is Telos closest? What are the essential splits in American political philosophy today?
As the saying goes, the grass always looks greener on the other side. Contrary to what one can infer from the myriad of journals and views circulating in the US, it would be a mistake to conclude that political thought is thriving. The success of Rawl’s book is due primarily to the fact that he has developed precisely the kind of theoretical apology that the American Welfare State needed: a purely procedural account based on allegedly universally-valid premises. Habermas has been trying to do roughly the same thing in Europe with communication theory.
Classical liberalism did not allow for the kind of government expansion necessary to introduce the New Deal and its later versions: the New Frontier and the Great Society. Individualism, minimal government, personal freedom, etc. were all values that the Welfare State had to compromise in order to operate. Fascism and Marxism-Leninism did exactly the same thing in Europe. In openly breaking with bourgeois liberalism, both of them confronted huge legitimation problems that they tried to resolve by recycling custom-made versions of earlier traditions or by outright repression — strategies which were never all that successful and kept the various regimes that deployed them mired in permanent legitimation crises.
The American strategy was much more sophisticated. By denying any radical break with classical liberalism, it managed to retain an unbroken continuity with the past, while bringing about social and political changes as significant as those of fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Thus, it avoided any legitimation crisis and did not have to deploy anything close to the repression unleashed by the other regimes. These are the conclusions reached by the Frankfurt School in the early 1940s, before its break-up and the return to Europe of most of its members. Unable and unwilling to vindicate terminally compromised traditions, they sought to ground their critique in psychology (The Authoritarian Personality) or psychoanalysis (Eros and Civilization), thus further confusing and compromising the integrity of their analyses.
Despite the efforts of the older Dewey and his followers, traditional pragmatism which, up to the early part of the 20th century, had successfully theorized the American federal and populist experience, could not legitimate the New Deal without simultaneously self-destructing. The separation of the axiological dimension and its objectifications into community life from a political arena understood, not as the depoliticized administrative squabbles it has become, but in terms of friend/enemy relations to be negotiated at the federal level, could no longer be maintained. As a project meant to rationalize the federal system by centralizing many of the previously local social functions, the New Deal needed a much more solid justification for displacing that traditional axiological dimension that had been the de facto foundation of the whole system. In attempting to develop such a viable theoretical foundation, the older Dewey and his followers scientized pragmatism by substituting science for the traditional doxa of the various communities and denominations. This meant the self-destruction of pragmatism into a sophisticated version of positivism plus social engineering. This left the American Welfare State without any legitimating moral and political philosophy.
Rawls managed to fill this gap with a theory of justice replete with enthymemes which are hardly ever exposed by his critics. In fact, despite all that has been written on it, with few exceptions the discussion has remained safely within statist parameters. This helps explain why public discourse uncritically assumes the universal validity of particular values, such as “inclusiveness,” the criminalization of “hate speech,” “human rights,” etc. — all values guaranteeing axiological homogeneity and the kind of citizenry the managerial state can best administer. By pretending to protect the most vulnerable members of society, Rawl’s theory of justice legitimates a Welfare State which disempowers all cultural particularity inconsistent with it, by either criminalizing or pathologizing it. Far from having encouraged debate concerning moral and political matters, it has tended to stifle debate by relegating it solely to what this theory considers to be legitimate discourse. Thus, it is not surprising that it is impossible to raise questions concerning differences among the races or to discuss the possibility that Nazi ideology may have been “rational.”
Discussion is extremely difficult also among groups with relatively close outlooks. Thus, e.g., no rational debate was possible between paleoconservatives and communitarians concerning the Kosovo war, with any timid attempt immediately degenerating into hysterical outbursts. Even within particular groups sharing many views, it is often difficult to engage in rational debates. This is not an unusual predicament. The only positive feature in the US, which may differentiate it from Europe, is that a long-standing tradition of free speech makes it very easy to publicize even the most disparate opinions and ideas. Thus, Americans are routinely shocked to discover that most European countries have laws criminalizing, e.g., the denial of the Holocaust or the reconstruction of fascist parties, despite the fact that the US government has been trying to do exactly the same thing, only to be rebuffed by Supreme Court decisions. As long as the Stock Market and the economy stay healthy, moral and political debates, if and when they occur, quickly fade into academic irrelevance.
Any cursory scrutiny of the differences between the two main political parties or of the issues debated during the presidential campaign readily reveals how depoliticized American politics has become. While some general differences remain between statists — barricaded within the Democratic Party — and anti-statists — usually associated with the Republican Party — they do not translate into the ideological split between liberals and communitarians. In fact, most communitarians, from Kazin to Etzioni to Sandel, operate within the Democratic Party orbit, while traditional liberals of all shades (especially the neo-conservatives) are found generally within the Republican Party. Given this state of affairs, there is no clear location for the kind of positions Telos has taken. In defending local autonomy, participatory democracy, and traditional values, the journal remains a political anomaly within a confused and anomalous political context.
7. Multiculturalism and “politically correct”
During the 1990s, two dominant images of the US have crossed the Atlantic. The first one is “multiculturalism,” i.e., the idea that the civil link would be gradually replaced by “communitarian” links of an ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual, etc. nature. The modern image of equality steps aside when confronted with the desire to recognize identities. In figurative terms, the “salad bowl” replaces the “melting pot.” The second American vogue is “politically correctness” (PC). This academic and media-generated mania to euphemize language, to extend indefinitely the field of “discrimination” (by sex, race, opinion, weight, age, etc.) to accord a moral super-legitimacy to all past or present “victims” of the “Western white man” by rewriting all of history in the name of minorities. What do you think of these two phenomena? Do they still have a future? What about the extraordinary success of “deconstructionism” (Derrida, etc.) in American universities? What do you think of the current situation of the new feminism in the US (the phenomenon of “gender studies,” etc.)? Simultaneously, what is your position concerning the undeniable return of infra-national collective identities in the US as well as in Europe?
It would be a serious political mistake to interpret multiculturalism as a communitarian phenomenon. Far from recognizing and legitimating cultural particularities, by subsuming them under “political correctness,” multiculturalism actually tends to homogenize whatever cultural particularity has managed to survive the “Americanization” of a few generations past — the well-documented nationalist and assimilationist policies of Progressivism and of the New Deal. Such a politically correct multiculturalism is a far cry from the kind of communitarian and federalist arrangement envisioned by the “founding fathers” when they drafted the US Constitution and which, despite its erosion during the past century and a half, remains the most distinct feature of American specificity. While, in the first half of the 19th century, the plurality of particular communities was primary and the federal superstructure secondary, politically correct multiculturalism reverses priorities and forces whatever there is left of cultural particularity to conform to the requirements of a Welfare-State liberalism. It has worked surprisingly well in upholding the appearance of a cultural pluralism, while systematically homogenizing society to conform to the requirements of a capitalist system based on mass production, national distribution, and a culture industry mediating between profitable production and manipulated consumption. To the extent that it treats all cultures and differences, no matter how arbitrary and superficial, as organizing principles for the voluntary associations of a civil society well modulated by the central state, multiculturalism must be seen as a “corporatist,” rather than as a “communitarian” phenomenon.
A multiculturalism predicated either on immutable characteristics, such as age, gender, and race, or on tastes in “sexual preference,” clothing, music, and gastronomy may aggregate people according to nature or fashion, but not to those distinct political criteria that constitute real communities. Cultures are internalized, all-encompassing ways to relate to the world, codified into moral and juridical forms whose institutionalization constitutes communities as political entities. While they can and do assimilate new members, they are not reducible to voluntary associations. Since these ways to relate to the world are often objectified into religion and values, their exclusion by Welfare-State liberalism from institutions, legal structures, and public life dooms them to irrelevance. Social interaction and public behavior are now homogenized by the state and the culture industry, while pretending to emanate from an increasingly marginalized pluralistic society. This contradictory predicament is best exemplified by the advertising industry, which constantly encourages everyone to be different and to express this difference by purchasing exactly the same commodity. The rugged individualism of American mythology can now be articulated primarily in the shopping mall. Everything else risks being branded as politically incorrect, calling for therapeutic intervention.
As an inconsequential typology of the aggregation of people according to arbitrary differences, multiculturalism does not designate the kind of political organization necessary to institutionalize communitarianism, but, at best, a sophisticated marketing device segmenting the population into particular categories of consumers. Reduced to another set of irrelevant differences, real cultural particularity, having to do with values and identity, are marginalized in a society ruled by the allegedly universal values of the liberal establishment. This universalist pretense has the unintended consequence of privileging equality over freedom, and of interpreting all inequality irreducible to nature as the result of injustice. Victimology becomes the guiding principle of liberal social policy when this universalistic morality is applied retroactively and all past behavior, now deemed politically incorrect, is automatically criminalized. This is how slavery, a normal condition in the ancient world — so common that practically everyone today has ancestors who at some time or other were slaves — is now demonized as the worst of all crimes. Treating people as anything but pure abstract individuals is branded as unacceptable discrimination.
Thus, a politically and morally correct present not only becomes the measure of the past as a history of injustices and crimes, but is also confronted with the task of having to uncover and to purge the present of all flawed incrustations from the past. Deconstruction becomes fashionable as the way to retrace how this retroactively projected injustice came to be objectified into institutional or customary practices, from the viewpoint of a dogmatically accepted political correctness. Its popularity is based on its automatic deployment of particular liberal values, whose purely procedural status allegedly establishes their universal validity and warrants ubiquitous application. It is the most extreme expression of the dialectic of Enlightenment and of what the late Adorno called “identity logic.”
Since the past always presents itself as immensely complex, necessitating interpretative ordering, it can be approached also from post-colonial or feminist viewpoints. These approaches legitimate particular political positions, and their success is largely a function of the actual unfolding of power politics and how it is managed to guarantee the New Class’ cultural hegemony. The current popularity of postcolonial, feminist, and various other historiographies has little to do with the relegitimation of voices previously silenced within the official histories written by the winners, but with the corporatist strategy of constituting a variety of groups vying for recognition and concessions by a mediating central state, whose legitimacy is thereby automatically guaranteed. The demonization of fascism after WWII has resulted in its almost exclusive identification with authoritarianism and brutality, thus preventing any serious scrutiny of its actual social policies. As a result, when these policies resurface, free of any outright brutality and authoritarianism, they are not recognized for what they are. This is how, in the US, New Class corporatism has been able to pass for communitarianism and, in the process, to contribute to the further obliteration of whatever authentic communitarianism still thrives in rural enclaves or in a political tradition extremely difficult to corrupt.
8. Europe, the Left, the European Union
Telos has followed closely the big intellectual and political debates in Europe. This is rare, and deserves to be emphasized as well as appreciated! You have published very critical texts about the European Left, whose doctrinal weakness and inclination, particularly in France, to indulge in witch-hunts and symbolic lynchings you have often condemned. What is your opinion of the evolution of the Left in Europe — both politically (Blair’s or Schroder’s “third way”) and intellectually (the lack of leading figures, with the possible exception of Habermas)? More generally, what do you think of the construction of the European Union, where the recent “Haider affair” has shown that it was not taking the direction of a federalism “from below”? At present, this Union seems to be reproducing, on a higher level, all the faults of national bureaucracies, which, in turn, triggers the return of various nationalisms: what do you see as the best model for Europe? Finally, what role is Russia likely to play, in the coming years, with respect to its economic needs, its geopolitical interests, and its political and cultural traditions?
The European Left has been in crisis ever since the Bernstein debate at the turn of the last century. The outcome of that debate: the social-democrats’ acceptance of the integration of the labor movement, was challenged most forcefully by an extreme Left, headed by Lenin and Luxemburg, which, instead of merely a “more just” bourgeois society, demanded something qualitatively new. The historical irony is that the new man communist society sought to produce turned out to be a state-dependent individual: nothing more than a bad carbon copy of his bourgeois counterpart, allegedly responsible for all social evils, minus any sense of responsibility, initiative, and originality. Lenin dreamed of a society running as efficiently as the Post Office: unfortunately, that is precisely what happened. At any rate, in both the social-democratic and the Bolshevik case, the degradation of culture –especially traditional culture — to a superstructural epiphenomenon guaranteed the reproduction of the same, if not worse kind of abstract individuality generated by bourgeois society. The Left only accelerated the dynamics described in The Communist Manifesto. Those segments of the Left which rejected the Jacobin model and sought a genuine communitarian alternative (e.g., Gustav Landauer or, later, some of the council communists), while always intellectually attractive, were readily marginalized and never had any significant political impact. As a result, despite its claims to the contrary, throughout the 20th century the official Left has not managed to develop any radical alternative to bourgeois society. In the most extreme cases, as in the Soviet Union and Cambodia, it has only driven the logic of modernity to its most absurd and horrible consequences.
Terminally committed to the Enlightenment, the Left has contraposed knowledge to economic capital — the Party to the owners. The construction of the history of the past two centuries as an economic struggle between two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, has effectively occluded another, more consequential struggle between the bourgeoisie and the New Class. Socialism has generally meant the expropriation of the former by the latter, with the interests of the “proletariat” or the “oppressed” used as an excuse to reconfigure the predominant relations of domination. This does not mean that, e.g., human suffering has not diminished or that nothing has changed, but that the causal pattern is rather different from the one usually depicted by the hegemonic ideology. In this sense, Blair’s and Schroder’s “third way” is nothing new: only the most recent reconfiguration of the redistributive ideology of the New Class, after the Soviet collapse demonstrated once again the ineluctability of capitalist relations. Today, the European Left is not all that different from the Democratic Party in the US, with no claim to legitimacy beyond the quality of its performance. Bernstein said that the movement was everything; the telos, nothing. Now, the telos is even less, and the movement has been reduced to a badly managed corporatist compromise between the irreconcilable interests of feminists, ecologists, labor-unions, various minorities, etc. The “third way” is yet another New Class master-plan to survive in the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, under social-democratic leadership, the European Union is looking more and more like another bureaucratic nightmare. The communitarian alternative of a strong federal Europe of communities unencumbered by national states is as likely to come about as a US based on its original constitutional model. Despite all the warnings about Europe becoming a bad carbon-copy of the US in its worst sense, that is precisely what is happening. Since the European Right is even more committed to the primacy of nation-states than the Left, communitarian prospects in this regard are less than dim. The Haider affair indicates the extent of the intolerance for any deviation from the norm. Even though Haider was no alternative to anything other than proper political rhetoric and an intelligent choice of euphemisms, its demonization is a measure of Europe’s de facto conservatism. Fear to replicate a past not yet fully understood translates into a political paralysis guaranteeing the indefinite extension of present social pathologies into the future.
As for Russia, its prospects are even worse. To the extent that seven decades of Bolshevik rule have done immense, but maybe not irreparable damage to its traditional cultures, any communitarian recovery is going to take even longer than in the rest of Europe. Delusions of grandeur, of being the kind of superpower it never was, further inhibit any cultural recovery. Like the Ottoman Empire a century earlier, Russia will remain “the sick man of Europe,” bungling from Nagorno-Karabaks to Chechnyas, vainly trying to reconcile imperialist dreams with modernizing imperatives. Unlike the American tradition of 19th century populism, its Russian counterpart always had a strong New Class component. Consequently, Russia lacks the kind of historical precedents it could attempt to reactivate in prefiguring a postmodern communitarian future. Thus, it is faced with a road even more rocky than those the EU and the US will have to negotiate in the years ahead.
9. Europe and the US
Since the end of the Soviet system, the US has been the only great world power. Its superiority is obvious in all fields — military, economic, technological, financial, etc. This superiority translates into what is often considered to be, especially in France, hegemony. The products of the American cultural industry (films, songs, television shows, etc.) are becoming more and more popular, thus marginalizing local productions. Great international organizations (IMF, World Bank, NATO, WTO, etc.) are considered to be tools of American foreign policy; financial markets use the dollar, etc. Do you think this critique of American hegemonism is justified, at least on some points, or is it just the expression of resentment by countries unable to adapt to new situations? What do you have to say about the “anti-Americans” coming from the European continent? Does “Atlanticism” still make sense, now that the Soviet Union has disappeared? How do you see the future evolution of relations between Europe and the US: natural convergence or an unavoidable divergence of interests?
American cultural hegemony today can be seen everywhere. What it means, however, is often misunderstood. The usual explanation is that it is the result of economic power and the consequent ability to coerce the rest of the world into accepting it. The standard nationalist reaction everywhere, then, is to call for a boycott, to close the borders and do everything possible to keep the Yankees out. That is a mistake, since, in the age of instant communication, it cannot actually succeed and, when all is said and done, American culture today is world culture. Because of its economic clout and the kind of favorable conditions it affords artists, scientists, scholars, etc., it is able to draw the best from everywhere in the world. Despite the fact that, like all bureaucratic centralist societies, the US is also burdened with severe fiscal restrictions, regulations of all kinds, and myriads of everyday administrative annoyances, when compared to other countries, it looks immensely better: it is less corrupt, more open, and generally much freer than anywhere else. Naturally, the world’s best talent and financial resources tend to converge here and contribute to the kind of cultural hegemony the rest of the world then resents.
The openness of American society has nothing to do with any benevolence or superior competence on the part of its bureaucrats or its ruling New Class. It is the result of the resilience of its traditions of individual responsibility and local autonomy. Despite concerted efforts for over a century to homogenize (“Americanize”) American society, local traditions remain strong. Even the federal bureaucracy, with all its might, has a great deal of difficulty in eroding local government. Unlike in Europe, where the French Revolution took place against traditions, the American Revolution was fought to guarantee local autonomy and self-determination. After the Civil War, the Jacobin model began to penetrate American institutions, but only by presenting itself as an extension of, rather than a break with the original model. The resulting confusion compromises local autonomy (especially in fiscal matters and public financing), but also inhibits outright government intervention.
Of course, most of what American popular culture has to offer, despite its international contributors, is junk. This, however, has less to do with the fact that it is American, than with its being “popular culture.” Everywhere, popular culture has to address the lowest possible denominator and thus to appeal only to the lowest level of taste. There is a further structural problem that gives American cultural products a distinct advantage over European and other competitors. Unlike in the US, where there is no real cultural core or codified long-standing national traditions, and, thus, its new cultural products automatically appeal to the kind of general audience that can be found everywhere in the world, the various European countries have to appeal to idiosyncratic national tastes, which cannot be so easily generalized. While Europe and the rest of the world are internationalizing rapidly, it is unlikely that their various cultures will be able to do as well as the American in the near future.
As for Atlanticism, it is a thing of the past. NATO itself is obsolete and thrives only by default, pending the development of viable alternatives. As the Kosovo affair has shown, however, European countries do not seem willing or able to develop such an alternative or to take the initiative in international crises. Either because of costs, residual distrust, or cultural differences, it seems much easier to collaborate under US leadership than to work out something different among themselves — even under the EU umbrella. There is constant talk of moving in this direction, but unless there will be a series of crises calling for military intervention, Europeans will simply stall indefinitely, finding American hegemony more palatable than any of the more costly alternatives.
On the whole, from a European viewpoint, this is not an altogether unreasonable decision, considering the increasing cultural and economic integration of the US and Europe. What is most likely to cause friction are bureaucratic matters having to do with turf or fiscal policies. This is why free trade may resolve many of these problems, although the loss of national control over domestic policies will remain the source of a considerable amount of frustration.
10. The Debate With the “New Right”
It has been a couple years now since you started an important debate with the French “New Right,” to which you devoted a special double issue. It is actually something more than just a debate. While the war in Serbia has uncovered some lingering disagreements concerning certain questions, Alain de Benoist regularly appears on your pages, you translated and published the entire Manifesto of “The French New Right for the Year 2000,” etc. What led you to discover and popularize the French New Right? Why did it attract your interest?
The French New Right is probably one of the most interesting intellectual currents to develop since the 1960s. Unlike most other schools of thought, which have generally undergone a process of internal involution, the French New Right — especially Alain de Benoist — has had the courage to confront and to learn from whatever other sources there are. It was a pleasant surprise for Telos to discover that a lot of the original ideas of the New Left, which were later dropped in favor of more fashionable liberal views, had been taken up and developed by people coming from entirely different backgrounds in France — a country which until then, except for Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s appropriation of some aspects of German phenomenology, we had found to be most unreceptive to foreign ideas. The French New Right, despite its name, has successfully transcended the Left/Right split which, while rejected in theory and no longer defensible in practice, remains in place almost everywhere. Its concern with communitarianism, federalism, direct democracy, identity, the critique of liberalism, the thought of Carl Schmitt, etc. corresponded with our own concerns in the 1990s.
Left dogmatism, which we have criticized from the very founding of Telos, made us initially very cautious in confronting what was being described as recycled neo-Nazism in a theoretically acceptable garb. We took great care in examining the French New Right’s various positions –especially since, at that time, it was the subject of a violent attack by the French Left in Paris. But we found very little we disagree with and much of great interest. When we devoted a special issue of Telos to its ideas, we took the time to indicate precisely where we agreed and disagreed. Our initial reservations concerning its “paganism,” its typically French anti-Americanism, its attempt to reconstruct European identity independently of a Christianity dismissed as a foreign encrustation, its excessive emphasis on seemingly trivial racial matters, etc. remain. But, on the whole, we find it the sort of group worth debating with and learning from. Anyway, unlike, e.g., many of the paleo-conservatives or most of the doctrinaire Left in the US, it is one of the few groups we have found that can accept disagreements and continue fruitful discussions.
(*) This interview was carried out by e-mail. It is to appear in French in elements, to give an overview of Telos’ trajectory over the years and to explain some of the positions taken by some of the editors. It appears here in order to provide the same overview to the current readership of Telos, which may not be altogether familiar with this history.
[Telos; Fall99 Issue 117, p133, 34p]