A few weeks ago at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), when Steve Bannon, Donald J. Trump’s White House chief strategist, laid out the principle of “the deconstruction of the administrative state” as one of the immediate objectives of the Trump administration, there followed a storm of commentaries. For academics in the humanities, it was a perfect setting to mock ‘deconstruction’, and assert the un-political character of this so called “theoretical trend” in the academia, easily linking Derrida with Bannon’s strategic plan.
Just to cite one of many examples, French writer Alain Mabanckou twitted: “Steve Bannon, le mentor de Trump parle de “deconstruction” du povuir de Washington. Deconstrution? Srait-il un lecteur de Derrida?”. Many more followed on social media and in academic groups. These witty remarks were, of course, written under the sign of irony, which is certainly a central stimmung of our time. But irony is also one of the most serious genres to discuss a serious affair, of which I would like to briefly contemplate. Of course, my intention is not to defend Derrida, or even worse, to prove that Bannon has not read Derrida. I am sure that Bannon has not read Derrida, and even if he has heard of him, or someone told him a few things about deconstruction as a critical strategy of contemporary thought, this is irrelevant.
Bannon’s usage of deconstruction of the administrative state is correct, although in another sense. For one thing, deconstructing the administrate state is a technical term used in sociology and political science analysis as it relates to the fiscal state. In his new book Democracy against Domination (2017), Sebeel Rahman discusses the deconstructive force of computative fiscal logic over institutional structures and governmental regulatory bureaucracy . In a good portion of the literature, whenever the notion of deconstruction of the administrative state is used, it refers directly to the dismantling of the fiscal regulatory apparatus (see Norris 2000). Whereas it might, at first sight, seem that Bannon is misinformed or just downright clownish, he is deeply versed in the specific discipline that he wants to target; mainly, political science of the welfare state as it has been discussed from the New Deal onwards.
One could press this point even further: the idea that Bannon wants to ‘deconstruct the administrative state’ does not merely amount to ‘more neoliberalism’ as cultural critics seem to reduce the problem. This is part of the truth, but not the whole truth. The attempt to attack the administrative state entails a serious assault on the rule of law, since as the most intelligent constitutionalists have recently noted, the administrative state is today the legal structure that has supplanted legitimacy over the deficit of presidentialism of the executive branch. Adrian Vermuele (2016) makes it clear that the administrative state is the law’s greatest triumph after the weakening of the separation of powers. This ultimately entails, that perhaps Bannon is well aware that it is not enough to destroy a democratic society from the standpoint of a sovereign executive, since it must be done from the very place where the rule of law resides, and this is where the administrative state plays a fundamental role. Bannon’s deconstructive gesture goes to the heart of the rule of law, which we have already started seeing as a check mechanism to Trump’s rampant executive unilateralism. Hence, the rumor that says that Bannon is a Leninst should be taken very seriously: Leninism seeks the destruction of the state and rule of law in order to create a dictatorship of the proletariat, which is Bannon’s civilizational response to globalization . Bannon is a full-fleshed anti-institutionalist who admires not only Lenin, but also the decade of the thirties that he has called “exciting”.
At this point, it is perhaps almost unnecessary to say that Derrida’s deconstruction has little do with Bannon’s loaded attack on institutions of the welfare state. However, what is important is to note that Bannon’s articulation of deconstruction is inequivalent to Derrida, and a comparison becomes only possible if one subscribes to a transparent conceptual reservoir of the linguistic turn in order to abuse it. Thus, whenever a linguistic component is emphasized as hyperbolic of intellectual thought, the latter is suspended to favor an easy advantage in tandem with anti-politics.
Derrida emphasized that deconstruction was a condition of democracy, and that democracy could not take place without deconstruction. Democracy is really not a political concept in Derrida’s thought. It is not reducible to a tradition of “intellectual history”, and not even to the primal causation of life as predicated in the political. Such was, for Derrida, the exemplary nature of Mandela . But to the extent that it solicits unconditional hospitality, it alters the alterity of the singular that is never reducible to political finality. This coming of friendship or non-enmity is another way of thinking through an infrapolitical existence. It is this demotic existence beyond the political what Bannon wants to destroy and obstruct in a move that is both fully ultra-political and non-political.
- K. Sebeel Rahman. Democracy against Domination. Manhattan: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- “Steve Bannon, Trump’s top guy, told me he was ‘A Leninst’ who wants to ‘destroy the State’. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/22/steve-bannon-trump-s-top-guy-told-me-he-was-a-leninist.html
- Jacques Derrida. The Politics of Friendship. London: Verso, 2005. P.102-106. “Admiration of Nelson Mandela, or The Laws of Reflection”, Law & Literature, Vol.26, 2014.