A noncatastrophic politics. Some notes on Erich Unger’s Politics and Metaphysics (1921). by Gerardo Muñoz

Erich Unger’s Politics and Metaphysics (1921), published just a year before Political Theology (1922), fully captures the spirit of the epoch: it is the moment when politics becomes catastrophic; a vehicle for war conflagration, an instrument for the acceleration of technology, and the spatial fragmentation of civil society and state. The overcoming of man through technology meant a new ‘reality principle’ in which the species were forced to adapt to an abstract process of catastrophic metabolic regulation. Unger’s essay, thoroughly ignored at the time of its publication, was a product of what in Political Theology (1922) was labeled as the force of indirect immanent powers. And from his side, Walter Benjamin, in his preparatory notes for his essay on violence, made the obscure remark that Unger’s Politics and Metaphysics (1921) ultimately favored the ‘overcoming of capitalism’ through errancy (at times translated as “migration”, which has been recently corrected by Fenves & Ng’s critical edition of the “Critique of Violence”) [1]. Indeed, in his short tract, Unger called for a “non-catastrophic politics”, which he understood as coming to terms with the problem of metaphysical structuration and positionality, and for politics to have a chance a principle of exodus was needed. This goes to show why Schmitt reacted against this spirit of the epoch, going as far as to say that his “concept of the political ” was the unified response to a sentiment of a whole generation, as well as the detector of enemies of the political demarcation [2]. In contrast, for Unger modern political autonomy had collapsed, and catastrophe now expressed itself as a civilizational problem of living forms, and so it demanded a confrontation with the problem of unity and separation of politics and metaphysics.

Politics is not metaphysics, but it had to be confronted with it if a non-catastrophic politics is to be imagined. This meant a new conception of the problem of “life”, which in Unger’s speculative philosophy received its historicity from immanence through the temporality of the tragic. The psychic separation between metaphysics and politics (a politics of the subject and subjection) meant fundamentally a catastrophic politics, which Unger read against the backdrop of the Oskar Goldberg’s Hebrew speculative reversal as a new re-constitution of the people (Volk) outside the fixation of the state. All of this is connected to his previous work on the stateless dimension of the Hebrew people in a short tract entitled Die staatslose Bildung eines jüdischen Volkes (1922). For Unger, the Hebrew prophetic rulers were not just a form of government, but rather also of healers, practitioners of a “techné alupias” of psychic intensification in the business of instituting an autoregulation between the metaphysical and the political.

The contrast with Carl Schmitt’s position is, once again, illuminating to say the least: whereas the figure central to Schmitt’s juridical thinking is that of the Pauline Katechon, the restrainer against the apocalyptic catastrophe; for Unger, no stranger to theological myth, appealed to a Parakletos of a universal People (Volk), coming to one as a single consciousness against unreality. The theological drama that informed the positions of both Schmitt and Unger, recasted the problem of separation the central concern of a particular thinking in a time of constituent power (and its infrastructure in the principle of civil society). But whereas Schmitt’s Katechon depends on an institutional mediation conditioned by revelation and authority; Unger’s non-catastrophic politics evokes a ‘people’ emptied of patrimony as reservoir of new energies for the unification of reality against psychic imbalance. Against the “relentless forms of domination”, Unger did not appeal to institutional mediation of the moderns, but instead to the interiority of the species that, in turn, required a “political principle of exodus”:

The principle of the exodus can end the civil war and represent the presupposition for the emergence of real political units, thus putting an end to those centrifugal tendencies which are lethal for any real synthesis. This principle of separation of communities operates an external delimitation of the Material to give rise to a possible real unity. It now considers establishing the basic regulatory principles of its internal structure.” [3]

The principle of exodus of politics meant, all things considered, the opening the metaphysical order of the possible against what was understood as domination of the species within the paradigm of civil war. It is telling that for Unger, like for Carl Schmitt, the true force to be confronted is that of the stasiological force, or nihilism, as the condition for the catastrophic politics in the perpetuity of separation during time of finality (Endgultigkeit) in historical transformation. For Unger this was no easy task, nor fully passive and open to gnostic reversal. On the contrary, it is connected to “a kind of intellectual orientation required of anything who might wish to understand this reflection” [4]. This is ultimately tied to Unger’s most enduring idea in Politics and Metaphysics (1922) – at least for some of us that look with suspicion anything that the contemporary has to offer today, or that has ever offered – which is the metapolitical universities, not mere supplementary communities against the politics of catastrophe, but rather practical forms of encounter, languages, and exercises in thought that return the dignity to the shipwrecked fragments in the field of immanence.

Unger knew very well that there was no absolute “exteriority”, and so the defense of a metapolitical university was offered not as a “new political unit” of intellectuals leading the masses, but something quite different: the encounter of a finality that is not knowledge but “the effective treatment of the concrete” elevating itself from mundane understanding of social knowledge [5]. This is no collective practice either, since the discriminatory point assumes the internal perspective of the instance of “intensification” [6]. And intensification is not executed from the coordinates immanence of the social but rather as a ‘possibility of an elevation (Steigerbarkeit) capable of returning to reality against a non-catastrophic politics. For Unger the notion of elevation – necessarily to destroy the compulsory mimesis and automatic recursiveness of subjection – is predicated as a path of innerness, “that is, in the inclusion of originally alien psychical factors within a single consciousness” [7]. The metapolitical universities were, hypothetically, hubs for the concrete practice of elevation vacant of any universal pretensions of unreality. Here Unger, like Schmitt, does not propose an exodus from politics, but rather an elevation to a coming politics whose mediation is neither annihilation nor exchange, but rather the imagination and concrete practice of organization. The question, of course, is whether the politics of exodus today has not also collapsed to the catastrophic (no longer an exception to it but immanent to the logic of equivalence), which means implies a relocation: the practice of the metapolitical university, mutatis mutandi, now presupposes an exodus from politics.

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Notes 

1. Peter Fenves & Julia Ng (eds.). Walter Benjamin: Toward The Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition (Stanford University Press, 2022), 92.

2. Carl Schmitt. Glossarium: Anotaciones desde 1947 hasta 1958 (El Paseo, 2019), 240. 

3. Erich Unger. Politica e metafisica (Edizioni Cronopio, 2009), 87.

4. Ibid., 92.

5. Ibid., 23.

6. Ibid., 100.

7. Ibid., 24.

The closure of the eon of the state. On Lo cóncavo y lo convexo: escritos filosóficos-político (2022) by Jorge E. Dotti. by Gerardo Muñoz.

The posthumous volume Lo cóncavo y lo convexo: escritos filosóficos-político (Guillermo Escolar, 2022) of essays by the late political theorist Jorge E. Dotti is a very much needed contribution that opens up a conversation about a theoretical corpus that witnessed the collapse of the modern state and the crisis of its political categories in times of postliberal forms of global domination. Although an astute observer of the key moments in modern Argentine political history (from Peronism to the dictatorship, from the return to democracy to the failure of the democratic socialist party experiment), Dotti’s intellectual stamina remained on the margins of political adventurism, while openly rejecting the organic intellectual political advisor to heads of state. As editor Damian Rosanovich writes in his introduction, Dotti refused to subordinate his political thinking to immedaite ideological projects; a rather unique position to undertake in a national context like the Argentine, historically inclined towards philosophia militants of the national popular type [1]. Complementary to this inclination, Dotti’s political thinking also had little to say (at least in a direct manner) to the Latin-Americanist disputes about state modernization, regionalism as supranational identity, or cultural formation hegemonies that dominated twentieth century discussions in the region.

Dotti’s theoretical ambitions had a more prudential wager: a confrontation against all kinds of abstract universalities, as well as its partner in crime, locational exceptionalism always ready to infuse doctrinal flavor unto nominal situations and practical problems. A modernist political thinker at heart, Dotti was also a keen observer of the the modern state genealogical crisis, which he read in a tripartite scheme that included the classics of modern political thought (Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Kant), modern philosophy of positive law (infomed by his research years in the Italian context), and finally the work of Carl Schmitt on sovereignty, divisionism, the exception, and the difficulty of “revolution” as the esoteric form of political crises. As an heir to this modern tradition, for Dotti modernity is best defined not as predicated on contingency or anthropological reserves, but rather about a certain ethos, historical in nature and spatially grounded (in this way his vision was close to that of JGA Pocock and the Cambridge School, although less emphatic to the centrality of concepts), which claimed that the political thinking of the classics had to their disadvantage the idealization of every practical situational problems encountered in concrete determinations [2]. In this way, Modernity was best defined as a struggle against abstraction and the taming of indirect powers over the configuration of social stability and endurance.

The classics of political thought, while claiming the intrinsic political nature of man and the primacy of organic totality over every principle of differentiation, imposed a nomalist metaphysics that turned its back to discrete and discontinuous situations. For Dotti at the heart of modern politics – very much in line with Hobbes’s critique of Aristotelian critique of the virtuous politics – is rooted in a practice that is attentive to practical reasons for action and the normative foundation of a social order. Hence, the modern ethos was able to favor the primacy of authority (auctoritas non veritas facit legem) as a minimalist non-substantive framework of public law. In other words, prior to doctrinal and categorical arrangement of modern political theories (social contract, constituent power, or individual conscience), authority helped dissolve the anarchy over words and actions proper to the European civil wars. Needless to say, legal positivism had to walk along modern subjectivity (“Quiero, luego existo…”) inadvertently promoting, while neutralizing, the latency of civil war from its inception. As Dotti claims in an essay on Melville too long to be included in this volume: “Quien contrata se concede el derecho de desencadenar la guerra civil” [3]. The concrete situation of the modern ethos, in this sense, is never enough for containment; and its positive arrangements, being insufficient, will ultimately depend on direct police powers. The story of political modernity is that of legality trumpeting legitimacy for optimal reasons of political control. The insufficiency of the modern political order entails that politics and nihilism walked every step of the way too near each other.

This outlook towards political modernity renounces all nostalgia as it is a genealogical critique. This position speaks to Dotti’s systematic dialogue with Carl Schmitt’s juristic thinking regarding the polemic over secularization of the state and its political categories. Like very few political thinkers of modernity, Dotti accepts Schmitt’s lessons without prejudices and against the political black legends (Schmitt as the poisonous enemy of legal positivism, political liberalism, archaic Catholic, or ally of Nazism) that have been incapable to comprehend the German jurist lessons. If according to Raymond Aaron Schmitt was far from thinking like a Nazi, Dotti take this promises to more refined elaborations: the combination of decisionism and institutional rule of law coagulate an compossitum whose main aim is to regulate the internal functions of validity of the every political order [4]. The force of political theology, then, is neither doctrinal nor axiological, but rather attentive to situational stress of instances as to deter the indirect powers and the logistics of immanence [5]. Dotti understands Schmitt’s political theology as a decision that is only possible within a normative system in order to guarantee the authority of the state. The minimalist conception of political-theology stands as the antithesis of immanent factional ends, which, ultimately, reality will venge in the worst possible ways [6]. Adjacent to the modernist ethos against indirect powers, Dotti’s stages the copernican discovery’ of Schmittian thought: the autonomy of the political as the only category capable of defending the sovereignty of the state in an energetic manner without stepping into either a hyperpolitical or an apolitical vectors common to messianic and subjectivist positions. If for Schmitt there were few things more modern than the battle against the political, for Dotti the consecration of global postmodern time opened a crisis of the political and the expansion of the field of immanence which freely drives “por la autopista preferential de la corriente antipolítica” in which all politics is exception and all exceptions are treated as antagonism for the political [7]. The epochal dispensation of total immanence of power means a liquidation of the regulatory conception of the political as well as the formal recognition of enmity within the modern state now vested into the global fabric of Empire.

Dotti’s scene of writing is that of the closure of the eon of the liberal secular state from its very conditions that made possible the development of its genesis. It is in this specific sense that Dotti’s prognosis is similar to that of Ernst W. Böckenförde’s famous theorem: the liberal secular state survives by conditions that it can no longer guarantee [8]. For both Böckenförde and Dotti the epigonal process of secularization meant the end of state authority and the exhaustion of the separation of state legitimacy and the internal legal rules for social action. Dotti, however, introduces a minimal although fundamental nuance to Böckenförde’s theorem: the liberal state collapses not at the apex of the compilation of secularization, but rather at its very origins in the notion of revolution. This is a lesson extracted from Political Theology II: the ius reformandi of the ecclastical powers soon became an unlimited ius revolutionis of subjective domination during the nineteenth century. [9]. It is to this transformation that political theology effectively looks to respond to. In fact Dotti suggests that the category of revolution is the strongest force to be secularized, which entails that what paved the way for the modern liberal state becomes an open ended indirect force against all mediations of legitimate rule. As Dotti writes in his late essay “Incursus teológico político”: “Estado y revolución son inseparables en su complementación y en su simultánea oposición inconciliable. Esta relación es el cogollo mismo de la legitimación de todo orden político moderno: está en el origen y la muerte de la era de la estatalidad.” [10] The immanent force of revolution has no single figure: it is the movement against state sovereignty, the emergence of the total state in the twentieth century, as well the legal interpretation of statutes as idealistic forms (as in the jurisprudence of Robert Alexy) that intensifies a permanent state of exception whose real end is now a power for “definition, differentiation, regulation” as the tripartite form of political struggle. In this framework, the revolutionary spirit against formal mediation and authority can only take the form of an uninterrupted holy war against its enemies without end [11].

To the extent that revolution does not disappear but becomes unmatched immanent power, it becomes possible to understand Dotti’s central theorem in its proper light: “the problem with the revolution is not how to make it, but rather how to bring it to a close” [12]. There are at least two things we can say regarding the theorem: first, political modernity was fundamentally understood as the making of the revolution without any attention to formal mediation and the autonomy of the political; secondly, even the exponents of political liberalism during the second half of the twentieth century did not think of a revolution as closure, but rather they continued to foment an aperture based on a necessary retheologizaiton. It is in this way that John Rawls’ social state depends on a specific conception of original sin for equity; while Ronald Dworkin’s defense of principles and moral interpretative constitutionalism reintroduces a secularized form of the old iusnaturalist model. The socialization of the modern state at the historical instance of its eclipse had to pay the price of abandoning its commitments to both Pelagianism and positive law on behalf of a permanent exceptionality now dressed as the balancing of social equity. It is an irony that the two strongest attempts at the secularization of the concept of the revolution provided, in turn, a restitution of theological hidden subtleties that are ultimately optimal for the transformation of the rule of law into an instrument of world legal revolution. And, it is no coincidence that the closure of the eon of the state meant the end of exclusive legal positivism, while socializing the state police powers as compensatory for the collapse of the modern transcendental authority. The alleged neo-liberal state now subsists as an all encompassing administrative rule that mimics the practice of the confessional state. This could explain why today some jurists continue to understand the practical function of the administrative state as the concrete instance to constitute an uninterrupted iustitium. Dotti’s comprehensive and panoramic view of the modern tradition and its conceptual fulmination leaves open a task for future political thought: how would the closure of revolution might look like? This is no optimist question, as the only honest answer must depart from the farewell of the modern state, while also rejecting the substantive, doctrinal, and militant reallocations of power that steer, but never bring to an end, the violence of a planetary unity devoid of separation or enmity.

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Notes 

1. Jorge Dotti. Lo cóncavo y lo convexo: los escritos filosoficos-polilicos (Guillermo Escolar, 2022)

2. Ibid., 133.

3. Ibid., 28.

4. Ibid., 174.

5. Ibid., 176.

6. Ibid., 26. 

7. Ibid., 79. 

8. Ernst W. Böckenförde. “The Rise of the State as a Process of Secularization”, en Religion, Law, and Democracy: Selected Writings (Oxford U Press, 2022). 167.

9. Carl Schmitt. Political Theology II (Polity, 2008  ), 101. 

10. Ibid., 434.

11. Ibid., 424.

12. Ibid., 421.