De Maistre’s modern politonomy. by Gerardo Muñoz

The conservative Spanish political theorist Jesus Fueyo used to say that given that politics is not strictly a science, it always requires an attitude to vest the political. This holds true especially for the reactionary tradition given their sharp and distinctive rhetorical style, which at times it can outweigh the substantive orientation of its principles, doctrines, and immediate commitments. The attitude towards the political defines and frames the energy of the political, and it helps to define a politonomy, or the laws of its political conception. This is particularly relevant in Joseph De Maistre’s work, who doctrinally was a monarchist, legitimist, and, if we are to take Isaiah Berlin’s words, also a dogmatic precursor of fascism [1]. For a classical liberal like Berlin, De Maistre’s critique of liberalism all things considered (contractualism, deism, separation of powers, public deliberation, and individual civil liberties) amounted to a fascist threat. This reading crosses the line towards doctrinal and substance but it says little about its politonomy. On the contrary, what surprises (even today, as I was rereading some of his works) about De Maistre is the recurrent emphases on political autonomy, which automatically puts him in the modernist camp against doctrinal theologians and otherworldly moralists who do not truly classify as counterrevolutionaries. But insofar as the counterrevolution presupposes the revolutionary event, we are inhabiting the modern epoch. Furthermore, and as Francis Oakley has shown, even De Maistre’s classical ultramontane book The Pope (1819) emphases the authority of the pope against history, tradition, and the conciliarist structure of the Church [2]. In this sense, De Maistre taken politonomically is no different from Hamilton’s energetic executive or the sovereign decisionism that put an end to the confessional state.

In fact, De Maistre’ conception of politics measures itself against a “metaphysics of politics” which he links to German universality of the modern subject and Protestantism. Against all ideal types, for De Maistre politics is always best understood as politonomy; that is, a second order political authority that validates itself against the insecurity, unpredictability, and radical disorder of the modern revolutionary times [3]. For the counterrevolutionary position to take hold, the volatile modern reality of the political needs first to be accepted as well as the positivist emergence of modern constitutionalism. Indeed, De Maistre’s critique of written constitutions in the “Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions” is leveled against the assumption that text is all there is to preserve order and institutional arrangement.

De Maistre argues that there is also an unwritten dimension that functions to preserve authority and genealogical force of the political regarding who has the last word in all matters of public decisions (something not too strange in contemporary jurisprudence). Of course the function of the unwritten for De Maistre has a divine origine but its assignment is to control the proliferation of discussion that weakens institutional authority, thus pouring a war over the meaning of words (this was the same problem that Hobbes confronted regarding interpretation). De Maistre’s attack against textualism and incredulity of the written text of positive law was exerted in the name of a defense of a sovereign transcendence as the sole guardian of the institutional stability [4]. This is why De Maistre defends a combination of traditional unwritten Common Law with sovereign rule guarding institutional continuity. The politonomic condition elucidates that institutional arrangement is proper to a concrete order, and not doctrinally about the Church regarding secular temporal matters. This is why the Pope enjoys sovereign immunity from the doctrinal production of the Church that allows for the emerge of politonomy.

In a way this becomes even more obvious from what at first appears as De Maistre’s most controversial and antimodern treatise Letters on the Spanish Inquisition, where he takes neither the role of the theologian nor of Hispanic monarchic providence, but rather that of modern autonomy of the political conditioned by civil power: “…any great political disorder – any attack against the body of the state – be prevented or repelled by the adoption of energetic means” [5]. Notwithstanding the different ends, this is not very different from The Federalist’s conception of executive power as energetic for second order of institutional threats. What’s more, emptying all christological substances of the Inquisition, De Maistre defines its practice from a politonomical viewpoint: “The Inquisition in its origin was an institution demanded and reestablished by the King of Spain, under very difficult and extraordinary circumstances…under control, not of the priesthood, but of the civil and royal authority” [6]. For De Maistre even a religious and clearly antimodern institution like the Inquisition was a first a political institution that was required to obey the “lawful and written will of the Sovereign” [7].

This polarity also attests to De Maistre’s politonomy: in a context where positive sola scriptura triumphed, he recommended the internal genealogical control and sovereign decisionism; whereas in monarchical Spain where no revolution had taken place, the Inquisition had to respond to norms, written laws, and civil power. This could explain at least two things: on the one hand, why De Maistre’s political philosophy was discarded and regarded with suspicious by Hispanic royalists and Carlists; and secondly, why De Maistre understood political economy in his text on commerce and state regulation regarding grain trade in Geneva [8]. Here one can see how the structure of politonomy aims at regulating the constant friction of norm and the exception in a specific institutional arrangements. To return to our starting point: the reactive attitude towards subjective politics was also modern insofar as it breaks radically with the classical view of politics that understood itself as oriented towards the good, the virtuous, and equity balancing (epikeia). If modern politics opens as an abyssal fracture, then politonomy is always the management of a catastrophic, fallen, and demonic dimension of politics. Thoroughly consistent with the dialectic of the modern epoch and its oppositorum, politics becomes destiny precisely because religious sacrifice has ceased to guarantee social order in the temporal kingdom. Politonomy emergences as the formal science of the second-best; that is, an effective way, by all means necessary, of administrating aversion given that “sovereignty is always taken and never given” [8].




1. Isaiah Berlin. “Joseph De Maistre and the Origins of Fascism”, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Princeton U Press, 1990), 91.

2. Francis Oakley. The Conciliarist Tradition Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church (Oxford U Press, 2003). 201. 

3. Joseph De Maistre. “Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and Other Human Institutions”, in Major Works, Vol.1 (Imperium Press, 2021). 4. 

4. Ibid., 42-43. 

5. Joseph De Maistre. On the Spanish Inquisition (Imperium Press, 2022). 6

6. Ibid., 18.

7. Ibid., 49.

8. Joseph de Maistre. “Report on the commerce of grain between Carauge and Geneva”, in The More Moderate Side of Joseph de Maistre (McGill Queen U Press, 2005), 230. 

9. Joseph de Maistre. St. Petersburg Dialogues (McGill Queen U Press, 1993), 263.

John Rawls and the justice of civil war. by Gerardo Muñoz

Nowhere in his published work does John Rawls treats the concept of civil war explicitly or by that matter in relation of his concept of political liberalism, although it is central to genesis. In a Spring semester of 1969 lecture at Harvard University, which remains for the most part unknown and only alluded by specialists of his (although never subject to substantive treatment), “Moral Problems: Nations and War”, Rawls takes up the problem on its merits [1]. This is a lecture that took place in the wake of the Vietnam war, the post-1968 context, and during the years of the definite settling of “global civil war” intensifying in every corner of the world. There is little that Rawls when treating the problem of war within the tradition of liberalism, was also aware of the factical nature of war of his present; that is, the transformation of war as a legitimate declaration between nations (at that point outlawed by the international Kellogg-Briand Pact) to a predominately a war within nations, that is, a permanent civil war. In this lecture – which one does not need to summarize given its broad historical strokes and technical determinations – Rawls crafts an typology wars in international law, as construed by the ius gentium, a theme that will later be the subject of his late book in international relations principles Laws of the People (1993). What is surprising is that in this typology, Rawls defines civil war as a thorough conflict aiming at “social justice” to transform the state. A civil war, then, is no longer what precedes the foundation of ‘legitimate authority’ proper to sovereignty, but it is rather the means by which something like “justice” becomes the mediation of the “Social”.

From this it follows, that for Rawls civil wars either neither wars of aggression or wars of sessions, two forms that would be exclusionary to his definition grounded on ‘Justice’. Hence, the “justification” of civil war could only be a just war insofar as its aim grounded in social justice as the effective realization of the well-being of all the inhabitants of the polity. For Rawls this was the ‘active’ continuation of the ideal of the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, one could claim that for Rawls civil war is the continuation of revolution after the principle of universal recognition was achieved through rights. The ideal of Justice, then, was never the well-ordered natural law theory of revolutionary change (endorsed by many Jacobins, such as Saint-Just), but rather an intra-level recognition of social rules within the plural system of value differences. Coinciding with the development of positive law as grounded in social facts and guided by a ‘rule of recognition’ (in H.L.A Hart’s well-known elaboration), Rawls’ theory of civil war was the mechanism for a social fact-based conception of justice that was predicated in the optimization of risks, regulations, and re-distrubution of post-recognition equity of the activist state. Indeed, social justice insofar it was no longer merely sovereign authority, took the function of social facts through the administration of a permanent social civil war.

Neither an event nor an exception, civil war for Rawls is a free-standing metapolitical paradigm of the new “transformative” conception of the Social ordered purposely around the principle of Justice. Paradoxically, the conditions of promoting “social justice” (whose echoes we still hear today from the political class as well as from the jargon of academic political ideology) is not limited to the “veil of ignorance” or the “originary position” for social action, but rather in the actualization of a latent stasiological paradigm. This esoteric unity is neither an exception nor a deviation from Rawls’ mature political thinking around social justice; but as all true political paradigms, an invariant mode of his thinking. This is why he points in the 1969 lecture the Spanish civil war as paradigm of stasis as social justice, and in his essay “My religion”, the American Civil War led by the exceptional executive authority of Abraham Lincoln as necessary to the “original sin” of human slavery [2]. And as Eric Nelson has convincingly argued, the anti-pelagian conception of sin in Rawls’ thought amounts to a secularized theodicy of social force: a regulatory physics in the aftermath of the crisis of the sovereign state. Although ignored by Nelson, the full picture of Rawlsian conception of the “Social” is not complete if one does not take into account the stasiological paradigm that legitimizes the aims of social justice. And if the internal conflict is latent within the Trinitarian ontology (as Political Theology II suggests) there is little doubt that the transformative model of Liberalism rather than moving the conditions of politics forward, ends up descending to the terrain of Christian political theology that it never abandoned.

But is it even ‘transformative’ within the conditions of the Christian model that it allegedly secularized? Is the primacy on social justice on civil war truly a political theology, or rather the consequential triumph of theology over the institutionality to restrain the ballistic aspiration of social hegemony? Both questions collapse if tested on the grounds offered by Carl Schmitt regarding both political theology and the critique of moral neutralization of values as direct application of the principle of Justice, which would turn social relations into pure subjection, a form of Homo homini Radbruch (Rabruch referring to the Radbruch formula of an unjust of law as non-law, thus requiring principles) [3]. What is “just” to a hegemonic stance indicates a clear crisis of institutional deficiency in the face of what values determine the scope and content of the “Just”.

Similarly, the transformative conception of Rawlsian “activist liberalism” is closer to the realism of latent civil war than what the Christian idea required on a thing and minimalist basis; which, according to Ladner implied retreat form the social as well as from liturgical participation. On the contrary, rather than moral unity, reform entailed a separation, solus ad solum, in order to transform the habits and costumes without direct enforcement [4]. Contrary to the Christian monastic ius reformandi, Rawls’ renovation of political liberalism, vis-à-vis the civil war paradigm, accepted the hellish reality of the social by affirming “social justice” as the only real means for subjective social cohesion. And if the just war principle stood largely under the guidance of positive sovereign rules and commands; the deployment of justice of civil war will be based on the exertion of principles and higher content without end. The true efficacy of civil war alien to the concept of the political, made possible a regime of socialization on the mere basis of values stratification and moral abstraction.



1. John Rawls. “Moral Problems: Nations and War”, Spring 1969, Harvard University. Harvard U Library Archives. 

2. John Rawls. “On my religion”, in A brief inquiry into the meaning of sin and faith (Harvard U Press, 2009), 263.

3. Carl Schmitt. “Un jurista frente a sí mismo: entrevista de Fulco Lanchester a Carl Schmitt”, Carl-Schmitt-Studien, 1. Jg. 2017, 212.

4. Gerhart B. Ladner. The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action (Harper Torchbooks, 1969), 322.

Politics as substantive morality: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (VI). by Gerardo Muñoz

In section 79 of Gramsci’s Notebook 6 we are offered a strong definition of “politics” that I think illuminates the core of the Gramscian program fundamentally as a substantive morality. Gramsci writes the following against the “particularism” of normal associations (say the aristocracy, the elite, or the vanguard): “[an universal] association does not set itself up as a definite and rigid entity but as a something that aims to extend itself to a whole social grouping that is itself conceived as aiming to unify all humanity. All these relationships give a universal character to the group ethic that must be considered capable of becoming a norm of conduct for humanity as a whole. Politics is conceived a process that will culminate in a morality; in other words, politics is seen as leading towards a form of sociality in which politics and hence morality as well are both superseded.” (30). It is an astonishing definition, given the precise way it mobilizes the content of this new politics. Of course, there is the explicit the Hegelianism of the ‘universalist’ translation through the dialectical conflation between state and civil society, which just a few sections prior to 79, Gramsci deploys in order to posit the ultimate goal of communist society. 

But in this section he goes further, since it becomes clear that the state and civil society, as they march towards an ‘integral state’, dissolves politics into pure morality. But Gramsci immediately clarifies that it is not just a “morality” of a new dominant class (which could still be contested vis-a-vis other values), but rather a “morality that is superseded”. This is an absolute morality beyond value disputes. In other words, it is an absolute morality that needs to be so because state and civil society have become a unified whole. Concretely, this means the dissolution of politics and of any concrete order of the republican tradition, which recognizes that, precisely because civil war is the latent in the social, no morality can be granted hegemonic status. At bottom, this is the reason why we need politics and institutions to mitigate conflict. The Gramscian moral universe frames a world in which the conflict not only disappears, but rather it becomes pure morality towards a “substantive common good” in which every person is obliged to participate. Indeed, one could claim that the theory of hegemony as morality has never appeared as strongly as in this fragment. I think it is fair to say that the telos of hegemony is, in every case, a drive towards the consolidation of this uncontested morality. 

Needless to say, this is a frontal assault on positive law, which aimed, from Hobbes to H. L. Hart, to clearly differentiate between politics, institutions, and morals. In a surprising but direct way, Gramsci’s definition of politics as substantive morality is closer to the tradition of “Thomism” in at least three compartments of Aquinas’ thinking. First, because it posits a substantive morality as a unified conception of aims, which negates any competing positions between values. Secondly, the substantive morality of politics informs the Gramscian theory of the state, which, very much like the Thomist subsidiary structure, understands institutions not as a concrete order of conflict (stasis), but rather as a depository for the reproduction of civil society (that is why Gramsci also in notebook 6 will speak about the “state without a state”) in the image of the state. However, if we are to be fair to the natural law tradition, I think we can claim that Gramsci is really an archaic and not a “modern” (or revolutionary) Thomist, since even John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford, 1980), in an attempt to square natural law with modern liberalism, countered Hart’s objection of unified moral aims in this way: “…there are basic aspects of human existence that are good leaving aside all the predicaments and implications…all questions of whether and how one is to devote oneself to these goods” (30). Finnis distinguishes between general principles and personal elaborations of aims. However, Gramsci is not interested in establishing generic “principles” for plural aims, but rather he seeks the actualization of a morality that is substantive because it is understood as “superseded as morality” as such. The kingdom of the Gramscian integral state is only realized if the heterogeneity of the social is captured by the hegemony of a supreme morality of Humanity. 

The distance between Gramscian moral politics and the modern natural law foundation (Fuller, Finnis) is driven home when later in section 88 of notebook 6 he claims that: “…one should not think of a “new liberalism” even if the beginning of an era of organic freedom were at hand” (76). This confirms that Gramsci is interested in crafting a morality tied to the efficacy of immanent individual ends and desires, and not at the level of generic principles of a common order. If one takes this moral politics seriously, then it becomes difficult (impossible, in my opinion), to square the primacy of this morality with positive law and the republican tradition at large. At its “best light”, the Gramscian absolute morality can only yield a faith in “Humanity”, which feeds from the production of enmity (turning dissent into ‘inhumanity’) in a civil war, as it cannot be otherwise.