For many of us, our politics is, or becomes, personal. Through politics, we wish to transcend politics. We want to believe we’re fighting for something that matters, rather than for one uninspiring policy option over another. So we impress upon ourselves the notion that there is, and will continue to be, an existential struggle of some kind. I remember what it felt like reading Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism for the first time. It was an inspiring read, although I intuitively knew that much of the analysis was off. All the same, Berman was enlisting us in a fight that was about something bigger. This is the same way I often feel about Hitchens – the prose is nearly as romantic as the ideas. He’s always fighting pitched battles that I – and I imagine most others – are not privy to. The battles are, in some sense, created, which is a bit different than saying they don’t exist.
With 9/11, history began again, or so we thought. Or maybe too many of us wanted to believe it had. Looking back at some of my older writing, I notice how it was inflected with a surfeit of existential urgency. I feel a bit sheepish about it. I think I probably attached too much importance to the treat of terrorism, a threat it may not have been (take for example this two-part essay I wrote for the American Prospect in 2006). If terrorism was a big enough threat, then it had the power to force us to fundamentally alter the way we looked at our relationship with the Middle East and the rest of the world. Terrorism became the engine of change in U.S. foreign policy, for better – the effort to promote Arab democracy – but, more often, for worse – pre-emptive and preventative war. Much of the overblown threat assessment of the post-9/11 period was probably due to somewhat subconscious desire to jump start history.
That said, so much of what Hitchens writes is refreshing because something, sometimes, is actually at stake. Reading Glenn Greenwald is enough to realize there are still existential battles – about basic matters of freedom – that have to be fought. It seems to me that so much of the Washington discourse on U.S. foreign policy suffers from the inverse of romanticism. I’m often struck by the smallness of so many of the foreign policy prescriptions that are bandied about in Washington – even, or perhaps particularly, the ones that are supposed to be new and original. In the age of post-Bush “realism,” what we suffer from, more often than not, is a failure of imagination. And that certainly goes for our notoriously myopic Mideast policy, which has been so consistently bad for so long that it really is something to marvell. It’s difficult to imagine a new Middle East, if you’re, well, unable to imagine a new Middle East. Sometimes that needs a bit of political romanticism. It’s just helpful to know when to stop.
Hamid begins his post by looking at Ross Douthat’s post on political romanticism, itself inspired by David Runciman’s review of Hitchens’s Hitch-22 in the London Review of Books which includes insights from Carl Schmitt’s Political Romanticism (1919/1925, MIT: 1986).
Political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.
Romanticism is at once profoundly dangerous and profoundly useful. As Hamid writes, “[w]e want to believe we’re fighting for something that matters, rather than for one uninspiring policy option over another”. The most important objectives of any political organization — acquiring and doling out enough resources so that the Collective can survive and so that leadership institutions can remain as is — frequently demand conduct and compromises that can repulse group members at very basic levels. A war to gain “strategic depth” or to gain or re-enforce access to prized shipping lanes or using political and economic leverage to displace an undesirable leader sometimes conflicts with moral or legal strictures. This is where romanticism is simultaneously useful and dangerous: it is useful because it allows the political class (or the “power elite”) to make very dry things more saucy and inspiring; it is dangerous because in political life romanticism can cloud the public’s perception of reality. Even worse: romanticism is a lot of fluff and hot air. It relies on exaggerated, often dangerously eccentric, notions about the past, present and progress. Schmitt writes:
In the romantic it is not reality that matters, but rather romantic productivity, which transforms everything and makes it into the occasion for poetry. What the king and queen are in reality is intentionally ignored. Their function consists instead in being a point of departure for romantic feelings. The same holds for the beloved. From the standpoint of romanticism, therefore, it is simply not possible to distinguish between the king, the state, or the beloved. In the twilight of the emotions, they blend into one another.
People enjoy the having the sense that their actions and lives have terrifically deep meaning. That feeling of cosmic meaning can eclipse whatever warts and flaws a particular leader might have. This distracts target audiences from qualifications and policy prescriptions in themselves and directs them to the greater struggle. Sensational and emotive images and language often go farther than intellectual ones.
The distinction between friends and enemies, writes Schmitt (in his famous The Concept of the Political and elsewhere), “denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation.” Groups form to defend against common threats. The purpose of any group is toward a more efficient way of surviving. Groups implode or fragment when members fear each other more than the outside world or whatever menace compelled them together in the first place. In the wild, the enemy can be as basic as hunger or starvation; in settled society basic problems are joined by more complex ones.
The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.
Enemies and friends are narratives; so are groups. These narratives are interconnected to and dependent upon one another. They make complex problems digestible, obvious and simple. “Enemies” are the compressed version of things out of a group’s control with the potential to limit survival; each of them carries a narrative assigned to them by their the group. Because constructs change (and “enemies” are constructs) the Enemy Today can be the Friend of Tomorrow. Nothing is static. Survival demands that leaders and their followers adjust to to changing circumstances as quickly as possible. Many American (and other) Airmen are familiar with Colonel John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) “loop” (similar to the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle). The central idea is to survive by adjusting to and exploiting change more rapidly and efficiently than the Enemy. Additionally, it seeks to confuse and demoralize the Enemy — by speeding up adaptation and reaction the pursuant increases the perception of uncontrollable and overwhelming chaos thereby causing the Enemy to hesitate or freeze, opening opportunities for Friends to make advances against him. The actor must control the moment by maintaining awareness of the whole. Deciding who is and who is not an enemy is part of an OODA loop. Groups that can adjust their threat perceptions and priorities quickly according to their environments are better off than those that do it slowly.
One of the dangerous of political romanticism is that it carries great potential to slow down that “loop”: creating primordial enemies out of what are really minor ones, preserving superfluous traditions long after they cease to be at all useful or even safe, stifling needed culture change, distorting elite and popular understanding of historical problems thus negatively influencing problem solving and so on. This is also evident in so-called “conservative” tendencies, though romantic narratives and schema are not exclusive to any political school — “progressive” and “liberal” tendencies suffer for many of these same problems as conservatism does. Romanticism in politics is useful in legitimizing behavior, ambitions and origins. It can help to maintain group feeling in the midsts of doubt, change or crisis. But it may just as soon make the romantic an unwitting pawn of clever and callus operators. Romanticism produces pleasing and motivating aesthetics and can help to bridge gaps in society and to produce confidence within groups.
The great danger of romantic politics is that behind beautiful language and imagery there is often little substantively to match up with expectations. Resisting and managing the appeal of political romanticism is an important task for concerned citizens: resisting because romanticism can cloud sound judgement and create personality and ideological cults; managing because harnessing control over romantic impulses can better align them with the public and national interest.