I have been asked by Political Theology to share the content and context for my forthcoming book tentatively title Force of God: Religion, Political Thought, and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy.
This new work, for which the manuscript is almost finished, draws on the technical argument in my most recent work The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012) which I previewed on this site approximately a month ago. The new book shows how what Derrida and Vattimo prophetically named “the return of religion” twenty years ago is now having an accelerated political impact within the global arena.
The long-running trend to which we refer in the West as “secularization” has run its course. The rest of the planet, especially the Islamic world, increasingly resists – and sometimes violently pushes back against – the presumption that secular democracy together with its “enlightened” values of pluralism and moral tolerance holds the key to the human future.
The problem does not lie in what we understand nowadays as democracy per se. The crisis of liberal democracy – or what is for the most part “liberal secular democracy – comes down to what Foucault discerned a while back as a “crisis of representation” long in the making.
The theory of representation is the very cipher for the Enlightenment view of both knowledge and politics. What this theory masks, however, is an implicit understanding of the political as a projection of force, or a play of forces. Therefore, a genuine theory of the political that can also serve as a diagnosis for the crisis of liberal democracy requires a genealogy of the political in its most radical sense.
The first modern thinker to conceive of the political as a question of force was Nietzsche, who also pioneered the philosophical method of genealogy. Nietzsche’s shadow looms large these days. Nietzsche discerned that force does not always resolve itself “representatively” into a concert of wills, but turns against itself and discloses itself as “nihilism.”
Nihilism is when, as Nietzsche says in the opening sentences of The Will to Power, “the highest values devalue themselves.” Nihilism is increasingly evident today in our political posturing without truthfulness, in the cynical advocacy of policies cloaked in rhetoric without reference to anything except what secretly benefits special interests, and in the careful calibration of campaigning to maximize resentment against assorted specters of “otherness.”
The “highest values”, as Nietzsche asserted, turn out to be moral-political representations that ring hollow when struck with the genealogical hammer. Thus the crisis of representation is, in a more degenerate state, the same crisis Nietzsche himself prophetically foresaw.
Force of God, however, is not by any means one more jeremiad against the factors fostering the decline of the West, the depravity of capitalism, the corruption and trivialization of modern politics, or the scandal somehow of the “naked public square.”
It constitutes a careful attempt to map the crisis – genealogically – by utilizing the very insights and critical tools developed by such thinkers as Marx, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Schmidt, Derrida, and Agamben (among others) to penetrate the fog of modern ideological warfare. From such a genealogical undertaking emerges – as it does with both Nietzsche, Foucault, and those indebted to them – the singularity of force, a force that has gone by many different names in the annals of modern and postmodern political thinking, but serves as the ultimately unrepresentable signifier named “sovereignty” within the discourse of contemporary political theology.
In The Kingdom and the Glory, the last of his three-volume magnum opus that begins with Homo Sacer, Agamben tracks the origins of virtually all fundamental Western political concepts to tensions between monotheism and trinitarianism in Judeao-Christianity.
The basic ideas of liberal democracy, most pointedly the division of powers within every system of “representative” government, can be assigned to the “economic” model of God’s administration, which later Trinitarianism carefully refined, according to Agamben. Monarchialism in both its more benign and malignant manifestations can be traced back to the monotheistic principle within the same tradition, from which the political notion of sovereignty unfolds. The “paradoxes” of Christian theology, therefore, are also the paradoxes of political theory. We can see these paradoxes full-blown in Locke’s argument with Filmer in his Two Treatises on Civil Government.
But sovereignty is less a “concept” in the philosophical or theoretical extension of the term and more one element of what Derrida would term an “aporia”, an aporia that exposes the “impossibility” of representation in its authentic political meaning. It is an aporia which Derrida himself “genealogically” identifies early on in his late 1960s essay “Force and Signification” and which he elaborates fatefully in the lecture prefacing his “religious turn” of the 1990s entitled “Force of Law” and subtitled “The Mystical Foundation of Authority.”
According to Schmidt, sovereignty can be assimilated to the declaration of the “state of exception.” But in my new book I argue that “exception” (German=Ausnahme) has less to do with the assertion by the worldly sovereign of emergency powers at a moment of crisis, as the world has come to mean, and more to do with the force that plays itself out within the play of forces we recognize as the democratic “political economy.”
This force is eminently a religious force, the “force of God”. The force of God is at the same time the “monotheistic” force I term a force of exception. It is a force that Derrida vaguely, but consistently, named in his enterprise of sketching a unique “deconstructive” reading of both classical and modern political theory. It is a force that emanates from the distinctive singularity I call–in my current book–the “religious.” The force of exception, therefore, can explain why the American “religion of democracy” inevitably becomes a militant, not to mention military, exceptionalism in confronting that other and ever more powerful “exceptionality” known as Islamism, where “there is no God but God.”
The crisis of liberal democracy, henceforth, can be reckoned as a systematic failure to reckon with this “force of God” impinging more and more upon the “secularized” representations of the political. The force that “founded” the political economy of democracy is in danger of overwhelming the economy itself as Benjamin, on whom Derrida draws heavily, clearly understood in his analysis of Greek tragic drama.
We are at a historical juncture comparable to the one Augustine faced when he wrote Civitas Dei. But in order to compose his own vision of such “city” or polis, which profoundly shaped Western political history and theory, he had first to do a genealogy of the crisis of the existing civitas, the city built upon the enduring notion of Romanitas.
Augustine’s City of God constitutes the first political genealogy that recognizes on its own terms the force of God. History seems to have come full circle.