Paul Berman I

Following on the last post, Peter Berkowitz mentions that for Leo Strauss while he supported constitutional government Strauss also:

saw that modern doctrines of natural right contained debilitating tendencies, which, increasingly, provided support for stupefying and intolerant dogmas.

A perfect segue for Paul Berman. I’m going to be quoting from an interview at Carnegie Council which you can read here. Berman is a liberal interventionist like most of the staff of the The New Republic, of which he is a frequent contributor. He like Peter Beinart, Kevin Pollack, not to mention Tony Blair supported the war in Iraq from the liberal interventionist standpoint. I point that out because it gives him an interesting stand, being both anti-Bush and (say unlike Beinart who has said he was wrong) stuck by his opinion.

But that is not the central issue. The key piece I’m interested in is Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism. I want to spend a few posts digesting the piece because he covers an enormous amount of material briefly (and quite lucidly). The main reason I like his work is that he takes seriously the history of ideas and does not reduce all political thinking to social forces or historical materialism.

What he is ultimately after is the argument that democratic liberalism does have inherent flaws in the system which strangely allow for the continued reappearance of anti-liberal (totalitarian) movements. Further these totalitarian movements are sourced in what he terms the Ur myth of the 20th century: The Book of Revelation. He calls this adoption of the myth over liberalism “transgressive” (which is a perfect term to which I will return later).

First I’m going to go through some of the main lines of the argument and then take it a step further and show (using integral concepts) why for example this flaw in liberalism manifests as collectivists totalitarian mythic movements.


Berman sets the context in late nineteenth century Western thinking:

1) In the nineteenth century, the belief arose that the secret of human progress had been discovered and had been proved to be correct. This secret was thought to be a belief in the many instead of the one, a belief that each aspect of life should be allowed to remain in its own sphere — the public and the private, the state and society, the religious and the civil. There was a belief that society ought to govern itself through rational analysis.

The reference to the many over the one is a key one often forgotten. The argument threaded through historical narrative in Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality is precisely this point. In short: Western thought up until the modern period (minus few geniuses like Plotinus, Eckhart who got both the One and the Many) focused on the One over the Many.

This manifested socially in a rigid hierarchical feudal Western European order power ascending to an apex, pinnacle point, whether the Emperor or the Pope, both of whom considered themselves God’s representative on Earth.

The modern world began with the Differentiation of the Spheres as Habermas called it and focused on the Many-ness over the One.

As Berman points out however this 19th c. liberal synthesis already back then had detractors:

First, there was a rebellion within the romantic literary tradition, in romantic poetry. An important sign of this was Victor Hugo’s verse play Hernani in 1830, which already broached certain themes. The play ends with the attempted assassination of the King of Spain and a triple suicide. The theme of murder and suicide in the context of rebellion had already been broached. Baudelaire picks up the same theme. In the second edition of The Flowers of Evil, the inscription mentions enrolling in the rhetorical school of Satan. And, in fact, there is a religious subtext that underlies this notion of rebellion, which is the romantic cult of Satan, which, within the literary tradition, begins to mean a cult of murder and suicide as literary postures.

Then the religious aesthetic revolt:

This new version is not the cult of Satan. It is a series of images that come out of the Book of Revelation. There is a Millenarian idea, of an impending calamity, that something unspeakable is about to occur. You can see it in Yeats. This idea emerges as the new religious underpinning.

As a result:

At the end of the First World War, these currents in poetry, from the romantic to the symbolist poets at the end of the century and the beginning of the new century, finally convert themselves into a series of political movements, which are mass movements against the idea of liberalism. They are movements of rebellion against the belief in the many instead of the one, against the idea that life should be divided into a series of spheres — the public and the private, the state and society, the civil and the religious — and at some level, in different ways, they are movements of rebellion against the idea of rational analysis. Instead, they are movements in favor of the one, the solid, the granite, of authority, as opposed to rational analysis — sometimes of mysticism, but in any case of authority.

These trends connect Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Lenin.

The Ur myth of the Book of Revelation:

The story in the Book of Revelation says: There is a people of God; the people of God are being afflicted and polluted by forces from within their own society, who worship at the synagogue of Satan. At the same time, the people of God are being afflicted by cosmic foes from abroad.

The enemies from within were often Jews, liberals, Masons, from without Allied Forces, capitalist West, etc.

And being transgressive they could not result in achievement:

5) All of these movements proposed impractical programs which were unachievable except in one way, which was through mass death. Mass death showed that these were movements of transgressive rebellion, not movements of reform, not conservative movements of reform or social democratic movements of reform, Left or Right, but movements that would break through the ordinary morality of behavior, thus would break through the existing world view.

And worse:

6) The liberal society which in its weaknesses and contradictions and inability to conceive of the dark in human nature, the liberal society which in some way had inspired these movements and against which these movements now arose in rebellion, also had a great deal of trouble in identifying what these movements were.

Liberals Berman argues do not know the extent of human evil and their naivete often plays into and in fact is necessary for the rise of totalitarianism.

The totalitarian impulse also manifested in two non-European mutations: Islamism and pan-Arabism.

Berman interestingly notes that like fascism and communism, which are often seem to be divergent (far right vs. far left), so Islamism (religious) and Pan-Arabism (secular) are thought to be opposite poles but actually are much more closely related:

In the case of Baathism and Islamism, these similarities are easy to see. There is a people of God. The people of God should be described as the “true Muslims” in the case of the Islamists, or as the “true Arabs” in the case of the Baath. The people of God are afflicted by internal corruptors within Muslim society. These internal corruptors are the Jews or the Masons or the Muslim hypocrites. The people of God are afflicted by sinister external foes, Western imperialists or the worldwide Zionist conspiracy. The people of God will resist these internal foes and external foes in a gigantic war of Armageddon. This war will be the liberation of Jerusalem or it will be the jihad. Afterwards the reign of purity will be established and this reign of purity is described in the case of both of those movements in the same way: it is the re-resurrection of the Caliphate of the seventh century in the years after the Prophet Mohammed. The Caliphate is described by each of these movements in a slightly different way. For the Islamists, it means the reinstating of Shar’iah or Qur’anic law. For the Baathists the emphasis is secular; it is the recreating, the resurrecting, of the Arab empire when the Arab empire was on the march.

And as a solution:

Each of these movements in the past was defeated not militarily but ideologically. World War II was violent and military, but although D-Day was important, de-Nazification was the actual victory. The defeat of Nazism militarily would not have been all that helpful if Germany, which is inherently an extremely wealthy and powerful society, had continued to remain a society of millions and millions of convinced Nazis. The same is true now. The struggle we are involved in now has, had, and will continue to have a military aspect, but this aspect must be secondary to the ideological aspect, to the war of ideas.

The war of ideas–next post.

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Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 2:53 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I have two problems with all of this:

    1). It’s fairy tale pseudo-history that pays absolutely no attention to what is going on in society at the moments in which these “totalitarian/ fascist” whatever you want to call it movements emerge. It’s a schematic treatment that can be superimposed on almost anything.

    2). How does this construction *not* apply to the US’s current aggressive attack on Iraq, which may well spill over into the rest of the mid-east, a thing that Berman himself supports.

    Finally, liberalism *does* have a sense of “the dark side of human nature.” The US constitution sought to deal with this dark, aggressive side. Certainly, it doesn’t work perfectly (especially if you run rough shod over and don’t allow it to).

    One more thing– I’ve just finished re-reading several founding texts of modernity and Berman is wrong about this “one and the many” as well. Not that Berman actually reads anything prefering, as he does, to promote his own fantasies.


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