**This post was originally published March 9, 2012**
Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century; to the European revolutions of 1848; to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011 one cannot mistake the fact that politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.
The Arendt Center recently completed its fifth annual conference, which revolved this year around the past and present state of the U.S. presidency. I attended most of the proceedings, and the presentations and discussions I witnessed were worthy of close attention. Perhaps above all, the conference sharpened my awareness for the prerogatives, possibilities, and limits that currently define the office of the President.
On the one hand, I now have a better appreciation for the ways that recent Presidents are even more powerful than they were in the past. For instance, they have taken on budgetary and policymaking responsibilities that Congress has effectively abdicated over the past several decades. And, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Presidential administrations have accumulated powers of surveillance, arrest, detention, extrajudicial execution, and war-making that circumvent public accountability—not to mention institutional checks and balances—in troubling ways.
On the other hand, recent Presidents face social and political circumstances that constrain their room for maneuver. In the narrow realm of governmental procedure, the frequent recourse to the filibuster and other forms of obstruction in Congress has curtailed President Obama’s power to promote legislation and fill judicial, diplomatic and other appointments. (As a result, he has increasingly turned to executive orders that, at least in certain realms of governance, bypass the House and Senate altogether.)
In the realm of public discourse, recent Presidents contend with a media and consulting culture that inhibits their ability—and perhaps even their desire—to engage the citizenry in informed debate. And in the realm of epistemology, recent Presidents face a confluence of events which do not merely stretch their personal and institutional capacities, but challenge the very terms by which we understand the world. The current state of the Presidency, in other words, is but one part of a larger problem of knowing and thinking in the present.
The conference’s panels and presenters did an admirable job examining these themes, and I do not mean that as faint or empty praise. Yet I was still struck by how resolutely “American” much of the conference was, and not simply because most of the panels dealt in one way or another with the Presidency and the wider U.S. political landscape. To some degree, this focus was only to be expected given the conference’s stated concern with “the American age of political disrepair” and its overlap with the presidential campaign. To my mind, however, the accumulated observations and arguments ultimately betrayed a form of what social scientists would call “methodological nationalism.” That is to say, much of the conference took it for granted that the U.S. nation-state was the appropriate frame of reference for collective reflection on the Presidency, even when the contexts and effects of recent Presidents’ actions reach well beyond this country’s borders.
The guiding question of the conference takes on a somewhat different light when we attempt to think beyond the bounds of the U.S. Indeed, when viewed from a planetary perspective, “does the President matter?” is not so much a provocative query as a curious, even peculiar one. Whenever global deliberations turn to issues like the Arab Spring, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, China’s growing economic might or the consequences of global material disparities, billions of people still regard the U.S. President as the most prominent representative of the world’s most prominent geopolitical power (all invocations of a “decentered” or “multipolar” world notwithstanding). Thus, despite the innumerable perplexities of their office, recent Presidents continue to claim, and continue to be granted, a disproportionate influence in the arena of political speech and action. For many if not most of the world’s residents, the reality of their significance seems so obvious that the weekend’s leitmotiv would not, I suspect, make much sense. Does the President matter? Of course! What is there to argue about here?
I do not, however, want to suggest that this guiding question is utterly baseless. It is in fact closely tied to Americans’ particular—and particularly pointed—anxieties about the accountability, trustworthiness, and effectiveness of their political leadership. Yet the existence of such anxieties should not, I think, imply in and of itself that the powers of the Presidency have been rendered irrelevant. After all, most if not all of the conference presenters ultimately affirmed that the President mattered, even as many of them deplored the current condition of public discourse and civic engagement in the U.S. Moreover, patterns of voter participation in Canada, Latin America, Europe, Japan, India and other parts of the world suggest (however crudely) that many of the world’s other democratic citizens have not reached the depths of apathy and cynicism that characterize the U.S. electorate. This is the case even if they too express distrust of the political figures who profess to govern and lead.
In the end, then, this year’s conference challenged me to consider the state of American and planetary politics with a more acute sense of the potentials, pitfalls, and stakes. Such an outcome is hardly the “miracle” that Arendt instructed us to expect in “What is Freedom?” But it at least offers a foundation for examining—and bearing consciously—some of those burdens which our new century has placed upon us.
Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century, to the European revolutions of 1848, to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011, one cannot mistake the fact: politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
But what is democracy? In his essay, "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Jacques Rancière offers one particularly compelling answer, one that is illustrative of the fate of global politics. Democracy, Rancière writes, is most fundamentally a paradoxical politics. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government. It is good government, or a legitimate order, a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. On the other hand, democracy means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people.
The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilize and revolutionize democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order. And democratic government—if it is to remain a government—requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule.
We can of course see this paradoxical essence of democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeatedly emphasized, our democratic government allows protest and individual expression and we must permit the voices of those with whom we disagree. At the same time, Bloomberg argued that democratic government sets limits on those dissenting voices, authorizes regulations upon them, and, eventually, requires that they respect the authority and order of the existing democratic establishment. From this governmental perspective, the messy aspects of personal democracy and democratic individualism—the call to mobilize the people to pursue their plural and discordant interests—is a threat to good democratic government.
Democracy, in Rancière's words, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today. And yet it also insists upon unruly individualism and dissent that must be limited and contained in order to ensure a democratic state.
Beyond the democratic paradox, Rancière argues that true democratic politics is on the side of the messy, individualist, and disruptive aspect of democracy. His word for this is "dissensus," and Rancière insists that "democracy implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs." Democracy, in other words, is the practice of disrupting all statist orders, even democratic state orders. It is an "anarchic principle" and "insofar as it is anarchic it precludes the self-grounding of politics." Politics, democratic politics, modern politics, is unavoidably open and anarchic.
In his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the priority of dissensus, Rancière reflects much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt. Both Rancière and Arendt oppose politics to philosophy, since philosophy trades in truths that shut down politics, which is about opinions. Rancière, as does Arendt, defines politics as a form of action—politics is an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. And if Rancière sees political action as manifesting "dissensus," Arendt insists that political action be spontaneous and capable of beginning something new into the world. Which is why Arendt argues that "the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known before, is about to unfold" is at the very center of modern democratic politics.
The centrality of revolution to Arendt's thought means that "the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide." Because politics is by its nature revolutionary action, Arendt refuses to call it democracy, because democracy is—like all "cracy's"—derived from the Greek kratein, expressing rule and order. Democracy, as majority rule, opposes revolutionary action, and is, therefore, "simply another form of rulership." As does Rancière, Arendt insists that freedom demands that we move beyond democracy as simply a form of government.
Similarities aside, Rancière builds his theory of dissensus in opposition to Hannah Arendt's work. In both "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and "Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?" Rancière explicates his idea of politics as dissensus against Arendt's revolutionary politics.
In "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?", Rancière locates his split with Arendt around her division of the political from the social. In line with many who read Arendt as erecting rigid boundaries between the social, the political and the private, Rancière worries that "Arendt's rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life" sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out. By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the lofty realm of politics, Arendt, pace Rancière, depoliticizes politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices.
Such readings of Arendt make rigid her rich descriptions of the political, social, and private realms; they offer a pale representation of the fire that burns brightly in Arendt's writing. It is common today to imagine that Arendt makes strict distinctions between political and non-political activities, just as it widespread to think that the divisions between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition are impenetrable. Yes Arendt distinguishes the political from the social. But that does not at all mean that economic and social interests are never political. Of course, as Arendt concedes often, some level of social security is part of the political realm. Her point is simply that such social concerns are at odds with freedom, which is the true aim of political action.
In "Does Democracy Mean Something?", Rancière offers a better and more meaningful distinction between himself and Arendt. Here, he makes clear his view that "democracy cannot consist in a set of institutions." Institutions, he argues, mean nothing in themselves. "The reason for this is that one and the same constitution and set of laws can be implemented in opposite ways depending on the sense of the 'common' in which they are framed." Rancière's point is, on one level, obvious. At times, the constitution and the laws are invoked to stifle debate and dissent. At other times they are called upon to enable and further the call for new political institutions. In themselves, the constitution and the laws are not decisive.
But Rancière goes further. Not only are political institutions not decisive in politics, they occupy the field of politics with a claim to legitimacy and thus delimit and shrink "the political stage." By establishing what is constitutional and legal protest and who can protest and who is even a citizen, the institutions of politics limit politics in "a biased way." They police the boundaries and access to politics "in the name of the purity of the political, the universality of the law or the distinction between political universality and social particularity."
In his suspicion of institutions, Rancière does indeed depart from Arendt in a meaningful way. For Arendt, modern politics, as revolutionary politics, means a free and new founding of freedom. What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. At the core of Arendt's political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that "power and freedom belong together."
The genius of the American Revolution in Arendt's telling is that it found what she calls a new experience of power. This American experience of power "was embodied in all institutions of self-government throughout the country." It goes back to the Mayflower Compact drawn up on the ship and signed by the first settlers upon landing, an act that displays their
obvious confidence that they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a 'civil Body Politik' which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise 'in the Presence of God and one another', supposedly was powerful enough to 'enact, constitute, and frame' all necessary laws and instruments of government.
From out of the basic experience of power through mutual action with others, the American colonists developed their institutions of town halls, constitutional conventions, and local government in townships, counties, and states. Since written laws cannot control power, but "only power arrests power," freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the "consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same."
Unlike Rancière for whom institutions are biased watchmen patrolling the entry into politics, Arendt sees the institutions of self-government as the common world within which plural citizens congregate, talk, and act. Without such institutions, there would be no public space, no commons, in which politics happens. Politics needs not only revolution and dissensus, but also some prior consensus—an acknowledgement of the facts of the political world we are born into. From there one can, and sometimes must, resist and revolt.
Rancière sees all consensus, all that is common, as exclusionary, violent, and apolitical. But the common world itself is not oppressive and anti-political. It is, what it is, and the first requirement of politics is that one reconciles oneself to the world we share with others. That is not giving in to the system, but is, rather, the very possibility of political and revolutionary action.
Rancière's engagement with Arendt is one of the most important in modern political theory. You can read Jacques Rancière's "Does Democracy Mean Something?" here.
I also encourage you to buy the Dissensus, Rancière's book that includes "Does Democracy Mean Something?" and also "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?". Buy it here.
And as a bonus, if you want a different take on the relationship between Arendt and Rancière, you can read Adam Schapp's essay on the topic here.