Simon Glendinning continues the series from our special 50th issueAttending to the wave of self-congratulatory pronouncements from Western political leaders and media pundits concerning what took place in 1989, Jacques Derrida, in his book Politics of Friendship written in 1990, discussed not an event as such, but an event as it had been packaged for popular consumption, an event-as-understood: the “fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall” event, the “end-of-communism” event. With this “event”, he suggested, the “parliamentary-democracies-of-the-capitalist-Western-world” would seem to have found themselves “without a principal enemy”.
I want to recall that besides the Fukuyama-type pronouncements which hailed the “end-of-communism” event in terms of a messianic narrative of “good news” concerning the coming arrival (not here yet, Fukuyama constantly emphasised) of the end of history, other commentators were far less sanguine.
For example, also writing in 1990 but clearly wanting to keep a Marxist flame alive, the historian E.P. Thompson insisted that it was precipitate to suppose that the end of Soviet communism in the East was spelling or will spell a final victory for the capitalist liberal democracies of the West. He suggested we would do better to think of the scene as comparable to one where we see a wrestler being thrown off balance “when his opponent slips”. One wrestler may fall before the other, and in that moment we might expect victory for the one still currently standing, but soon enough both are flat out on the canvas. The specialist of Cold War international relations Fred Halliday developed the wrestling analogy in a different way, suggesting against Thompson that in truth the bout was simply over: at issue was not just a “slip” but an event in which one wrestler has completely “thrown down” his opponent. The West “has not lost its antagonist, it has subjugated it”.
And yet, in the light of a text that has taken its time to come to us, it is clear to me that neither Thompson nor Halliday hit the nail on the head. While the former was conceptually acute he was historically adrift; the latter, on the other hand, was historically honest but conceptually confused. Halliday was surely right about the history: one side had decisively defeated the other. On the other hand, however, Thompson was surely right about the dialectic: the one still standing might not, precisely as a result of the sudden collapse of his opponent, be so secure himself.
What happens when one comes to the view that one’s enemy in a current conflict has effectively ceased to pose an existential threat? The text I had been reading would insist that, at this point, conceptually speaking, the enemy effectively disappears as an enemy – in the throw, through it, the other who had been the principal antagonist (there he is, the old antagonist, just lying there, as Halliday implies) no longer provides the resistance of an actual antagonist. In subjugation, in defeat, he is transformed.
The victorious wrestler by contrast is not fundamentally transformed by his victory at all. On the contrary, for the winner, the whole fighting regime is still in place. The wrestler, qua wrestler, was made to wrestle. Everything still works – the martial machine still has its intentional directedness – but now, with the former principal antagonist no longer offering any effective resistance, that is, with the effective disappearance of that antagonist qua antagonist, this martial intentionality has lost its Bedeutung (its objective reference). The wrestler flails around like a half-wit, lunging at the empty space, grappling the air, groping about there where once there was an enemy. The one thing needed: a new enemy.
The disappearance of the principal antagonist of the West led many who were happy to see the back of Soviet communism to rejoice in a wave of Fukuyama-type pronouncements of a Hegelian end of history. But others – others who were just as pleased, honestly delighted, to see the collapse of that totalitarian nightmare – others who were beginning to take seriously the philosophical ideas of the German jurist and professor of law Carl Schmitt, anticipated no such coming end. Instead, as Derrida foresaw in 1990, what one could see coming was that “this West will be driven to seek to pose itself anew – and thereby find repose in itself again – through opposing still identifiable enemies.” But who? asked Derrida in 1990. “China? Islam?”, he wondered aloud.
In 1990 Derrida was not able to cite the new name, the new event, through which the Western political collectivity would “find repose in itself again” in opposition. Nevertheless, Derrida’s text also reveals that it was already on the horizon: “we could say a great deal today…on the [specific] choice of the example [of the enemy] in Schmitt: Islam.”
If we could already say a great deal only a year after the “fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall” event, how much more in the decade after the “9-11” event?
What all this suggests to me is that the idea from philosophy that has shown itself to be the most important over the last decade as we have actually lived through that time belongs to a figure who is (perhaps not coincidentally) only now beginning to penetrate discussions in the mainstream of philosophy in the English-speaking world. It belongs to Carl Schmitt who in his astonishing, challenging and profoundly troubling text The Concept of the Political (written in 1927 but translated into English only in 1976) identifies the specific and irreducible political distinction, the distinction of opposition itself, as “the distinction between friend and enemy”.
Rogues, Jacques Derrida (Stanford University Press, 2005)
Simon Glendinning is reader in European philosophy at the London School of Economics and director of the Forum for European Philosophy
Read all fifty ideas and more in the special 50th issue of tpm