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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Monday, 18 November 2013

The Emerging Domain of the Political

David M. Rasmussen, Boston College, USA

This essay deals with two conceptions of the political; one that entails a clash of civilizations associated with a Schmittian critique of liberalism and a second which envisions the political as an emerging domain. The latter idea can be associated with the later work of John Rawls which separates the comprehensive from the political. I argue that it is this idea when reconstructed in relationship to a theory of multiple modernities that can be appropriated for an emerging notion of global justice. Hence, it is in the domain of the political that we should look for a new and emerging concept of justice.[1]

In the 1993 article entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?”[2] Samuel P. Huntington presented what we must acknowledge, written three years or so after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, was a more or less new theory about politics and power. Using a phrase that had been first been popularized by Bernard Lewis, the potential clash of civilizations was to replace now outmoded forms of conflict. His “hypothesis” was that the forms of conflict would no longer be either “primarily economic” or  “primarily ideological”; rather the new form of conflict will be “cultural”.[3] The nation state would continue to be the principle actor but the new conflicts would be between “civilizations” which would more or less define nations and groups. Hence, the bold prediction, “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”[4] And that in turn would mean that the “fault lines” that mark civilizations would be the “battle lines” which will define the future.

Following a brief typology of conflict which characterizes its evolution from the Treaty of Westphalia, Huntington designates the evolution of conflict first among princes, then between nations, then through ideologies and now between civilizations. Civilizations in turn are characterized as that phenomenon with which people can identify on the broadest level even though they are possibly within the nation state. Huntington gives six reasons for the potential clash of civilizations. First, civilizations are characterized by basic differences in culture, tradition, and religion. Second, as the world grows smaller the potential for confrontation between civilizations is increasing. Third, modernization is having its effect on local identities. This does not necessarily mean that there is an increase of secularization. Quite the contrary de-secularization and the revival of religion may be the result of modernization because new identities can transcend national boundaries. Fourth, the fact that the role of the West in the process of modernization both effects a new mode of Westernization and at the same time it produces a counter-tendency toward “Asianization”, “Hundization”, “re-Islamization” and “Russianization”. Fifth, cultural characteristics are “less mutable” than economic and political ones.  And finally, sixth, the very forces of modernization in the form of trade produce a new regionalism, i.e., the growth in trade in Europe, East Asia, and North America.

The major point of the argument is that civilizational “fault lines” were replacing the ideological and political boundaries which were the true basis for conflict in the last half of the 20th century. In 1993 when the article was written one could already see the potential shadow of the burgeoning crisis evoked by 9/11 when the trade towers collapsed in New York. The West would be confronted with the Moslem world. However, according to Huntington, in 1993 that was not the end of the story, Arab Islamic civilization would confront the Christian South of Africa, and on the northern boarder of Islam there would be the confrontations Bosnia and Sarajevo. Although it was not clear then, the outlines of the Turkish realignment with Syria and Iran was foreshadowed in the somewhat difficult relations with the Armenians and the Russians. Equally, China would confront its Buddhist neighbors in Tibet and carry on a confrontation with the United States.

More than a generation later we can look back on Huntington’s rather dire prediction with some ambivalence. On the one hand much of what Huntington predicted has come true. Al-queda has made its mark, provoking a true  bellum omnium contra omnes. The details of such a clash are well known and it is not necessary to go into them here. However, it was no accident that the term quoted in Hunington’s article originates from the conservative Islamic Scholar, Bernard Lewis. The point that might be taken from the article on the one hand is that the prediction was true and that what we have seen in the past few years is the coming to be of a clash of civilizations. On the other hand, during this same period we have witnessed and are witnessing an opposite movement that represents a certain evolution of the liberal claims to democracy. Today as we watch the revolution in Egypt, the demonstrations in Bahrain, the violence in Syria, the international action against Kadafi resulting in his downfall in Libya, all the contagious demonstrations sparked by the self-immolation of a fruit-stand owner in Tunisia, we must seek an alternative explanation to the one provided by Huntington’s provocative article.

At the heart of the idea of the clash of civilizations is an idea of politics as the realm of that which is contested. In my view the interpretation of that contested realm, no doubt an interpretation that could harbor the idea of resentment, has become one of the major problems of our time. In this paper I wish to consider first the idea of the political that is presupposed in the idea of the clash of civilizations. (1) Then I will juxtapose that idea to another one that sees the political as an emerging domain. (2) After that I will contextualize the idea of the political as an emerging domain by framing it within the context of theories of modernity. (3) Finally, I will conclude with some remarks on how we might look at current developments on the international scene. (4)

Certainly one of the most interesting and influential notions of the “political” was developed by Carl Schmitt in the famous essay, The Concept of the Political.[5] What I find most fascinating about the essay is not only that it is a critique of liberalism but that it is a certain kind critique which must be associated with Nietzsche’s critique of Western civilization which began in his famous, The Birth of Tragedy. Quite simply Nietzsche found in the birth of Attic Tragedy the truth of existence, which would be covered over later by the emergence of Western philosophy under the guise of Plato through his representative Socrates. The truth of human existence is simply that human beings must die, a truth that can only be rendered aesthetically according to Nietzsche[6]. Philosophy, with its scientific potential was able to cover over that truth with the questions of knowledge and being. As a consequence the human being could forget its destiny seduced by what it conceives to be a more fundamental set of questions. Apparently, Schmitt thought that liberalism did for politics what, according to Nietzsche, classical thought did for humanity in general, namely, it made individuals forget about their fundamental destiny seduced in this case by the “neutrality” of liberalism. So, for Schmitt the rise of liberalism meant the death of politics. Equally, the end of liberalism would mean the return of politics and Schmitt believed that liberalism had come to an end. For Schmitt the task of liberalism was not to replace but to conceal the truth of politics, which is based on the friend/enemy distinction. “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”[7]  Schmitt believed this dichotomy was sui generis, not to be derived from other criteria, i.e., criteria from either the moral or the aesthetic or even the religious sphere.  In this sense we could say that every group whether it be economic, cultural or religious has the potential of developing itself into a political one by transforming itself into an organization based on the friend/enemy distinction. No doubt here is the secret of the clash of civilizations thesis; the assertion of a return to the state of nature with its prediction about the primacy of evil. For Schmitt in a fundamental sense the concept of friend is dependent on the concept of the enemy. “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.”[8]  (CP 33)

It is true that liberalism in its various forms attempts to move us beyond the friend/enemy distinction by organizing society under a scheme of cooperation that provides assurance for everyone that they will not remain isolated in a state of nature. Schmitt thought that he could show the three hundred year history of liberalism ended in a fundamental contradiction in which liberalism returned to the friend/enemy distinction hence proving his thesis regarding the primacy of the political. He states:

“Nothing can escape this logical conclusion of the political. If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against nonpacificists, in a war against war, that would prove that pacifism truly possesses political energy because it is sufficiently strong to group men according to friend and enemy. If, in fact, the will to abolish war is so strong that it no longer shuns war, then it has become a political motive, i.e., it affirms even only as an extreme possibility, war and even the reason for war…The feasibility of such war is particularly illustrative of the fact that war as a real possibility is still present today, and this fact is crucial for the friend-and-enemy antithesis and for the recognition of politics.”[9]

This conclusion proves, if nothing else, that no matter what we do we cannot escape the necessity of politics, or as Leo Strauss says, for Schmitt, politics is the inescapable  “destiny”[10] of humankind. From a philosophical point of view this creates a serious dilemma for the human community in the sense that the very attempt to escape the reality of the political results in the return of the political and with it the ominous message regarding human tragedy. So much for liberalism.[11]

Of course, it would be unfair to Huntington to claim that his thesis about the clash of civilizations should be taken as an ontological description of the destiny of humankind. It should be noted that the very title of the 1993 article was followed by a question mark. No doubt it is with that question mark that we are still preoccupied. Certainly the article reminds of how we should consider the relationship of politics and power and how we can get beyond the state of nature without a clash of civilizations. Or to put the problem in another way, can we conceive of the political without indulging in Schmittian metaphysics? I think we can by conceiving stability for the right reasons.

One way to avoid the clash of civilizations and the return of the war of all against all has been to rethink what has been called from Hobbes on the stability problem. In brief, the task has been to see politics as a cooperative scheme which can promise those under a political regime that they can be reasonably assured that if they cooperate others will do the same. As is well known John Rawls, in contrast to Hobbes who favored an instrumental framework, tried to achieve stability from a moral point of view. In his later work Rawls came to realize that it would be impossible to resolve the stability problem without taking pluralism into account. As everybody knows, Rawls did that by developing the somewhat ingenious notion of overlapping consensus, a notion that has been widely misunderstood. Rawls wrote three essays on overlapping consensus, two that occur in 1988 and a final one included in Political Liberalism in 1993. For our purposes it is the second essay, “The Domain of the Political Overlapping Consensus”[12], that is important.

In Rawls’ view overlapping consensus is necessary because “a public workable agreement on a single general and comprehensive conception could only be maintained by the oppressive use of state power.”[13] (CP 425) Hence, one interpretation would be that in order to achieve stability it would be necessary to achieve a kind of compromise between comprehensive doctrines whether they be religious, philosophical, or secular. That was the point of the first essay on overlapping consensus. However, that essay left unanswered one fundamental question, namely, what the consensus would be about. Ultimately, the consensus would be from the emerging domain of the political. Briefly, from the point of view of the history of political philosophy Rawls conceived of overlapping consensus as a “third” (CP 446) view that emerged between comprehensive philosophical, religious or secular positions. That third view would be from the emerging domain of the political.

In a recent work,[14] Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor more or less follow  Rawls’ concept of the political. Habermas states the following:

“In contrast to the classical works of the social contract tradition, which has stripped the concept of “the political” of any serious references to religion, John Rawls recognizes that the problem of the political role of the impact of the role of religion in civil society has not been solved by the secularization of political authority per se. The secularization of the state is not the same as the secularization of society. This explains the air of paradox that to this day has a fed a subliminal resentment within religious circles concerning the justification of constitutional principles “from reason alone”.[15] (The Political in PRPS p. 23)

Here Habermas implicitly supports an interpretation of Rawls that affirms the emerging domain of the political even though Rawls would probably reconstruct the “from reason alone” affirmation to include his subordination of reason to reasonability. But what Habermas in his inimitable way does here is he sums up the manner in which the political emerges in civil society as a distinctive form in the process of the secularization of the state. In other words, in order for the state to assume political neutrality the political emerges as a phenomenon distinct in its own right from the comprehensive religious doctrines that exist within a growing pluralist society. Public reason is the discursive phenomenon that gives voice to that emerging phenomenon and as I mentioned a moment ago, it almost has its own claim to truth in the sense that if the comprehensive doctrines cannot abide by it they are labeled as unreasonable.

Habermas highlights Rawls’ insight into the necessary contribution of religion to an understanding of constitutions: “The liberal constitution itself must not ignore the contributions that religious groups can well make to the democratic process within civil society.” (PRPS p. 24) However, this interpretation raises a question regarding just how one should understand that contribution. Still commenting on Rawls, Habermas goes on to state:

“It is not the conception of an overlapping consensus between competing doctrines and worldviews that is primarily relevant here. Rawls rather offers, with his idea of the “public use of reason” a promising key for explaining how the proper role of religion in the public sphere contributes to the rational interpretation of what we still might call “the political” as distinct from politics and policies.”[16] (PRPS p. 24-5)

What is rather impressive given this interpretation is that Habermas now views, in contrast with his 1995 debate with Rawls, overlapping consensus in the way that Rawls seems to have intended it after the 1985 essay just referred to, namely, not as a compromise between competing comprehensive doctrines but rather as a consensus on the emerging domain of the political. Indeed, the emerging domain of the political works together with overlapping consensus to mediate the possible conflicting claims of comprehensive doctrines.

It appears that Taylor understates the case for the emerging domain of the political by not acknowledging its distinctiveness, which leads him to confuse the domain of the political with the heritage of the enlightenment.

“Clearer examples are found in contemporary political thinkers, or for instance, Rawls and Habermas. For all their differences, they seem to reserve a special status for nonreligiously informed Reason (let’s call this “reason alone”), as though a. the latter were able to resolve certain moral-political issues in a way that can legitimately satisfy and honest, unconfused thinker and b. where religiously based conclusions will always be dubious and in the end only convincing to people who have already accepted the dogmas in question.”[17]

While this critique may work against Habermas, I don’t think it works against Rawls. First, Rawls has no intention of defending some kind of enlightenment project as he states clearly in the introduction to Political Liberalism. Hence, the reference in Rawls is not to “reason alone” but to the idea of the reasonable. Second, contrary to Taylor’s interpretation I would defend Rawls on hermeneutic grounds, grounds similar to the ones Taylor uses for his argumentation. It is to the emergence of a political tradition that Rawls grounds his arguments after 1985 when he writes the article “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical” and even more importantly when he writes in 1988 “The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus”. Hence, the so-called moral claims that come from an emerging political tradition are not to be made over and against other comprehensive traditions in the name of enlightenment reason but in relationship to them.

Now, against Schmitt and even perhaps Huntington one can say that it is this view that captures stability, or as Rawls would say, stability for the right reasons. One might hope that it is this view, the emerging domain of the political that can carry us into the international arena beyond either the clash of civilizations or the friend/enemy distinction. However, it must be acknowledged that in so doing one must endorse a theory of modernity which although indebted to Rawls will move us beyond the basically liberal paradigm that began with Hobbes. For this I turn to the group of ideas associated with multiple modernities, which I will attempt to characterize.

Because we cannot liberate ourselves from a theory of modernity altogether we have to turn to multiple modernities as a theory that can account for the pluralistic world in which we live. However it must be acknowledged that multiple modernities presents us with another theory of modernity. As such it has a number of commitments of which three may be singled out.

First, it follows Karl Jaspers whose Origin and Goal of History[18] made an interpretative claim about the origin and development of religion, namely, that during a certain period in world history, the axial age, could be characterized by the discovery about the relationship between the transcendent and the mundane. This discovery was more or less universal in the sense that it occurred in a number of world religions in roughly the same period. Second, a corresponding but later development occurred regarding reflexivity. Third, a certain characterization occurred concerning the tendency towards self-correction.

In Eisenstadt’s words, “Two complimentary but potentially contradictory tendencies developed within this program about the best ways in which social construction could take place. The first crystallized above all in the Great Revolutions, gave rise, perhaps for the first time in history, to the belief in the possibility of bridging the gap between the transcendental and the mundane orders – of realizing through conscious human agency, exercised in social life, major utopian and eschatological visions. The second emphasized a growing recognition of legitimacy of multiple individual and group goals and interests, as a consequence allowed for multiple interpretations of the common good.”[19] 

The two most significant aspects of the theory, significant particularly for those who are interested in the current expansion of religion across the globe, are the separation of modernization from Westernization and secularization.

Instead, according to Eisenstadt, “the best way to understand the contemporary world – indeed to explain the history of modernity – is to see it as a story of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs.”[20]

This characterization of modernity would mean according to multiple modernity theory that one of the most contested areas would be the emerging domain of the political.

“From the ideology and premises of the political program of modernity and the core characteristics of modern political institutions, there emerged three central aspects of the modern political process: the restructuring of center-periphery relations as the principal focus of political dynamics of modern societies; a strong tendency toward politicizing the demands of various sectors of society, and the conflicts between them; and a continuing struggle over the definition of the realm of the political. Indeed, it is only with the coming of modernity that drawing the boundaries of the political becomes one of the major foci of open political contestation and struggle.”[21]

This is where multiple modernity theory meets political philosophy because the problem of the political put in terms of political philosophy is the problem of stability. From Hobbes on the basic problem of Western domestic societies was the assurance problem, i.e., the idea that co-operation would be achieved without violence. This accounts for the emerging domain of the political. As cultures, nations and civilizations encounter one another my assumption is that this is becoming the problem internationally.

Since this domestic problem (stability) has become an international one multiple modernity theory points out that the issue cannot be resolved by new forms of either Westernization or further developments in the realm of secularization. Multiple modernity theory does not necessarily have to be committed to the resolution of the stability problem however it can help us understand the dilemma presented by the contestation of the political.

In broad terms what multiple modernity theory provides political philosophy with is an alternative to a Hegelian philosophy of history as an account for the emergence of the political. In other words, what multiple modernity theory does is free us from having to put the story of the emerging domain of the political in strong Hegelian terms, weaker Weberian terms (although multiple modernities takes much from Weber) or even weaker Rawlsian terms by liberating political philosophy from its dependence on a commitment to Westernization and modernization.

At the same time multiple modernity theory makes it possible for us to look at the emerging domain of the political from a positive or even hopeful perspective. In my view we can look at the political as reducible either to the friend/enemy distinction (Carl Schmitt) with the priority given to the enemy in a war of all against all or from the perspective of the emerging domain of the political portending future forms of political cooperation.

Among political philosophers Rawls provides one of the most interesting examples of someone who faced the problematic associated with modernity. However, he didn’t go far enough to accommodate it. He wisely separated modernization from secularization but he retained a mild philosophy of history that was committed to developments that were essentially Western, i.e., a theory of explanation of modern politics that relied on Western political developments from the Protestant Reformation on. The liberal story may be too narrow to accommodate pluralism on an international scale. However, it is just possible that it is that story that can overcome conflict on the international scale.

Finally, we should make a distinction between the cultural and the normative. The task of the future will be to preserve cultural diversity while on the political level normative issues will arise which require a certain level of political agreement. Hence, the emerging domain of the political will harbor our continued hope for stability. Our last best hope would be for an emerging overlapping consensus. But overlapping consensus is not the issue per se. Rather it is to the emerging domain of the political that we turn our attention.

Finally, I want to make a brief comment about resentment. Of course it was Friedrich Nietzsche who made the classic statement. I do not have time to work out his theory of ressentiment developed in his On the Genealogy of Morality[22], (Zur Genealogie der Moral), in which he attempts to “overcome morality”. I can only here refer to what I regard as one of the most extraordinary claims of that text. Speaking of justice Nietzsche states the following: “we have to admit….  that viewed from the highest biological point of view, states of legality can never be anything but exceptional states, since they are partial restrictions of the true will of life, which is bent upon power, and are subordinate to its ultimate goal as a single means: as a means of creating bigger units of power.”[23] (p. 54) That too is a theory of modernity, but not one that I am particularly enthusiastic about endorsing. Rather the voices that have made and continue to make themselves heard in the so-called Arab revolt or Arab revolution (Zaid Eyadat) are not voices of ressentiment in Nietzsche’s elaborate philosophical sense. Instead they belong to the ever emerging, ever changing domain of the political. I say this not to repudiate what has been said at this conference about resentment, which I affirm wholeheartedly. However, when a theory of resentment is transformed into a philosophical theory whose program is to overcome morality it ceases to illuminate the present.


[1]A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

[2]Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs: Summer, 1993, #72:3, pp. 22-49.

[3]Ibid. p. 22


[5]Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. University of Chicago Press: 1996. Trans. by George Schwab from Der Begriff des Politischen.

[6]The truth to which Nietzsche points is this “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”, a claim which occurs in section five of The Birth of Tragedy (Vintage, Random House: 1967, p. 52) and repeated later. Nietzsche’s claim is that the truth of existence was replaced or perhaps better, covered over, by “Greek cheerfulness” heralded by Socrates who replaces the capacity to confront tragedy with science which masks the truth of tragedy in forgetfulness. To paraphrase Schmitt in light of Nietzsche, liberalism masks the political in its attempt to work out a scheme of cooperation.

[7]The Concept of the Political. p. 26

[8]The Concept of the Political, p. 33

[9]Ibid. pp. 36-37

[10]Strauss, Leo. Notes on The Concept of the Political included in The Concept of the Political. p. 117.

[11]In my view Schmitt uses the term liberalism in a more or less metaphysical sense, namely, as that which obscures the political in the sense that it covers over the friend/enemy distinction. There are, of course, many ways in which one might think of Hobbes as an illiberal. Hobbes is clearly afraid of what the power of private interests that would be allowed to reign if they were not held in check by a higher power. This would mean that one would have to give up freedom in order to gain protection by the sovereign. Following from this Hobbes believed that the subjects of a commonwealth needed to be kept in check by fear. Later forms of liberalism beginning with Locke and culminating in Kant would ally the realization of freedom with moral autonomy. However, Hobbes sought to create a theory of politics in which through the exercise of reason individuals could unite under a common power in order to overcome the horrendous consequences of a state of nature. In my judgment it is in this metaphysical sense that Schmitt quite rightly classifies Hobbes as a liberal.

[12]“Rawls, John. Collected Papers. Harvard University Press. 1999. pp. 473-496.

[13]Ibid. 425

[14]The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. Edited by Eudardo Mendieta and Jonathan  van Antwerpen. Columbia University Press: 2011.

[15]Ibid. 23

[16]Ibid. pp. 24-5.

[17]Ibid. 53.

[18]Jaspers, Karl. The Origin and Goal of History. translated by Michael Bullock. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953

[19]S.N. Eisenstadt “Multiple Modernities”. Daedalus; Winter 2000; 129,1; Research Library Core p.5.

[20]Ibid. p. 2

[21]Ibid. p. 6

[22]On the Genealogy of Morality, translated by Carol Diethe and edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[23]Ibid. 54

The final/definitive version of David Rasmussen’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 457-466, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/38/4-5.toc


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