Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Say Hello to the New Boss

A short time ago Barack Obama became the nation’s chief executive and the leader of the Free World. His inauguration as 44th President was historic and nation-altering: what was at one time an inconceivable dream - an African-American President - is now a daily fact. Flying in on Sunday from California amid a planeload of revellers and walking yesterday on the Mall with my children in Washington D.C., it was exciting and heady to participate in the electric anticipation especially of the throngs of African-Americans from around the nation.

Obama’s inaugural address was at times moving, and especially praiseworthy was his opening recollection of the sacrifices that were made by previous generations for our benefit, and his closing call for service to ideals greater than ourselves. Still, at times its message was mixed, if not in contradiction to these sentiments, in general calling for hard work in the ambition to put America back on the course of greatness and growth - arguably those twin engines that have come, for most, to define the very essence of freedom that was being celebrated today. And, in asserting that "we will not apologize for our way of life," Obama did nothing less than echo the ongoing sentiments of previous Presidents - often in times of bellicosity and national self-assertion, if not self-indulgence - such as George H.W. Bush who in 1992 declared that the "American way of life is non-negotiable," or George W. Bush’s summation of the 9/11 as either the demand that we change our way of life, or we change theirs. Those moments were reminders that the Obama mantra of "change" did not fundamentally include the self-understanding of the regime. We remain a modern republic in the model originally articulated first by Machiavelli, and the Presidency remains the main agent of the modern project of expansion and dominion. The declaration today by Obama to reinvigorate the American promise - for all of its nobility of intention and inclusiveness - remained well within the mainstream of the American creed devoted to personal liberty based upon the conquest of nature and American power premised upon economic, scientific and military dominance. In this sense, Obama’s inaugural address was not outright disappointing, but utterly expected, conforming to the project formed long before his birth, and thus generally predictable: there will be changes in emphasis and style, but still the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night; still we believe in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us, and still we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…

The Presidency was a central feature in the new Constitution that would advance the prospect of the expansive project of modern republicanism. In his book Taming the Prince, Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. argued with great insight that the modern executive is in practical effect the living remnant of Machiavelli’s Prince, the leader who, when necessary, will act outside the bounds of morality and the narrow constraints of law. As defended first by Founding Father James Wilson (who first proposed the unitary executive in the Constitutional convention) and then Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 70, "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch" would characterize the executive officer, a person who would act in ways often opposite to, and indeed at times in circumvention of, the slow, deliberate and "inactive" pace of a more numerous and divided legislature. This role of the executive was seen as the force that would preserve the constitutional order: if the Constitution was marked by a Kantian devotion to law and principle, its practical viability was made possible by the a-moral agency of the Executive who would necessarily at times act out of the forces of exigency. To put it in philosophical terms, an agent of consequentialism was deemed necessary to preserve the deontological commitments of the Constitution. Many of our most divisive court cases are practical distillations of these two philosophical worldviews - e.g., LIncoln’s suspension of habeus corpus, Korematsu v. U.S., or the question of the role of Guantanamo and interrogation all represent confrontations of the Machiavellian vs. the Kantian. The famous phrase by Robert H. Jackson from his dissenting opinion in Terminello v. Chicago - "the Constitution is not a suicide pact" - expresses the belief in the permanent necessity of the "Machiavellian" to preserve the viability of the Constitutional order. One’s adherence to either side of this divide marks one of the fundamental distinctions between "conservatives" and "liberals" in our regime, between those whose view of human nature tends toward a Machiavellian realism or Kantian idealism, between a view of humans as permanently fallen or potentially redeemable.

Mansfield’s analysis is remarkably insightful, but insufficient for its lack of exploration of what the end, or aim, of the Machiavellian exective is. If the end justifies the means, we have a far clearer idea of the variety of means than the end. It turns out, in fact, that why the Machiavellian and the Kantian can co-exist - if in tension - is that the ends they share are in fact fundamentally the same. Both philosophies - deriving from a deeper philosophy of modernity itself - aim at the expansion of human dominion over the natural world and the enlargement of liberty by means of the increase of human control and mastery. Machiavelli’s comparison of the mastery of "Fortune" to the building of dikes and dams to control the effects of flooding (see Federalist 10 for a similar argument couched in political terms) is of little difference to Kant’s embrace of Enlightenment ambitions to unleash the practical and technical capabilities of modern science in the expansion of human mastery. For this reason, both are wedded to expansionist political projects - Machiavelli, in his efforts to collapse the ancient language of republic within a modern project of empire, and Kant’s call for an ever greater expansion of cosmopolitan republicanism culminating - for some modern Kantians - in the dream of the world State. If Kantians have relied upon Machiavellians for the fulfillment of this agenda, similarly Machiavellians have happily resorted to calls for the expansion of liberty and democracy (sound familiar? - bon voyage, W) in the shared aims of expansion. The longstanding purported conflict in International Relations between "realists" and "idealists" is a blinkered and diverting purported debate that masks the deeper set of agreements between these two schools - an agreement that has been practially pursued identically by "Machiavellian" and "Kantian" Presidents alike. At the deepest level there is no disagreement about the ends sought by Machiavellians and Kantians, or more narrowly, between our Republicans and Democrats - merely a difference in means. Growth and expansion remain the ends we seek. Obama will be no different than his predecessors, all claims to "change" notwithstanding.

In fact, for all the changes in parties, ideologies, philosophies and rhetoric, there has been one identical feature of the Executive from the very outset: it is the agent of expansion, represented most immediately by its own enlargement of power over the course of the republic’s history. The Presidency has continued to grow as the expansion of the modern project has also unfolded apace: the very success of that project especially in the economic, but also political and social realms has demanded ever greater "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch," and has necessarily grown impatient with, and moved beyond reliance upon, the slower and plodding pace of the legislative and deliberative branches. While the school-house version of the Founding often stresses the idea that it sought a balance of powers and divided government, in fact its aim was to replace the clunky and slow-working system under the Articles of Confederation, and in particular to accelerate the consolidation of the various States through legislative and economic integration. The very success of the Constitutional order in achieving that end necessarily required ever greater "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch" on the part of the Executive, to the point now at which we witness a hope and belief that a single individual can attain the salvation of the polity and perhaps heal the world. Obama’s claim that "the ground has shifted beneath" those who would question the scale of government is absolutely true - but was already fundamentally true from the moment that the Executive office got underway in 1789. His assertion that what matters is what "works" begs the question of what constitutes "working." The pretense that he uniquely represents the transcendence of old debates over the scale and scope - and more importantly, the end - of modern republicanism is a canard, since all previous office-holders of the executive office have accepted the basic ambition of the modern republic. To do otherwise would be to represent real change - and Obama, all appearances to the contrary, is anything but an agent of any such fundamental change. His call for sacrifice - even his invocation of "virtue and hope" - were made means to the end of renewing the modern project of expansion and growth. In no way can his Inaugural address be construed as a call for real change, such as the inculcation of virtue aimed rather at the governance of appetite and the lessening of our reliance upon growth as the source of national meaning. Any such call would exist in contradiction to the implicit aim of the modern Executive, and would indeed constitute real change.

Today I celebrate with my nation the peaceful transition of power and the ascent of a man of African descent to the Presidency. Yet, too, I lament that we remain trapped within the deepest presuppositions of philosophies born in early modernity that have at their heart the premise of mastery and dominion of the world and even humanity. Until and unless we achieve a better and truer understanding of freedom - that freedom is not achieved by the enslavement of the world, but by the governance of our appetite and desires - then we will remain ourselves enslaved to the worse angels of our nature. We await an emancipation, but today’s proclamation portends that it still lies in a future yet distant.

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