I only learned today of the death (on January 9) of the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. Mr. Bauman’s thinking and writing defied ideological pigeon-holing; he can be (and has been) cited approvingly by sources as diverse as The American Conservative and The Baffler.
It seems appropriate today to share some of what Zygmunt Bauman wrote a week after Donald Trump’s election. Bauman called Trump an example of a “decisonist leader” elected “To impose a rule that has its sole (and sufficient!) foundation and legitimation in the will of the ruler; in other words, to put into practice Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereign power as a “decisionist” rule…Trump became the President of the US because he made it clear to Americans that he will be that kind of a leader and because Americans wanted be led by a leader of that kind.”
It’s common for such a leader to humbly claim to represent not his own will but that of the people who elected him, but Bauman insisted the reality is starkly otherwise:
A “decisionist” leader needs nothing except a (spontaneous or contrived, voluntary or imposed) public acclaim to act. His decisions bear no other constraints – not even the one supposedly derived from and/or imposed by genuine or putative “higher reasons” or supreme, indisputable super-human commandments – as in the case of divinely anointed monarchs of the Middle Ages. A decisionist leader comes close to the absolute: as God in his reply to Job’s questioning, he refuses to explain his decisions and reject Job’s (or anybody else for that matter) right to ask for explanation and expect it to be given. The sole explanation the leader’s resolution required, and was owed to those affected and given to them, is the leader’s will.
Bauman also noted that our current situation favors leaders who cater to our existential need for enemies:
Shortly before his death, the great Umberto Eco drew in his brilliant essay Making an Enemy the following sad conclusion from his numerous studies of the matter: “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth”. In other words: we need an enemy to know who we are and who we are not; knowing this is indispensable for our self-approval and self-esteem. And he adds: “So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one”. A codicil: “Enemies are different from us and observe customs that are not our own. The epitome of difference is the foreigner”.
Just in case Donald Trump fails to “eradicate” (his word) “radical Islamic terrorism” from the face of the earth, he can always find domestic substitutes:
Well, the trouble with a foreigner is that all too often he is indeed foreign – not just in the sense of obeying alien habits, but also – and most importantly – in that of residing beyond the realm of our sovereignty and so also beyond our reach and control. It is not fully up to us to make of such people enemies and put our enmity in practice (unless, of course, they cross boundaries with the intention of settling in our midst). If sovereignty consists in the “decisionist” capacity of acting solely on one’s own will, then many a foreigner is unfit to perform the role of a proper enemy according to Eco. In many cases (or perhaps in all?) it is better to seek, find or invent an enemy closer to home and above all inside the gate. An enemy within sight and touch is for many reasons more proficient (and above all easier to control and manipulate) than the seldom seen or heard member of an imagined totality. Already in the Middle Ages the function of the enemy in case of Christian states was perfectly performed by heretics, Saracens and Jews – all residing inside the realms of dynasties and churches by which they had been appointed.
Perhaps Zygmunt Bauman was given an advance copy of Trump’s inaugural speech, in which our new President castigated the Washington elite for its failures, its corruption, and its betrayal of the rest of the nation:
The most popular choice among the actual or aspiring strong (wo)men when it comes to the casting the enemy’s role…is currently establishment: a foggy and under-defined collection of have-beens who outlived their time and are grossly overdue to be relegated to history and recorded there in its annals as an aggregate of selfish hypocrites and inept failures.
In a simplified rendition: establishment stands for the repulsive, off-putting and unprepossessing past, and the strong (wo)men, ready to send it to the rubbish tip where it belongs, stand for the guides to a new beginning, after which (s)he who has been naught shall be all.
Those who had been first will now be last, promises Trump, and the last shall now be first; just leave it to him and to the billionaires he’s chosen for his cabinet. As the gospels foretold, a gold-plated populist shall lead us into the kingdom.
And if you believe that, our 45th President has some land, some steaks, some baseball caps, and a degree from Trump University to sell you.