Bad Infinity?: Hans J. Morgenthau’s Double Critique of Depoliticisation

VassiliosA guest post from Vassilios Paipais, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Vassilios holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE and has published in Review of International Studies, International Politics and Millennium, and held various teaching posts at the LSE, SOAS, UCL and the University of Edinburgh. His work focuses on International Relations theory and international political theology. He is also co-founder of Euro Crisis in the Press and Associate to the LSE IDEAS Southern Europe International Affairs programme. You can read his Euro Crisis posts here, as well as follow him on Twitter.

This post is based on a recently published article in Millennium where he explores the implications of post-foundational political ontology for IR via a reading of Martin Heidegger and Oliver Marchart.


Hans Morgenthau

Post-foundational political thought offers the conceptual tools to theorise the experience of dislocation in politics signified by the difference as such between politics and the political. According to Žižek, the political designates the “moment of openness, of undecidability when the very structuring principle of society, the fundamental form of the social pact is called into question” whereas politics describes the positively determined outcome of that process, a “subsystem of social relations in interaction with other sub-systems”. The difference as such between politics and the political implies that any effort to cancel this gap or gloss it over by using ethical, political, juridical or economic arguments is nothing else but an attempt to hegemonise the social by ideologically displacing politics. The political signifies the moment of grounding/de-grounding of the social that is suppressed or forgotten by the operation of politics but can be reactivated at any time through dislocation and antagonism. Politics is incessantly trying to colonise the political but we are each time painfully reminded that an unbridgeable chasm separates the two. It is exactly the irresolvability of this gap that makes politics the name for a paradoxical enterprise which is both impossible and inevitable – which is why none has ever witnessed ‘pure politics’ either. The political cannot be brought about voluntaristically but, whenever we act, it is as if we always activate it or, better, we are always enacted by it. Both gestures of eliminating the force of the political (post-politics) or of introducing it unmediated into politics (total war, revolutionary terror) end up abolishing the political difference and ultimately result in an ideological displacement of politics.

Against this backdrop, I read the sophisticated realism of Hans Morgenthau as a promising but inconclusive attempt at a post-foundationalism political ontology. In fact, I argue that by equally shunning a facile surrender either to the immanence of power (ultra-politics) or to the technologisation of politics (post-politics), Morgenthau’s theory of the political strove to maintain a reflexive fidelity to the logic of political difference as such. At this point, the question naturally arises: why Morgenthau? Isn’t he the archetypical exponent of a tradition that prioritises a static view of international relations and the adoration of power politics? Well, for those who have been following the recent revisionist literature on classical realism, not really; Morgenthau, in contrast, emerges as an apparent candidate to discuss the crisis of foundationalism in (international) political thought and the paradox of its necessity and impossibility, not least because he is one of those rare thinkers that offers no facile solution to, or redemption from, the existential anxiety caused by the interrogation of ultimate foundations in late modernity.

Such an exercise highlights the strong affinities between Morgenthau and critical historicist currents in social and political theory, but this would come as a surprise only to those who equate Morgenthau’s realism with stasis and conservatism and are ignorant of his debt to the thought of Dilthey, Mannheim and Nietzsche. And yet, why inconclusive? Short answer: because of his failure to be radical enough in his Kantian antinomism or, to put it reversely, in his Nietzschean skepticism. And yet, my intention is not to award or withhold credentials of criticality, nor to indict Morgenthau for failing to live up to standards that he never set for himself. On the contrary, in an authentic act of immanent criticism, one does not seek to oppose the other(s) but, instead, to bring out a certain ‘internal contradiction’ to them, in a sense repeat all that they are saying but for an entirely different reason. The purpose of this critique is not to identify shortcomings in Morgenthau’s arguments but to interrogate the ‘transcendental’ conditions of his discourse: that which is in it more than itself. My thoughts on Morgenthau’s unfinished project then should be seen as a propaedeutic towards an investigation of the conditions and challenges involved in practicing international theory as a constant critique of depoliticisation.

It is often remarked, not without reason in my view, that Morgenthau’s view of the political is beset by the apparent contradiction between his Nietzschean radical skepticism and his Weberian ideal-type categorisations. The problem is not unique to Morgenthau as it seems to foreground the conditions of theorising in our post-metaphysical, post-Nietzschean constellation. As Adorno and Derrida were also acutely aware, despite the discrediting of metaphysical illusions in late modernity, thought is condemned to engage with the haunting spectres of foundationalism. In Morgenthau’s case, this perhaps constitutive gap between ‘reality’ and our symbolic constructions appears as follows. On the one hand, he seems to subscribe to Nietzsche’s primary diagnosis of modernity after the ‘death of God’ interpreted as the disintegration of an international moral realm ‘composed of Christian cosmopolitan and humanitarian elements’. In fact, for Morgenthau, disenchantment is not exclusively a moral crisis but a crisis of epistemic orientation as well. The ability to rationally discover a strong, singular meaning of the world -an ultimate foundation- is irretrievably lost and men must learn to ‘meet under an empty sky from which the gods have departed’. On the other hand, however, in the same work, Politics Among Nations, he seems to evoke some kind of foundationalist sensibility when, in his six principles of political realism, he pontificates that ‘international politics like all politics is a struggle for power, and that ‘politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature’. How are we to interpret this apparent resort to determinism, this immediate closure imposed on an inherently open situation? Has he seen the abyss of indeterminacy, suffered the vertigo and shirked from the devastating consequences of embracing nihilism or is there something deeper going on?

Here, Morgenthau’s all-encompassing conception of power and ontological understanding of politics may offer the interpretative key to unpacking his understanding of the political. On the one hand, by defending the all-pervasiveness of power – which, for Morgenthau and a long tradition of thought that harks back to Plato and Augustine, is the twin of a frustrated relationship of love (see his ‘Love and Power’) – he describes the principle of antagonism that pervades social existence and accounts for both the destructive and the constructive potentialities of human agency. Politics without power is, for Morgenthau, unthinkable. But power, for him, is not a metaphysical abstraction derived out of a fixed view about human nature as inherently evil à la Schmitt; rather, it signifies the force of the political as the various forms, conflictual or irenic, human interaction takes in constructing different spatio-temporal configurations of the social (the work of Hartmut Behr and Felix Rösch is illuminating here). In this process, politics without the political becomes the deracinated administration of things. By adding to the Schmittian autonomy and specificity of the political the primacy of power as the ultimate reality and truth of international politics, Morgenthau institutes an understanding of the political as fidelity to antagonism expressed in the form of a tension between man’s inability to ground his own being in a post-Nietzschean world and the need to incessantly engage with meaning construction in a world that defies absolute grounding (his ruminations on the relationship between thought and action in his Science: Servant or Master? are quite edifying on this issue).

Hegel False Nose

Yet, the political (human beings’ power drive carrying both creative and destructive capacities) without politics (value conflicts over the authoritative ordering of the social) leads to a different kind of depoliticisation, that of politics without transcendence, or else, of surrendering oneself to the immanence of power. Employing the metaphor of tragedy, Morgenthau admits that humans cannot easily dispense with the search for ultimate foundations as a way of giving meaning to their existence despite the absolute futility of the task. Indeed, human beings, for Morgenthau, are tragic subjects because they are torn between the necessity and the impossibility of acting ethically. The language he uses to express this sensibility is that of a transcendent but no longer ‘objective’ morality that Ulrich Petersen beautifully describes as a “Kantianism without redemption, a simultaneous projection of freedom and necessity that turns the latter’s ethical philosophy into an overarching antinomy whose continuous negotiation is the stuff of human life”. Human beings are both political and moral creatures and come up against circumstances where politics and morality make contradictory claims on them.

This part of Morgenthau’s legacy has often been interpreted as most promising as it refuses to gloss over the indeterminacy inherent in the operation of politics and succumb to a premature closure of the political. Petersen, for example, cites Morgenthau’s tragic sensibility as a corrective to those who have the tendency “to resort to rhetorical sleights of hand that amount to little more than statements of intent masquerading as solutions to an intractable, and in Morgenthau’s opinion probably insoluble, problem”. Whatever his personal predilections or moral convictions, Morgenthau refused to relax the tension between human beings as free moral agents and a less than perfect political reality, somehow always falling short of our best intentions. Moreover, his acceptance of the possibility of unintended consequences and his emphasis on concrete, standortgebunden analysis and the necessity of exercising prudence and judgement in moral dilemmas all attest to his constant struggle with the challenge of temporality, contingency and historicity. In his socio-political analysis, Morgenthau uses concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘interest’ as ideal types that indicate the possibility of making human conduct intelligible, and to an extent predictable, in a world that is in constant flux and marked by multiple contingencies, not least of which necessarily arise from the conflicting value choices various agents make.

In no way, however, does Morgenthau succumb to an understanding of those ideal types as corresponding to any deep essence or unified logic of reality, as he is often misunderstood by those who brand him a positivist. Morgenthau’s interplay between our understanding of the rational order of things and a recalcitrant reality remains a semeiotic, a distinctively hermeneutic exercise strikingly evoking the impossibility of the political to appear as such and the constantly displaced claim of politics to represent it. Equally, in his moral discourse Morgenthau insists on the necessary impurity of the moral act that produces a peculiar kind of political ethics with a critical edge. His ethics of lesser evil reflects uneasiness with moral intransigence or lack of concreteness in ethical judgement. In obvious homology with the necessarily mediated (but never reducible to politics) nature of the political, morality exists but never in isolation from its concrete political predicament.

And yet, despite its promise, the problem with Morgenthau’s tragic vision of politics is that it postulates an unbridgeable gap between the order of transcendence and the plane of immanence fuelling, in turn, a process of what Hegel called bad infinity. This is more than evident in Morgenthau’s wholesale embracement of the Pascalian sensibility that envisages human beings – primarily statesmen – as always stranded between the inexorable determinism of nature and their ability to transcend finitude. In trying to stir a precarious path between avoiding the reification of either a politics of unending violence or of post-political ratiocination, Morgenthau’s ‘Kantianism without redemption’ remains trapped in the dialectics of bad conscience. That is, I can never be sure that I did the right thing or that I fully assumed my responsibility because, even if I manage to treat someone virtuously or justly, that will always happen at the expense of someone else, my family to the detriment of other families, a stranger to the detriment of other strangers. The programmatic impurity of the ethical act seems to be the fundamental requirement of a truly ethical decision. One, then, is still seized by the despairing ambivalence that something must necessarily escape us when making an ethico-political decision in the face of undecidability. Here there are more than structural similarities between Pascal’s wager, Kant’s antinomic thinking, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith and Morgenthau’s theorising ‘under an empty sky’ where belief in morally transcendent principles is also an act of faith. The point here is not the obvious one, i.e. to place Morgenthau in the line of tragic thinkers that repeatedly failed to reconcile antinomic positions, but to argue that positioning oneself towards that necessary failure (is it a source of despair or renewal?) makes all the difference. Depoliticisation is likely to emerge not only from misrecognising necessity and naturalness where there are only impermanent and contestable social arrangements but also from the temptation to view universality as an empty form always longing to be filled and a priori failing to achieve the reconciliation between a recalcitrant reality and our ethical ideals.

Bad Infinity

Morgenthau’s reticence to embrace Kantian antinomism to its radical conclusion (which is another way of saying that he is not dialectical enough) may provide an explanation for some of the caricaturing or mislabelling of his political ethics. Critics, such as Michael Smith and Michael Loriaux, have argue that the centrality of animus dominandi and the ubiquity of evil in Morgenthau’s thought evacuates effective individual moral responsibility (see also Klusmeyer for a comparison with Arendt). This is admittedly a misleading remark if one takes into account that most of Morgenthau’s work is geared towards the salvation of human agency and the exercise of political wisdom as a form of ethical action amidst the contingent temporal and spatial circumstances that make up political life. Morgenthau is at pains to stress that there is only one universal moral code applied across individuals and collectivities and that no political expediency justifies the application of double moral standards. However, there is some truth to the criticism that Morgenthau never managed to justify satisfactorily the nature of his political ethics. This is, I argue, a result of his failure to sustain the difference between an ontological and an ethical dualism in his ethico-political discourse (as I have argued in another paper, this may be a result of Morgenthau’s poor theological skills).

It is here that Morgenthau’s emphasis on the ‘ubiquity of evil’ in political life may rightfully sound disarmingly pessimistic or overly romantic. Roger Epp insightfully remarks that Morgenthau’s ersatz concept for sin expressed in secular terms as an insatiable lust for power (animus dominandi) shapes the human condition prior to any meaningful realm of freedom. That political action is bound to fail or that it necessarily, ab initio, carries the mark of its own corruption is one thing but the attribution of that failure to an ontological necessity of evil is quite another. The former may still allow for a residual human responsibility and capacity for justice despite or even through the tragic conditions that beset human existence (ethical dualism); the latter locates tragedy in the irreconcilable dichotomy between an a priori fallenness of actual life and a transcendental realm of ethical norms that are recognised but dismissed as not directly applicable to actual life (ontological dualism). In the absence of any creative dialectical overcoming of this opposition ethical dualism may easily regress to an ontological one. The claim here is not that Morgenthau does not have a concept of moral responsibility or that he programmatically opts for nihilism. On the contrary, as Christoph Frei has convincingly shown, he laments and indicts this tendency in modernity. The criticism is that because he does not explicitly differentiate between human freedom and finitude his ethical dualism runs the danger of imperceptibly sliding into an ontological one. As a result of such a nearly ‘Gnostic’ sensibility, anthropological pessimism or heroic fatalism is more likely to cripple his political ethics (compare with, for example, Daniel Levine’s critique).

Ultimately, Morgenthau remains relevant for a critical investigation of depoliticisation in IR not so much in offering an understanding of the limitations surrounding human knowledge and action. Rather, it is because his post-foundational articulation of the political as an unending dialectics of openness and closure enables the re-marking of the critical ‘groundless ground’ from which the same problems, the same challenges, the same impossible simultaneity of the transcendental and the empirical can be rethought and reproblematised for progressive purposes (this explains and at once justifies the recent recasting of Morgenthau’s work in different creative directions, see Scheuerman, Schuett, Tjalve, Behr and Rösch, Neacsu etc. against gatekeeping objections that claim some kind of ‘authentic’ access to the interpretation of Morgenthau’s thought or guard against ‘illegitimate’ readings). His thought was pregnant with critical insights exactly because, whether he theorised on power, morality, politics or human nature, his pronouncements were marked by a fidelity to negativity and an appreciation of the spatio-temporal contingencies that make up social life. This is more than evident in his persistent refusal to naturalise historically conditioned structures as, for instance, in his discussion of the obsoleteness of the nation state and the possibility of a world-state in Politics Among Nations or in his vehement rejection of perfectionist ethics. In allowing for the possibility of transformation and resisting the reification of contingent institutions, Morgenthau was actually a true realist as there is nothing more real than change.

In these instances, international theory becomes the site in which IR scholars exercise not merely their dissident role but also employ their political imagination in the fray of everyday politics and collective engagement. In the absence of an undisputed ontological, epistemic or axiological foundation for their scholarly interventions, public relevance and scrutiny remains the ultimate litmus test of their critical interventions. Morgenthau himself was acutely aware of that critical aspect of international theory as the conscience of policy-makers and mankind in general. His commitment to a publicly relevant IR, often incurring a personal cost, is underpinned by a view of politics as a grounding exercise in the absence of an ultimate ground, a site where individual and collective value commitments clash or converge with no privileged access to truth. Much in line with the post-structuralist emphasis on the critical role of the intellectual, for Morgenthau, the political was the personal indeed. If, despite his vigilance, his strict separation of the realms of immanence and transcendence could crystallise into an implacable ahistorical structure (formal method), that is symptomatic not only of the promising possibilities but also of the fragile nature and paradoxes surrounding the critical enterprise.

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