The History of an End

I have just published my latest book, Controversy and Crisis, the Question Concerning the Unquestioned in Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli and Carl Schmitt

The idea in the book is that politics can be understood as a dialectic of what I call the unquestioned and questions. 

By unquestioned we can think of the sacred in religion, or the reverence shown to a person in a monarchy or principles such as the rule of law or popularity in a republic.When this authority is largely unquestioned, we say it enjoys legitimacy. 

Invariably any unquestioned source of power benefits some people and discriminates against others. Those others then ask questions of established power. These others are arranged into groups but frame their objections to power in moral terms. As is said in the book “Politics is social manoeuvring disguised as ethics.

To avoid revolution, those in authority must rationalize their power and fortify themselves. While this avoids revolution it also means that their grip on public affairs is weakened. The process is continually repeated. There is controversy and crisis, there are responses to controversy and crisis, disaster is averted, the cycle starts again. At some stage the balancing act between maintaining power and pretending that power doesn’t exist, that it’s just natural, reaches a fatal point and there is usurpation, overthrow, and revolution. 

Western and Islamic philosophers, both of whom are steeped in the Greek tradition, have generally explored the idea that politics, controversies, and crises, can be ended. They have believed in the unquestioned. The general ideological, intellectual, sociological, and historical trends of the last several centuries can all be categorized in a box marked: The end of controversy and crisis.

A famous exposition was given bythe celebrated neo–conservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952) who captured a prevailing mood in his book The End of History And the Last Man (1992). He admitted to the imperfections of liberal democracy, but was convinced that it yet was the best way to balance competing and conflicting principles such as liberty and equality. 

Not surprisingly, endimg history has been accompanied by a desire to end all forms of domination by humans over other humans (i.e. an ending of authority). The words ‘crisis’ and ‘controversy’ may still be used, but they will inaccurately depict situations that will more precisely be.described as events that are slight wrinkles on the fabric of the ‘new’ history. 

The three intellectuals who form the focus of my new publication rebelled against this tradition. Ibn Khaldun, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Carl Schmitt were realists. They did not seek to make  controversy and crisis history. They appreciated that authority would want to make itself unquestioned but they were also aware that such policies were ultimately fatal. 

For Ibn Khaldun, imprudent taxation was the fatal mistake, for Machiavelli, it was allowing corruption to set into a political system, and for Schmitt the death-blow was when the sovereign refused to take vital decisions. 

As an example, let’s look at Ibn Khaldun. He applied a five step model of dynastic power with the concept of ‘asabiyyah – loosely translated as group–feeling or group–ethic – at its heart. 

Step 1: Once a dynasty loses ‘asabiyyah, it is overtaken by a rival with greater ‘asabiyyah

Step 2: The insurgents are foreign and thus their usurpation is controversial. To rationalize their power and make the dynasty unquestioned the incumbents first consolidate their rule. This is accomplished largely through just dealings and light burdens being placed on the populace. 

Step 3: Then, the dynasty purges itself of its former supporters and finds new clients who will support it. This is to avoid crises stemming from internal power struggles.

Step 4: Later, the demands of the court outstrip those of fair and equitable dealings. More laws, taxes, and intrusions are needed to de–personalize power but are also products of an inner corruption and decadence. 

Step 5: Finally, the dynasty is ripe for overthrow and can no longer call on the same store of zeal as its competitor who overthrows it.

For Ibn Khaldun, but also in different ways for Machiavelli and Schmitt, its not the end of history, but the end of a world. They asked disturbing and important questions about politics, questions that are especially relevant today because we are aware that history has not ended.

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