A Latin empire against the German dominance? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben explains his much-discussed thesis. Apparently, he had been misunderstood.
Professor Agamben, when you floated the idea in March of a ‘Latin imperium’ against Germanic domination in Europe, could you have imagined the powerful resonance this contention would have? In the meantime your essay has been translated into countless languages and passionately discussed across half the continent…
No, I didn’t expect this. But I believe in the power of words, when they are spoken at the right time.
It has become customary, when criticising the imperialism of Western reason, to emphasise its reliance on the production of 'others' – pathological, animalistic, irrational, pre-modern. The tale told in this book was occasioned, like most genealogies and histories of ideas, by the attempt to confront and counter a prominent feature of its present: the designation of 'fanaticism' as the principal menace to social peace. In the metropoles of global capital, the first decade of the new millennium seemed to unfold under the ideological sign of a renewed war between Enlightenment and unreason – in the guise of that unstable amalgam of religion, politics and violence represented by international or, more commonly, 'Islamic' terrorism. There is no shortage of coruscating denunciations of how the spontaneous philosophy of the 'war on terror' – the many variations on how 'our values' of liberalism and tolerance are threatened by the murderous radicalisation of subaltern populations – spread a very thin veneer over a long global history of dispossession, racialisation and the instrumental uses of fundamentalist groups against popular movements and geopolitical foes. The task I set myself was very different, if not unrelated: not so much to engage in a critique of the dominant ideology, but to show, through the systematic investigation of certain crucial episodes in the life of an idea, how 'fanaticism' could serve both as an instrument of depoliticisation and as a kind of inverted prism through which to rethink the question of intransigent subjectivity, in a period when, throughout the world, precarious efforts at emancipatory politics are met by well-tested apparatuses of neutralisation.
The first years of the third millennium, captivated by a spectacular, if ambiguous, resurgence of religiously motivated violence, have seen the revival of a charged term in the Western political lexicon: fanaticism. Societal upheavals, revolutionary periods, religious wars, crises of legitimation, imperial projects – in the past five centuries, all have provided occasions for invoking fanaticism to stigmatise incorrigible enemies, whose disproportionate convictions and intractable beliefs put them beyond the pale of negotiation. Millenarian German peasants, anti-colonial ‘dervish’ rebels, terrorising Jacobins, anarchist bombers, anti-slavery ‘immediatists’, and eschatological Stalinists are just some of the figures thrown up by an investigation into the adversarial uses of this powerful idea. Exploring the historical semantics and polemical deployments of fanaticism reveals, among other things, its impressive plasticity. Cultic superstition and unbridled rationality, the refusal of progress and its immoderate celebration, intransigent particularism and expansive universality have all been the targets of the accusation of fanaticism.
This is partly accounted for by the closeness of fanaticism to extremism as a term of political abuse: as long as otherwise incompatible positions take sufficient distance from a standard of moderation or normality, they can be tarred with the same brush. Centrist denunciations of the excesses of Right and Left often take this form, as in the doctrine of ‘opposed convergent extremisms’ that was applied by Christian Democrats to Italian terrorism in the 1970s. Yet among political smear-words fanaticism has its own pedigree, which crucially includes two elements arising from its association with political theology and theological politics. First, fanaticism defines an ethic of conviction that abhors compromise. Second, fanaticism results from a politics of abstraction in which disembodied principles override pragmatism and mediation. In the fraught and discontinuous history of fanaticism, it was the reaction to the French Revolution’s egalitarian dictatorship of abstract reason that foregrounded these distinctive features. In particular, it was then that the reactionary trope of a ‘fanaticism of reason’ – mostly alien to the Lumières’ insistent condemnation of religious fanaticism – came into its own. It is not difficult to grasp how intransigence and abstraction, whether in religious or secular garb, could be associated with a certain ‘fatal purity’ – to quote the title of a recent biography of Robespierre. Twentieth and twenty-first century attacks on political fanaticisms continue to borrow from the arsenal of counter-revolutionary thought (be it liberal, conservative or fiercely reactionary, as in De Maistre), for which the Revolution’s frenzied attempt ‘to abstract and equalize’ society – to purify it of its stratifications, hierarchies, customs and differences for the sake of the ‘monstrous fiction’ of equality and human rights – was foredoomed to tyranny and catastrophe.
‘Margaret Thatcher is Dead: This lady is not returning!’ is one way of the calmer statements celebrating Thatcher’s demise on my Facebook page. I can’t join the clamour singing ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, trailing as it does its horrific historical sexism. More sadly, I can’t see anything to celebrate. Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever. Neither Cameron nor Osborne will ever be damned as a warlocks or necromancers – this rarely happens to men – yet it is thanks to them that Margaret Thatcher dies triumphant. Thatcher’s success, like that of her pal, Reagan, was that through a combination of shrewdness and luck she could ride the high tide of corporate capital’s determination to increase profits by rolling back all the popular gains of the postwar settlement. She was neoliberalism’s willing tool, rather than something unique, evil or otherwise.