The Tyrant as Messiah - Messianism and Antinomianism in the Neoconservative Ideology


Prof. Dr. Lieven De Cauter, initiator of the BRussells Tribunal (03 September 2006)

‘The word I hear is ‘messianic.’’ — (Seymour Hersh[1])


This paper wants to investigate whether messianism plays a role in the straussian neoconservative ideology, especially in its coalition with Christian fundamentalism and, furthermore, investigate how the neoconservative, straussian antinomianism might be a counterpart to the antinomianism of ‘leftwing’ messianic philosophy. The war on terror as state of exception and straussian neocon ideology will be read in the light of the work of Derrida, notably his idea of messianicity without messianism, and – less explicitly – in the light of Agamben.  

The war on terror as state of exception 

In ‘For a justice to come’, one of the last interviews with Jacques Derrida, the author stated clearly that he considered the war on terror as a state of exception. In a sort of commentary on his train of thoughts in Voyous (Rogues) on auto-immunity of democracy, the tendency of democracy to defend itself by destroying itself, he says: ‘The exception is the translation, the criterion of sovereignty, as was noted by Carl Schmitt (…): Sovereign is he who decides on the exception. (…). In the same way that democracy, at times, threatens or suspends itself, so sovereignty consists in giving oneself the right to suspend the law. (…) That is what the United States has done, on the one hand when they trespassed against their own commitments with regard to the UN and the Security Council, and on the other hand, within the country itself, by threatening American democracy to a certain extent, that is to say by introducing exceptional police and judicial procedures. I am not only thinking of the Guantanamo prisoners but also of the Patriot Act: from its introduction, the FBI has carried out inquisitorial procedures of intimidation which have been denounced by the Americans themselves, notably by lawyers, as being in breach of the Constitution and of democracy.’[2] It is obvious that this interpretation is not only inspired by Schmitt but even more so by Agamben reading of Schmitt in Homo Sacer. This interpretation of the war on terror as state of emergency, or ‘willed state of  exception’ in technical terms[3], is in any case close to Agamben. When one reads this interview one indeed feels the shadow of Agamben.  

At some point it becomes very clear, but negatively, when Derrida says in the interview: ‘But at the same time you shouldn’t think that you must fight for the dissolution pure and simple of all sovereignty: that is neither realistic nor desirable. There are effects of sovereignty which in my view are still politically useful in the fight against certain forces or international concentrations of forces that sneer at sovereignty.’[4] I think it is not Hineininterpretierung to say that was a commend on Agamben.[5]  This shadow of Agamben was already present in Voyous.[6]. But Voyous is more openly commenting on Nancy, and others, concerning Rogues states it is following William Blum and Noam Chomsky[7]. For in Voyous Derrida states firmly that if Rogue states there are, then the United States and its allies, are the first of rogue states[8]. 

In the same interview Derrida furthermore spells out, as in Voyous, that this hegemonic offensive policy signals a crisis of hegemony: ‘To be fair, we must take into account this contradiction within American democracy — on the one hand, auto-immunity: democracy destroys itself in protecting itself; but on the other hand, we must take into account the fact that this hegemonic tendency is also a crisis of hegemony. The United States, to my mind, convulses upon its hegemony at a time when it is in crisis, precarious. There is no contradiction between the hegemonic drive and crisis. The United States realises all too well that within the next few years, both China and Russia will have begun to weigh in. The oil stories which have naturally determined the Iraq episode are linked to long-term forecasts notably concerning China: China’s oil supply, control over oil in the Middle East… all of this indicates that hegemony is as much under threat as it is manifest and arrogant.’[9]

This renewed attempt to ‘American pre-eminence’ goes via ‘American exceptionalism’ and ‘benevolent hegemony’ (all these are neoconservative key terms; we will come back on them). One could say that what is now called in the press and numerous books ‘American empire’ is in fact the ‘end of Empire’ as Negri and Hardt conceived of it, the end of the triadic pyramid that kept the new (in the mean time old, pre 9/11) world order together: if that was a balance, or synthesis between monarchy (the US), aristocracy (the G 7, the world bank, the IMF, the multinationals) and democracy (The UN, the press, the NGO’s, etc), then one could say that Empire is over, or at least shaken. This ‘end of Empire’ might indeed be the best way to register the shift since 9/11. It is known under the more innocent formula of the shift from multilateralism to unilateralism, but this does not signal the dramatic character of the change.    

For Derrida the invasion of Iraq, as highly disputed central part of the war on terror, has a multiple agenda: ‘There are many more stakes than petrol alone, especially since oil is a matter of only a few more decades: there won’t be any oil left in 50 years! We must take the petrol question into account, but we shouldn’t devote all our attention and analysis to it. There are military questions, passing through territorial questions of occupation and control. But military power is not only a territorial power, we know that now, it also passes through non-territorialised controls, techno-communicational channels etc. All of this has to be taken into account.’[10] Derrida even links the invasion of Iraq to Israel: ‘Many have said that the American-Israeli alliance or the support the United States give to Israel is not unrelated to this intervention in Iraq. I believe this is true to some extent. But here too matters are very complicated (…), for if it is true that the Americans support Israel — just like the majority of European countries, with different political modulations – , the best American allies of Sharon’s policy, that is to say the most offensive policy of all Israeli governments, are not only the American Jewish community but also the Christian fundamentalists. These are often the most pro-Israeli of all Americans, at times even more so than certain American Jews.’[11]

This alliance between ‘certain American Jews’ and the Christian fundamentalists is one of the constellations we will try and clarify somewhat. Finally Derrida points to the systematic lies in the media and the preconceived nature of the invasion: ‘(…) there is evidently (…) the enormous problem of the media, of control of the media, of the media power which has accompanied this entire history in a decisive manner, from September 11 to the invasion of Iraq, an invasion which, by the way, in my opinion was already scheduled well before September 11’[12]. He was right, of course, as many documents of the Project for the New American Century prove[13].

Neocon politics and straussian antinomianism  

The ‘Project for the New American century’ is a think tank erected in 1997 that wants to prolong and reinforce ‘American pre-emince’ into the 21st century, by ‘benevolent hegemony’ via permanent war. The mission statement was co-signed, amongst many others[14], by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. From the very beginning they were pleading hard for regime change in Baghdad.  One of their first actions was writing a letter to Clinton to try and persuade him to invade Iraq.[15] In the famous/infamous report ‘Rebuilding America’s defenses’ one reads that one of the core tasks of the new military, revolutionized by a exponential growth in the military budget, is ‘to fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars’[16]. Further down in this report of September 2000, a year before 9/11, we read the by now famous phrase that ‘this process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.’[17] In other words: 9/11 was a godsend for them. The phrase is still on their website. Finally another crucial quote indicates that Derrida was right in his assumption that the invasion of Iraq was preplanned and had nothing to do with 9/11: ‘The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.’[18] That one phrase provides a key, maybe the key, to the illegal invasion of Iraq[19]. 

Almost all the members of the Project for the New American Century are neoconservatives, some are straussians, and some of them have taken important positions in the Bush government: Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis I. Libby, Abram Schulsky, and Stephen Cambone. Besides there are influential publicists like Irving Kristol, spiritual father of the neocons and his son William Kristol, the propagandist of the movement, both are self declared straussians. William Kristol is, besides founder and editor in chief of The Weekly Standard, chairman of the PNAC. Gary Schmitt, its director, is also considered a straussian. The straussians are not any longer only a very influential strand in American academia, or have strong influence in powerful think tanks, but they are now also in power and have a hand in shaping US foreign and domestic policy[20].

The political philosophy of Leo Strauss can be summarized like this: the few, the ‘real men’, as Strauss calls them in quoting Xenophon, the philosophers, know the truth: that there are no gods, that there is only one natural right, namely the right of the strongest, the right of the few (to enjoy the pleasure of life and contemplation). These truths are dangerous for the philosophers, for they might be prosecuted, and, more importantly, they are harmful to society. So one has to make a double doctrine: an esoteric one for the few, and an exoteric one for the many. [] This outward face of philosophy (which Strauss calls ‘political philosophy’ –the face philosophy shows to the polis), is, in Strauss’s terms made up of ‘pious lies’ and ‘noble myths’. These ‘noble myths’ or ‘pious lies’ are essential to keep society going. Modernity is the process of these esoteric, classical truths becoming openly known – a process happening in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau -, leading to nihilistic hedonism in the masses. The ‘real men’ cannot rule directly, the philosophers need to whisper in the ear of ‘gentlemen’ (again a term of Xenophon), who do believe in the pious myths and noble lies. For Strauss the philosophical elites who know the truth, should tell the gentlemen who are in power the pious lies to uphold in public of God, law, freedom and patriotism. Piety, fear and permanent war are a way to turn the decadence of modernity into heroism and self sacrifice. To avoid decadence, and solve the crisis of modernity, one needs patriotism and religion as believe in the sacredness of morals, of the country and its laws. But the laws are also ‘pious lies’. In fact, tyranny, the rule in absence of law, can be far better than rule by law. To create this strength and unity in the polis one needs an enemy, if there is none one has to create one. One needs subjects that are united by fear, fear of God and fear of the enemy.[21]

In On Tyranny, a commentary on Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero or on Tyranny, one gets a sort of summa of what Strauss calls the ‘tyrannical teachings’ in his own words (I quote the most striking passages of the short chapter called ‘The teaching concerning tyranny’): ‘…the rule of law is not necessary for good government.[22] (…) To be just, simply means to be beneficent. If justice is then translegal, rule without laws may very well be just: beneficent absolute rule is just. Absolute rule of  a man who knows how to rule; who is a born ruler, is actually superior to the rule of laws (…) Hence the rule of an excellent tyrant is superior to, or more just than, rule of laws. Yet Simonides [the wise man, the poet who dialogues with Hiero, the Tryant] goes much beyond praising beneficent tyranny: he praises in the strongest terms the hoped-for beneficent rule of a tyrant who previously committed a considerable number of crimes. By implication he admits that the praiseworthy character of tyranny at its best is not impaired by the unjust manner in which the tyrant originally acquired his power, or in which he ruled prior to his conversion. [conversion from malevolent to beneficent tyranny]. [23] (…) rule derived from elections in particular, is not essentially more legitimate than tyrannical rule, rule derived from force or fraud. Tyrannical rule as well as ‘constitutional’ rule will be legitimate to the extent to which the tyrant or the ‘constitutional’ rulers will listen to the counsels of him who ‘speaks well’ because he ‘thinks well’.’[24] Here we see the philosopher whispering in the ear of those in power and Strauss goes on, in a very ominous summary of his thoughts: ‘At any rate, the rule of a tyrant who, after having come to power by means of force or fraud, or after having committed any number of crimes, listens to the suggestions of reasonable men, is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates who refuse to listen to suggestions (…)’[25]. And as a supplementary warning Strauss refers to the esoteric character of these truths at the end of this chapter: ‘It is one thing to accept the theoretical thesis concerning tyranny, it is another thing to expound it publicly’[26]. The ‘problem of the law’ – ‘the difficult relationship between philosophy and the law that Leo Strauss sought to delineate throughout his works’, as Agamben puts it at the beginning of ‘The Messiah and the Sovereign’[27] – is responded: justice is translegal, to be beneficent is to be just, so beneficent tyranny is more just than the rule of law.   

It is most probable that the neocon concept of ‘benevolent hegemony’ (one of their key concepts, introduced by William Kristol and Robert Kagan[28]) is a rather direct translation of what Strauss calls ‘beneficent tyranny’. And it is also clear that the fraudulent elections, the secrecy, the lies, the politics of fear, the suspending and breaking of law, and the politics of permanent war as politics to create unity and patriotism by targeting and even creating an enemy – it all seems to be text book straussianism. Besides the use of religion and its messianic version of fundamentalism, the main feature of straussian neocon thought is its deep antinomianism. Indeed, the contempt for the rule of law is deeply embedded in neoconservative thinking and realized in Bushite politics. Even Francis Fukuyama, a former fellow traveler of the neocons, who co-signed the statement of principles of ‘the Project of the New American Century’ back in 1997, wrote a book that is an appeal to abandon neoconservative ‘exceptionalism’ and a plea for a return to legality.[29] In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal he wrote: ‘To put it mildly, the Iraq war has not increased the prestige of the U.S. and American ideas like liberal democracy in the Middle East. The U.S. does not have abundant moral authority for promoting the rule of law, since the first thing people in the region associate with America today is prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. Many Americans have explained these events to themselves by saying that the abuse was an aberration that has been hyped by enemies of the U.S., and that in any event such things just happen during wartime. Perhaps; but the fact remains that Guantanamo is still open, and nobody except for a couple of lowly enlisted soldiers have been prosecuted for prisoner abuse by the Bush administration. Fair or not, American insistence on rule of law and human rights looks simply hypocritical.’[30]

The disrespect for international law, human rights, international institutions and even the American constitution itself, is clearly embodied, not only in concentration camps like Guantanamo, or in the Patriot act, but also in the executive orders and the 750 ‘presidential signing statements’ that president Bush, according to a recent article in the International Herald tribune, issued since taking power. These ‘presidential signing statements’, invented by Samuel Alito jr. (now member of the supreme court) under Ronald Regan, can sideline laws voted in congress without the use of a presidential veto. A famous example is the signing statement saying that the president would not feel tied by the recent law passed in congress against torture and inhuman treatment.[31] Or more recently, the sidelining of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Guantanamo is unconstitutional.[32]

This contempt for law, we could call the ‘really existing antinomianism’ as opposed to the philosophical antinomianism that for instance Agamben exposes in his work. The ‘tyrannical teachings’ and practices of this antinomianism has a strong link to religious fundamentalism, as a ‘really existing messianism’. One could say that Christian fundamentalism is an important part of the ‘political philosophy’ of contemporary neoconservative politics, that is: the exoteric side of the doctrine, the pious lies and noble myths that help the elites, who know, to rule. This strange and sinister alliance itself, is therefore textbook straussianism[33].   

The role of messianism in the neocon worldview 

The straussians are not messianic in their esoteric, true ideas, but they use religious currents in their exoteric discourse, for religion is, as we have noted, crucial for the cohesion of society and therefore it is a strong base for politics. Religion, Strauss said, should be used to install fear, morals and patriotism, and the idea of self sacrifice in the mind of the masses[34]. This is exactly the function of Christian fundamentalism in contemporary American politics. To realize what contemporary messianism might mean, a summary of the basic creeds of Christian fundamentalism (as far as they concern the situation in the middle east) might prove useful. I quote this grim portrait: ‘Once Israel has occupied the rest of its ‘biblical lands,’ legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the Messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow. (…) It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation (…) A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed – an essential conflagration on the road to redemption.’[35]

Tradition comes back not as a tragedy but as a farce (pregnant of tragedy alas). How utterly crazy it might seem, this apocalyptic believe is shared by some 50 million Americans, and endorsed by a substantial number of lawmakers in congress.[36] It proves that strong support for Israel – the one Derrida was pointing to – can be based on anti-Semitism (which, by the way, proves ex absurdo that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic). And it is exactly with this combination of high class cowboy born again Christian rednecks and low class (under class) backwards bible belt American messianism, that the predominantly Jewish neoconservatives (some of them of straussian inspiration) have joined forces.

The link, in a sense, is made in the person of the President himself. Numerous articles have documented Bush apocalyptic beliefs and his so called ‘Messianic complex’[37]. One quote must suffice here: ‘The Reverend Billy Graham taught Bush to live in anticipation of the Second Coming, but it was his friendship with Dr. Tony Evans that shaped Bush’s political understanding of how to deport himself in an apocalyptic era. (…) “Most of the leaders of the Promise Keepers embrace a doctrine of ‘end time’ (eschatology), known as ‘dominionism.’ Dominionism pictures the seizure of earthly (temporal) power by the ‘people of God’ as the only means through which the world can be rescued… It is the eschatology that Bush has imbibed; an eschatology through which he has gradually (and easily) come to see himself as an agent of God who has been called by him to ‘restore the earth to God’s control” (…)’ This delusion is called ‘Messianic leadership’[38]

The implicit link to this really existing messianism or millenarism of the masses and the eschatology of the President himself as messianic leader on the one hand, and neocon thought on the other can be found in the apocalyptic tone of their writing. When one reads Present Dangers, edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristoll or The end of Evil. How to win the war on terror, by Richard Perle and David Frum, one cannot deny that there is a sense that the American Empire is the only hope for humanity in the light of the Present Dangers and the forces of Evil. American Empire is built on a deeply apocalyptic world view. And that is the messianism that drives Bush, fed by his own apocalyptic belief as born again Christian. For the neocons he is indeed the ideal ‘gentlemen’ of Xenophon and Strauss, a messianic godsent: an optimistic, charismatic leader, strangely close to the heart of the people, like kings are. He is the gentlemen, that lends his ear to the philosophers, the neocons and straussians in his administration. The description, that Strauss gives of the ideal regime in On tyranny, captures in an ominous way, this strange but strong cocktail that born again Christian Bush and his neocon entourage make. At the end of ‘the End of Evil’ it reads: ‘A world at peace; a world governed by law; a world in which all peoples are free to find their own destinies: that dream has not yet come true, it will not come true soon, but if it ever does come true, it will be brought by American armed might and defended by American might, too. (…) Our vocation is to support justice with power. It is a vocation that has earned us terrible enemies. It is a vocation that has made us, at our best moments, the hope of the world.’[39] Pax Americana or chaos. Peace through permanent war. The Emperor as savior. The tyrant as Messiah.  

The other messianism: Messianicity 

Is there some light in this darkness? According to Derrida there is. For there is another messianic force at work in our world, a weak messianic force. In the same late interview we started with, ‘For a justice to come’, he says at the end: ‘The weak force (…) is what I call ‘messianicity without messianism’: I would say that today, one of the incarnations, one of the implementations of this messianicity, of this messianism without religion, may be found in the alter-globalization movements. Movements that are still heterogeneous, still somewhat unformed, full of contradictions, but that gather together the weak of the earth, all those who feel themselves crushed by the economic hegemonies, by the liberal market, by sovereignism, and so on. I believe it is these weak who will prove to be strongest in the end and who represent the future. Even though I am not a militant involved in these movements, I place my bet on the weak force of those alter-globalization movements. (…) What I call messianicity without messianism is a call, a promise of an independent future for what is to come, and which comes like every messiah in the shape of peace and justice, a promise independent of religion, that is to say universal. A promise independent of the three religions when they oppose each other, since in fact it is a war between the three Abrahamic religions. A promise beyond the Abrahamic religions, universal, without relation to revelations or to the history of religions. (…) And I believe we must seek today, very cautiously, to give force and form to this messianicity, without giving in to the old concepts of politics (sovereignism, territorialized nation-state), without giving in to the Churches or to the religious powers, theologico-political or theocratic of all orders, whether they be the theocracies of the Islamic Middle East, or whether they be, disguised, the theocracies of the West. (…) Messianicity without messianism, that is: independence in respect of religion in general. A faith without religion of some sort.’[40]

Thus spoke Jacques Derrida. I believe these words can be considered as an abbreviation, a  summary of his thoughts on ‘messianicity without messianism’  from Spectre de Marx (1993) till Voyous (2003), but also as a step further, as a concretization, for here he ventures to name an incarnation of this messianicity: the other-globalist movement.[41]

If we put the picture together we could say that according to Derrida, two opposing messianisms are dominating the political or theological-political situation: the fundamentalist, theocratic messianism and the other(-globalist) messianicity. Indeed already in Spectre de Marx (1993) Derrida tried to clarify this opposition between the reviving religious messiamisms and his idea of messianicity (which he then still called le Messianique, ‘the messianic’). When at the end of the book he asks the question of religion he speaks about ‘two messianic spaces’:  ‘First it concerns what takes the original form of a return of religion, whether it is fundamentalist or not’, and that over-determines all the questions of the nation, the state, international law, human rights or the Bill of rights, in short, of all that what concentrates its habitat in the at least symptomatic figure of Jerusalem, or, here and there, of its re-appropriation and the system of alliances that are aligned around it [qui s’y ordonnent]’. He goes on: ‘How to relate the one to the other, but how to dissociate also the two messianic spaces, about which we speak here under the same name? If the messianic appeal belongs to a universal structure, to this irreducible movement of the historical openness to the future (…) then how to think it together with the figures of abrahamic messianism?’[42] In fact Derrida’s answer, or alternative, comes in the form of the adjective ‘Le messianique’(the messianic), and then later, in Voyous, in the form of the neologism: messianicity.

As he writes near the beginnining of Spectres de Marx, one of the problems, or aporia’s the book tries to tackle (in a very different way than Leo Strauss) is the opposition between law and justice. ‘If the law (le droit) has something of vengeance’[43], Derrida points to the necessity to think ‘justice from the angle of the gift, that means beyond the law’[44]. And that points for him to messianism[45]. At the end of the book he calls the messianic (‘le messianique’) an ‘absolute hospitability’: ‘Open, in the expectation (attente) of the event as justice, this hospitability is absolute only when it watches over its universality. The messianic, even under its revolutionary forms (and the messianic is always revolutionary, it has to) would be the urgency, the imminence, but, paradoxically, an expectation without horizon.’[46] One cannot fail to see that the revolution seems to be put safely between brackets here.

We know that Derrida rejected antionomiansm (from politique d’amities over Voyous to his last interviews). As he defended the concept of sovereignty, he defended ‘a democracy to come’ and ‘a justice to come’.  He defended (in the interview and in Voyous) warmly the international legal order and the United Nations (even if they needed reform). For him we cannot do without sovereignty, and not without the law.  The justice to come is based on an amelioration and critique of the legal framework by the ‘inconditionality’ of the translegal request of justice. In Voyous he states this firmly: ‘(…) justice exceeds the law (le droit) but also motivates its movement, the history and becoming of juridical rationality (…) The heterogeneity between justice and law does not exclude, it appeals on the contrary to their indissociability: no justice without appeal to judicial determinations and to the force of law, no becoming, no transformation, history or perfectibility of law without the appeal to a justice that will always exceed it’[47].  This abyss or gap between law and justice that never can be filled is exactly the space of messianicity: ‘This hiatus opens the rational space for a hypercritical belief, without dogma or religion, irreducible to any religious or implicitly theocratic institution’[48]. Referring back to Spectres de Marx he adds: ‘It is what I have called elsewhere the expectation without horizon of a messianicity without messianism[49] .

As in Spectre de Marx Derrida reverts also in Voyous to the oxymoron to evoke his messianic appeal, this messianicity. He calls it, a freedom without autonomy (une liberté sans autonomie), a heteronomy with slavery (une hétéronomie sans servitude), a passive decision (une decision passive) [50]and finally, in the insert to the book, with the oxymoron of Paul and Benjamin, a weak force (une force faible), ‘an appeal to which all hopes are directed but that is in itself, without hope’[51]. When he tries to capture this messianicity in more philosophical terms, that is to say in a concept, he calls it a ‘hyperethics or hyperpolitics’[52]. This might bring us to a fundamental question about messianicity[53]: does it leave space for the political, or does it reduce politics to ethics? Does it leave space for the event, or does it delay any truly political event (protest, revolt, revolution)? Exactly this event-like character Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, and Agamben try to think? Has Derrida indeed not put the revolution between brackets? Does one not need some sort of antinomianism to think politics (‘La politique’) as opposed to the political (le politique)?  Does one not has to see, like Benjamin tried in his critique of violence[54], that the exceeding of the law in justice, as political act, is, often  mirroring martial law, the state of emergency or state of exception (like general strike, revolt or revolution)?  

In this respect the work of Giorgio Agamben is extremely valuable, for it forces us to look the state of exception and sovereignty in the eye. To look to our present situation from the perspective of messianism to the wisdom of Thucydides, Schmitt and Strauss that war and the state of exception are the rule. Maybe his work is pointing to a way out. It is not really a third way, it is a way to avoid the extremes and their synthesis. Badiou once said, on the occasion of the presentation of La communaite qui vient that the work of Agamben, the method of Agamben is to ‘diagonaliser les oppositions’, to diagonalize the oppositions. It is not easy to think it.  The true state of exception must be ultimately thought as (non-)synthesis between love (as the surpassing and fulfillment of the law) and revolt (as the suspension and destruction of the law). This messianic coincidentia opositorum might be the ultimate mystical ligne de fuite of Agamben’s messianism. Even if Derrida reverts to this figure of the messianic oxymoron, it seems that Agamben goes beyond Derrida’s synthesis, the indissociability of law and justice. That is the revolutionary side of his messianic philosophy.


As we have tried to show, Derrida was sharply aware that the ‘neo-religious’ fundamentalist messianisms – if we allow it to be called messianism -, as a mask for power politics (the imperial vision for the elites, fear for the masses and fundamentalism for the morons) – that these really existing messianisms are a dangerous tendency in the contemporary political landscape. It is to stay clear of this messianism that he reduced the name first to its adjective (the messianic), later by substantivating it in a neologism (messianicity) The antinomianism of neoconservative thought on the other hand, is using this ‘end time’ craze in the service of its imperial war policies (not only the Christian but also the Islamist one). The conservative revolutionary antinomianism, its contempt for international law, human rights and even the constitution itself, is a challenge for the leftwing antinomianism that is so strong in contemporary thought. This antinomianism strongly permeates the work of Giorgio Agamben, so beautifully exposed in his book on Saint Paul and many other writings, including the essay on the messiah and the sovereign.[55] It is very poetic, enchanting, in its anarchic utopian beauty, the sublation of the law as the fulfillment of the law (by the law of love), the sublation of sovereignty and bare life in ‘life forms (formes-de- vie). It is antinomianism from underneath, from the coming community formed by ‘singularités quelqonques’, which later became the multitude of Negri and Hardt. Indeed, this antinomianism might be the best philosophical armature the other-globalist movement could dream of. Its belief in the true state of exception, however, has a sinister mirror in the antinomianism of the neocons. To put it bluntly: How can we distinguish good antinomianism from bad antinomianism?  

Which brings us back to Derrida’s oblique answer to Agamben in the interview that to do away with sovereignty, if thinkable, is not feasible and not desirable. Is this not implicating that ‘the true state of exception’ is not feasable nor desirable either?  But on the other hand messianicity might prove very transient, furtive almost, like the other-globalist movement seems to have lost its momentum, is maybe over already. The moment that another world was possible seems to have passed, the time window seems to have closed on the darkening skies of history. Maybe the split second, as the door through which the Messiah could have entered (in Benjamin’s famous metaphor) has proven once again too narrow. To think the interruption of history, of history as catastrophe, is not nostalgic or frivolous at this moment, at the dawn of the 21st century, as century of disaster. But it is, in the light of all the ‘really existing messianisms’ that surround us, a dangerous exercise. In the light of the really existing messianism ravaging the Abrahamic religions under the name of fundamentalism, the philosophical messianism might have to be rethought (that was Derrida‘s aim in deconstructing it). Just like the fulfillment of the law as sublation of the law (in revolt, revolution or in charity), redemption as the ‘true state of exception’ might, as a philosophical thought figure, need revision in a new, more critical light.

When thinking of the ‘good’, ‘philosophical’ messianism from Benjamin to Agamben and beyond: how will we make a distinction between the state of exception (declared by the bad sovereign, the tyrant) and redemption as ‘the true state of exception’?   Can the not really existing, philosophical messianism hold its faiths in the light of the really existing, unphilosophical messianisms? Does antinomian philosophy not loose its innocence in the light of the really existing antinomianism? These questions are open to debate, they are questions for all of us. My answer would be – and here I tend to follow Derrida, I believe -: let’s go against all states of exception, even the ‘true state of exception’. And let’s be very careful with the charms of paulinic, sabatian or neo-sabatian, neo-situationist or whatever antinomianism, now we know ‘the really existing antinomianism’ of the straussian necons. And in the light of the really existing messianism of the fundamentalists, ‘Messianicity without messianism’, could indeed really be read as a program: no more messianisms, only messianicities.

Lieven De Cauter 


[1] Seymour said this on CNN, in an interview about his article on the option for nuclear bombing of the installations in Iran. He used the phrase concerning the vocation of Bush to leave this as his legacy, by taking as risk that others would not take: ‘The word I hear is ‘messianic.’ [He thinks, as I wrote, that he’s the only one now who will have the courage to do it. He’s politically free. I don’t think he’s overwhelmingly concerned about the ‘06 elections, congressional elections. I think] he really thinks he has a chance, and this is going to be his mission.’ Seymour Hersh, in an interview by Wolf Blitzer,CNN, April 10 2006 (www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/04/10/hersh.access/index.html )

[2] Jacques Derrida & Lieven De Cauter, ‘For a justice to come. An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, Lasse Thomassen (ed.), THE DERRIDA-HABERMAS READER, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006 p.265. I will use this interview as a sort of platform to start from, because the text is unusually clear and outspoken and fairly unknown. This interview, recorded on 19 of February 2004, on the making of the BRussells Tribunal, a people’s court on the Project for the New American Century and its responsibilities in the illegal invasion of Iraq, is to be found also in the original French transcript on www.Brusselstribunal.org and in numerous languages on the internet].

[3] Agamben, Homo Sacer, Sovereign power and bare life, Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 168.

[4] ‘For a justice to come’, o.c. .p 263.

[5] For the interviewer had, not transcribed, dropped the name of Agamben now and then in the interview, and that was indeed, no doubt, Derrida’s response.

[6] Explicitly – one of the few times his name appears in Derrida’s works – when he states in passing that Agamben’s distinction between zoé and bios on wich he founds his theory of sovereignty and biopolitics is not to be found as such in Plato or Aristotle. See Jacques Derrida, Voyous. Deux essays sur la raison, Paris, Galilée, 2003, p.46. Indeed the distinction comes from Hannah Arendt, The human condition, p. 97.

[7] William Blum, Roque State, Common Courage Press,2001, Noam Chomsky, Rogues States, the Rule of force in World Affairs, Cambridge, South End Press, 2000.

[8] Voyous, p.145.  This idea is largely shared, recently it becomes somewhat the common ground for criticisms of the Bush administrations belligerent foreign policy. Under the title ‘Spot the Rogue’, Prem Shankar Jha summarizes (in april 2006) the situation regarding the empending attack on Iran: ‘The purpose of law is to regulate relations between individuals. It is founded upon the surrender by all members of society of those natural ‘rights’ (such as the right to rob or kill) that they would not like others to exercise against them. International law applies this principle to relations between States. The principles of international law were first codified in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and progressively refined into the body of international law we have today. But the two pillars on which the Westphalian State system rested were the sovereignty of States and the non-interference in the internal affairs of other States. Peace was maintained through deterrence and war was only justified when it was waged in defence of one’s people, territory or vital interests. Grotius, the father of international law, was absolutely convinced that the only just war was a war fought in self defence. The danger, moreover, had to be immediate and the force used to repel it had to be proportionate to the threat.

Both these pillars, which had been enshrined as recently as in 1945 in Article 2 of the UN charter, were blown to smithereens by Bush’s national security doctrine of preventive defence and its application to Iraq. Unveiled in 2002, the doctrine substituted the intention to do harm with the capacity to do harm. America would be justified in declaring war not just on a country that unmistakably intended to attack it, but one that had or was trying to develop the capacity to harm it. For good measure, it also claimed the right to militarily intervene in any country at any time to identify and destroy this capacity.

The US has thus plunged the world back into the ‘state of nature’ from which it had emerged in 1648, and as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, this was also a state of war, at least until another powerful hegemon emerges which can restore order. All the international treaties signed over the past hundred years and more have implicitly assumed the existence of the Westphalian order and acceptance of its basic principles. In destroying the former and repudiating the latter, Bush has destroyed the premises, and thereby invalidated not the just the NPT but all the major international treaties. The repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the use of cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, white phosphorous bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan and the contemplated use of nuclear bunker busters in Iran shows how rapidly other international agreements are unravelling before our eyes.

The US is the motive force and sometimes the sole perpetrator of all these renegade acts. It is, therefore, truly ironical that this, of all countries, should be seeking to indict Iran for breaking ‘The Law’. The sooner other governments recognise that they are living under a tyranny and join together to oppose it, the safer the world will be.’ (www.uruknet.info/?s1=1&p=23132&s2=07)

[9] ‘For a justice to come’, o.c., p. 265

[10] Ibid. p. 266-267.

[11] Ibid. p. 267.

[12] Ibid. p.266

[13] See on this also the seminal, if controversial articel by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, ‘The Israel Lobby’, London Review of Books, vol 28, 26 March 2006. (it is a summary of a 83 pages text: )

[14] The full list of signatories is: Elliott Abrams, Gary Bauer, William J. Bennett, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Eliot A. Cohen, Midge Decter, Paula Dobriansky, Steve Forbes, Aaron Friedberg, Francis Fukuyama, Frank Gaffney, Fred C. Ikle, Donald Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, I. Lewis Libby, Norman Podhoretz, Dan Quayle, Peter W. Rodman, Stephen P. Rosen, Henry S. Rowen, Donald Rumsfeld, Vin Weber, George Weigel and Paul Wolfowitz. (see statement of principles, www.newamericancentury.org)

[15] See: www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm

[16] Thomas Donnelly, Donald Kagan & Gary Schmitt, ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’, p. IV (www.newamericancentury.org)

[17] ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’, p. 51.

[18] ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses’, p 14.

[19] See on this Lieven De Cauter, ‘The new Imperial world order, Chronicle of a war foretold, snapshots of a Dawning Era’, in id, The capsular civilization. On the city in the age of fear, NAI publishers, Rotterdam, 2004,  p.136-144. This permanent military presence is materializing: despite all the rhetoric of withdrawal, the US is building 14 permanent military bases in Iraq and in the green zone the biggest Embassy ever (some 100 times bigger than usual) is arising.

[20] See Shadia  B Drury: The Straussians in Power: Lies, Secrecy and Permanent War’, new foreword to id., The political ideas of Leo Strauss .Palgrave/ Macmillan, New York 1988/2005. See also, Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997/1999. For a more impressionistic account see Ann Norton, Leo Strauss and the politics of American Empire, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2004.  

[21] This summary is based on Shabia B. Drury ‘s book, The political Ideas of Leo Strauss, o.c. , written in tempo non suspecto 1988, One must admit that this summary does wring a bell. It seems a ‘ robot photo’ of the contemporary politics of the Bush administration. 

[22] Leo Strauss, On Tyranny. Revised and Expanded Edition. Including the Strauss-Kojève Correspondence. Edited by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1961/2000, p. 73.

[23] Ibid,p.74

[24] Ibid, p75.

[25]  Strauss, on Tyranny, p 73-75.

[26] Ibid, p. 76

[27] Giorgio Agamben, The Messiah and the Sovereign: the problem of the law in Walter Benjamin, in id. Potentialities, p. 161.

[28] The term was introduced in, by William Kristol and Robert Kagan (both leading necons and members of the PNAC, in ‘Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996. (see www.ceip.org/people/kagfaff.htm)

[29] Francis Fukuyama, America at the crossroads: Democracy, Power and the neoconservative legacy, Yale University Press, 2006.

[30] Francis Fukuyama and Adam Garinkle, ‘A Better Idea’, The Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2006

[31] In the International Herald Tribune of May 6th, an editorial points out that Bush issued 750 ‘presidential signing statements‘ that circumvent or just dismiss laws voted in congress like the one against torture and inhuman treatment. Clinton issued 140 of these ‘presidential signing statements’. (IHT, May 6th-7th)

[32] The Bush agenda comes into focus, International Herald Tribune, July 17th, 2006

[33] One could say of course that it is Machiavelli all over again, and therefore not very new, but a deep current in power politics as such, but I think we can say that the Bush administration has been ‘straussian’ (or tyrannical if you want) in a way that has shocked the world and the big part of American intellectuals. Neoconservative ideology in general and straussian antinomianism in particular are at least partly an explanation for this sinister policy.

[34] See on this Shadia Drury, The political ideas of Leo Strauss, o.c., passim.

[35] Bill Moyers, ‘On receiving the Harvard Medical school ‘s global citizens award’, (www.commondreams.org/views04/1206-10.htm). Bill Moyers is a journalist, who won the global environmental citizen award of Harvard Medical School for his covering of environmental problems and global warming (which the Christians fundamentalists welcome as signs of the coming of end time) gives this grim portrait.

[36] ‘Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election – 231 legislators in total – more since the election – are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt.’(Bill Moyers, o.c. , see also on this the seminal book of Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy. The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Viking, New York, 2006.)

[37] The words Bush and messianic give some several thousands hits in Google and there are articles amongst it from e.g. the New Yorker and The independent).

[38] MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, Bush’s Armageddon Obsession, Revisited CounterPunch, January 4, 2003 (www.counterpunch.org/hill01042003.html)

[39] David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil. How to win the war on terror, Random House, New York, 2003,  p.279.

[40] Jacques Derrida & Lieven De Cauter, ‘For a justice to come. An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, Lasse Thomassen (ed.), THE DERRIDA-HABERMAS READER, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006, p. 268-269.

[41] Since 9/11 and the war on terror the other globalist movement seems evaporated, the multitude got tired of summit hopping and it seems that the (anarchistic) so called ‘black block’ gave up its violence protests at G8 meetings in view of terrorism. This evaporation, if it is one – it might be too early to say so – does not necessarily contradict the disarming, touching, somewhat candid vision of the late Derrida. Maybe against rightwing American messianism and Islamic fundamentalism there is a third way, an alternative to abrahamic messianisms, the other-globalist movement as messianic instance; a movement towards ‘a justice to come’, under the aegis of an international body (now the United nations). Is it wishful thinking of old philosophers (from Kant to Derrida)? Is this a fundamental naivety that underlies ethical imperatives like justice and equity? It seems likely. We are in an age where the wisdom of Thucydides, that the nature of history is war, is more valid than the wisdom of Aristotle, who thought that the nature of politics was a discussion on the good life in the Polis.

[42] Jacques Derrida, Spectre de Marx L’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale, Galilée,Paris, 1993, p. 266 (my translation).

[43] Ibid. , p.47 (my translation)

[44] Ibid, , p.55. (my translation)

[45] Ibid, , p 56. (my translation)

[46] Ibid.,   p 267.

[47] Voyous, o.c. p.208 (my translation);

[48] Ibid., p.211

[49] ‘L’attente sans horizon d’une messiancité sans messianisme’(Voyous, o.c. p. 211 (my translation). In fact he did not use that expression in Spectre de Marx, but called it ‘le messianique’.

[50] Voyou, o.c. p. 210.

[51] A c’est appel ce confient tous les espoirs, certes, mais l’appel reste, en lui-même, sans espoir’ (Voyous, ‘Prière d’inserrer, s. p. – my translation)

[52] Ibid. p. 210.

[53] I owe it to prof. Rudi Laermans, a longtime intellectual ‘companion de route’.

[54] Walter Benjamin, Kritik der Gewalt, see on this most controversial of Benjamin’s essays, Derrida’s Force de loi and Agamben, ‘the messiah and the sovreign’, in Potentialities.

[55] Giorgio Agamben, Le temps qui reste, Un commentaire au premier epitre aux Romains, Editions Payot et Rivages, Paris, 2000.  Also Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Messiah and the sovereign’, in id., Potentialities, collected essays in Philosophy, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 160-176.

Main Index | Empire Index