The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11

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"Brenkman's book is a fascinating read. His sophisticated analysis—situated in a deep understanding of political philosophy—of what democracy and freedom mean for the United States and the West against the backdrop of the 'global war on terror' and the invasion of Iraq provides compelling insight into both domestic and foreign policy. Brenkman's compelling work will surely raise the level of debate about these issues in the United States and Europe."—Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

"In this fine book, John Brenkman tells us the story of the nefarious marriage of fear and hubris in post-September 11 U.S. international and domestic politics. In a lucid and powerful language, Brenkman makes an original contribution to political theory. He reminds us of the fragility of democracy, of how easily political creativity can turn against itself and become an agent of destruction, rather than a foundation and consolidation of civil life."—Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University

"This brilliant essay on post-9/11 political thought tackles democracy's inherent contradictions: civic and liberal freedom, U.S. domestic and foreign policy, human rights and civil rights, and cosmopolitanism and liberal nationalism. Brenkman puts into play Kant and Hobbes's divergent political visions of sovereignty and human nature, Arendt and Berlin's reflections on positive and negative freedom, and Habermas and Schmitt's thoughts on law and human rights. In doing so, he opens up new and surprising spaces of reflection on the challenges confronting democracy in the United States, the European Union, and the Islamic world today. His concluding chapter on the ordeal of universalism is, moreover, the most compelling treatment of the subject I have read in a long time."—Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University

"John Brenkman's The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy is a powerful intervention into the most important political questions of our time. He deliberates over the political thought that has emerged from within the fog of war, and he produces a series of clarifying 'untimely meditations' that probe the drama of political thought in the face of the war on terror, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the occupation of Iraq."—Donald Pease, Dartmouth College

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
Philosophers and policy experts often look for answers by drawing strong conceptual oppositions. The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, however, shows the shared dilemmas of writers who may themselves think they have nothing in common. This book-length essay tries to make sense of these philosophical and political contradictions by seeing them as necessary tensions in our attempts to reconcile competing values. For Brenkman, the contradictions of our political discourse reveal aspirations for freedom and democracy, for liberty and community. When we strive for freedom, we must learn to live with contradictions...Brenkman is that rare academic who can write well about both contemporary political practice and theory. His description of how the Bush administration was seized by power is insightful, and his critique of contemporary theory star Giorgio Agamben is concise and compelling.
— Michael Roth
San Francisco Chronicle - Michael Roth
Philosophers and policy experts often look for answers by drawing strong conceptual oppositions. The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, however, shows the shared dilemmas of writers who may themselves think they have nothing in common. This book-length essay tries to make sense of these philosophical and political contradictions by seeing them as necessary tensions in our attempts to reconcile competing values. For Brenkman, the contradictions of our political discourse reveal aspirations for freedom and democracy, for liberty and community. When we strive for freedom, we must learn to live with contradictions...Brenkman is that rare academic who can write well about both contemporary political practice and theory. His description of how the Bush administration was seized by power is insightful, and his critique of contemporary theory star Giorgio Agamben is concise and compelling.
From the Publisher
"Philosophers and policy experts often look for answers by drawing strong conceptual oppositions. The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, however, shows the shared dilemmas of writers who may themselves think they have nothing in common. This book-length essay tries to make sense of these philosophical and political contradictions by seeing them as necessary tensions in our attempts to reconcile competing values. For Brenkman, the contradictions of our political discourse reveal aspirations for freedom and democracy, for liberty and community. When we strive for freedom, we must learn to live with contradictions...Brenkman is that rare academic who can write well about both contemporary political practice and theory. His description of how the Bush administration was seized by power is insightful, and his critique of contemporary theory star Giorgio Agamben is concise and compelling."—Michael Roth, San Francisco Chronicle
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691116648
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/2/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 218
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

John Brenkman is distinguished professor at the City University of New York and director of the U.S.-Europe Seminar at Baruch College. He has published widely on culture and political theory. He lives in New York and Paris.

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Read an Excerpt

The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy Political Thought since September 11
By John Brenkman Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11664-8

Chapter One A dialogue, which is the highest form of communication we know, is always a confrontation of irreducibly different viewpoints. -Octavio Paz


War and Democracy

Since September 11, 2001, the fog of war has enveloped political thought. Bright hopes of perpetual peace and prosperity collapsed in the debris of the World Trade Center. The fog grew thicker with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as the nations of the Atlantic alliance collided over policy and principle, law and interests. By the time the postwar in Iraq became a civil war and produced more casualties than the war, the dominoes that neoconservatives dreamed would democratize the Middle East were falling helter-skelter into new uncertainties. On the other side of the debate, the most dire antiwar prophecies seemed exaggerated if not hollow, when Iraqis managed to hold elections for the first time in decades. Neither the advocates nor the opponents of the war in Iraq had any sure insights into the uses of war on behalf of democracy. When, by the fall of 2006, the number of Iraqis being killed every month as a result of civil strife exceeded the number of Americans who had been killed in the September 11 attacks that had supposedly justified theinvasion of Iraq, American policy was losing its political as well as moral bearings.

Combatants easily lose their sense of direction in the midst of battle, confuse comrade and foe, mistake progress for setback and setback for advantage, and retreat when on the verge of victory or hurl themselves into certain devastation convinced of their invincibility. Nor does war spare political thought from disorientation and uncertainty. Fundamental questions of war and democracy had scarcely begun to emerge into public awareness after September 11 when they were swept up in the whirlwind of preemptive war in Iraq. Among those fundamental questions are:

What role do arms have in a democracy?

How does military power alter, as well as protect, the polity that uses it?

What is the possibility and even the meaning of the international rule of law?

Can force effectively spread liberty and democracy abroad?

The spectacularly successful interventions that overthrew the Taliban and then Saddam Hussein were quickly compromised by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. A pattern emerged. The United States overestimates the effectiveness of military might and underestimates the ordeal of democracy. Responsibility for the appalling shortcomings of the postwar rebuilding of Afghanistan and Iraq falls squarely on the presidency of George W. Bush-but not exclusively. The crisis runs deeper than any one administration when the world's oldest democracy and sole superpower does not comprehend the wellsprings of democracy or understand the nature of might. Opponents of Bush, neoconservatives, and the Republican Party delude themselves when they are satisfied merely with opposition to administration policy. The fundamental questions of war and democracy are even more difficult to answer today than on September 11, 2001. The threat of terrorism has likely grown rather than shrunk since 2001, and the Middle East has been turned into a laboratory of democracy where any failed experiment risks producing civil war, dictatorship, theocracy, or worse.

Diplomatic and military decisions are prepared and justified by a discourse authored by many hands: historians and ideologues, politicians and journalists, scholars and pundits. A range of discourses, from think-tank manifestos to "Great Power" historiography, from secret reports to presidential speeches, from strategic studies to op-ed pieces, produces the intellectual-but also the symbolic-webbing of the decisions and actions taken in foreign affairs. Since September 11, this symbolic-conceptual webbing has teemed with terms like "lone superpower," "hyperpower," "liberal imperialism," and "progressive interventionism," and slogans like war on terror or power-vs-weakness and Hobbesian-vs-Kantian. All these slogans imply some understanding of power; they all imply, to draw on a distinction made by Hannah Arendt, some understanding of political power and military might. Metaphors as well as ideas are at work in foreign policy discourse, for not only are there conceptions of power-and various methods of analyzing, say, the relative power of states or calculating their interests-but there is also an imagination of power. When it comes to military force no one can truly know how its use will enhance or diminish the power of the state that wields it. Might exists primarily in potential, and therefore it always exists in the imagination.

In liberal democracies all newly elected leaders, all new heads of state, find themselves suddenly in possession of power. And, inversely, they find themselves possessed by power. There is an inescapable ambivalence in the enjoyment of power. Max Weber turned to a bodily image when he identified the greatest of the "inner enjoyments" of the vocation of politics: "the feeling of holding in one's hand a nerve fiber of historically important events." To enjoy power-or to be empowered-is at the same time to be enjoyed by power. Having the means of coercion and violence in your grasp puts you in the grip of those very means of coercion and violence. That is why Weber, attentive to the insights of Nietzsche and riveted to the upheavals of war and revolution in his own time, insisted that the ethics of political life must include an awareness of politics' inherent potential for tragedy. Such an awareness alone tempers the intrinsic temptation to a kind of power beyond responsibility.

To become president of the United States in 2001, as happened to George W. Bush, was to find oneself suddenly in possession of power-beyond-responsibility, since the American body politic itself had been in the grip of power in excess of responsibility for a decade. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States with unmatched military might. It faced historic questions: For what ends does the nation possess such means of violence? Should this nation, or any nation, have unmatched military might? What responsibilities attend overweening power? The body politic never answered these questions or even seriously debated them. There were, of course, many discussions in the government, foreign policy think tanks, and opinion and policy journals, but the presidential campaigns of 1992, 1996, and 2000 avoided the controversy altogether. It became commonplace to refer to the Gulf War as the watershed of the United States's emergence as sole superpower, and politicians and theorists coined such grandiose names for the new era of American supremacy as the New World Order, the end of history, hyperpuissance, Empire. None of the labels took into account the stark fact that the American body politic remained silent and indecisive.

September 11 changed all that, though not because a great national debate finally occurred. Such a debate did not occur. Rather, after the Taliban and al Qaeda were routed in Afghanistan, the Bush administration was emboldened to advance an answer to the historic post-Cold War questions. In the 2002 document called The National Security Strategy of the United States, President Bush called upon the United States to embrace the role of supreme global power. With this appeal came the declaration of America's unique right over other nations, a threefold right to preemptive war, the overthrow of regimes considered hostile, and immunity from treaties and constraints imposed on other nations.

Hobbes versus Kant?

The doctrine of unilateralism and preemption contributed perhaps more than anything else to the showdown between the United States and major European allies, especially France and Germany, in the buildup to the war in Iraq. The U.S.-European divergence seemed neatly to confirm Robert Kagan's diagnosis that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus." Kagan is a particularly pertinent reference point, since the vision put forth in the Bush doctrine finds its intellectual backing in that strand of contemporary conservative thought represented by Kagan and preoccupied with the theory of "great powers." In his book Of Paradise and Power, which grew out of the essay "Power and Weakness" that stirred considerable discussion in the United States and Europe in the summer of 2002, Kagan ostensibly attempts to explain the markedly different views of Americans and Europeans in foreign affairs, in particular, the American inclination to unilateralism and force and the European preference for internationalism and negotiation in responding to crises: "On the all-important question of power-the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power-American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe ... is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant's "Perpetual Peace." The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true peace and security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might." Kagan makes many interesting arguments and observations on U.S.-European relations, all more or less debatable, but it is the axioms that frame his whole discussion which throw a light on the mentality of the Bush administration and its understanding of power and military force. The fundamental axiom is simply a tautology: weak is weak, strong is strong: "When the United States was weak [in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries], it practiced the strategies of indirection, the strategies of weakness; now that the United States is powerful, it behaves as powerful nations do. When the European great powers were strong, they believed in strength and martial glory. Now, they see the world through the eyes of weaker powers. These very different points of view, weak versus strong, have naturally produced differing assessments of threats and of the proper means of addresing threats, and even differing calculations of interest." The tautology radiates out into the entire essay as the words nature, normal, perfectly normal, predictable, naturally alight on every aspect of current American policy just to say that a powerful nation does as powerful nations do. Policy flows from might. This axiom, presented by Kagan in the flat, frankly amoral tones of the historian of "great powers," undergirds the moral hyperbole by which the politicians Bush and Cheney justify the ambitious designs of the new National Security Strategy.

Is is it really Kantians versus Hobbesians, Venus versus Mars? Both slogans are catchy, and Kant-versus-Hobbes has even caught on among serious political philosophers. But these oppositions do not hold up philosophically or politically. It is hard to imagine a thinker less venereal than Kant. And, just as strikingly, there is nothing at all martial about Hobbes. For starters, Hobbes fled England during the Civil War and wrote Leviathan in Paris in order to exorcise his horror at the image of civil order breaking down. Such a breakdown exposes a "state of nature" in which every man would have the right to do whatever he deems necessary "for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own life." A commonwealth, Hobbes reasoned, arises from the fear of death that pervades the hypothetical state of nature, that is, the "condition of Warre of every one against every one."

Contrary to Kagan's depiction, Hobbes's view of international relations little resembles that of the neoconservatives. "An anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable" is in fact not Hobbesian at all. Hobbes considered states to be less prone to violence than individuals, primarily because a ruler has responsibility for the peace and security of his subjects, and thus was inclined in Hobbes's view to be measured in assessing when their benefit and general welfare was best served by war or conquest.


Although Hobbes's ideas do not truly support the neoconservatives' vision of power, there is surely something that prompts Kagan and others aptly to consider the Bush doctrine Hobbesian. What stirs their imagination is the image of the body politic as leviathan. This image evokes something that is conveyed less in Hobbes's own words than in the famous engraving that graced the first edition of Leviathan. The monarch, his body composed of nothing but the multitude of his subjects, a scepter in one hand and a sword in the other, wearing a crown, rises above the land, whose gently rolling hills and little villages are at once the realm his outstretched arms protect and a kind of robe spread out around him. The undulations of the hills also suggest the waves that are the element in which the biblical leviathan lives. For the leviathan, as Melville well knew, is a sea monster, the whale as grasped in the ancient Hebrew imagination. There, in the more symbolic stew of Hobbes's thought, where body politic, sea monster, and monarch blend together, the Anglo-Saxon political imagination has found, precisely, an image of state power. The state is a monster, the One preventing the anarchy of the Many, that floats unperturbed in the sea or sails the oceans of the world to keep its multitude at peace, prosperous, and safe. That Britain-the island commonwealth, the commonwealth as island-would imagine the body politic a great sea monster makes nearly immediate sense. Hobbes has not, however, enjoyed extensive influence on American political thought. The American imagination of power has historically been more isolationist (the stay-at-home leviathan of the Monroe Doctrine) and territorial (the land-bound behemoth of Manifest Destiny). So how has the Hobbesian image come to fit America?

In a news conference in April 2004, as Iraq was being shaken by the simultaneous insurgencies of Sunnis in Falluja and militia loyal to Moktada al-Sadr in the Shiite South, and as the 9-11 Commission was probing how much warning the administration had prior to the al Qaeda attacks, President Bush uttered, as though revealing something for the first time, an astonishing anachronism. "We can no longer hope," he declared, "that oceans protect us from harm." Americans have, of course, been quite aware that oceans do not protect us from harm ever since 1957, when the Soviets sent the first Sputnik into space and raised the specter of intercontinental ballistic missles raining nuclear warheads on American cities. Bush's own chief preoccupation in defense matters before September 11 had been the renewal of Star Wars, the missile shield project that was predicated on just such vulnerability across oceans. Not only had Americans known for nearly fifty years that the Atlantic and Pacific afforded no guarantee against attack, but the September 11 attacks themselves, though they were an unprecedented assault by foreigners against American civilians at home, did not originate from abroad: the planes all took off on American soil.

Was Bush's anachronism then simply a historical lapsus? Not at all. For what it did, like so many other carefully crafted misstatements and innuendoes of that moment, was to associate the September 11 attacks carried out by al Qaeda with the presumed weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the United States's self-styled enemy Saddam Hussein. The anachronistic image of the protective oceans created a link between September 11 (attack on U.S. soil) and Saddam Hussein (weapons of mass destruction). According to polls, by the time the war in Iraq began 45 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein had planned September 11, just as many believed that his missiles with their range of a few hundred kilometers could reach the United States.

The war on terrorism and the war in Iraq had nothing to do with one another. We are engaged in the first because we have to be; we engaged in the second because the Bush administration wanted to, and could. They could because they took office in possession of unmatched military might. The attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon showed our vulnerability; the invasion of Iraq was meant to show our superior strength. The illusion of invulnerability that had shattered on September 11 was quickly transformed into an illusion of insuperability in preparation for war in Iraq. Put the two scenarios together and America becomes Hobbesian: the American body politic, no longer unperturbed floating in its oceans, gets transformed in the political imagination into the unvanquishable monster sailing the seas of the world. Shock and awe in Iraq answered, in symbol and fantasy, the shock and awe of September 11. Americans were called upon to see America the global power in leviathan imagery: "When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid.... The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergon.... Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear" (Job 42:25-33).


Excerpted from The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy by John Brenkman
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Political Thought in the Fog of War 1
War and Democracy 1
Hobbes versus Kant? 4
Leviathan 6
The Neoconservative Illusion 9
The Frailty of Human Affairs 12
Crises of the Republic 14
The Argument 19
Seized by Power 24
Death and the Governor of Texas 24
The New American Exceptionalism 28
The Cold Warrior Myth 34
Kant with Arendt 37
Targeting Iraq 41
Al Qaeda and Ultimate Ends 43
A Grammar of Motives 46
The Imagination of Power 51
State of Exception 51
Arendt versus Agamben 55
Schmitt and Hobbes 59
Decision and Covenant 64
The Ordeal of Universalism 71
September 11 and Fables of the Left 78
First Response 78
Multilateral Ambivalence 81
Terrorism as Symptom 84
Chomskian Certitudes 87
Hardt and Negri's Empire 94
The Multitude and Prophecy 98
Iraq: Delirium of War, Delusions of Peace 103
The Idealism of Means 103
The Idealism of Ends 106
Neither Left nor Right 110
The Atlantic Misalliance 117
Diplomatic Intrigues and Political Truths 122
Repudiations of the UN Left and Right 126
The Hobbesian Nightmare: Occupied Iraq 131
The Ordeal of Universalism 137
Democracy and War 137
Postnational Cosmopolitanism versus Liberal Nationalism? 141
Kant with Hobbes 144
Habermas's Agon with Schmitt 146
Hobbes with Kant 152
Europe, or, the Empire of Rights 157
Islam's Geo-Civil War 165
Global Neoliberal Religious Conservatism? 170
No Exit 177
Conclusion: Prelude to the Unknown 182
Ideas and Errors 182
Arendt with Berlin 183
Liberty without Democracy versus Democracy without Liberty? 188
Democratic Striving and Sectarian Mobilization 191
Untimely Meditation 195
Index 201

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