“Political Theology or Theological Politics: Paradox at the Heart of Democracy,” by Shane Akerman

Several paradoxes are intrinsic to the democratic project. This essay will confront what Bonnie Honig refers to as the paradox of politics (or, the paradox of democratic legitimation).[1] Honig asks the Rousseauean question of which comes first: good people (who make good law) or a good law (that defines good people)? In other words, where is democratic sovereignty really located? Honig would suggest that, because of the analogy between political and theological notions of sovereignty, a new model of sovereignty can be gleaned by reimagining theology. This understanding of the relationship between theology and politics goes back to Carl Schmitt who used the term “political theology” to describe the way in which theology functions as an analogy for politics.

The alternative offered in this essay is “theological politics.” Instead of enjoying theology as a wellspring for creative political metaphors, as in political theology, theological politics is understood as a political response to explicitly theological claims. So long as God is imagined as a mere metaphor for sovereignty we will continue to search in vain for one worthy to exercise this divine authority, and the paradoxes of democracy will remain insurmountable. If, on the other hand, the divine is considered an actual locus of sovereignty, transcending any human authority, then the incessant paradox of legitimation can be overcome.

This essay, therefore, is composed of three parts: (I) the paradox of politics, (II) political theology, and (III) theological politics. The first explores the problems associated with democratic legitimation. In the second, Schmitt’s conception of political theology is considered along with Honig’s rebuttal. Finally, the works of G.K. Chesterton and Slavoj Žižek help to define theological politics. In this model, God is conceived as the paradoxical rebel-king—the one to whom full sovereignty properly belongs, but who, through the incarnation, incorporates humanity into the divine life, thereby electing the demos to exercise sovereignty in his stead.

According to Honig, via William Connolly, the paradox of founding is not merely a matter of chronology.[2] By the paradox of founding I refer to the apparent impossibility of a society that is governed by laws fashioned by that society. It may be understood as a classic which-came-first paradox, but this is precisely what Honig is rejecting. She claims that even if we locate a definite beginning (a law which forms a democratic society, or a society which creates a democratic law), the paradox is unresolved.  Because law is always constructed by society while simultaneously governing it, the question of how one legitimates the other is constantly recurring. Here one must recognize that the law always comes with a certain excess. Law, in its regulative form, must mysteriously be more than in its political form. It is naturally acknowledged that when an individual breaks the law, he or she cannot cite the democratic nature of the law in order to avoid punishment: “These laws which you accuse me of breaking are nothing more than inventions. You all just made them up!” Perhaps a legislator might even say: “I created this law; it has no real authority over me.” When the law performs its regulative function it necessarily transcends the subjects that authored it in the first place.

Rousseau cuts through the problem by directly addressing the question of genesis. He recognizes that if the law that governs the people emerges from the people themselves, it cannot carry the necessary authoritative weight to govern them. It is the law itself that converts the unruly, discordant multitude into the people; the latter is able to govern itself, the former is not. Rousseau therefore posits a primordial lawgiver.[3] The paradoxical relationship between law and demos is therefore given a definite answer: the law came first. And it was the law that taught the people to be good (and presumably, formed them in such a way that they were able to continue to generate good law and reform unjust laws). Honig’s criticism, however, is that since Rousseau does not properly account for the recurring paradox of law and demos he does not really solve the problem with which we are confronted. And this is a point well taken. When democracies create new laws or abolish antiquated ones, how can we know if this is in keeping with the original intent of the lawgiver?

Perhaps the strongest element of Honig’s critique of Rousseau’s lawgiver is that he, as Seyla Benhabib puts it, “trades off legitimacy. . . for rationality.”[4] The law that the lawgiver imparts is a violent imposition of a certain will that excludes some (of the multitude) in order to form the people, the demos. Honig asserts, “The lawgiver may get the law really right but he enables the people’s self-governance by compromising their autonomy.”[5] She recognizes that this kind of violence is the only way of escape from the paradox of politics.[6] Her response, therefore, is not to propose an alternative solution to the paradox but to embrace it.

Another way of articulating this problematic relationship between law and demos is to locate it as existing in the paradoxical duality of the demos itself: the relationship between the people and the multitude is also construed by Rousseau as the general will and the will of all.[7] Here the will of all is what the multitude actually wants (and this will is always divided, unruly, and without any necessary legitimation; there is nothing intrinsically good, or wise, or right about the will of all) while the general will is “what they would believe to be in their collective interest if they were properly enlightened.”[8] Here, even if there is a primordial lawgiver, the paradox returns. How can the general will somehow inhabit the will of all and, more importantly, by what means can we tell the difference between the two? Because the paradox constantly returns, the lawgiver would only be a real solution (and not just a shifting of the problem) if the lawgiver constantly re-emerged to decide what was the general will. The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that the very notion of democracy with which we have started begins to slip away. What is the role of the people at all if they are constantly dependent on the lawgiver?

The rest of this article is located here.

[1] Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

[2] William E. Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization, Borderlines v. 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995)

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, bk. II, ch. 7, trans. G.D.H. Cole (Cosimo, Inc., 2008)

[4] Seyla Benhabib, “Deliberative Rationality and Models of Democratic Legitimacy,” Constellations: An International Journal of Critical & Democratic Theory 1, no. 1 (April 1994), 29-30; Honig, 20.

[5] Honig, 20

[6] “…we can deny or disguise the paradox of politics only by suppressing or naturalizing the exclusion of those (elements of the) people whose residual, remaindered, minoritized existence might call the pure general will into question.” Ibid, 16.

[7] Rousseau, The Social Contract, bk. II, ch. III.

[8] Honig, 17

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