All thinking bears the stamp of the unique time when and the place where it happens. Political philosophy is not an exception to this rule. Perhaps, it is still more susceptible to the vicissitudes of its epoch than other branches of the discipline. Either immortalizing the transitory institutional arrangements they witness around themselves or formulating scathing critiques of the status quo and envisioning a better (in some cases, the ideal) world, political philosophers rarely stay indifferent to the politics of their contemporaneity. Even when they are thoroughly convinced that their conclusions are universally and ahistorically valid.
Though the idea behind my book Political Categories had been ripening for a while, I started writing it on January 20, 2017, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated president of the United States. A contribution to the general field of political methodology, the study is equally an intervention addressing the ideological conjuncture that culminated in the lackluster ceremonies of that day.
Surely, there are various sound explanations for Trump’s electoral success, from the quiet buildup of despair and chronic disappointment in the Midwest’s “Rust belt” to a backlash against Barack Obama, the first African American to assume the presidency. But the grounds for the Trump phenomenon have been readied for decades by neoliberal thinking that has persistently conflated politics and economics. Within this framework, a good political leader is not only a prudent manager but also someone capable of running the state as a successful business enterprise. Ultimately, by means of massive deregulation and privatization programs, politics is supposed to dissolve like a drop in the ocean of capitalist economics.
Whether or not it corresponds to reality, the image of the forty-fifth American president is a perfect, if caricaturized, match to the neoliberal proposal. So is his tendency to reduce everything, from ecosystems to international cooperation, to dollar figures. Consequently, to tackle one of the root causes of today’s political predicament, it is imperative to draw new lines separating economics from politics, while keeping in mind the incredible versatility of both fields, their elements seeping into other areas of human existence and coexistence.
The difficult task at hand almost automatically lends itself to a Kantian enunciation. Just as in his critical project, Immanuel Kant undertakes to set theoretical, moral, and aesthetic kinds of reason within their finite limits, so it behooves us to place political reason—or whatever remains of it as reason, a word we should not treat as interchangeable with rationality—within its proper bounds. It is in this sense that I propose a series of political categories, embracing both the categories that are idiosyncratically political and those that, generally applicable, may be adapted to politics.
While inspired by Kant, I part way with the letter of his text and with the dream of a transcendentally pure political domain. There are no—and there cannot be—watertight divisions between theoretical and practical reason, “general” and “political” categories. The influence is bilateral: while nonpolitical categories are applicable to politics, political realities shape the categories that are presumably neutral, non- or apolitical (quantity, quality, relation…). Does such mutual contamination mean that the intervention aiming at circumscribing the political domain ends in a fiasco before taking off the ground?
We should not hurriedly associate the task of demarcating the limits, boundaries, and borders of politics with the imprisonment of the latter in an internally consistent and entirely self-sufficient reality. The phenomenological method prescribes going back to the things themselves (in this case, to the political things themselves) in order to educe their categories. Kant would most likely deride such a suggestion for its naïvely empiricist approach, but this, in my view, is the only acceptable method for espying the boundaries of political reason. Informed by phenomenology, categorial rigor has none of the Kantian transcendental purity; if anything, the categories at the edges of the things themselves, and of political things in particular, are inherently, genetically impure. But their impurity is not reason enough for substituting them outright with those borrowed from another sphere of human activity, namely the economy.
A return to the things themselves invites a multiplicity of perspectives, each of them adumbrating the things in question. In concrete terms, this means that political science must adopt a pluralist methodology as the key to appreciating the complexities of political reality. Various methodologies are, in their turn, mappable onto distinct categories. In the Kantian table, quantity and quality are congruous with the quantitative and qualitative research methods. Modality is the preferred vehicle of normative theory, which picks necessity and possibility as its favorite subcategories, and of institutional approaches that focus on actuality. Relation is the province of micropolitics, IR studies, and certain strands of Marxist or neo-Marxist ideology critique. Needless to say, the list is far from comprehensive for essential reasons: should it claim to be complete, it would block the path winding back to the political things themselves.
Time and space, too, are the classical categories in Aristotle’s philosophy, which positions them between singularity and universality. To say, as I did at the outset, that “all thinking bears the stamp of the unique time when and the place where it happens” is to encounter thinking in the shadow of these categories, as well as to rescue it from the prisonhouse of absolute uniqueness. What dates thought need not cause it to be hopelessly dated. As Jacques Derrida knew better than anyone, the singular universality of time and place converts the date and the location into impersonal signatures, iterable yet unrepeatable. And, in his reading of Paul Celan, a certain date keeps returning, one of which he makes an example: “For example: there was a 20th of January,” the date that, so Celan says, “remains inscribed” in every poem. “Such a date,” Derrida reports, “will have been able to be written, alone, unique, exempt from repetition. Yet this absolute property can also be transcribed, exported, deported, expropriated, reappropriated, repeated in its absolute singularity.”
Going over the different iterations of the unique date, Derrida forgets to mention the one that probably bore with the greatest traumatic force on Celan: January 20, 1942, when the Wannsee conference took place among senior Nazi officials to ensure coordination in the implementation of the “Final solution” to the Jewish question. (Later on, Derrida will be mortified by this omission.) Don’t the environmental repercussions of January 20, 2017 turn the event of this date into the “Final solution” to the question of the world as a livable milieu for human and myriads of nonhuman beings?
The singular universality of the categories of time and place implies, nonetheless, that no one event can absorb them into itself; they are replete with other events, if not with counterevents, occurring simultaneously as much as on its past or future anniversaries. January 20, 2017 was also a scene of unprecedented global and domestic protests that continued the following day with a wave of Women’s Marches. The composition of Political Categories was marked in its own way by that fateful date. It remains to be seen whether the counterevents of January 20 will sway its future iterations, so that the unique and unrepeatable would be repeated—with radical difference.