Politics Without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century

This provocative text may be just what isolated political theory needs, argues Matthew Flinde

May 17, 2012

I've been waiting for this book all my life. Of course, I didn't know that was the case until I'd read it, but now I understand the role that political thought can play in helping me to understand the world around me. All that was once reasonably solid in the world has melted away - across a range of social, economic, technological and environmental dimensions - to the point at which the metaphor of "liquidity", as the writing of Zygmunt Bauman has revealed, captures a loss of safe harbours or anchor points. Hannah Arendt captured this sense of flux, and the status of and demands on political thought in the modern era, in the phrase "thinking without a banister" (denken ohne geländer). It meant for her that humans could no longer rely on any transcendental grounding to anchor their thinking - be that God, nature, history or technology. She saw this as both an opportunity and a threat. Political thought, she said, could be "absolutely and uncompromisingly of this world". Tracy Strong develops this line of thinking by arguing not simply that we have lost our foundational supports in terms of the intellectual scaffolding that helps us to make sense of the changing world around us, but also (and more importantly) by revisiting the past in order to shape the future.

The aim of Politics Without Vision is therefore to revisit the work of seven influential thinkers - Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Lenin, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger and Arendt - to expose new seams of thought and doors left unopened in their work in order to explore new paths and ways of understanding the world.

"The thinkers I consider in this book are neither democrats nor liberals, at least in the Anglo-American sense of those terms," Strong notes. "But it is also my conviction that, by examining their thought in a nonrejectionist manner, one can identify what I call turning points - points of divergence at which they started down one of several paths." It is in exploring these untrodden paths that new ways of thinking about the world emerge and, through this, ways of furthering the democratic impulse.

If Strong's aim is to look on the past with new eyes, then he is undoubtedly successful. Every chapter provides a heady mixture of intellectual energy, scholarly passion and fresh perspectives. And, like all good books, it raises as many questions as it answers; it is sure to provoke a strong reaction across a range of disciplines and fields of inquiry. At the core of this book, however, is a double-barbed dimension that left me intellectually more secure and yet at the same time confused.

This is a critical point. We live in strange and troubled times, when a vast number of social variables reflect the day-to-day impact of social dislocations (or social anomie). Initially, I thought this book would deliver new ways of understanding the world around me; new ways of making sense of increasingly ephemeral relationships; and new ways of thinking about "the life and death of democracy" (to adopt the title of John Keane's magisterial book). And yet instead of providing new intellectual frameworks - new signposts, supports, sticks or banisters - Strong rejects the notion of epic theories to fulfil such a role and instead draws upon the work of Nietzsche, Weber, Freud and others to almost deify the thinking of those who could step outside existing frameworks "to do without such vision".

Hence the double barb: there is no doubt that political theory urgently demands a huge injection of fresh thinking and raw ambition - few (particularly young) scholars dare to trespass across boundaries and challenge dominant assumptions in the manner that Strong's arguments imply - and yet at the same time, surely the role of political theory is, at least in some way, to assist the broader public (the polis) to make sense of the world around them by identifying certain boundaries, signposts or landmarks? To put the same point even more simply: surely we need a vision? If we return to Bauman's emphasis on liquidity, then surely we disappoint ourselves if we ignore the fact that liquids can be channelled, bottled, diluted and even solidified? I also want to look on the past with new eyes, and Strong has certainly allowed me to do this, but I want to look on the future with new eyes that help me to navigate the moral dilemmas and political choices that will have to be navigated.

Strong almost rejoices in the lack of a banister, whereas I'm desperately in search of one.

I make no excuse for the fact that my yearning for a way of making sense of the world may well reflect my own weaknesses and fears. Indeed, to accept this personal weakness - this failure to live up to the challenges that Politics Without Vision sets down - is to situate myself within the contours of Nietzsche's statement that "He believes in banisters because he believes in his weakness and his fear." How am I to escape this double bind, this double barb? How can I relearn the art of thinking - even the art of living - in an age without banisters? If all handrails and footbridges have fallen into the water, as Nietzsche argued in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), then surely the role of social and political theorists is to help build new footings and waymarkers? And it is exactly this sense of provocation and challenge that exemplifies the great beauty and value of this work. This is a book that can be read and enjoyed, by scholars and interested members of the public alike. It is a book that demonstrates Strong's rare gift for discussing complex issues in an accessible manner, and his capacity for bridging "politics as theory" and "politics as practice". This, in turn, flows into the broader significance of this book.

Political thought is (and has been for some time) on the decline because scholars seemed unwilling or unable to explain the day-to-day social relevance of their discipline. Ian Shapiro's The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences (2007) provided a damning critique of a field of inquiry that had become increasingly esoteric, isolated and disconnected: "The flight from reality has been so complete that academics have all but lost sight of what they claim is the object of their study." Too many academics have become scared of flying (to adopt Shapiro's powerful metaphor) for fear of being ridiculed for being insufficiently specific or rigorous, or rejected by the intellectual gatekeepers who have built their careers on a specific approach to the discipline and now edit journals or chair selection panels. To fly is therefore to feel a heady sort of freedom and manoeuvrability, a feeling that what you write actually matters and a belief in your capacity to take risks, challenge established idioms and reach out to new audiences.

Strong's Politics Without Vision is undoubtedly a book that is not scared of flying; it is a brilliant and provocative work that may just start to reverse the decline that has held back political theory for too long.

The author

Tracy Strong was born "in a Japanese internment camp in north China. My parents were missionaries - 'left-wing missionaries', I always need to say - who ignored advice to leave in October 1941."

He has been a visiting professor at the University of Warwick and the Juan March Institute in Spain, and is now distinguished professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

He splits his time between US coasts, "as my wife, the philosopher Babette Babich, teaches in New York. We keep the airline industry from getting any worse and would be grateful to anybody who could help resolve our bi-coastalness.

"I find myself at home in China and in the mountains of Switzerland (where he attended the College de Geneve), but I lack that quintessential American concept, the 'home town'."

Of his choice of discipline, he recalls, "Upon arriving at college with the idea of becoming a geneticist, I soon determined that I was underprepared in the sciences. Coming from a long line of Protestant ministers, the move to political theory was a natural one." But a desire to enter politics did not follow: "I was involved with the US political movements of the 1960s and 1970s (despite the fact that I worked with Henry Kissinger while lecturing at Harvard University), but I have never wanted to run for office. Political philosophy can get in the way of a good political career."

In his free time, Strong likes to ski, "and I have even tried in my work to use skiing as an example of a learned instinct. I am developing an increasing interest in Poussin, American literature (where the best American philosophy is found) and film."

Politics Without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century

By Tracy B. Strong
University of Chicago Press
424pp, £26.00
ISBN 9780226777467
Published 21 May 2012

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