humanism renewed

I often see quoted a line by Carl Schmitt:

The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat.

But I don’t think we can understand Schmitt’s point by quoting that sentence alone; we also need to quote the one that follows it: 

To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity. 

If you only quote the first sentence, then you have a version of a famous but inevitably misattributed line: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.” But Schmitt is not dismissing the very concept of “humanity”; he is making a more complicated (though still cynical) point. “Humanity” and “humanism” are “ideological instruments”: they can be and often are used as levers of power, as means by which one may gain dominance over one’s political enemies. The danger lies not in the very notion of humanity but rather in the ways that that notion is susceptible to being monopolized and weaponized by parties in power. That Schmitt does not want to do away with the notion altogether may be seen in his condemning accusation of “inhumanity.” 

Given the enormous damage the reign of identity politics has inflicted on our common weal, our ability to live in peace together, what we need, I believe, is serious work to restore and renew the concept and practice of humanism. My recent essay “A Humanism of the Abyss” is a step in that direction. This is a matter I will return to — and, also, see the tag for my earlier reflections on the topic.