Against Politics: Walter Benjamin on Justice, Judaism, and the Possibility of Ethics

CHARLES H. T. LESCH
AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 108.1 (2014): 218-232

Abstract: Is politics compatible with the moral life? Recent attempts to revivify democracy have stressed the lived experience of political activity, the democratic character of the spontaneous moment and the popular movement. This article raises some concerns about such agonistic enthusiasm via an original reading of Walter Benjamin’s political thought. For Benjamin, politics corrodes our everyday lives and moral conduct. His response is to envision a space for ethics wholly apart from the violence (Gewalt) that sustains propertied political order, a purified version of the Kantian kingdom of ends that he calls the “state of justice.” Yet deprived of the coercive instrumentality of politics, there is no action that could lead humanity directly to such a state. To surmount this paradox, Benjamin culls from sources in Jewish political theology, and in particular, Jewish ideas about justice and the community of the righteous. In so doing, he offers a new and radical ethical critique of politics that may hold special relevance in our politics-saturated age.