Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times

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Alison McQueen
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At first glance, Alison McQueen’s Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times seems to focus on a strange combination of thinkers: Machiavelli, Hobbes … and Hans Morgenthau? Any other political text which skipped four hundred years of intellectual development would be problematic, but McQueen sees (and makes evident to the reader) clear similarities between the three. 

Political realism is the belief that power and self-interest guides actors (mostly on the international stage), and that as a result, political realists are cynical about the prospects of diplomacy and clear reasoning. Most notably, “realists reject as utopian those approaches which seem to deny the distinctiveness of politics and the persistence of disagreement and conflict” (11). While the modern conception of apocalypse is grounded in disaster movies, in the Judeo-Christian tradition the apocalypse ends with the triumph of good over evil, the salvation of the chosen ones, and the beginning of a brave new world. Apocalyptic writings are made to inspire the audience, not to depress them. It is the tension between the anti-utopianism of the political realists and the utopianism lying behind most apocalyptic movements that McQueen focuses on. 

Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times is divided into six chapters. The first lays out the contemporary expressions of apocalypticism from a diverse field of thinkers ranging from the likes of Harold Camping (a preacher who predicted that the apocalypse would begin in 2011) to various heads of state. The “good vs. evil” rhetorical style of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump is of interest to McQueen’s analysis, as is Vice-President Al Gore’s mode of addressing climate change.

Chapter 2 is a brief but adequate explanation of biblical apocalypticism—both Jewish and Christian—and ends with an exploration of Augustine’s response to his apocalyptic moment. While those familiar with these themes may be tempted to skip this chapter, the section on Augustine is critical to McQueen’s larger goals. She argues that Augustine opposes the apocalyptic frenzy over the fall of Rome by using the apocalyptic resources of the Christian tradition. For Augustine, the reality of the kingdom of God in the apocalyptic future negates the apocalyptic importance of Rome. Thus, one apocalyptic reading can subvert another. 

Machiavelli, the fountainhead of modern political realism, wrote in a period of apocalyptic uncertainty in the Italian states. In chapter 4, McQueen traces the political developments of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, who claimed to receive apocalyptic messages from God concerning the Italian states and the city of Florence in particular. She ends with a novel interpretation of Machiavelli’s final chapter in The Prince. McQueen argues that Machiavelli’s concluding chapter should be read as “an authentic if desperate moment of hope,” and that the trials and tribulations of the Italian states were apocalyptic precursors to a unified and renewed Italy (96).

McQueen then moves to Hobbes, who faced the apocalyptic uncertainty of civil war and regicide. The political and religious institutions of power were being undermined by a linking of the Antichrist (the clearest example of apocalyptic imagery) with the pope and by extension Charles I (whose wife was Catholic), and the Church of England was moving away from the Puritan position. McQueen argues that Hobbes uses a secular apocalypse—that the state of nature is merely subdued by civilization and returns when the binds of civilization are loosed. For Hobbes, such a situation occurs when sovereignty is split. Thus, the Leviathan (as king) is the one who declares orthodoxy in both the secular and spiritual realms. The Protestant revolt against Catholic biblical interpretation is undone and secularized into the sovereign; the Leviathan is a “Christic” figure who defeats the state of nature and restores civilization (139). McQueen uses the famous frontispiece of Leviathan, with the figure standing over the countryside whose body is made of hundreds of smaller figures to bolster her argument. Ultimately, she concludes that Hobbes does not make the Leviathan “a representation of Christ, but rather [that] the figure partakes of both the secular and the Christic” (141). The anti-sovereign spiritual apocalypse, therefore, is undone by a pro-sovereign secular (or political) apocalypse.

Again, the move from Hobbes to Morgenthau, or from muskets to atomic weapons, is at first unsettling. However, it is Morgenthau’s identification with the realist tradition, and his concern with apocalyptic views of the nuclear age that links him to the same sorts of concerns that troubled the earlier figures. The threat of atomic war blended religious apocalypse—Oppenheimer’s quotation of the Bhagvad Gita at the first nuclear warhead test is emblematic—with “secular” apocalypse. McQueen seems to indicate that “secular” apocalypses are those for which humans understand themselves to be the main actors. While Machiavelli and Hobbes faced those who believed that God was controlling history, and thus bringing judgment, Morgenthau’s audience understood that humans would be the ones to turn the nuclear keys and push the buttons to end the world. Yet there were still those who saw utopia on the other side of the mushroom cloud (163, 182). McQueen suggests that Morgenthau’s response to these theories requires him to betray a certain amount of his realism and to argue for a kind of utopia-lite.

The final chapter is a summary, but also McQueen’s attempt to apply this work to a modern-day apocalypse: climate change. Unfortunately, this engagement is not as clear as the previous political discussions due to its brevity. Certainly, Vice-President Gore has attempted to use apocalyptic fear to stave off apocalypse just as Morgenthau did. However, there is no attempt to locate Gore within the realist tradition and it is thus unclear whether his motivations are the same as the other thinkers McQueen analyses.

McQueen does an excellent job at bringing together diverse thinkers and new interpretations under the aegis of the realist tradition. For those who see a sharp line between religion and politics, McQueen has offered a work that uses certain religious ideas to explain political philosophy. In fact, a fair reading of McQueen suggests that the line between religion and politics is actually quite blurry, with ideas traversing back and forth. With Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times, McQueen has done a service to the fields of international affairs, political theology, and all those interested in the use of political rhetoric.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Lane is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alison McQueen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. She writes on the history of political thought, religion in early modern political thought, and political realism. Her work has been published in the Journal of Politics, Perspectives on Politics, European Journal of Political Theory, Political Theory, and Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy. She is the recipient of the American Political Science Association's Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in political philosophy (2012). She has held fellowships at Princeton's University Center for Human Values and the Stanford Humanities Center.
Read more at http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/politics-international-rel...


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