Claude Lefort on the Political by zainlundell


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									Zain Lundell


The Exceptional State – Long Essay


“Political sociologists and scientists, for their part, do not attempt to define politics as a
superstructure whose base is to be found at the supposedly real level of relations of production.
They obtain their object of knowledge by constructing or delineating political facts, which they
regard as particular facts and as distinct from other particular social facts, such as the
economic, the juridical, the aesthetic, the scientific or the purely social... one effect of this fiction
is immediately obvious: modern democratic societies are characterised by, among other things,
the delimitation of a sphere of institutions, relations and activities which appears to be political,
as distinct from other spheres which appear to be economic, juridical and so on. Political
sociologists and scientists find the preconditions that define their object and their approach to
knowledge in this mode of appearance of the political, without ever examining the form of
society within which the division of reality into various sectors appears and is legitimated.”
(Lefort, 1988, pg 11).

Claude Lefort’s1 Democracy and Political Theory is a translated version of his original Essais sur
le Politique (Gould, 1991, pg 1) and is concerned with the underlying form of differing polities,
most notably, the pre-modern, modern democratic and the totalitarian society. For Lefort, the
use of political philosophy in the analyses of societies allows for a clearer picture to be painted
of both democracy and totalitarianism, particularly in explaining how the former may give rise
to the latter (Lefort, 1988, pg 19). This is highlighted by Lefort’s belief that tyranny and
totalitarianism are not of the same kind, but rather that totalitarianism is born out of a
counterrevolution against modernity. In order to illuminate these thoughts Lefort uses several
conceptual tools. In the premodern ancien régime, the king’s body incarnated society’s identity
and assumed the “place of power”, while in modern democratic society there is no figure which

    Claude Lefort was born in the year 1924 in France.

incarnates society’s identity, and as such, there is a disincarnation of society’s identity and a
desertion, but not deletion of the “place of power”. This allows one to understand the concept
of legitimacy and how it operates within society, more specifically for Lefort, how power, law
and knowledge are legitimately exercised in society and in relation to democracy and
totalitarianism, whether they are married or independent (Flynn, 2005, pg xxiv). Further, the
idea that modern democracy engenders an anxiety due to its reliance on debate and its
inherent uncertainty2 creates a desire for a unified people, a “People-as-One”, where society is
not in conflict but in complete harmony with itself, creating the “image of the body” – a
homogenous and harmonised society (Flynn, 2005, pg xxvi). However, as will be explained
below, this is but an unrealisable phantasm and results in a necessity for the “image of the
machine” which uses terror in order to prolong the phantasmic experience.3

In light of the above this essay will pursue three objectives. First an elucidation of Lefort’s work
will be presented in order to understand his conception of the political as briefly outlined
already, second; to understand whether, if in fact, his theory possesses practical credence case
studies of Nazi Germany and Ba’athist Iraq will be explored. Finally, a brief critique of Lefort’s
work will be spelled out in order to accurately assess credibility of Lefort’s work and the
application of his theory to the two case studies.

The Philosophy of Claude Lefort; Interpreting the Political4

A logical step from asserting the notion of the modern would be pointing to that from which it
emerges, presumably the pre-modern. It is in the modern that political discourse is born
together with society as a political entity or ‘le politique’. However, for Lefort, the modern does
not connote a linear pattern of history where the premodern sets in order to allow the rise of

  First, one cannot claim to be a De facto representative of “the people” in democracy. Each person must first
compete for this title. Further, this title may be under continuous contention. Second, disregarding constitutional
restraints etc., when a decision is reached, it is only certain as long as the majority wishes it to be so. The fluidity of
democracy thus creates anxiety.
 Lefort relies on the Machiavellian conception of society, that is, division as its foundation (Flynn, 2005, pg 59-78)
  This heading is borrowed from Bernard Flynn’s book entitled, “The Philosophy of Claude Lefort. Interpreting the

the modern, but rather, is used to describe the existence or non-existence of political discourse
and its “object”, le politique (Flynn, 2005, pg 83).

In the premodern Lefort characterises society as guided by divine providence and his use of
Christianity does not imply a specifically Christian theory, but rather, he treats it as an
indiscriminate fact of history when studying European societies (Flynn, 2005, pg 105). The
premodern is characterised by both a set of moral principles thought to be unquestionable due
to their divine nature and a society in which the social hierarchy is rigid. For Lefort this creates
secure relations5 of dependence where security arises from the (near) solidity of social
hierarchies while dependence is a consequence of differentiated social statuses (Lefort, 1988,
pg 198). A sense of order and stability permeates the social atmosphere due to the rigidity of
the social hierarchy where fixed notions of behaviour and rights pertaining to differing social
rank exist. The monarch is seen as the zenith of the social order (Lefort, 1988, pg 198),
highlighted by Tocqueville when he writes; “Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of
the community, from the peasant to the king...” (Tocqueville, Vol ii, pg 99).

Lefort, following Ernst Kantorowicz’s position, shows that in the premodern, the king has two
bodies, “one descending from nature and one from grace” (Kantorowicz, 1957, pg 46). The King
has absolute power as the divine representative and is the interlocker between God and the
Kingdom. The king is thus the legitimate embodiment of law, power and knowledge in that his
power allows him to justifiably exercise the above via his body of grace. This is so because the
king, as the Man-Christ, is the link between the people and the divine and it is through his link
(being his body of grace) that the will of the divine is carried out (Lefort, 1986, pg 254-256). It
can be said then that the place of power is symbolically occupied by the king while power, law
and knowledge flow from the embodiment of the place of power held by the King. Through
this, the king represents the people to themselves and they exist in a phantasmic unity, seen as
homogenous and non-competitive and symbolised by the body of the king (Flynn, 2005, pg 109-
110). But as Lefort notes, it is a phantasmic unity for very good reason. The king’s other body,
  It should be noted that Lefort explains the premodern organisation of society, not as a “primitive” attempt to
explain the reason for man and his position in the world such as the Enlightenment does, but rather, it is a theory
which sees premodern reasoning as an attempt to avert “humanity and human history from closing in on itself”
(Flynn, 2005, pg 123)

that is, his real body or his body of flesh serves two important roles in understanding le
politique. First, as Lefort notes in Democracy and Political Theory, the king’s body of flesh serves
to enchant the people insofar as it is a body capable of human experiences, both emotional and
physical such as love, anger, hope and procreation and thus “effects an unconscious mediation
between the human and the divine” (Lefort, 2000, pg 245). Perhaps relatedly, an “erotico-
politico” relationship between the king’s natural body and the people exists whereby “the
king’s natural body becomes the object of the people’s love: his marriages, his paternity, his
liaisons, his festivals, his amusement and his feasts, and, also, his weakness and even his
cruelties” (Flynn, 2005, pg 117) “attracts the gaze of all” (Lefort, 2000, pg 245). The people’s
love thus serves to create both the divine to the human and the human to the divine (Flynn,
2005, pg 131). Simply put, the reflection of a king as embodying the quality of humanness
imbued in the imagination of the people, “assures that the king and the people are conjoined”
(Lefort, 2000, pg 245). Secondly, and importantly, his body of flesh serves to undermine the
phantasmic unity of the kingdom. This is so as the king’s personal agenda, associated with his
real body, creates conflict and recognises competing interests which serves to create
factionalism – an important exposé on the actual heterogeneity of society (Flynn, 2005, pg

As pointed out above, the premodern is characterised by a set of moral principles thought to be
unquestionable due to their divine nature. To question or put forward competing conceptions
of “truth”6 would be to question God’s will and therefore commit an act of heresy, a crime
punishable by death. The conflict of the king’s two bodies, however, allows for the realisation
of competing interests which permeate social organisation and modalities, and as such, rights
are born. Rights are not then, for Lefort, intrinsically part of man. In other words, rights are not
born within the human being, but rather, are born out of a need to challenge the “apolitical”
system of the premodern. They are thus constructed for man by man and are, as a result,
historically based (Lefort, 1986, pg 28). Here then is the disincorporation of the place of power
where the pre-determined life path is diluted. This lead to what Lefort terms “the dissolution of the
markers of certainty” within society (Lefort, 1988, pg 488). This allows society to formulate its own

    Absolute knowledge exists and emanates from the divine.

views and in doing so, any proclaimed absolute “truth” can be contested. For the first time
politics, that is, the contestation for outcomes in society is legitimated (Swan, 1989, pg 223) –
the body of the king in which power, law and knowledge are housed, from which they flow, is
shattered – power , law and knowledge leak into an environment where they become the
matter of legitimate questioning7.

In Lefort’s view this allows for the creation of liberties and political rights which constitute
political freedom. Notably he sees this as necessary for democracy to exist. In the modern the
place of power is empty, but not effaced. This is so, as there is no single holder of an absolute
and unquestionable “truth”, but rather, “truth” is contested through debate and selected via
election. The salient point then is that, democracy creates “truth” as it moves along the string
of time and consequently there is never an ultimate “truth” as the people always have an ability
to question – an ability afforded by the conferring of rights. Further, “truth” is seen as nothing
more than a “truth” pursued at a certain point in time by the people or as Lefort writes,
“Democratic society, in contrast, is a theatre of constant change...” (Lefort, 1986, pg 199). This
marks a break from the premodern where “truth” was conceived of in theologico-political
terms and results in the commission of “the dissolution of the markers of certainty” (Lefort,
1986, pg 19).

What Lefort pays particular attention to is the way in which this questioning is constitutive of
society and therefore heterogeneity and conflict are seen as ineliminable from democracy
(Gould, 1991, pg 3). Lefort’s “Theory of Number” points out that elections or the notion of
suffrage allows for the breakdown of the social or the disincorporation of individuals which
leads to the recognition of the plurality of society (Lefort, 1986, pg 303). The significance of this
is highlighted by Tocqueville as he notes that the process of atomization destroys ongoing
certainty and social identity (Tocqueville, Vol ii, pg 99), or in Marx’s infamous words, “All that is
solid, melts into air”. However, in the modern this is celebrated in that there is a celebration of
being political and an intrinsic importance in it as contestation is what democracy flourishes

    Rights and power are no longer conjoined but are separate. Rights now dictate what power may or may not be.

upon, while premodern construction is inherently apolitical. Lefort thus sees democracy as an
extraordinary polity in that it gives rise to the fact that individuals become “entities which must
be counted in a universal suffrage, substituting the place of the universal invested in the body
politic” (Lefort, 1986, pg 303). However, what gave rise to a desire for certainty, for stability
and ultimately for the “People-as-One” was the atomization of society – as Lefort notes;
“However with this came the danger of numbers, the danger of numbers is greater than the
danger of an intervention by the masses on the political scene, the idea of number as such is
opposed to the idea of the substance of society because number breaks down unity, destroys
identity” (Lefort, 1986, pg 303). Simultaneously there is an emergence of the “mass” or “the
people” which is ambiguous because in the first instance the individual wishes to have the right
to be free from constraint and affords himself rights to make this possible while in the second,
through the role which democracy plays, he wishes to be led by the “social” in that the rights
given to him are determined not by himself but by society as a whole (Gould, 1991, pg 341). By
appealing to ideals of unity and harmony, which were “realised” in past “pure”, harmonised
and prosperous Nations, the notion of the “People-as-One” becomes attractive.

For Lefort totalitarianism it is not born of nothing, rather it is the sign of a political mutation,
which can only be explained by grasping its relationship with that of democracy. According to
him, it is from democracy that totalitarianism arises. Totalitarianism is built on the belief of
unity and a denial of division where law, power and knowledge are conjoined and the state,
together with civil society, are fused in a harmonious relationship. There is thus a belief in the
complete harmony and homogeneity of le politique, highlighted by the dilution of the individual
“I” into the totalitarian “us” (Lefort, 1986, pg 251-252). Totalitarianism seeks to provide this
certainty by creating an all inclusive conception of human life whereby people’s identity is fixed
and security discovered by sharing in the realisation of the “common project” (Flynn, 2005, pg
134). What affords the ideals of totalitarianism such sway is the double phenomenon which
relates to a desire for stability; however, under democracy this is not afforded 8. Thus one is
able to see, and importantly so, that the conditions which give rise to a revolt against

 See in particular pg 3-4 of this essay and pg 198, Chapter 10, in Lefort’s Democracy and Political Theory, Polity
Press, 1988.

democracy are not due to exploitation or even misery; but rather, due to a fundamental
upheaval against “the regime” (Flynn, 2005, pg 133) or mode of political organisation (Flynn,
2005, pg 133). As Lefort notes;

        “...he imagines a society which would accord spontaneously with itself, a
        multiplicity of activities which would be transparent to one another and which
        would unfold in a homogenous time and space, a way of producing, living
        together, communicating, associating, thinking               feeling, [and] teaching which
        would express a single way of being.” (Lefort, 1986, pg 270).

In looking at this “revolt”, one is able to see that the ability of human rights and liberty
(democracy) to survive is based upon the continued “empty place of power” whereby the
guardians of power (public authority) do not appropriate it. Under democracy/the modern, the
very notion of occupying the “place of power” should be impossible. This is so as power is held
not by any individual, but by society as a whole. Those who exercise power do so, on behalf of
society, and exercise that power in accordance with the wishes of society. However, it is
totalitarianism’s goal to occupy the place of power once more (Lefort, 1988, pg 255). As
pointed out earlier, Lefort sees totalitarian societies as contingent on democratic ones (Flynn,
2005, pg 139). The rights inherent in a democratic state allow society to move in ways that are
limited only by imagination which may include a step “backwards” into a position where the
place of power is occupied (by the party or “Egocrat”), which would constitute a totalitarian
society. Lefort highlights this by pointing out that to recognise a human right is to inherently
acknowledge the “right to have rights”. As a result, rights generate other rights and open up the
flood gates for an “unforeseeable and potentially endless democratic adventure” (Swan, 1989,
pg 223). This may result in oppressive or unfree forms of society being created because
democracy does not guarantee a “better” society, rather, it only allows for the maximisation of
choice in relation to those “conceptions of society” until the place of power is again occupied9.
One should be able to see the importance of this point in that although democracy/the modern

  Lefort notes that once the place of power is again “occupied”, then that society does not constitute a modern/
democratic society. The place of power must be “empty” in order for the modern to exist, in order for democracy
to exist (Lefort, 1986, pg 285)

may allow for the maximisation of choice and freedom, it contains the ability to abolish these
freedoms by the people choosing not to be free (choosing for the place of power to be
occupied again)10.

For totalitarianism then, the “Good Society” is one which accords spontaneously with itself
(Lefort, 1986, pg 270) and allows for the uniting and harmonising of society. Part of this unity
and harmony is engendered by the phantasm of the People-as-One11. This phantasm conceives
of a society which spontaneously accords with itself, is transparent and which unfolds in a
homogenous time and space (Lefort, 1986, pg 270). The logical reverse of this is to deny all
heterogeneity or as Lefort puts it; “...the very notion of social heterogeneity... is rejected, the
notion of a variety of modes of life, behaviour, belief, opinion, in so far as this notion radically
contradicts the image of a society in harmony with itself” (Lefort, 1986, pg 285).To realise the
concept of the “People-as-One” Lefort points out two vital processes which serve to erase the
divisions between society and state and the signs of internal social division (Lefort, 1986, pg
286) because social consensus is not spontaneous, but rather something that must be shaped
on an ongoing basis. The first process involves the occupying of the place of power, and as such,
the Leader is seen not only as reflective of the people’s wishes, but intrinsically fused with the
people. He embodies the people and their desires. The Leader, known as the Egocrat or the
Party which embodies the people’s desires and carries these desires out is seen to occupy the
place of power. The second process involves “othering”, a process whereby enemies are
identified or created and consequently expelled from the body politic, known by Lefort as Social
Prophylaxis (Lefort, 1986, pg 287). “Othering” serves two purposes. First, it serves to expel
those from the “body”, who are not in sync with the “project” (either members of the Ancien
Regime or members who seek to destabilise the system) thereby banishing possible opposition
to the established Regime. Second, because the integrity of the body is always at stake, it
serves to assure the “body of its own identity by expelling its waste matter, or as if it had to
close in upon itself by withdrawing from the outside, by averting the threat of an intrusion by

   See in particular Bernard’s Flynn’s discussion on the Algerian “Revolution”, pg 197-198 & 227, Chapter 9, The
Philosophy of Claude Lefort, Interpreting the Political. Northwestern University Press.
   It is a phantasm because, as noted earlier, division is inherent in any form of society. Here Lefort relies on the
Machiavellian conception of society, that is, division as its foundation (Flynn, 2005, pg 59-78).

alien elements” (Lefort, 1986, pg 287 ). Lefort thus relies on Hegel’s notion of identity
construction in that he believes that the thesis must always be defined in relation to the anti-
thesis. In other words, the People-as-One can only be conceptualised vis-à-vis another – a
double negation is thus essential. As Lefort (1986, pg 287) notes;

       “For the People-as-One can be both represented and affirmed only by a great
       Other; in the initial period it can be so only by that great individual whom
       Solzhenitsyn has so aptly called the Egocrat. But the same image is also combined
       with the image of the element alien to the people, with the image of its enemy...
       The definition of the enemy is constitutive of the identity of the people.”

For Lefort the campaign against the enemy is feverish and this fever is good in that it signals
that there is some enemy in society, some evil to combat, thereby negating the idea of internal
division or division of the People-as-One. Thus, according to this conception, there is a need for
the notion of the People-as-One to be engineered on a continuous basis through the process of
Othering and the masking of society’s actual heterogeneity, accomplished by what Lefort terms
the “Machine” (Lefort, 1986, pg 288). Lefort sees the “Machine” as the “Great Organiser” in
that it is the Machine which goes about moulding and manipulating society into the shape of
the People-as-One. This is necessary due to the fact that society does not accord spontaneously
with itself and must, as a result, be manipulated into a phantasmic unity – the Machine covers
the cracks of heterogeneity and expels the Other (social prophylaxis) (Lefort, 1986, pg 288).

Terror, employed by the Machine, therefore becomes essential to the totalitarian project. This
is so as Terror ensures that citizenry do not veer from “the conception of the People-as-One by
bridging the gap between the symbolic order and the real” (Flynn, 2005, pg 134). The
Machiavellian conception of division as inherent in society thus leads to the employment of
Terror in order to hold society together. As Al Khalil (1989, pg 5) notes, “Terror is the glue which
holds… society together”. It is important to note, however, that Terror should not be seen
solely as the violence perpetuated against the “Other”, but rather, as Lefort (1986, pg 114)
notes, it should be seen as the ways in which society is made to conform to the notion of the
People-as-One as a result of fear. Accordingly, it can be said that Terror may operate in overt

and hidden forms. In the final analyses it can be said that Terror acts to repress the true form of
the social in two ways. The first is the repression of conflict and/or dissent as both act to
undermine the “unity” of the social and secondly, it works to create an identity of the body
politic through the process of social prophylaxis (Flynn, 2005, pg xxviii).

This “new” (totalitarian) society is thus presented as “a single organisation comprising a
network of micro-organisations; furthermore, it is presented paradoxically as that ‘great
automation’...” (Lefort, 1986, pg 301). The social is seen as both an organisation and at the
same time, it is seen as organisable. The effect of this is to see man as “imprinted” in the
organisation in the first instance and simultaneously as the organiser or “social engineer” in the
second (Lefort, 1986, pg 301). Thus for Lefort, the key concepts here are the image of the body
and the image of the machine, and the key idea is the way in which the two contradict each
other. The contradiction arises due to the fact that the Machine which proceeds to shape
society is inherently contradictory to the image of the body, which sees society as
spontaneously according with itself – which sees society as harmonious and homogenous. The
very need for the Machine thus undermines the phantasmic unity and the apparently organic
or natural constitution of the body. As Lefort (1986, pg 301) notes;

       “...the image of the body is altered when it comes into contact with that of the
       Machine. The latter contradicts the logic of identification; the communist ‘us’ is
       itself dissolved. The notion of the organisation, even though it gives rise to that of
       the organiser, poses a threat to the substance of the body politic, making the
       social appear at the boundaries of the inorganic”

A final point about the Lefortian concept of totalitarianism is that democratic totalitarianism is
impossible. This is because rights are constitutive of a democratic state and once the right to
contest and question conceptions of life is eroded there can no longer be a democratic society
(Lefort, 1986, pg 310). Totalitarianism is born out of the destruction of democracy. This point is
highlighted by the striking workers in Poland (Flynn, 2005, pg 25). Even though there was no
wish to be political, the demand for some sort of change is political in itself because by asking
for change they asked for the right to be heard and the right to ask for change (there may be

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other rights involved). This is in conflict of the totalitarian ideology which sees society as
spontaneously according with itself (Lefort, 1986, pg 310).


To understand whether Lefort’s work possesses practical credence this essay will turn to Nazi
Germany, specifically looking at the decade of 1932 – 1942. This period has been chosen in
order to give focus to two points. Firstly, how policy and ideology was used to solidify the
notion of the People-as-One and second, how monopolies on law and knowledge were used to
entrench the power of the Nazi’s or in Lefort’s terms, how law, power and knowledge were
fused in order to deny division within society. Admittedly the two are interrelated in that the
denial of division concretises the notion of the People-as-One, however, as will be shown, there
are some important theoretical as well as practical differences. To do this, the essay will explore
the German Ideology of National Socialism, as well as look at practical facts which occurred in
the decade under analyses.

Germans were left feeling alienated after the First World War due to the humiliation of defeat
and the harsh policies imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. It was through these hardships that
the German community lost pride in their nation. A loss of group attachment or sense of
belonging within communities led to this feeling of alienation (Bendix, 1956, pg 606).
Furthermore, there was a broad perception that moral and cultural values were being eroded,
highlighted by one woman’s comment; “away from liberalism, toward obligation; away from
the career woman, toward the housewife and mother” (Bridenthal et al, 1984, pg 164). The
hopelessness of the people was reflected in the suicide rate which was four times that of Great
Britain and not surprisingly then, men and women flocked to the polls in support of Hitler and
his party for its promise of restoration of “normality” for which people longed (Gellately, 2001,
pg 10-11). It was on the 5th March 1933 that the Nazi Party came into power via democratic
elections, led by Adolf Hitler. It was Hitler to whom the people looked to for solidity, a sense of
belonging and hope to rebuild Germany to her glorious past. Already one is able to see the
desire for a homogenised and certain life path, or as Lefort would suggest, a People-as-One –
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the longing for traditional and uniform ways of life as seen in the opposition to career woman
in terms of the former and a path of development which would lead to a rekindling of
Germany’s glorious past in terms of the latter.

Hitler’s “project” acknowledged the desire for a homogenised body politic and it was the goal
of the Nazi’s to realise this through their National Socialist ideology. The first step in realising
this was the destruction of the communists as they represented a competing ideology and as
such, compromised the anti-pluralistic ideology of the Nazi’s (Nicholls, 1968, pg 170). However,
as noted above, because the integrity of the body is always at stake, there is a “continuous
effort to assure the body of its own identity by expelling its waste matter” (Lefort, 1986, pg
287). It was through National Socialism and its positing of an ideal German race (the Aryan race)
that the Nazi’s were able to further engender a commonality among citizens. Of course this
meant, through the process of “Othering” that some were foreign to the ideal race, and as
such, undesirable. These undesirables, fell prey to what Lefort terms “social prophylaxis”. Thus
in terms of Nazi ideology, race played a pivotal role in creating a People-as-One by designating
those as incompatible with the “project” as racially inferior. This is highlighted by Gellately
(2001, pg 93) when he explains how even common criminals were seen in a racial light by
ascribing their faults as biologically predetermined and as such, they were of inferior racial
being. The operating principle for German Criminal policy came to be known as “Prevention is
better than reacting” whereby preventative action was sought in relation to crime. This
resulted in the justification and subsequent mass sterilisation of “dangerous habitual
offenders” in order to prevent uncommitted “future crimes”– naturally, Nazi puppets in the
judiciary determined who was a “dangerous habitual offender” (Gellately, 2001, pg 93).

Hitler used plebiscites to further entrench the concept of the People-as-One – a homogenous
and self-according group where results ranged from 90 to 99.9 percent. This was done by
doctoring plebiscite results (for which much evidence exists) as well as counting spoilt ballots or
those left blank as “yes”. At times communities were reported to have voted 100 percent for
Hitler when it was surely not the case (Gellately, 2001, pg 15-16). Another means of creating
the People-as-One was by sealing the ruptures that separated the people, state and judiciary.

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This is because not to do so would inherently acknowledge difference, for example; why would
there be a need for a system of checks-and-balances if the People-as-One signified a
homogenous entity, in complete harmony and according spontaneously with itself? This was
done by putting forward Adolf Hitler as Führer of Germany and as such, recognising that all
authority flowed from Him12. Hitler, by occupying the place of power, embodied the desires of
the people and erased the boundaries between state, judiciary and society – they were fused
into one body, however, as Lefort would note, Hitler was the “head”, the Egocrat.

As early as 4 February 1933 a presidential decree was promulgated for the “protection of the
German people”. “Although mild by later standards, it restricted freedom of expression,
permitted certain forms of censorship, banned publications, and outlawed meetings and
demonstrations when the police judged that they constituted a ‘direct danger to public
security’” (Gellately, 2001, pg 17). This serves to illustrate what occurred in Germany after
Hitler’s rise to power – a gradual erosion of civil liberties. The laws promulgated took an
increasingly radical form as time passed with a specific emphasis on maintaining the racial
purity of the German “Aryan” race. For example, the “Ordinance against parasites on the body
politic” highlights the manner in which the Nazi’s sought to internalise the concept of racial
purity within The Law. In addition to the above ordinance, the “Reichstag Fire Decree”
suspended “until further notice” the constitutional guarantees of personal liberty; made it
possible for police to arrest and detain anyone they saw fit and to impose restrictions on
freedom of expression, assembly and association while people found guilty of “social unrest”
would be subject to harsh prison sentences and even the death penalty (Gellately, 2001, pg 18-
19). It should be made clear that the laws were framed in an extremely vague manner, and
deliberately so. This allowed Hitler’s security forces to determine “what The Law meant” as
they saw fit. Furthermore, the judiciary, seen as puppets of the ruling regime, not only
interpreted The Law to Hitler’s and the Nazi’s advantage but came to be seen as enforcers of
Nazi will (Nicholls, 1968, pg 169). However, the existence of courts should not detract attention
from the way in which the Nazi regime blatantly bypassed the legal system. As stated by Dr
Werner, a key figure behind the construction of Nazi Law;

     A capital “h” to signify his God-like Status

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       “... from the point of view of the leadership of the state, it is not whether or not
       giving lawyers access to clients will help in the battle against the state’s ‘deadly
       enemies’. Lawyers questions are...incompatible with the state Leadership’s trust in
       the organisations given the mission to defend against the attacks of enemies”
       (Gellately, 2001, pg 40).

This was then later codified into law when Hitler promulgated a Decree, barring lawyers access
to anyone held in protective custody (Gellately, 2001, pg 40).

The creation of the Nuremburg Laws, technically known as the “Law for the Protection of
German Blood and German Honour” highlighted the way in which the Nazi law sought to
penetrate “private” life. In order to maintain the racial purity of the Volk, sexual relations
between Jews and non-Jews were forbidden while the definition of who constituted a “Jew”
was left largely unaddressed, and purposefully so (Gellately, 2001, pg 122). Furthermore,
through law, it became compulsory to join the Hitler Youth group if one met the requirements.
Members were subjected to regimented activities and were forbidden to listen to “unsavoury”
music such as Jazz (as many of the prominent Jazz artists of the time were blacks) and embark
on unsupervised outings in the country side (where Nazi propaganda did not reach).

In effect what the Nazi’s did was envelop society in a casing of laws which they used to their
advantage, consolidating their power and moulding society into a form that was both in
agreement with their ideology and at the same time easier to control through the increased
power they were able to wield over society.

The monopolisation of knowledge was similarly used in order to entrench the power of the Nazi
regime and limit the extent to which heterogeneity could manifest itself by indoctrinating the
German people to Nazi ideology. As mentioned earlier, it became compulsory to join the Hitler
Youth Movement if one met the requirements. This, however, was only the tip of the ice-berg.
All movements which were not associated to Nazism were disbanded, including Catholic youth
groups and other voluntary organisations (Gellately, 2001, pg 116). Nazi associated movements
became institutions of Nazi ideology dissemination, where women were taught how to lead an
Aryan life and children taught of Aryan racial superiority and the omnipotence of the Führer.
                                                                                     14 | P a g e
Furthermore, the curriculum was changed for school going children and many were taught Nazi
ideology with resources that emphasised crude German “Fatherland” romanticism, while
textbooks and books which contained any semblance of anti-Nazi thought were burnt in mass
book burning rituals.

The Nazi regime realised the need for an ideologically homogenous society and embarked on
the above to realise this homogeneity – so much so that a special ministry was set up. Joseph
Goebbels headed this ministry, called the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. It
was primarily tasked with the job of conquering the German people to Nazi ideology (Reuth,
1993, pg 172). As Goebbels himself stated, “...the actual purpose is to set in motion a ‘mental
mobilisation’ of the masses, to work on them until they can no longer resist us” (Goebbels,
1933, pg 157). To do this, Goebbels embarked on a mass censorization of the printing press and
radio and regurgitated propaganda to the people. For example, Jews were often blamed for
sabotaging German war machinery when in fact they were destroyed by the Allies and
concentration camps were lauded for protecting those which mobs would target and providing
their occupants with humane living conditions as well as education. This is highlighted by the
“re-education” of “social outsiders” who had not committed a crime yet, but were, due to
genetics, going to commit a crime in the future. This supposed re-education taught them the
lessons of hard work and committing to the “community of the people” (Gellately, 2001, pg 13
& 121-150). However, it should be noted that the motivation behind this was not only to
achieve a firm grasp on power, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to return the German
people to their rightful place in Europe and the world, it was a project to reorganise German
people into a conception that was seen as superior and right – in short, it was their destiny to
be that which Nazi ideology espoused.

In looking at how the Nazi’s monopolised knowledge, one is able to see how they were able to
reconstitute the conception of the body politic. The portrayal of Nazi ideology as the only
ideology gave people little opportunity to think in other ways, particularly children. Through
this, the Nazi’s were able to merge state and society by putting forward a common ideology

                                                                                    15 | P a g e
and at the same time, through mass co-operation (due to people’s ideological stance), able to
cement their hold on power over the people.

In conclusion it can be seen how the desire for a People-as-One results in the breaking down of
barriers between institutions. Law, power and knowledge become fused in order to carry out
the predetermined life path of the people. In Nazi Germany this was highlighted by the people’s
longing for a Germany rooted in its powerful past. This resulted in a move away from
democracy to that of totalitarianism whereby the place of power was once again occupied. The
people to a large degree willingly allowed this to happen13 and resulted in the marriage of law,
power and knowledge. As Lefort noted, it is most likely in times of hardship that the place of
power will occupied again – this is what occurred in Germany as Hitler came to power in dire
times when the German economy was ravaged by hyperinflation and the unemployment rate
was soaring. It seems as though Lefort’s analyses helps shed light on the underlying motivation
for certain types of polities.


The second case study turns to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, particularly focusing on the late 1960’s
to the early 1980’s. This period has been chosen in order to give focus to a single point – how
the notion of the People-as-One was created in Iraq, with an emphasis on the way in which, and
to what extent Othering and that which was employed by the Machine – Terror, were used to
construct a “single social identity”.

In 1941, the Iraqi experiment that posited a unified Arab nation was terminated. However, the
rise of the Ba’ath Party in the 1960’s and its essential theoretical core, being pan-Arabism,
which posited the existence of a single Arab nation and the establishment of a single Arab state
sought to rekindle at least some of the ideals which Faisal had first proposed in the 1930’s
(Tripp, 2000, pg 186). In contrast to previous totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany or

   It must be highlighted that Gellately’s book is a study on the extent to which the German’s willingly
participated in and allowed the Nazi regime to carry out its wishes. He finds that, to an alarmingly large degree,
the people willingly helped in the perpetration and perpetuation of Nazi ideology.

                                                                                                    16 | P a g e
Stalin’s USSR, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not posit a single notion of “Truth”, and in doing so,
the Ba’ath party created a lot more legroom in the formulation and interpretation of ideology
and policy. This can be partly ascribed to the Ba’ath’s fairly imprecise slogan, being, “Freedom,
Unity, Socialism”. Further, this vagueness allowed the Ba’ath and Saddam to maximise their
following by appealing to a broad range of ideals – as Tripp (2000, pg 173) notes, the lack of a
coherent ideology allowed the Ba’ath to represent itself as a “confederation of cliques”.

Unity and thus the creation of the People-as-One were originally envisioned as a single Arab
state, where a single Arab nation would exist – a Pan-Arabic ideal.14 However, the Pan-Arabic
ideal was pursued only if Iraq gained most from it, or alternatively, if Saddam was posited as
the leader of the Pan-Arabic ideal (Baram, 1991, pg 122). The fluidity of the People-as-One is
further highlighted by the fact that Iranians were on the one hand, seen to be part of the
People-as-One by reason of their placement within the Middle-East, their common hostility
towards Israel and “Imperial Powers” and their predominantly Islamic faith15. However, on the
other hand, Iranians were excluded from the conceptualisation of the People-as-One by
portraying unity, not as the commonality described above, but rather, as those who descended
from Mesopotamia and were not Persian, but Arab (Baram, 1991, pg 50). This serves to
highlight the fluid and nebulous nature of Ba’athist ideology.

As noted above, the notion of the People-as-One relies on an Other to affirm its own identity.
This is because, as Hegel notes, the thesis must always be defined in relation to the anti-thesis.
In other words, the People-as-One can only be conceptualised vis-à-vis another – a double
negation is thus essential. The result is that the Ba’ath as well as Saddam laboured intensely to
create an “enemy”. For example, large investments were directed toward archaeological
studies within Iraq in order to uncover the history of the great ancient cultures of Mesopotamia
and trace the link from those great ancient cultures to the Iraq of the day. By doing so, the
“leaders” of Iraq were able to engender a common identity among Iraqi’s by positing a shared
cultural heritage. Also, it allowed for the creation of “outsiders” by excluding those who did not
share this common cultural identity, serving to justify possible hostility towards these groups.

     To some the ultimate goal was the creation of a homogenous Muslim-Brotherhood.
     This ties into the notion of a Muslim-Brotherhood.

                                                                                      17 | P a g e
Lastly, it served to justify the extermination of those that were incompatible with the “project”
by positing them as racially inferior to the “superior descendants of Mesopotamia” (Baram,
1991, pg 50). Further, Jews, Kurds and Persians were seen to be dangers to the homogeneity
and unity of the body politic and were constructed as the “other” by being accused of
associating and assisting Imperial Powers (Imperial Powers were also an Other to the Iraqi body
politic). In doing so, associating with groups that were Iraqi enemies resulted in the automatic
exclusion of them from the body politic.

Finally, it should be noted that the image of the Other was not only flexible, but ever changing,
in part allowed by the flexibility of Ba’ath Ideology. 16 This is illustrated by the fact that there
were groups considered to be the “Other” at all times and groups who were considered to be
the “Other” or allies at times convenient to the regime. For example, the Jews were regarded as
“Other” at all times, however, the United States of America, who were seen as the Imperialist
enemies by Saddam and his party, were seen at the very least as helpers or maybe even friends
(arguably even allies) during the Iran-Iraq war due to their assistance, being the supply of
munitions and aid to Iraq during the war (Al-Khalil, 1998, pg 224).

Since the 1960’s Terror too was used in order seal the cracks of division within the body politic.
Al-Khalil (1998, pg 38) argues that the second Ba’athist republic in Iraq (1968-2003) was
undoubtedly a totalitarian regime, highlighted by the “excessive and self-perpetuating cycle of
Terror that gripped the populace” throughout Ba’athist rule. This was done in order to affirm a
central tenet of totalitarian regimes in general, as well as of Ba’athist ideology; the denial of
division within society. For example, Saddam or the Ba’athist party who occupied the place of
power as either the Egocrat or Party respectively could not be seen to be questioned as this
would contradict how they conceptualised Saddam as Supreme Leader, embodying the will of
the people17. Thus Al-Khalil argues, in line with Lefort’s theory, that Terror was a necessary tool,
needed for the very survival of the regime.

 See pages 16 & 17 above.
 The purpose of this essay is not to determine who occupied the place of power. Furthermore, even if Saddam
was seen as the Supreme Leader, it may still be argued that the Party occupied the place of power and merely

                                                                                                  18 | P a g e
In order to perpetrate Terror, the party, among other tools, employed the use of the National
Guard, similar to that used by Hitler during Nazi-Germany rule. Saddam had, in the early 1960’s,
started the construction of the Jihaz Haneen which would be used to target “enemies of the
people” by harassing and intimidating unfriendly factions. This organisation came to be known
as the Ann, or Internal State Security, and was reconfigured into three separate entities, namely
the Ann, which was mandated to handle internal security, the Mukhabarat, which was involved
in Party intelligence and the Estikhbat, responsible for military intelligence. These organisations
were largely responsible for turning Iraq into what Al-Khalil deems the “Republic of Fear”. The
National Guard18 was intimately involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of those
deemed as “Other”. For example, the period of 1968-1973 was characterised by a series of
“show trials” whereby those deemed “historic” enemies,19 or as Lefort terms it, “members of
the ancient regime” were hanged in public. The perceived20 “support” of these public
executions reported by the media and government created a sense of legitimacy in that
support was seen as a legitimating factor (Al-Khalil, 1998, pg 58). Further, these organisations
were used to purge Ba’ath party members deemed to be “spies” – in other words, their loyalty
was questioned21 and they were thus executed. These initial acts of Terror were mainly
associated with members of the ancien regime, and perpetrated by the National Guard,
however, as Lefort notes, division is inherent within society and it becomes necessary to hide
the cracks of heterogeneity – society is itself not self according.

This resulted in Terror becoming increasingly directed toward the general populace – Terror
thus evolved into a secret force to which the entire population was subjected (Al-Khalil, 1989,
pg 271). Networks of informers were created and infiltrated everyday Iraqi life. Groupings
including Gentlemen’s clubs, societies and sports teams were targeted and children were
encouraged to place the Ba’ath before their parents by reporting any “unbecoming” behaviour

used Saddam’s position as a tool in its objective. Saddam as Supreme Leader could therefore be seen as part of the
“Machine” which the Party used to further its aims.
   The National Guard is made up of the Ann, Mukhabarat and the Estikhbat post reconfiguration and only the Ann
pre reconfiguration.
   Jews, Persians and Kurds as examples.
   “Percieved” due to the fact that propaganda and lies used to create support for these executions. Support thus
seems greater than it actually was.
   Objectively, it could be argued that their loyalty to Saddam and not the party was questioned.

                                                                                                     19 | P a g e
(Al-Khalil, 1981, pg 75-79). Also, as occurred under Nazi-Germany, mass organisations were
created which were affiliated to the Ba’ath Party and were used to disseminate Ba’ath ideology.
Any other organisations were banned and deemed “counter-revolutionary”. The consequences
were at the very least two-fold. First, thinking in differing ways to that which Ba’athist ideology
groomed people was made extraordinarily difficult, and second, to think in such “differing”
ways was seen as “counter-revolutionary” and as a logical step, dangerous. People were thus
pressured into thinking in a homogenous manner, not only through acts of Terror, but through
fear of not thinking in a certain way.

Terror may also be said to have been perpetrated through the arbitrary arrest, detainment and
execution of various intellectuals, members of civil society and medical professionals. This
occurred only after the Ba’ath had both consolidated and firmly tightened their grip on power
and when any serious contenders to Ba’ath power had been eliminated. This seems to suggest
then that the motivation behind these acts was to instil fear into the populace or leave a gap in
the possible leadership of the counter-revolution, or both (Al-Khalil, 1989, pg 58-61). One could
then argue, as Al-Khalil does, that fear was used to disincentivise opposition as well as glue the
Iraqi body politic together (Al-Khalil, 1989, pg 275). Further, by the regime “naming and
shaming” over one thousand individuals, and thus by extension their families, and with
promises to release additional “lists”, Al-Khalil (1998, pg 16) argues that the Ba’ath leadership
instilled fear into the populace via the fear of ostracisation (for example, fear of associating
with the families of those who had members appear on the “list”) and punishment without due
process – the latter highlighted by the way in which the regime set up Revolutionary Courts to
deal with spies, agents, and enemies of the people. These courts were presided over by military
staff with no legal training and were required to hear charges of “conspiracy to overthrow the
government” and “espionage on behalf of the United States, Israel or Iran”, further; in these
courts forced confessions were common (Zaher, 1986, pg 142).

A final point is that the fear experienced by Iraqi people would have been intensified by the
perceived or actual omnipresent nature of Saddam and the Ba’ath. Actual omnipresence was

                                                                                       20 | P a g e
constructed via the creation of vast informer networks as outlined above22 as well as the
operation of the National Guard and the perceived omnipresent nature via the mass publicising
of Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath leadership – highlighted by the fact that Saddam’s image was
plastered in almost all public spaces (Al-Khalil, 1981, pg 110).

In conclusion it can be seen that the way in which the People-as-One was constructed within
Iraq under Ba’ath rule was fluid owing to the vague ideological stance taken by the Ba’ath.
Further, it allowed the Ba’ath and Saddam considerable freedom in the creation of ideology
and implementation of policy. Othering, used to rid the body of possible contestation and
affirm itself of its own identity was created through the creation of enemies – seen as
counterrevolutionaries. However, the Other was also created via rejecting those who were not
Arab, were Imperialists, or who did not have a link with the great civilisation of Mesopotamia.
The fluid nature of Ba’ath ideology thus allowed for the fluidity of the Other and the regime
found itself positing groups as Others when it most suited them to do so. Finally, it can be seen
that Terror, both overt and covert, was used not only to rid the body politic of dissent, but also
to stifle the birth of new dissent and thus acted as the glue which held the Iraqi body politic


In the last section of this essay, a critique of Lefort will be explored in order to properly
evaluate the theory elucidated above. Admittedly, the case studies have not drawn on the
impending critique in their application of Lefort’s theory; however, it will serve to point out
some of the perceived short-comings of Lefort’s work as regarded by some.

Lefort understands the term “social” as applying to the public as a whole, however, in doing so,
he does not account for the ways in which democracy may serve to impact or influence
“institutions of a smaller scale than the public as a whole” (Gould, 1991, pg 338). For example,
in many firms where cooperative behaviour is needed, or where groups pursue common

     See page 19.

                                                                                      21 | P a g e
objectives, democratic participation is often an existent “form” of organisation. In keeping with
Lefort’s notion of the social, one could argue that his conception is overly encompassing in that
it does not allow room for le Politique to flourish in non- totalistic forms. As Gould (1991, pg
343) aptly puts it;

       “Because he [Lefort] construes the alternatives as organic, totalistic sociality on
       the one hand and division or political conflict on the other, there seems to be no
       space left for the important phenomenon of non-totalistic and non-conflictual
       common activity. Such common activity, I would hold, is defined by shared goals
       and joint or cooperative activity to realize such goals. Lefort seems unable to
       acknowledge this sort of common activity -which is usually on a smaller scale than
       the common or public interest of society as a whole - because he identifies the
       common interest or the public good with an overarching one which opens the way
       to social domination and political control ostensibly in the interests of society as a

Further, Lefort focuses intensely on the fact that the “dissolution of the markers of certainty”
brings about democracy which essentially “institutionalises conflict” (Lefort, 1986, pg 17). To
illustrate this, Lefort uses both voting and elections which, for Gould, is a narrow conception of
the democratic process in that it fails to consider the importance of “democratic participation
in decision making contexts other than voting in elections” (Gould, 1991, pg 340). Thus one
could argue that Lefort fails to account for the ways in which consensus may be reached by
ways other than voting – for example – consensus through compromise. Relatedly, Lefort’s
theory of multi-party democracy is problematic. This is so as it is seen as a sort of American
pluralist theory of democracy where democracy is conceived of as a system whose essential
existence is to maintain “equilibrium among groups with conflicting interests, by periodic
elections...” (Gould, 1991, pg 340). The problem arises from the fact that this conception of
democracy to the “instrumentalist function of maintaining political equilibrium and excludes
such factors as common interests and participation” (Gould, 1991, pg 340).

                                                                                       22 | P a g e

For Lefort, the modern can be seen as a revolt against the apolitical and totalitarianism can be
seen as born of the indeterminacy of the modern. The totalitarian ideal thus seeks to fuse Law,
Power and Knowledge in order to create what Lefort terms the People-as-One. In both Nazi
Germany and Ba’athist Iraq the result was the employment of Terror in order to deny
individualism and seal the cracks of heterogeneity – a result of the inherent division of society.
However, the way in which Lefort’s theory fails to recognise the subtleties that may occur
within society serves to undermine his all encompassing conceptualisation of the social.
Further, even though Lefort does not explicitly divulge into the subject of support and
compliance, Gellately does show how propaganda and false belief serves to foster mass support
for totalitarian regimes while Al-Khalil illuminates the way in which fear produces mass
compliance for totalitarian regimes. Nevertheless, Lefort’s conceptual schema serves to
highlight the way in which totalitarian societies eventually develop a need for Terror in order to
hide the inherent division within society. Furthermore, his theory serves to highlight the ways in
which society serves to legitimate the source of law, power and knowledge and the way in
which these may operate. In relation to Germany and Iraq, Lefort’s theory definitely serves to
paint a clearer picture of why those societies organised themselves in the manner they did and
helps one to garner a more fruitful understanding of le Politique.

                                                                                      23 | P a g e

Al-Khalil, S. Republic of Fear: the Politics of Modern Iraq, Berkeley: University of California Press,

Baram, A. Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968 – 89, New York:
St Martin’s Press, 1991.

Bendix, R. Social Stratification and Political Power, American Political Science Review, Vol 46,

Flynn, B. The Philosophy of Claude Lefort, Interpreting the Political, Northwestern University
Press, 2005.

Gellately, R. Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001.

Goebbels, J. Die zukunftige Arbeit und Gestaltung des deustchen Runfunks, speech delivered on
25 March 1933, in Heiber.

Gould, C. ‘Claude Lefort on Modern Democracy’, in Praxis International, 1991 (3 + 4), pp 337 –

Kantorowicz, E. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Princeton

Lefort, C. Democracy and Political Theory, translated by David Macey, Cambridge: Polity Press,

Lefort, C. The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism,
edited and introduced by John B.

Nicholls, A. Weimer and the Rise of Hitler, Macmillan, New York, 1968.

Reuth, R., Translated by Winston, K. Goebbels, Constable, London, 1993.

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Thompson, Cambridge, Mass.: Mit Press, 1986.

Tocqueville, A. de. Democracy in America. 2 Vols. Vintage Books, New York, 1990.

Tripp, C. A History of Iraq, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Zaher, U. ‘Political Developments in Iraq 1963 – 1980’, in Saddam’s Iraq: Revolution or

Reaction?, CADRI (eds.), London: Zed Books, 1986.

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