Text: Why are preventive wars so easy to win, but so difficult to end? / What practical lessons can we learn from the current Iraq War or from Athens’ wars 2000 years ago? / Oskar Negt is working on a book about the SOURCES OF POLITICAL JUDGMENT --


Alexander Kluge: The critique of political judgment. Or the sources of political judgment. What is political judgment? It’s a Kantian term.

Oskar Negt: Yes, it’s a Kantian term. Well, Kant talks about aesthetic judgment. Judgment is the faculty that connects the particular with the general in an appropriate way. That’s one way of framing it.

Kluge: A mass of discernment. It is discernment because it is motivated, which is what gives it strength.

Negt: Judgment separates what does not fit together, and connects what belongs together. That means, discernment ist a crucial element of judgment.

Kluge: But not all political judgments are the focus of this kind of critique – not, for example, questions regarding the pension fund system. If politicians are preoccupied with ultimately irrelevant issues, it doesn’t matter how carefully they consider them. We are talking here about important decisions concerning the community that should be decided by the public.

Negt: Yes. And that’s what distinguishes political judgment from judgment in a more general sense, such as philosophical, logical judgment …

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Kluge: Judgment as it relates to the community. What should be negotiated in public? What is part of the community? What are the important decisions of a certain era?

Negt: Yes.

Text: War as Test Case for POLITICAL JUDGMENT

Kluge: Preventive wars are a reemerging phenomenon. 1914, that is more or less a preventive war for all involved nations.

Negt: Yes, and the old cabinet wars usually don’t happen for valid reasons, for example because the opponent is eyeing something of mine, but because of a desire for power.

Kluge: If the situation is going to be worse five years from now, I’ll choose a miserable ending over endless misery, and that is war. But this decision is always a recipe for disaster.

Negt: Because casus belli are often imaginary. They anticipate something that hasn’t actually occurred yet in reality. They conjure up the image of an enemy that hasn’t emerged yet. That means, the justification of preventive wars often involves a lot of imagination.

Kluge: And that’s why preventive wars, which are, as we know, more difficult to end, are very quick to erupt. The actual execution stays pretty much the same, but it turns out that these kinds of wars are impossible to bring to an end.

Negt: Impossible to bring to an end, because the goals are so vague. By the way, that’s also true for the great destructive wars, like the Peloponnesian War. What happened was that Athens said, or rather, Pericles said: Our enemies in Sparta’s camp are going to attack us eventually. They are going to attack.

Kluge: Better we attack them first, and conspire to lead a war against them.

Text: On the Imaginative FABRICATION of Casus Belli

Negt: When I read Thucydides‘ account of the Peloponnesian Wars, I thought a lot about how much energy is utilized to fabricate reasons for starting a war, and how quickly small events cause major collapses, conflicts, collisions. For example, the Peloponnesian Wars start with Kerkyra, a small town, a Corinthian apoikia, which in turn had its own apoikia. Apoikia, that had a very specific meaning back then, they were colonies with very particular moral relationships. The envoys of a city had to be welcomed in a specific way, there were prayers in the temple, and so on. Kerkyra had founded its own colony, Epidamnos. Epidamnos was being besieged by non-Greek tribes and was hoping for help from their mother city, so they sent an envoy, and they went to the temple of Hera to pray, but Kerkyra refused to help. Then this colony approached Athens for help. In return, Kerkyra consulted the oracle of Delphi and was told to approach Corinth, their mother city. But Kerkyra had become very powerful and had put together a fleet as large as the Corinthian fleet. It was competing with Corinth and didn’t treat the mother city with the necessary respect. Kerkyra did not have any allies during that time, and instead turned to Athens, and Athens sent a small fleet to support them. And so, slowly but surely, an entanglement of very strange humiliations and rivalries between cities and alliances emerged.

Kluge: No one can take a step back, and yet every step forward …

Negt: Everyone is worried about losing their face, which was a big deal in the ancient world. And what happens now is related to Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political: He distinguishes between a public enemy whom one does not need to hate, the hostis, the public enemy, and the inimicus, the personal enemy. He says, the personal enemy should not become mixed up with the public enemy. And in Greek we have the difference between polemios and echthros. Polemios is the public enemy. But here in this specific context, the line between public and personal enemy starts to blur.

Kluge: That means, hate enters the political stage.

Negt: Hate becomes part of politics, and old scores are being settled. There are humiliations on both sides.

Kluge: At first it is a conflict between the allies, and then between the superpowers Sparta and Athens, both of whom get dragged into the conflict, because, as they say: Courage in the face of the friend. I have to be able to disagree with my allies.  

Negt: That is correct. And indeed, in the beginning the two central powers Sparta and Athens don’t play a significant role yet. Instead, a lot of symbolic actions happen between the different allies, between different cities, which then lead to this horrible war that …

Kluge: Just like today a conflict might develop between Taiwan and China, which then leads to a confrontation between China and the USA.

Text: Reasons for the Thirty-Year-Long War Between Sparta and Athens

Negt: And I mean, what I call an imaginative fabrication of reasons to start a war basically means that a lot of effort is put into always accusing the other envoy of violating the law. That means the entire Peloponnesian War basically revolves around justifying every aggression, every attack, every destruction of cities and the enormous impact of what is really the first civil war in the world of Ancient Greece, with legal violations.

Kluge: But the spirit of morality is really abused here. Morality is used to come up with reasons to start a war and to spread propaganda.

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Negt: The unreliability and the broken treaties …

Kluge: Whereas morality in order to prevent war, in order to replace hostile actions with productivity … that’s not how morality is used here.

Negt: And what happens in this war, and Thucydides says that very explicitly: the actual reason behind the war was the rivalry between the superpowers Sparta and Athens, and the general assumption that Athens would continue to build up their army and build the long wall to Piraeus, that means, increase their fleet.

Kluge: They are trying to make themselves invincible.

Negt: Practically invincible and so dominant that the tributary allies are bled dry. The question of alliances plays an important role here. The allies are treated badly by Athens. They have to pay a lot. And then eventually the federal treasury is taken from Delos to Athens, and the money is used not for defense, but to build large magnificent buildings.

Kluge: The actual war happens between Athens and its own allies. But it finds expression in a war between Athens and Sparta.

Text: Athens

Negt: And if you look at Caesar’s conquests in the context of studying casus belli, you find the same imaginative fabrication of reasons for starting a war in Caesar’s book on the Gallic Wars and the Civil War. He basically conquered all of Gallia with the justification of self-defense. He claimed that he was defending the Roman Empire.

Text: Caesar

Kluge: He attacks England in defense. He attacks the Germanic tribes. In defense.

Negt: And always with the argument that Vercingetorix and others violate the conditions of their alliance. He also uses this argument to prop up certain tribes against others.

Kluge: If a human being can’t digest something, they develop an allergy. There should be something like a mental allergic reaction when these phenomena occur. The application of imagination in order to fabricate reasons to start a war.

Negt: Exactly. A kind of idiosyncrasy, a reaction that immediately makes us suspicious.

Kluge: Because it’ll always be wrong. We fed the heart with fantasies, the fare turned the heart to stone.

Text: "We fed the heart with fantasies / the fare turned the heart to stone."

Kluge: Why is it that preventive wars – one of which is the Thirty Years War, which was also impossible to bring to an end. After thirty years it practically simply collapses, because the people are exhausted, all targets have been destroyed, so they come up with the Peace of Westfalia, which is basically an insolvency procedure. The bancruptsy of war. What is war anyway? It’s not a production process.

Text: What is WAR?

Negt: No, not a production process. War is basically the attempt to …

Kluge: ... restore a form of atavistic violence. To restore a sense of boundlessness.

Negt: Yes. To ward off the opponent’s power, to render him subservient. And of course this interest is always combined with other goals related to reaping spoils. In any case, it’s an act of violence. An act of violence.

Kluge: Which is supposed to break the opponent’s will. So that the opposite of war is basically the act of restoring the other’s free will.

Negt: That’s how Clausewitz defines it. Peace is not only the absence of war, but the restoration of the opponent’s free will. And that’s basically where the production process starts. That is …


Kluge: So, now they have won – or at least led – a preventive war in Iraq, which is impossible to win because no one knows how to establish peace. How to restore the will of a political system in ruins, affected by a civil war between Sunnites, Shiits, and Kurds that has simply been put on hold? No one knows.

Text: Nation Building as Means to End Wars

Negt: No one knows. In particular because the cultural foundation for the restoration of autonomy is so wobbly, since there was never such an autonomy in the first place. That’s the difference between the preventive war in Iraq and the situation in 1945 Germany, where we already had a political culture, a public sphere. That makes it possible to talk about reeducation, about restoring autonomy, in particular with the financial support of the Marshall Plan. But here in Iraq, you practically have to build up a nation from scratch.

Kluge: Which is something that hadn’t happened in 1923, when Iraq was founded.

Kluge: What distinguishes a preventive war from other types of war?

Negt: Well, a preventive war ...

Kluge: ... is led for future-oriented reasons – something that might or might not have happened …

Negt: And that gives this war legitimacy. It’s not a defensive war, but it is often justified as one. The Peloponnesian War has always been understood as a war where the respective parties acted out of self-defense, in a constant state of self-defense … And that’s the fictitious, ghostly aspect of these causes of war. It allows for the actual goals of the war to disappear from sight, because everyone is always just reacting to the other’s actions. That means, the imaginary, the ghostly becomes increasingly prevalent, so that any sense of reality in regard to ending the war wilts and dies. These preventive wars make it impossible to imagine an appropriate ending, and that’s something we can observe in Iraq. The war is continued with other means, not with political means, but as a private war, which manifests in the large number of terrorist strikes. There are three different observations that Clausewitz makes in regard to war. First, he says, war dreams of its own absolute power. War doesn’t recognize any limits when it comes to choosing its means. Second, the opponent chooses the weapons, and basically forces the escalation, the intensification of the war onto the adversaries. And third, war utilizes all the available ammunition, all the existing willpower. But all these facts are confronted by the actual conditions of reality, and those have a moderating effect.

Text: "War dreams of its absolute power" Clausewitz

Negt: They have a moderating effect and most importantly, they tend to undermine these kinds of power fantasies, because the individual steps, the rationality of purpose get lost. The idea that certain means are reserved for certain ends.

Kluge: Soldiers get lost. Nature is not convenient for war. The swamps remain open.

Negt: Winter weather and other things that all great wars have to deal with – not just Napoleon and Hitler in Russia – undermine these intentional fantasies.

Kluge: And that’s how the absolute power of war is pulled back down into the probabilities of reality, and if things fall into place, this can lead to the end of a war.

Negt: Yes. Because of exhaustion, because people just can’t take it anymore. And that’s just as true for the Peloponnesian War as for the Thirty Years War. It’s telling that Schiller says in his description of the Thirty Years War: I don’t have anything to say regarding the ending of the war. There is nothing to say, that is …

Text: Schiller

Kluge: It simply collapses.

Negt: It collapses, and the negotiations for the Peace of Westphalia drag on for years. Even that isn’t a proper result, a real ending to the war. In that sense, war as a medium of violence is beyond the control of human intent and autonomy and prevails against all reason and common sense.

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Kluge: And the preventive war leads to a division between the countereffect of reality on the one hand and the total and destructive forces of the war on the other. Because they are basically looking towards the future to come up with reasons to explain why they have provoked a war. And these two things develop into different directions. That’s what makes preventive wars so dangerous, because the imagined reality of prevention does neither match nor counteract the violence of war. In a way, there are always two wars, one of them in the future – the war after the war is contained within the preventive war.

Text: Imaginary reasons for a war cannot be refuted by reality - -

Negt: Well, that’s something that became clear during World War I. The armament of the fleet, which initially is only a potential, or the growing power of a nation, or the control of natural resources, or the interruption of the supply of raw materials … all those things can justify taking preventive action, if you imagine them as part of reality. But that turns the entire war into a form of fiction, which then frays out and results in the privatization of violence. I think these kinds of preventive wars often lead to a privatization of violence. And of course that is the question: what does war actually produce? At most, it can change the framework, whereas the actual production processes remain nonviolent. If those production processes don’t set in, the potential for war within a society remains.

Text: Deformity of War / Privatization of Violence

Kluge: Then they get stuck in a war.

Negt: They get stuck in a war, and one day, these violent potentials can erupt in another war. That’s really the main lesson of the 20th century.

Kluge: The lesson of four centuries is that a superpower can retain its authority only if it doesn’t start any wars; that it directs the monopoly on the use of force inwards, and the non-violent solution of conflicts outwards.

Negt: Well, that’s what we talk about in regard to pax romana or pax americana. That was something Caesar wanted to achieve as well – pacify the rebellious tribes in order to create something like a pax romana. But of course it is also about a superpower’s illusion of omnipotence.

Kluge: In that regard, he is one of the greatest propagandists and liars. He started several preventive wars.

Negt: He practically led preventive wars exclusively and ended up conquering all of Europe that way.

Kluge: Always out of necessity.

Negt: Always in a defensive war.

Kluge: And in a sense, he fuelled the civil war with these actions.

Negt: Yes, that’s how the civil war started. In that sense, I think the violent potentials can shift. The imaginative fabrication of casus belli, which always leads to a preventive war, means that the violence inherent in society is not processed, rendered peaceful, and transformed into productive energy. Instead, the violent potential is merely shifted from one point to another. And in the end, society becomes divided like Rome under Caesar at the time of the civil war. The civil war is the result of global conquest disguised as prevention.

Text: Sources of Political Judgment / Verification Through Intimacy

Kluge: What kind of sources are we speaking of? One possibility is the historical evidence of 2,500 years, from the Peloponnesian Wars until today.

Negt: It has to be studied. It has to be registered, compared, it’s a way of establishing analogies, but I think it’s very important because it means that historical memory is incorporated into the present and in contemporary educational processes.

Kluge: And another one could be intimate tests: love politics, in the private sphere which includes divorce, hate, love.

Negt: The private sphere, yes.

Kluge: Which involves the same kinds of wars, and I can use my own life experience to verify: What is prevention? What can bring peace? What is productive?

Negt: So political judgment is practically always about determining how power imbalances are developing, and how they can be overcome. The question of what kind of means, what kind of media are needed to overcome them plays a very significant role in political judgment. And a third source is certainly what Freud calls the emergence of a conscience.

Kluge: What’s that?

Negt: The emergence of conscience, the Syneidesis. In Greek, it’s called Syneidesis. That means, the Greek and the Romans assumed that there is always someone, an observer who watches every human decision or indecision. Syneidesis means "to see together." 

Kluge: Who is the one watching?

Negt: Well, I mean, later in Christianity it is called God. But the Greek believe that one of their gods is involved.

Kluge: Athena, Zeus, Hera, anyone, Neptun ...

Negt: It doesn’t matter. And Conscientia means "to know together" – the Latin term for conscience also means confidant. That means, there is always another entity involved.

Text: CONSIENTIA = Conscience

Kluge: An observer. And it’s not me.

Negt: My decision is never just my own.

Kluge: At the very least, my parents are watching. My children are watching. At the very least, I have to be able to see those who become my victims.

Negt: In that sense, that is also a source of political judgment. The development of such a conscience is a form of judgment, including political judgment. If there is no conscience, there is also no entity that speaks to me, in the sense Socrates refers to. Socrates says, the Daimonion in me doesn’t tell me what to do; it only tells me what not to do. What to do is something I have to figure out myself. But what I absolutely cannot do …

Kluge: ... I am told by the chorus of the community, the chorus of my confidants.

Negt: The chorus is such an entity, an observer.

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Kluge: That’s something a loner, someone who thinks they can trust in their own strength, is lacking.

Negt: Yes, and that’s the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy: The community speaks. Warns. Is scared and expresses fear. And for the modern human, this kind of entity is internalized and leads to the development of a conscience. That would be a third original source of political judgment.

Kluge: When Joan d’Arc hears voices: You have to free your home country by waging war against the English – is that a form of Conscientia? Is that conscience?

Negt: Hard to say. I think that if we consider the Socratic tradition, he would say that violence of any kind is not conscientious. Is destructive. Anything that facilitates enlightenment, however, or to phrase it differently, anything that defeats dishonesty and immaturity, that’s conscientious. For Socrates, it means the elimination of lies. Socrates does not say what’s right, he merely exposes what’s false, a lie, fraud.


Kluge: If you take a situation like in Iraq: You have an occupying power, and you have the population. How can we apply our theory to this kind of relationship? First, political judgment regarding the occupiers.

Negt: Well, I mean, the fact that there is a war going on that does not find any real acceptance in the population, or at least not any kind of univocal acceptance in the population – that already assumes some kind of initial injustice on the side of the occupiers, who considered themselves liberators, but weren’t seen that way by the people they were trying to liberate.

Kluge: How can they exercise judgment at this point? They can’t just leave, they can’t stay. They are sitting there like a fly on glue. They sit there without any alternatives – whereas they would have had a choice before the beginning of the preventive war.

Text: Three Types of Oratio According to Aristotle

Negt: For Aristotle, there are three types of public speech. The first is the kind of speech relating to court trials, which he calls génos dikanikón. That means these speeches apply the law to specific cases. For him it’s always about the general and the particular. The second one is the ceremonial speech, or the eulogy, epideiktikón, and the third one is the actual political speech for him, which he calls génos symbouleutikón. That’s the deliberative speech. He says this is the actual political speech, because it is used to decide over war and peace. It takes recourse to experience, to the so-called topoi. That means, it uses everything that people have experienced in regard to war and peace, and fills it up with judgments. I think this definition of the symbouleutikón, the deliberative oratio, that’s the organizational center of political judgment. And it deals with martial relations.

Kluge: Symballein literally means to throw together. You combine and consolidate the knowledge of different groups. And not only the foundations in Washington are talking to each other, not only the White House administration talks among themselves, but they also speak to their opponents and so on.

Negt: And for Aristotle, it’s always collective action, a public collective process. And I think the answer to the question of how political judgment develops both in regard to privatized war and to large-scale wars is: people make decisions and not-decisions which either escalate or stabilize relationships of violence and war. And of course the same thing is true for the private context. In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Hannah Arendt uses a nice metaphor, or rather tells the story of a German soldier who has been ordered to pick up scattered soldiers in Poland’s forests. He runs into a group of Jewish people, Jewish partisans, and helps them to get passports and flee. And she says, it’s not clear what inspires him to help them. Maybe he grew up in a family with a clear consciousness regarding the common good or individual conscience and so on. Either way, she says, he develops the faculty of political judgment. He is also among the first who point towards Eichmann as an important figure in the genocide of the Jewish people, which is brought up during the Eichmann trial. The result of her considerations is: she says that under pressure, in a totalitarian environment, you will find that the majority of people acquiesce in these conditions, but not everyone does. A few will resist and even risk their lives, and I have to ask, how does that happen? The only possible answer points towards the development of political judgment, of public reason, and in these decisions we can see it be practiced, exercised. And I think it’s really very interesting that during the time of the Weimar Republic, a lot of people thought: We wish we would have decided differently over war and peace in 1913, 12, 14. A lot of what was done later in terms of adult education and experiments in schools is related to the question: Why were people so excited about the war, even if many of them must have known that it would be a horrible massacre.

Kluge: And the situation repeats itself in 1928, 29 to 31. At that point, National Socialism still could have been prevented. In 36, 37, 38, it can’t be stopped anymore. And in that sense, the crossroads for the faculty of political judgment is never situated only in the present, not even in the immediate future. But experience …

Negt: It’s very much about the past, about processing the past.

Kluge: And there is a point in time that predetermines the collision, the disaster that has happened now. The disaster was never inevitable. And that’s the perspective of political judgment in regard to the certain knowledge that there is always going to be another crisis. Political judgment won’t be able to solve the Iraq question at the last moment. But it might be able to decide differently at the next crossroads and avoid taking a wrong turn.

Negt: Exactly. And for me, that is the intensification of political education, with the goal of generating and expanding the faculty of political judgment. Not to see historical learning processes as natural processes. Those exist as well.

Text: The Faculty of Political Judgment in Asymmetrical Wars

Kluge: And if you consider this scenario: 9/11 happens, and two days later, the US fleet from Pearl Harbor shows up at New York. That means, a gesture from the year 1941 comes to stand protectively in front of the violated city. At the same time, however, everyone knows that a fleet can’t do anything against carpet knives and terrorist attacks which wouldn’t happen two days after the disaster anyway. The asymmetry in this case is that the official military weapons of a superpower are not a match for the actual threat. And the political mistake is to start looking for an enemy, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, that matches the weapons I have at my disposal – instead of attacking the enemy who caused the threat in the first place. And that’s how the situation becomes abstract: an enemy was defeated, but it’s not actually the enemy that was responsible for 9/11.

Kluge: And with the means of a critique of political judgment I could prevent the next conflict that might erupt between the USA and China over Taiwan or a different issue. Or perhaps between Pakistan and India because of an action taken by the superpower USA. There is still room for a critique of political judgment.

Negt: In that sense it is always a mistake to limit political education or political judgment to an individual case. It’s always necessary to use our sociological imagination, political imagination, to anticipate situations that initiate learning processes in regard to the past. Working through the past in a very broad sense is a crucial factor for the development of a faculty of political judgment. The suppression of what happened and the ignorance of past events in particular is dangerous and a threat to the emergence of a faculty of political judgment.

Text: Oskar Negt, Critical Theory

Text: "Politics is the Precise Identification of the Enemy"

Kluge: And to go back to Clausewitz whom we discussed earlier, there are two questions: First, the precise identification of the enemy is only the second question. It has to happen very conscientiously, and if the enemy is identified incorrectly, then the war and the peace agreement are already lost. In return, it would be even more interesting not to identify the enemy, but instead to make out the alternative course of action that allows me not to see the other as an enemy in the first place. In this particular case, however, that’s not convenient, because I can’t deal with terrorists like that.

Negt: But it changes the incidents of war and violence – let’s not say incidents of war, it’s only a metaphor – if we call it the terrorist war.                                         

Kluge: If we call it a war.

Negt: If we call it a war. It’s dangerous to appropriate this language from the context of territorial wars.

Kluge: And now we have symballein, a way of speaking according to Aristotle. Why that’s a useful approach, even though it’s such an ancient concept, should become clear if I don’t say: 9/11 was a declaration of war. Instead I say: There is a theatrical element involved in exercising this kind of terror. Because it wasn’t committed by the oppressed people in Bangladesh or Palestine, but by surrogates, people from a wealthy background. Sort of like Hamlet, who comes from Wittenberg to Denmark – except here it is a Saudi, the son of a wealthy family, who suffers vicariously, and that’s a theatrical action. He built a network of other people who are not oppressed themselves but also suffer vicariously. And only in isolation, in small cells, conspiratorially and privately, they can organize and commit this kind of terror. That means it’s important to recognize that there is something artistic about it, and that the same people might not be able to handle this kind of thing, psychologically speaking, ten years from now.

Negt: Yes, or they would do something completely different. Some of them are highly educated intellectuals, who could be successful in other professions – but in this particular moment, they pick up and utilize the raw materials for fear, for creating an enemy.

Kluge: Ever since the era of the Russian anarchists and their attack on the tzar, there have been a number of conspiracies and terrorist organizations, all of which basically disbanded on their own, if they weren’t found out at some point.

Negt: Of course there are … well, there is a difference between these kinds of attacks and what’s happening now. Back then, the assassins actually tried to escape alive. In a suicide attack, the perpetrators don’t care about getting away.

Kluge: That’s new.

Negt: It’s new and of course much more dangerous for the fight against terrorism.

Kluge: This tendency in particular cannot be fought by declaring someone the enemy and threatening them with death. So we have to start looking again. We don’t know, the daimonium can’t tell us how to prevent terrorism. We can only tell what doesn’t prevent terrorism, what only hurts us. That is the method of the critique of political judgment.

Text: We know how to hurt ourselves

Negt: Yes. The faculty of judgment also means that people employ the faculties they possess by publicly announcing their conflicts with and hostile intentions towards others, yet still engaging in a communication process with others. That’s how Kant understood it in his proposal for a league of nations. Kant came up with the federative organization, and by the way the term league of nations itself. He said: I can’t eliminate war.

Kluge: War has been grafted onto humanity. Not the individual, because individual humans are not really made for war in the long run. But humanity still hasn’t found a way out of it so far.

Negt: That means, human nature, human vulnerability for war is very high. That’s not something I can preclude. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to develop paths leading to peace …