Steve Bannon recently articulated the task of the Trump Administration as “the deconstruction of the Administrative State.” Just like landing on the longest square in the Snakes and Ladders game, this phrase has the power of taking you down some dark corridors in the pre-history of World War II. More specifically, the phrase makes a stark reference to an ideology of hate espoused by proponents of the Nazi party, and noted in the Black Notebooks of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).
Hate is an ideology in the sense that all ideologies constitute an imaginary relationship to a real. Like racism, which is predicated on a considerable amount of animosity and aversion based on skin color, hate is a negative emotion, an aggressive predisposition and the polar opposite of empathy and compassion towards someone or a class of people. Hate is so perverse that it cannot only consume an individual’s entire life, but, when circumstances are favorable enough, can also blur into moral judgment, seep into philosophical discourses and be passed on from an individual to whole institutions and nations, as was seen in Nazi Germany.
When hate becomes a dominant ideology and a “mission,” administered by government officials, passed into laws, executed by the police and border protection officers, what in reality is being policed and protected is the pathology of hate itself, now metamorphosed into law and order, administratively funneled through social institutions and practiced without misgivings on a daily basis. At stake is the shifting of the moral compass and the transformation of hate into a lived reality, a banality à la Arendt, no longer questioned, an everyday systemic practice, like taking the train to work or lining up for coffee at Starbucks. Hate wants to control everything, especially the media, in order to gain access to the population and slowly suture citizens into conformity and normalization. Oppose the politics of hate and you become the enemy of the state.
What do you do if you wake up one morning and find yourself the enemy of your own state as you witness a not so tacit decline into authoritarianism? What do you do when someone is inviting you to take part in a new national project, namely, “the deconstruction of the administrative state?” If you haven’t read Heidegger, or Derrida, or even Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and if you haven't sympathized with a tormented young prince on the brink of madness struggling to make sense of his father’s death and the chaos that has now become the state of Denmark, then you would probably want to know the meaning of “deconstructing the administrative state.” I don’t believe that Bannon wants us to understand as much as he would like us to sing and revel in the rhetorical charm and captivating jingles of such a platitudinous catchphrase. It’s a phrase that calls for a movement, a phrase with a telos if you will: let’s all go and deconstruct the administrative state. But the ghost of Hamlet looms large in this unfolding drama of hate. When the apparition appears to the dejected young prince, it is dressed in full armor, only not facing its enemy, Norway, but Denmark the homeland, thus turning the tragedy inwards. The enemy is inside, and Shakespeare has always been ahead of us. The way out of darkness is the rekindling of our conscience, leading to a deconstruction different from that of Bannon's, a deconstruction of greed, hate and monopoly. In a world of questioned realities and alternative facts, the voice of the dead, the killed, the banned, the demonized, the hated, comes back to remind Prince Hamlet of who indeed the true carrier of the hate and greed pathology is and who is causing the rottenness in the state of Denmark.
The Executive Order, the banning that many BCP officers continue to impose on citizens and foreigners in defiance of the law, and for which the administration is mobilizing even 15,000 more Border patrol and ICE agents, is nothing but a shameful externalization of deep-seated hate. Hate is a sign that a chronic disease in our body politic has gone dormant but was never treated; the symptoms are back, strong and visible; the ghost of Hamlet needs to be beckoned yet again to show us where to find the antidote before the body becomes immune to its cure and begins to die.
In Snakes and Ladders, Steve Bannon has thrown the dice and landed it perfectly on the 90th square. To believe that the mission of the White House is the “deconstruction of the Administrative State” is a steep fall into ridicule and insult. This hate-charged phrase constitutes an affront not only to our intelligence but to our recent social history, the very history which brought about deconstruction as a method of thought. But one cannot expect less from Bannon, whose statement is neither shocking nor surprising but predictable and quite appropriate for his agenda. Just a short prehistory of the word “deconstruction” will give us the clue.
The word “deconstruction” resurfaced and took substance in Jacques Derrida’s déconstruction, a term he adapted from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, which essentially means “destruction,” though more literally “un-building.” Heidegger was a controversial Third Reich German intellectual whose scandalous endorsement of Nazism led to a huge post-war uproar and a court hearing that resulted in banning him from teaching in Germany between 1945-1951. Germany banned Heidegger because, despite his original “philosophy,” he was proven to be a staunch anti-Semite and a Hitler devotee, as his own words testify in the Black Notebooks. The scholar in Derrida wanted to save Heideggerian “deconstruction” from falling prey to anthropocentrism, so he took a different linguistic turn and adopted the term in Of Grammatology, using it to un-build binary oppositions between the signifier and the signified, signaling the birth of poststructuralism. Derrida advocated a “historicality” to Heidegger’s Dasein in Being and Time in order to save it, and although the planned meeting of 1972 between the two never materialized, Derrida’s “historicality” remains blind to itself, which-despite my admiration of his work and thought during my years in graduate school, I can neither understand nor forgive, but that’s a different topic altogether.
The main reason behind the banning of Heidegger in post-war Germany was his anti-Semitic white supremacy complex, a pathology that tainted his philosophy and for which he never apologized. This is not news. Many academics and historians, including but not limited to Günther Figal and Heidegger’s own student Victor Farías, have called for a philosophical banning of Heidegger. Farías’s important work Heidegger Under Nazism not only exposes Heidegger’s fascist anti-Semitism but digs deeper into his embrace of racialism as early as the 1920s, culminating in joining the Nazi party in 1933. Farías has called for all of Heidegger’s work to be taken out of the philosophy section in libraries and re-shelved under the history of Nazism next to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the anti-Jewish 1935 Nuremberg Race laws which outlawed sex and marriage between Aryans and non-Aryans (basically Jews) in order to preserve racial purity.
In our current context, we will want to hold onto the word "deconstruction," which underscores the historical associations of a supremacy fantasy, allowing us to put Bannon’s statement into a mise en scène that makes it neither innocent nor coincidental. It's a term charged with what Lacan in a different context would call "primary narcissism," referring to a child going through a mirror stage of aggressivity towards an alien and non-identical self. In his case, the aggression is rooted in a dangerous and pernicious epistemology, aimed at American Muslims, Jews, and every off-white population in the United States. Bannon’s “deconstruction” brings back, and unabashedly so, the agonizing history of white supremacy to make it the new ideology of the White House. But that is not all. “The Deconstruction of the Administrative State” gets even more shocking: Does Bannon want us to believe that “the administrative state” — which in this context could only refer to the American system of government, its inclusivity, its Constitutionality, its anti-discriminatory amendments, its separation of powers, its democratic electoral process which has put him and Trump in the White House in the first place — does all this need to be “deconstructed,” i.e., destroyed, un-built, taken apart?
What is wrong with our current “administrative state” to deserve this new call for deconstruction? Deconstruction entered the sphere of our literary theory in the 1970s as a rigorous tool for self-critique. As an educator, I welcome a deconstruction of our educational system and a critique of the intrusion of economic imperatives into our universities, turning student success into a catch-22 and higher education into a “hunger games,” reducing faculty and diminishing the number of classes we have to offer in order to graduate our students on time. I would also welcome a deconstruction of the brutal market systems that have created soul-crushing bureaucracies, reshuffled our lives and resulted in massive pockets of poverty in every state and widening the gap between the 1% and the 99%. This, however, is not Bannon’s idea of deconstruction. His is a sordid pastiche, a platitudinous re-hashing of staggering European reflections on postwar malaise we find in the writings of Habermas and others. Listen closely and you will hear the ghost of Heidegger whispering into the ears of Bannon’s palimpsest pathology. After all, it was Heidegger who criticized America’s wishful slogan to embrace inclusivity in a “free world” and accused America of threatening to end the world, a lapse into a melting pot, a foreshadow of the end of whiteness, which in his mind was tantamount to the destruction of the earth:
18th of August, 1941
Dear Fritz, dear Liesel, dear Boys! […] It is not Russianism that will bring about the destruction of the earth but Americanism, not just the English but all of Europe has fallen prey to it as it represents modernity in its monstrosity.
If the “deconstruction of the administrative state” is nothing but a methodical re-codification of white supremacy, then expect an entire cabinet sleeplessly dedicated to a systematic un-doing of the last 60 years, a re-administration of hate of which the banning of Muslims, the rejection of refugees, the burning of mosques, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and the massive deportation of undocumented immigrants is only the beginning. Against all hate, against the disciplined “purification” of America and against summoning the ghost of Heidegger, we must summon an army of ghosts, not just the ghost of King Hamlet, but the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., of Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Hosea Williams, Gloria Richardson, James L. Farmer Jr., Medger Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali. We must remind ourselves that their struggle for equality and freedom was well worth the fight, that the dream they had for an inclusive and tolerant America, the dream that sent bullets into some of their bodies, was worth dying for. We must remind America that its hard-fought “deconstruction of the segregated state” was not achieved in vain and cannot be reversed by the ghost of a Nazi philosopheme.