Kierkegaard on politics

In Kierkegaard’s Postscript to his treatise on authority and revelation, also known as The Book of Adler, Kierkegaard makes some telling political statements.  Kierkegaard is of course popularly criticized for his lack of politics but rarely is it mentioned that he is most often simply trying to maintain a rigorous qualitative distinction.  Some may simply disagree with his distinction but it needs to be clear that Kierkegaard is entirely intentional in what he develops.  Kierkegaard makes clear in his postscript that he this writing is ‘ethico-religious and has nothing to do with politics’.  The point of departure for the religious is from above, from God, “and the formula is this paradox that an individual is employed.”

Humanly understood, an individual, according to all reason, is infinitely nothing in comparison with the established order (the universal), so it is a paradox that the individual is the stronger. . . . When there are hundreds of men, what comes to pass is explained simply by the activity of the hundreds of men, but the paradox compels us (insofar as freedom can be compelled) to take notice of God, that he is taking part in it.

Kierkegaard then goes to talk about the political which comes from below, that is, how does politics attempt to change the established order.  I will include several excerpts as there are few times in all his published corpus that he speaks this directly.  The political as he understands it is being conceived and built now as a ‘monstrous multitude’.

“The multitude,” an absurd monster or a monstrous absurdity, which nevertheless is physically in possession of power, of outcries and of noise, and besides that has an extraordinary virtuosity in making everything commensurable for the decision of the hands upraised to vote or the fists upraised to fight.  This abstraction is an inhuman something, the power of which is, to be sure, prodigious, but it is a prodigious power which cannot be defined in human terms, but more properly as one defines the power of a machine, calling it so and so many horsepower: the power of the multitude is always horsepower.

This abstraction creates politics as a game and the game is played for the multitude whoever can win over the many legs.

This human mass becomes at last enrages by friction, and now demands – or rather it demands nothing, it does not itself know what it wills, it takes the threatening attitude only in the hope that something after all will come to pass, in the hope that the weaker side (the established government, the ruler) will perhaps become so much alarmed that it will go ahead and do something which neither the multitude nor those at the head of it, the stronger ones, the courageous ones (if there be any such), have the courage to speak out in definite words. . . . In alarm the king goes off and does something – and what the king does, that the human multitude then adores, maintaining that it had done it.

Kierkegaard then returns to the individual.

While the individual who truly connects himself with a religious movement [in the internal sense] must watch out and be ready to fight lest the dreadful thing should come to pass that this monstrous abstraction should wish to help him by going over with its legs to his side.

When the abstract of the multitude has finally taken the throne the result is idolatry.

Wherever this abstraction is set upon the throne there really is no government.  One is obedient only to the man whom he himself has boosted up, pretty much as the idolater worships and serves the god he himself has made, i.e. one obeys himself.  With the discontinuance of the rational State the art of statesmanship will become a game.  Everything will turn upon getting the multitude pollinated, and after that getting them to vote on his side, with noise, with torches and with weapons, indifferent, absolutely indifferent, as to whether they understand anything or no.

Kierkegaard’s politics are of course conservative but what I would want to further reflect on is the implications of his theology.  It will of course have political implications.  Is it necessary to label and criticize Kierkegaard’s politics as unduly conservative without considering the implication of what it would mean to be engaged in his aesthetic-ethical-religious movement?  For instance Kierkegaard, towards the end of his life, made the political gesture of abstaining from public worship on Sunday.  He sat outside at a cafe nearby the church so he would indeed be visible.  I am not convinced that Kierkegaard would have spoken out against various forms of progressive political theory. What seemed to be his concern was his perception that ‘these days everything is politics’.  This led for him inevitably to a herd mentality in which the ‘horsepower’ of the multitude would ultimately be wielded for destructive purposes.

I am hoping within the year or so to get into Hardt and Negri’s trilogy in which ‘the multitude’ is explicitly leveraged.  I am curious to see how that notion is developed.


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