What is Political Cruelty? 

Monday, 6 May 2019, 4:00pm - 5:30pm, IWM library
“The important point for liberalism is not so much where the line is drawn,” Judith Shklar writes in a fascinating moment in her critique of cruelty, “as that it be drawn, and that it must under no circumstances be ignored or forgotten.” Where is this line? And who lives under its ambiguous constitutionality? Neither in her 1989 theses on the “liberalism of fear” nor in her 1982 demand that liberals start “putting cruelty first” does Shklar fully pursue the consequences of this morally unforgiving yet spatially uncertain line of liberal intolerance of cruelty. And while she does starkly pose the question “what is moral cruelty?” in terms of its debilitating effect on human freedom, the limit—border—that circumscribes liberalism’s constitutional response to extreme violence continues to waver. In this paper, I offer an archeology of this vacillating, political “line” that runs through liberal resistance against cruelty. By way of exploring its global implications, I follow Shklar on the cosmopolitical path she takes, along with BR Ambedkar and Hannah Arendt, into that “most ancient,” most exemplary form of organized violence and constitutional stasis known to legal and moral philosophy: the “Indo-European caste society,” which in her later writings Shklar sometimes replaces by the adjacent term “warrior society.” Her legalism  is not causal. For it is in that trans-continental tradition that a relation is forged between caste and war, and the sovereignty of the line—maryada—attains its apotheosis. Might a semblance of political courage still be retrieved from that tradition of cruelty—a modern part of which becomes genuinely “anticolonial”—and rehabilitated into norms of democratic government today?

Aishwary Kumar is a Senior Fellow of Human Rights, Constitutional Politics, and Religious Diversity at Lichtenberg Kolleg, Göttingen Institute of Advanced Study. From April to June 2019 he will be a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

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