Political Theory and the Volunteer: Lessons from Kahn’s Ethnography of ‘Our Unhappy Politics’
(2023) 24.4 German Law Journal [Forthcoming]
22 Pages Posted: 16 May 2023 Last revised: 5 Jun 2023
Date Written: May 15, 2023
This article offers a reading of Paul Kahn’s Democracy in Our America that places this intimate “work of local political theory” in a central position in the landscape of his political thought. The article argues that the figure of the volunteer, as it appears in the volume, holds a space for love and meaning—and for political happiness—that secures for it a critical role in the system of beliefs and practices that sustain self-government in the United States. That framing draws the volunteer into relationship with Kahn’s thinking about the family, the veteran, and law. But it also means that the erosion of the volunteer spirit that Kahn traces in his own New England town of Killingworth, Connecticut, is best understood as the loss of the site of action that reflects a reaching for political meaning beyond self-interest and, with it, the loss of the possibility of self-government. Reading the volunteer as a powerful placeholder for the erotic at the heart of the political—and then tracing eros and happiness through Plato, Freud, and Arendt—this article reconstructs Kahn’s link between our unhappy lives and our unhappy politics.
Keywords: political theory, self-government, law, volunteer, eros, political happiness, Kahn, Freud, Arendt
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