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The British Journal of

Politics and International Relations

doi: 10.1111/j.1467-856x.2009.00369.x

BJPIR: 2009 VOL 11, 479503

The Failure of Political Argument:

The Languages of Anti-Fascism and
Anti-Totalitarianism in Post-September
11th Discourse


Richard Shorten
Terms like Islamo-fascism, the anti-totalitarian case for war in Iraq and the description of
religiously motivated political extremism as a new totalitarianism were all remarkable features of
the political discourse organised around the response to the events of 11 September 2001. They share
in common the attempt to ground political commitments and allegiances in two morally charged
political languages: anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism. But why did they fail to connect with the
public imagination? This article argues that they were not constructed for present purposes so much
as appropriated. Yet their projected consumption by a broader public turned on the feasibility of
effecting conceptual change to accommodate new meanings and applications. The failure, in this
case, to meet the standards thereby required suggests that an important dimension of the response
to September 11th is the failure of political argument. It is proposed that this has implications more
broadly for the relation between political theory and political rhetoric.

Keywords: rhetoric; conceptual change; fascism; totalitarianism

Political Language and the Response to September 11th

One feature of the range of processes and actions set in motion by 11 September
2001 has a good claim to the attention of political theorists and especially to those
interested in the production and consumption of political language. Attention to
this dimension of that experience need not endorse the judgement that September
11th had the character of a kind of transformative event.1 But it equally begins,
from sympathy with at least some modest version of that proposition: namely, that
even if that event did not, all of itself, generate a new set of political realities, it did
at least squarely bring them into view and place them prominently on the political
agendarealities including, foremost, terrorism, Islamic extremism and states
hostile to either (or both) liberalism and democracy. Accepting that, what becomes
of interest is a by now quite large body of discourse constituted by shifting configurations of arguments, in connection with the successive deployment of terms
intended both to make sense of and to confront this new set of circumstances. More
simply, this is therefore the recent history of naming that began with the 9/11
shorthand itself, that thereafter took in the axis of evil and the war on terror, and
that has since been given varied expression (see Bromwich 2008). And better put,
the invitation to the political theorist, it might be argued, is to put to useful effect
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the techniques of the theorist in analysing that body of discourse; principally,

through the reconstruction and appraisal of a relevant set of arguments and
The intention of this article, therefore, is to address itself exactly to that task. It
proceeds, however, by limiting the field of interest to a more manageable size, by
demarcating the kinds of arguments and terminology it is concerned with. In this
sense, it takes its bearings from a predicament mapped out suggestively by Mark
Lilla in an influential essay originally published in the New York Review of Books in
2002. In that essay Lilla himself began from President Bushs axis of evil formulation, which he deemed hollow.2 But Lilla agreed that what the 2001 terrorist
attacks had decisively made clear was the poverty of the political language that was
available to make sense of the international environmentin particular, the
absence of a settled and plausible set of categories through which to calibrate
degrees of difference in various illiberal and/or non-democratic states and threats.
This was an environment constituted, in Lillas turn of phrase, by the geography of
a new age of tyrannya hotchpotch of political forms that harm[ed] their own
people and threaten[ed] their neighbours in very different ways. Yet for this
geography, Lilla opined, we simply lacked geographers (Lilla 2005 [2002], 244,
On this logic, the need to engineer a particular type of political vocabulary was in
one sense a strategic need. But Lillas more interesting point, was that a geopolitical,
strategic task is closely related to a conceptual task and, moreover, a rhetorical one:
How can we find a kind of public rhetoric that connects well with an informed
exercise in political thinking? How might we identify and construct a language in
which to discuss and evaluate changing political realities and which is at the same
time capable of resonating with a broad audience? Lillas own proposal was that this
might be found by revisiting the classical treatment of the problem of tyranny, a
proposal that might be deemed problematic for a number of reasons.3 Yet, in
retrospect, it is in light of his broader pleathat the problem of nomenclature be
taken seriously (Lilla 2005 [2002], 244)that, so this article argues, the kind of
phraseology of concern here is helpfully seen; in particular, it would seem to offer
a basis upon which the relevant set of arguments and terminology might begin to
be revisited.

The Failure of Political Argument

In hindsight, the challenge laid down by Lilla was taken up with vigour: it was met
by a whole succession of suggested idioms and terms. But this challenge was not
met with success. Indeed, on the kind of verdict since offered by Stephen Holmes,
the response to September 11th was a reckless one. In the face of a provocation
that, on Holmes pregnant metaphor, resembled the proverbial bull in front of the
matadors cape, the reaction was a muddled one (Holmes 2007, 2). More to the
point, it was muddled for the reason that it was a response comprising a diversity
of prisms and paradigmsall of which together translated the event of September
11th and determined the nature of the response (Holmes 2007, 13). Accordingly, if
there was a failure of strategy it was informed at least partly by a failure of
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interpretation. Furthermore, as Holmes observes, interpretation was coloured by a

dependence upon inherited frameworkshabits of thought which, in the event,
transpired to be misaligned and disjointed with contemporary realities. In the
strategic sense, on this view, the conjunction of pre-existing templates came,
sometimes with tragic consequences, to shape a mistaken way of seeing and setting
priorities: it issued in a selective and oblique identification of the important
political realities and a preference for overbroad labels, from violent extremism
and regime-change to terrorism itself (Holmes 2007, 303).
Holmes is surely right to remind us, in this context, that world-views are not shed
at a moments notice (Holmes 2007, 154), this being another sense in which
September 11th might be thought to have at best only a modest claim to status as
a transformative event. But in itself, this alerts us to an important aspect of the
identification of the sort of vocabulary that Lilla called for. This is closely connected
to the fact that it appears, in practice, to have been a matter of reworking inherited
vocabularies in the light of immediate experience, rather than of trying to fashion
entirely new ones; or, as on Lillas own proposal, of seeking to reconnect with
ostensibly moribund ones. The course that events have taken bears out this reading.
One of Holmes convictions is that mass murder ... reorders the moral universe ...
of the victims (Holmes 2007, 55). On that basis arose the opportunity, presented as
a necessity, to reshape decisively the political universe. This was the opportunity
expressed, I think, in Tony Blairs genuine conviction that a kaleidoscope ha[d]
been shaken, and its pieces dispersed, but they were open to being rearranged
before settling again.4 Yet Holmes suggestive implication is that neither a moral nor
a political universe is reconstructed in a hermetically sealed vacuum. Indeed, as we
shall see shortly, there are important rhetorical reasons why political actors in
particular might choose to lean on prior political languages, reasons that are bound
up with their potential appropriation in the form of rich normative resources. Those
reasons extend also to the choice of single, cohesive languages; although actors
might choose selectively from across multiple idioms, that comes at the loss of an
economical way of condensing realities within manageable, simplifying frames for
action (see Zarefsky 2004, 612).
In that sense, the interest of the present article is in staking out a particular level of
analysis which at this point comes into view. This is a level quite distinct from the
failure of political strategy, regardless of how a failure of strategy is shaped by the
failure of interpretation. It can be characterised as the failure of political argument
itself; and it can be taken, for present purposes, to refer to the failure of these
interpretationswhen articulated in the form of political languageto gain public
credibility.5 Accounts like Holmes give a large amount of space to the legitimising
role of language. But we might pause to ask whether the relevant kind of language
actually stuckand, if not, why not? In other words, in what ways and why did it
fail, by and large, to connect with a public audience?
There is a general sense in which this kind of failure might be imagined to
characterise much of the phraseology which has figured in post-September 11th
discourse. The often fleeting experimentation with successive terms alone points to
that. However, for reasons that will be identified below, the emblematic cases are
those of two (inherited) templates that were brought to bear particularly
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prominentlyalbeit sometimes haphazardly, and frequently interchangeably

upon the response to terror: the languages of anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism.
Both were articulated in the public realmin various forms, in the guise of
particular conceptual innovations and adaptive patterns of argument; both vied for
public attention and accreditation; and both sought to gain political gravity in virtue
of being made to speak to changing political circumstances. Yet the attempt, in each
of these ways, to reconfigure these languages successfully is something that has
fallen flat. As I will seek both to argue and to generalise from, below, this has to do
with the failure to meet certain, minimal conditions that would support the
successful consumption of political language. But before these conditions can begin
to be specified, it is prudent to tease out the various properties of the kind of
political language under consideration. Partly, a set of comments would seem in
order by way of anticipating objections that might be made to staking out this level
of analysis as a legitimate area of inquiry, particularly from the viewpoint of political
theory. But they are also intended to set out some guiding posts for the analysis
which is to follow.
The salient properties of such political language are four-fold. The first property
relates to the valid claim that it might be thought to have to being treated as sincere
expression. A second property connects with the idea of memory. Its third and forth
properties refer to its designated audience and to the particular kinds of conceptual
vocabularies it is embedded in, respectively. A brief note follows thereafter, to
clarify exactly the kind of approach to the study of political discourse being argued
for here.

Some Properties of Post-September 11th

Political Language
First, a familiar concern expressed in regard to the study of political language, in the
form that it is articulated in the public realm, is that it can be only an unreliable
support to explanation. This is expressed as a concern for two reasons. One is that
it can be obtuse and clumsy. Another queries its sincerity; on that view, it is treated
as a retrospective rationalisation of interest or, in stronger form, as a mask screening
hidden agendas (e.g. Fairclough 2000). Yet, in fact, accepting both of these claims
might be said to detract far less from the potential explanatory value of political
language than is often imagined. In one sense, the deployment of unwieldy terminology does not preclude the possibility that it arises out of a genuine conviction or
state of mind. To that extent, it is still an indicator of intention (even if a rather
opaque one) inasmuch as it offers a window on to broader or deeper patterns of
political thinking. By the same token, to reject professed motives while accepting
ascribed motivesin the particular form of imputed hidden agendaswould seem
counter-intuitive: there is little reason, prima facie at least, why they should not
share in an equal distance from actual motives.6 In another regard, even conceding
that the deployment of particular terminology might follow from careful, if not
mischievous, selection, this possibility is revealing in itself and merits close attention. In that sense, sincerity can be treated as an issue of only second-order
importance from the point of view of an external assessment of its attempt to make
a discursive impact (Freeden 2006); when, that is, the interest in a statement is
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located in its uptake (Austin 1975 [1962], 121).7 Moreover, that statements are
deliberately tailored to evoke certain responses in particular audiences is a rather
probable feature of political language when, as here, it is vying for public validation.
Second, there is a curious sense, relevant in the present context, in which political
language, both in its production and consumption, might be at once both sincere
and rather unintentional. In the case of the language called forth by September
11th, this process of competing for attention is in one important respect a contestation over memory. There is a general sense in which contemporary issues are
refracted through the lenses of the 1930s and the Second World War (Lebow et al.
2006, 3).8 But the recourse to a kind of stockpile of memories imparted by those
earlier experiences is a particular feature of post-September 11th discourse, with
particularly emotive registers of meaning. Once more, there is every possibility that
the appeal to this set of reference points is prompted by instrumental calculations
that they are invoked to sell or justify policy options reached on some other
rationale. Yet this ought not to preclude the prospect that sincere understandings of
the past provide an important frame of reference for judging the meaning of present
eventsor, more pertinently, that their presentation is treated as sincere by a public
to whom such language is directed.
This suggests a third property of the relevant kind of political language, which
relates to its audience and arises in view of the fact that it can only, after all, gain
political gravity when its finds a broader resonance. This is the demand that it
become articulated in a more general set of public discourses that support decisionmaking in foreign affairs. These public discourses might be pictured as bringing
together different discursive settings: the arenas of policy formation, certain kinds
of academic scholarship and more day-to-day forms of conversation expressing
ideas, attitudes and feelings. Hence in studying them the theorist is not dealing with
idiosyncratic, singular kinds of expression but rather accessing the product of a
shared resource, one that might be investigated across diverse locations (Finlayson
and Martin 2008, 449):9 general ideas, policy prescriptions, newspaper editorials
and the general effusions of the commentariat, as well as other forms of political
A final property concerns the more particular form and structure of political
language when, specifically, it is being appropriated in the shape of a normative
resource. The problematic that Lilla and Holmes set out calls for the development of
a conceptual vocabulary capable of making sense of a new constellation of political
phenomena. A vocabulary, in that sense, might be taken to be roughly synonymous
with what is ordinarily meant by an ideology, a cluster of ideas organised with
action-informing potential. It likewise implies a systematic arrangement of ideas
thatwhile compact and coherent enough to support specific political commitments and preferencesis sufficiently flexible to accommodate shifting meanings
and applications. But a vocabulary nevertheless denotes a thinner cluster of ideas
than does an ideology. (It is quite conceivable in principle, for instance, that either
liberalism or Marxism play host to anti-fascism or anti-totalitarianism as political
languages subsumed within them.) On closer inspection, what is even more recognisably a feature of the kinds of vocabularies under consideration here is that
they are organised around a single concept. More accurately still, they are
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structured around a single kind of concept: namely, the regime-type.11 Generic

terms of this sort (from democracy right the way through to dictatorship) form a
core of rather basic political concepts when considered alongside a set of more
abstract political terms (Richter 1986, 613614; Koselleck 1996, 64)terms which
are abstract because they feature far less ubiquitously in ordinary speech and
communication; which include, among others, power, representation and
equality; and which are notoriously subject to essential contestability (see Gallie
1956). However, this is not to say that regime-type concepts are any less contestable. Indeed, this turns out to be an important point, one comprising aspects that
are logical, historical and political in turn. In principle, regime-type concepts have
a range of associations and applications that are logically plausible. This (potential)
range of denotations is trimmed down somewhat by the fact that they have
historically cumulative stores of meaning that are the product of successive contexts
of usage.12 But it is only in view of these two aspects together that languages like
anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism are not fixed but rather available for appropriation in changing political circumstances: it is in light of their characteristic trait
that regime-type concepts are only implausibly pictured in abstraction from both
historically prior and logically plausible contexts that the scope for political action
is opened up, and constrained, at one and the same time.
In sum, languages that comprise regime-type concepts are capable of serving as
rich, normative resources because regime-type concepts are always more than
descriptive of political phenomena: they are constructions that carry both moral
content and normative force. Indeed, they regularly are deployed in those public
arenas in which political argument is conductedand rarely purely in pursuit of
disinterested analysis. More typically, when they are embedded in oppositional
languages, as is acutely the case of political language after September 11th, bad
regime-types are put to work with a set of more practical purposes in view (Richter
2005, 226)the mobilisation of opposition to undesirable political institutions,
practices and actions, in which they serve simultaneously to identify and delegitimate those institutions, practices and actions. In order to do so successfully,
however, the constraints are such that the meeting of minimal conditions is the
requirement. For now it can be expected that these conditions have something to
do with bridging the gap between the received meanings of terms and their
projected designations.
It is worth relating this account of what is specific to post-September 11th language
to a more general standpoint for the study of discourse. In fields of the study of
politics outside political theory there has been much debate about the relation
between political belief and effect, and about the methods befitting its investigation
(see Bevir et al. 2004). Viewed in this light, the approach being argued for here
bears similarities to interpretivist, social constructivist and rhetorical forms of
political analysis (see, respectively, Bevir and Rhodes 2003; Hay 2002; Finlayson
2004 and 2007); indeed, an affinity is likely when, as here, analytical attention is
being paid both to the form and content of political speech and communication, and
to the potentially causal role of ideas in mobilising support. Such forms of analysis,
usually sharing also in the notion that political realities can have no neutral description, have rightly brought into view that causal role; and they have often sought to
negotiate careful positions between unsatisfactory realist and idealist polarities,
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trying to clarify in which ways that role is circumscribed, even while independent
and causal.
Necessarily, clarification here is an exercise fraught with uncertainty, because
relationships between beliefs and wider actions are, though appropriately acknowledged, difficult to measure. Nonetheless, a criticism is to be made of this latest
renewal of the linguistic turn in the social sciences. By and large, such approaches
have been resistant to looking at ideas close up; they have disregarded the internal
detail of ideas, construing them instead as monolithic. That they typically work with
the ideational as a unit of analysis belies an unclear sense of what ideas-in-politics
are (Finlayson 2004, 530). It is in this connection that, from within the methodologies of political thought, the form of analysis associated with conceptual history
is a more promising mode of inquiry, particularly so in the case of post-September
11th language (see Richter 1986; Koselleck 2002; Palonen 2006). In giving ideas
their own histories, conceptual history is committed to something akin to the
separation of ideas from material conditions enacted within interpretivism and
social constructivism; it treats ideas on their own terms, locating them as interacting
with wider processes and events but as irreducible to them. But it is also capable of
providing a clearer procedure through which the potential, causal role of particular
ideas-in-politics might be analysed, something often unspecified when the ideational is the unit of analysis. For in the form of conceptual change it identifies a
mechanism for the inheritance and transmission of ideas. Moreover, conceptual
change thereby provides a basis for their analysis at two crucial levels: the strategic
and the contextual. In this sense, from the viewpoint of political theory at large, its
study necessarily works at a second-order level, taking actual (rather than idealised)
political thought as its subject-matter (see Freeden 2005). Yet it is in doing so that
it forms a useful vantage point both for understanding the strategic moves of
political actors and, because it takes seriously the thought that concepts do not have
fixed essences, for specifying the contextual possibilities attaching to political
action. Its exercise is certainly distinct, therefore, from Habermasian discourse
ethics. Here, to treat ideas as normative resources is not to work cleanly through
the normative validity of political argumentation but instead to investigate the
availability of ideas to arrive at positions treated as normatively valid in politics itself.
Usually, the practitioners of conceptual history are concerned with illuminating
conceptual change over a long-term historical perspective. But they can also be
tracked over a shorter space of time, as a feature of the response to a particular,
perceived dilemma (see Bevir and Rhodes 2002, 149). Within the new linguistic
turn, one influential body of scholarship on the discourses of September 11th has
rightly located the importance in the matter of the depiction of that reality.
However, guided by the techniques of critical discourse analysis (see Beard 2000;
Fairclough 2001; Chilton 2004), such studies have unfortunately made the burden
of explanation of those discourses fall on hidden agendassupposing ideological
distortion to be at work in the relevant ideas that either enable or constrain
political action (usually, on such accounts, consisting in the manufacture of fear),
and taking the close, linguistic analysis of speech to be the means of unmasking
that distortion (see, e.g. Jackson 2005 and 2007; Burke 2008; Guelke 2008). That
burden is particularly unhelpful when, for example, the claims made by memory
play a part in structuring the possibilities of political languages as normative
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resources, claims that are less satisfactorily accommodated by a notion of the

manipulation of interests. But it is with the constraints in mind that we might turn
directly to the reappraisal of the response to September 11th, proceeding by identifying those particular guises in which anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism have
been brought to bear upon the contestation of contemporary affairs.

Anti-Fascism and Anti-Totalitarianism:

From September 11th to the War in Iraq
While a rather open-ended war on terror(ism) became the official response to
September 11th (Singh 2003, 172), either this came to house the languages of
anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism, or these same languages served as normative
resources for those sometimes resisting the phraseology of the official response but
otherwise endorsing its broad thrust.13 A rough chronology of the relevant respects
in which events were accordingly framed can be traced as follows, moving from the
general to the particular. Very early on, administration rhetoric invoked the Second
World War as a decisive reference point. The September 11th assault was immediately
equated with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and nine days later George
W. Bush stated: I have seen their kind before ... heirs of the murderous ideologies of
the 20th century. They follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.14
These early utterances aside, and particularly in retrospect, the axis of evilinitially
invoked in the presidential State of the Union address in January 2002was itself a
clear step on the path towards a more forthright appropriation of earlier political
languages. At one level it echoed Reagans Evil Empire and thereby mobilised the
memory of the struggle against communism. By the same token, it also introduced a
distinctive pattern of argument: a model of conflict that coded a new confrontation
between good (democracy, freedom) and its demonised other (Judt 2006). A kind of
bridging exercise was thereafter required in order to bring Saddam, Iraq and weapons
of mass destruction (WMD) into the same field of associations as the ostensibly new
threat of militant Islamic fundamentalism. Notably, this took the appropriation of the
two languages in specific directions that were both already evident and new. Following
recent precedent, the Second World War analogy was amplified. Sometimes Saddam
was cast in the role of Hitler, and there were various rhetorical allusions, in connection
with the broader struggle now envisaged, to World War III and World War IVeach
of which projected the global cold war model on to the long war against terrorism
(e.g. Gordon 2007; Podhoretz 2007). Less familiarly, what was new was the intrusion
of a humanitarian-interventionist paradigm into the interpretation of events, a
paradigm which itself had an anti-totalitarian connection. Several shifts therefore, in
usage and in terminology, frame general developments here. But for the purposes of
analysis we can abstract three particular features of the discourse. While one singular
adaptation of the language of anti-fascism has been so prominent as to warrant focused
consideration, it can be seen that anti-totalitarianism has been subject to two sorts of

The conceptual innovation Islamo-fascism was initially brought into use, it seems,
in the immediate wake of September 11th, by Christopher Hitchens, a public figure
with a provenance on the left (Hitchens 2004 [2001b]; see also Schwartz 2001;
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Steyn 2002; Stille 2003). But it was on the back of repeated usage in neoconservative commentary that the term, some time later, gained currency in the
Bush administration rhetoric in such a way that the war on Islamic fascism for a
brief period became synonymous with the war on terror (Pollitt 2006). While
domestic support for continued troop commitment in Iraq waned, President Bush
used the occasion of a thwarted Britain-based aerial suicide attack in August 2006
to issue a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.15 In a press
conference on the Israel/Lebanon conflict on 7 August 2006, he repeated the
identification: those to whom America is opposed, he said, try to spread their
jihadist message of Islamic fascism, a message that is also totalitarian in nature.16
Furthermore, speaking at the national convention of the American Legion in the
lead up to the fifth anniversary of September 11th that same year, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged resolve in the face of extremists waging a new type of
fascism, while depicting the Iraq war as the epicenter of the struggle against
terrorism.17 Islamo-fascism surfaced, therefore, principally as a marker for militant
Islamic fundamentalism (see also Daley 2006), but in practice it sought to serve to
bring Iraq into the same conceptual universe.

Islamism as a New Totalitarianism

Drawing instead on the language of anti-totalitarianism, a related claim in both
governmental rhetoric and the kind of discourse emanating from key policy advisers was that radical forms of Islam constitute a new totalitarianism. In some cases
the use of this term was direct (e.g. Gove 2006; Hirsi Ali et al. 2006). In other cases
similar designations tapped into the same conception. The 2006 National Security
Strategy paper of the United States, for instance, anticipated a long struggle against
a new totalitarian ideology, an ideology grounded notlike communismin
secular philosophy but in the perversion of religion, in view of which ending
tyranny became a decisive foreign policy goal.18 Once again, this thinking was
reinforced by other sources of public opinion formation. In Britain and America,
alongside neo-conservative commentaryalthough often treated as if it should be
subsumed within it (e.g. Judt 2006)a body of quite prominent left-liberal opinion
tried to resuscitate a tradition of left or liberal anti-totalitarianism, in the service of
what was often diagnosed as a more muscular liberalism. On this view, September
11th provided an argumentative basis not only to oppose new political realities; it
was also an opportunity to reconfigure a progressive consensus by (re)centring
democracy, opposition to tyranny, and human rights as its foundational commitments (see Geras et al. 2006; Cohen 2007). In this milieu, the reception of Paul
Bermans (2004) Terror and Liberalism generated a common point of focus (e.g. Amis
2008), with its rather elegantly trim thesis that (mid-20th century) European
totalitarianism gave rise to two branches of Muslim totalitarianism: a religious
and fundamentalist (Islamist) variant and a secular nationalist (Baathist) expression. Partly in light of this, some of these liberal hawks found an anchor in cold
war liberal anti-communism (e.g. Beinart 2006) or the anti-fascist commitments
particularly of the non-communist leftof the 1930s (e.g. Kamm 2005). Others
drew attention to the same dehumanising picture of the west that could be shown
to figure in all anti-democratic movements, from communism and Nazism to
Islamism (Buruma and Margalit 2004). Lastly, certain Central and Eastern
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European public intellectuals, like Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel and George
Konrad, whose political identity was forged in the struggle against Soviet rule and
the revolutions of 1989, also found sufficient malleability in totalitarianism to
articulate meaningful political positions, especially in the run-up to the Iraq war
(Cushman 2005b). And in view of that, the idea of both an affinity and a
mutationa historical derivationof old into new totalitarian political designs also
gave the impression, at least, of echoing back into administration rhetoric.

The Anti-Totalitarian Case for Intervention in Iraq

At the same time, another appropriation of anti-totalitarianism took the form of a
specific, adaptive pattern of argumentthe anti-totalitarian case for (AngloAmerican) intervention in Iraq. This was the human rights case for the war that
was evident alongside the WMD case and the regime change case; it became, in
other words, one of the braid of reasons and justifications leading to the Iraq war
(Danner 2006, 82). It was a strand given prominence not so much by neoconservative criticsthough they frequently did appeal to Saddams genocidal
behaviour (e.g. Kaplan and Kristol 2003)but rather, once again, by various
representative figures of the neo-left (see Buruma 2007, 14). Accordingly, what
was in some cases a rather particular defence of the Iraq war on liberalhumanitarian grounds became, in the wider public arena, the claim that it was an
act of liberation from totalitarianism in the service of human rights and democracy
(Cushman 2005a, 1). Indeed, this was the claim to the fore in Tony Blairs speech
before the House of Commons in March 2003 that graphically depicted a tyrannical
regime and evoked a people groaning under years of dictatorship and brutal
repression (Blair 2005, 334, 338, 339). Yet again, there is a specific text that found
a particular currency in this discourse (e.g. Berman 2005; Clwyd 2005, 311; Cohen
2007). Typically, such views took their bearings from the Iraqi migr and dissident
Kanan Makiyas (1998 [1989]) influential Republic of Feara text that reads Saddams state through a classical model of totalitarianism; that traces the reception of
European fascist ideas in the Middle East; and that maps the importation of the
organisational practices of dictatorship from Soviet communism.19
Accordingly, an overview of the uses of anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism in the
wake of September 11th suggests that there are three significant conceptual adaptations through which they have been subject to attempted, internal reconfiguration as political languages. What I wish to draw attention to, however, and to
reiterate, is one common feature of each usagetheir failure at the level of political
argument. Simply put, none of the three adaptations caught on. Notwithstanding
their potential appropriation, in the case of the attempt to mobilise support for both
the war on terror and (Anglo-American) intervention in Iraq, the users of this
language could not get their intended meanings to stick. Briefly, this claim might be
substantiated as follows. At one level, there was a failure on the part of each to take
root deeply. It is symptomatic, for instance, that the war in Iraq failed to gain
international support (see Hendrickson and Tucker 2005, 14) and that, even taking
the United States alone, the analysis of poll data suggests that September 11th did
little to dislodge a general rule that public opinion holds up much better to the
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response to threats than to intervention in internal conflicts (Eichenberg 2005,

176). At another level, each term failed to maintain currency over any significant
duration of time. Again it is symptomatic that the subsequent occupation evidenced
a steady erosion of public support for the war in the US as well as globally (albeit
from markedly different peaks), and this well before prison abuse stories came to
light (Goot 2004, 265; Eichenberg 2005, 177).
One possibility here is that failure to gain depth might be explained with reference
to a particular function of political language: namely, a requirement thatin the
context of a response to traumapolitical language answer, at a non-cognitive
level, to the demands of grieving and mourning (Edkins 2003; Jackson 2005,
3138). Another possibility is that failure to sustain duration is connected with its
intended functions only in the short termeither a need, at a particular moment
in time,20 to sacrifice complexity for moral clarity in the articulation of policy
dilemmas (envisaged here through the juxtaposition of ostensibly different realities
under a single conceptual auspices), or a desire to renegotiate political identities and
allegiances, again at a particular moment in time, in the light of altered political
circumstances. But the failure of political argument when understood in a rather
more specific sense can, it is proposed here, be more adequately explained with
reference to a particular vantage point on the legitimation of conceptual change. In
turn, it is hoped, the illumination of failure through reasons pertaining to this
vantage point also carries a potentially richer set of implications.

Conceptual Change and Rhetorical Redescription

As we have seen already, the conditions that regulate the failure of political
argument, in the sense meant here, relate to an attempt to bridge the gap between
the available understandings of terms and their projected meanings and applications. In this context, regime-type terms have historical and logical stores of
meaning that can be selectively drawn upon with the end in mind, in principle, of
soliciting either approval or antipathy towards the political phenomena to which
they can be made to refer. A more specific vantage point on this problem can be
discerned by drawing attention to a particular, representative scenario, one which
is identified by Quentin Skinner (1974 and 2002, 145157) in a set of remarks he
makes on the nature of conceptual change.21 This is a scenario in which, as new
problems are deemed to emerge in political and social life, conceptual vocabularies
are manipulated in order to make sense of those same problems. In this setting,
moreover, there is a representative figure, one whose task closely approximates that
faced by the relevant actors in our case. In Skinners discussion he hones in on the
case of the innovating ideologist, a figure who wishes to extract from an available
moral language while seeking at the same time to challenge conventional moral
beliefs. His project, in Skinners rather quaint turn of phrase, is that of legitimising
untoward social actions (1974, 293 and 2002, 178179).
Now, there are good reasons for imagining that this is precisely the situation of
those who seek to draw upon the languages of anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism
in trying to legitimise the three conceptual adaptations identified above. More
particularly, they seek to sharpen up, as it were, hostility to the institutions, practices
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and actions in view, partly by feeding on a ready store of moral condemnation, and
partly by acting on the thought that conventional opinion is too neutral in the face
of them. Equally, imagining this to be the case entails little more than teasing out some
further implications of one of the four properties of the relevant kind of political
language. One salient feature of regime-type concepts that emerges in light of the
earlier discussion is that they are both basic and contestable. Treated accordingly,
moreover, a further feature sooner or later comes into the picture: that they resemble
what have been called evaluative-descriptive terms. That is, they belong to a class
of wordsidentified by Skinner and others through reference to speech act theory
(e.g. Searle 1969; Hare 1970; Austin 1975 [1962])that both describe an action or
state of affairs and, in a normative sense, evaluate those same things. It is by using such
terms in the latter sense, furthermore, that the success of any agent becomes a matter
of exercising perlocutionary effects through the meaningful reception of particular
statements. Characteristically, this will entail inciting or persuading [ones] hearers
or readers to adopt a particular point of view and, in the process, getting an audience
to revise its ideas, attitudes and feelings (Skinner 1974, 294).
We noted before that it is specifically in virtue of the fact that regime-type terms
perform an evaluative as well as descriptive function that they create the space for
a particular form of political action. But the vantage point suggested by Skinners
scenario now brings these possibilities more clearly into focus. Skinners own
discussion principally concerns terms relating to individual moral conduct and the
redescription of actions and states of affairs in a favourablenot unfavourable
light. He shows, for instance, how in 17th-century England shrewdness went from
denoting the disparaging quality of being self-serving to indicating the commendable quality of sound commercial judgement.22 Yet something very similar applies to
the innovating ideologists in the post-September 11th case. Theirs is the case of
trying to do things with regime-type conceptsboth of legitimating a change in
the feasible meanings, applications and associations of concepts, and of shifting the
terms of moral appraisal of the kinds of political practices and agendas brought into
view on the basis of those concepts. Moreover, Skinners treatment of the representative scenario here potentially illuminates the failure of political argument by
signalling some more particular conditions that might be taken to determine success
or failure, respectively; he notes that there are two semantic strategies that may be
called into use, in the act of which the legitimation of conceptual change might be
effected. The failure to implement those strategies authoritatively betokens the
failure of the broader task and, as such, stipulates two standard requirements that
conceptual innovations and adaptive patterns of argument must meet. Accordingly,
the suggestion is that this can be used helpfully to elucidate the reasons for the
failure of the appropriation of the languages of anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism
in post-September 11th discourse, by drawing attention to two separate levels for its
The first strategy is to effect a change in the moral complexion of a term. The second
strategy is to effect a change in the definitional criteria according to which cases are
admitted to a term with a given moral complexion. But both are instances of
rhetorical redescription that are capable of redescribing a given object in an unsympathetic and adverse light.23 The intention that underlies the first strategy especially
is to elicit a particular mode of response in ones audience; in our case, the projected
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outcome is to ask an audience to reconsider any feelings of (perhaps unwitting)

neutrality that it has towards something. That, the first strategy suggests, can be
effected in a process of renaming that, in principle, can take the form either of
altering the normative colour of an existing term, or of coining a new expression
one perhaps with an amplified degree of moral resonance (Skinner 1974, 296).
Strictly speaking, of course, regime-type concepts are always already evaluative
termsall such terms are. But clearly some concepts in the family of undesirable
regime-type words carry more emotional intensity than do others when describing
a similar range of actions (see Freeden 2006, 17). This is the point that Thomas
Hobbes had in mind when observing that they that are discontented under Monarchy, call it Tyrannythat tyranny is no more than monarchy disliked (Hobbes
1985, 240). Where euphemism is conventionally understood to point to something that runs in the opposite directionthe substitution of a mild expression in
the place of one thought to be too harsh or directthe characteristic idiom in this
case is liable instead to overstatement and hyperbole (see Orwell 1968 [1946];
Bromwich 2008).
The second strategy is to extend (or simply change) the range of cases covered by
a term, with the projected outcome of getting this instead to stick. Either the view
is taken that the criteria that regulate admission need to be revised (or at least
clarified), or it is that the criteria upon which we might admit a given phenomenon
to this category are previously presentthough it escapes our notice. In any case,
the charge then becomes that an audience is making an empirical mistakein the
first case because we discover, in a proposed redefinition, that a term has previously
been mistakenly (or ambiguously) defined; in the second case because we find it
has been misapplied (Skinner 1974, 298). Typically, this tactic will proceed by
dropping some criteria and adding others, or else by reallocating the relative
weighting of the existing criteria.24 If successful, the effect is to reproach an audience that it ought really to be sharply condemning something which it is presently
(and mistakenly) withholding that condemnation from. Put differently, the second
strategy is to create deviant usages (on the basis of standard usages) which render
what are otherwise implausible comparisons into rather compelling ones.
When mapped on to post-September 11th discourse, and to the extent that this
discourse can be seen as the attempt to achieve moral clarity in the articulation of
contemporary realities, these two strategies throw up the following questions
which more amply illuminate its failure than have attempts to illuminate that
failure to date: What understandings of fascism and totalitarianism are culturally
resonant and in that sense available? Which, if any, of those understandings did the
projected meanings and applications seek to tap into? What was going on with the
relevant terms at the emotive level? How exactly were definitional criteria being
tweaked, and just how malleable did they prove?

The Legitimation of Conceptual Change and its Failure

The Diminishing Returns of Fascism
Let us begin with Islamo-fascism. Linguistically speaking, that word is a compound
construction, one which seeks to complement a set of kindred hybrid terms like
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neo- and crypto- fascism, in which each element grafts particular associations on
to the other. But when compared at the level of the emotive meanings of terms
what comes into view is its rhetorical pitch (Pollitt 2006)a dimension which some
critical treatments of Islamo-fascism have largely ignored (e.g. Judt 2008b). Within
that purview it is a construction that, when applied to the range of movements and
regimes pictured, seeks to manipulate a particular emotional reaction and a particular degree of intensity: in the rather laconic sound of that term itself, the fascist
element connotes coarseness and bellicosity, associations that are also called up in
more passionate register than are those implied by more rhetorically neutral alternatives like extremist or theocratic. In fact, analysis of its moral complexion
suggests that Islamo-fascism seeks to elicit the particular emotion of contempt.
However, the failure of that term to gain uptake, and thereby to impart that
contempt effectively, can be understood to derive from a miscalculation regarding
its deployment; not a mistaken assumption about the appropriateness of the rhetorical pitch in itself, but rather a short-sightedness about the tendency of the
meanings triggered by the stem parts of compound words to reflect back on to the
originary terms themselves, a tendency confirmed to such a degree in the reception
of Islamo-fascism that it was, by broad public consensus, deemed to be off-limits. (It
would certainly seem to have failed as a move to bolster the association of the
struggle against terrorism with the war in Iraq, for world opinion surveys note a
reverse over time in confidence that the latter was helping the former (Goot 2004,
256257).)25 Yet if the rhetorical pitch was unsuited for general consumption, this
is in part because there was a more specific audience intended for whom the terms
of those same calculations were different. The coining of that expression is also to
take a term with an established left-wing pedigree and, in view of those credentials,
to ask a particular constituency to think carefully about the location of its natural
allegiances and sympathies (see Walzer 2002; Burleigh 2006b). Accordingly, called
into work were not only short-term, emotive triggers, but also more long-term
investments of political commitment. But the trade-off thereby entailed meant, at
best, securing only modest returns on those investments in virtue of the relative size
of that constituencya body of opinion, as practice proved, below the level sufficient meaningfully to reconfigure a political language.
The effort to manipulate fascisms definitional criteria, in order to accommodate a
meaningful extension to radical Islam, has once more to do both with the ordinary
understandings attached to that concept as well as those understandings particular
to certain milieus.26 Together, and potentially at least, they furnish the contemporary political imagination with fertileif quite clearly demarcatedgrounds for
teasing out new meanings. Since the post-Second World War era, when the term
initially came to entertain uncertain boundaries (Gemie and Schrafstetter 2002,
413),27 fascism has, at an everyday level, yielded a continuity only in the core set of
political values incorporated within those boundaries: most prominently, militarism, racism and authoritarian nationalism. At the more reified level of general
theory, scholars have for several decades now contested the finer detail of a
definitive fascist minimum, in that a broad consensus has gravitated towards the
idea that it refers to the cultural and social rebirth of a national or ethic
community deemed to be in crisis (Griffin 2004, 228; see also Payne 1995; Eatwell
1996; Mann 2004; Paxton 2004; Griffin 2007a, 179180). But between those
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currents it is quite conceivable to locate a rhetorical rendering of fascism that, in the

first strand of meaning, proceeds upon a growing detachment from the events of
Nazism especially (see Maier 2003, 45)28 and that, in the second sense, foregrounds
its temporal dimension. The viability of Islamo-fascism, in that connection, is
contingent upon the credibility of two implicit moves here that expand fascisms
terms of reference as a rather more free-floating metaphor. The litmus test of that
credibility, however, is to do so without jettisoning the utility of that concept in the
process. Seen in those terms, the first move is to downgrade fascisms secular
criteria in a way that approximates an older conception of clerical fascism (Hitchens 2004 [2001a]; Kamm 2005, 23, 72); the by-product is to give definitional
primacy either to the collusion of clerical interests in radical nationalist projects or
the articulation of fascist motifs within a theological framework (see Laqueur 2006;
Griffin 2007b, 215). The intended effect, either way, is to create a broad affinity of
reactionary ideas and to bring into focus the idealisation of a primordial past to be
imposed in conformity to a particularist tradition. A second move instead locates
fascisms vision in the future. Potentially validated by a conception of fascist politics
as reactionary modernism (Herf 1984; Osborne 1995), its aim is to project a
continuity in fascisms both past and present in the idea of the (re)creation of
a purely imagined past to be brought aboutin the face of perceived cultural
decadencethrough the purifying force of highly organised political violence
(Herf 2005; Burleigh 2006a, 471; Daley 2006). Yet the attempt, premised on one or
other of these moves, to legislate for the reallocation of fascisms definitional criteria
fails the relevant test by short-circuiting its rationale to begin with: when fascism,
on its most accessible meanings, implies the elevation of the state, race or nation
into a supreme objection of devotion (see Gentile 2000), to emend its organising
terms of reference to privilege more literal forms of veneration only renders redundant the work being done by the fascist component (Nunberg 2006; Stohlberg
2006). Both moves, moreover, are complicit in a kind of banalization of the term
(Judt 2008a, 35)a progressive depletion of its moral capital through repetition
such that the verdict of one historian, that by the time that category comes to
include Muslim fundamentalists it has become largely a meaningless term of
abuse, rings particularly true (Gregor 2004, 5). That judgement, I think, in the light
of the analysis here, might even be best understood to indicate the gradual exhaustion of fascism as a normative resource on the law of diminishing returns.

The Limits of Totalitarianism as a Normative Resource

The attempted uses of totalitarianism in the rhetorical redescription of both Islamism and humanitarian intervention can, in the same sense, be conceived as efforts
to achieve public validation in culturally resonant understandings. Whether or not,
once identified more particularly, these resources were even in principle flexible
enough to accommodate those new applications pertains again to the definitional
revisions implied. But it is worth considering, in each case, the rhetorical work first
of all being performed at the level of the political emotions.29
In that regard, the idea of a new totalitarianism runs in a contrary direction to
fascism, seeking to evoke not contempt but instead fear and, in a more particular
sense, awe. It constructs a rather grandiose, even intellectually coherent target,
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which serves to locate terror(ism)whether practised by states or non-state

actorsin the immanent logic of all such systematising philosophies (Berman 2004,
2251). The notion of a new totalitarianism, in those terms, makes implicit
reference to the contemporary rejection of reductive, dogmatic and utopian
systems of thought. But seen in the present light the mismatch of that rhetorical
pitch to political reality explains its incapacity to exercise any significant emotional
appeal. In its conception there are more than traces of an attempt to revive the
ethos of a cold war liberalism (see Mller 2005), a confrontation in which the
stakes of political commitment were markedly different in virtue of the holistic
character of liberal democracys ideological opponent there. Applied to the perception of a disparate collection of groups acting under the rubric of radical Islam it is,
as its failure to take root attests, rhetorically excessivea point which empirical
studies of the Bush administrations reading of domestic public opinion have
indirectly noted by flagging up the policy oversell (e.g. Foyle 2004, 290). That
failure is bound up too with the corresponding shifts implied in totalitarianisms
definitional properties. Unpacked in detail, the discourse surrounding the new
totalitarianism suggests that a quasi-Marxist, ideological structure is typically being
given definitional priority in order to expose a broader set of commonalitiesa
mythical narrative organising the past, present and future of a collectivity according
to a pattern of victimhood, struggle and salvation (Berman 2004, 4851; Amis
2008, 7882, 200204).30 The emphasis, however, on ideological form over content
disconnects with the primary associations of totalitarianism in the contemporary
mind: political projects animated exclusively by secularist, utopian ideas.31
A second set of associations in contemporary discourse formed the relevant background to the anti-totalitarian case for intervention in Iraq, that case which made
the most emotionally direct demands of its audience. The adaptive pattern of
argument here sought to anchor itself in a distinctive post-cold war context, a setting
where human rights have displaced conventional allegiances as a basis for political
action (Meister 2002, 91; Rieff 2005, 3537; Judt 2006; Rabinbach 2006, 95100)
even to the point of acquiring the trappings of a secular religion (Wiesel 1998, 3;
Ignatieff 2001, 53). In that dimension, it was a justificatory strategy which looked
to engage empathy as the relevant emotional faculty: it made relief to Iraqi suffering its principal tenet (Cohen 2005, 80). As such, its potential success was to trump
hypothetical, dry risk assessments of worst-case scenarios that invoked the neutral
language of the precautionary principle (e.g. Ignatieff 2005, 162167)arguments
which, constructed in costbenefit terms, characteristically leave politicians, in
particular, open to the charge of appearing cynical and without conviction (Runciman 2004, 14; Sunstein 2005, 129148). But while that tone was fitting to the
case presented, to frame it in the language of anti-totalitarianism actually proved
counterproductive: it raised the bar too high in setting out the threshold beyond
which humanitarian intervention was justified and, indeed, required. The totalitarian portrait of the terminal stage of Saddams Iraq (see Stansfield 2007, 7598)
was treated with scepticism by a broad audience because it failed to resonate with
a rather intuitive assessment of that states location on a continuum somewhere in
excess of the authoritarian but short of the totalitarian; by eclipsing that
distinctiona distinction given weight in the comparative politics literature but
which, in a related idiom, sets the terms of reference in the more general
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imaginationit lent hubris to the project in hand.32 Certainly, public opinion poll
data indicate the pronounced failure of the humanitarian case relative to the other
justifications (Eichenberg 2005, 176; Gershkoff and Kushner 2005, 531). Even if a
projected audience were to buy into the totalitarian label, it could only be by fixing
that continuum as denoting degrees of social control rather than those increasing
degrees of ideological conviction on which, in the inherited model, atrocities in
prospect were premised.33 That the picture sketched of Saddams Iraq better
approximated the model instead of a Stasi-style surveillance society is rather
belied by the account of Iraq upon which this part of the pro-war camp rested its
case: its overarching theme was a state whose fragile legitimacy derived from
impossibly intertwined circles of complicity and victimhood in which large parts of
the population were implicated in its modes of operation (Makiya 1998 [1989],
xxxii). The consequence, in short, was a serious disjuncture between the range of
the rhetorical pitch and the actual content of the message being conveyed.

Conclusion: Political Rhetoric and the Failure of

Political Argument
The failure of anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism in post-September 11th discourse
is, then, explicable in two parts. An anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian consensus neither
coalesced around the war on terror, nor around the war in Iraq, because the guises
in which it was expressed were first of all complicit in a kind of rhetorical overreach
and, secondly, were liableagainst the background of a shared set of understandings
of the relevant termsto be perceived only as false analogies. As we have seen, while
an emergent set of political realities called for the construction of a new political
language, the inheritance of older, regime-type vocabularies came to serve as
prominent templates for translating diagnosis into a frame for political action. In that
fashion, a failure of political strategy was preceded, on a view now widely endorsed,
by a failure of interpretation (e.g. Holmes 2007). But, in terms of public credibility at
least, the potential in those diagnoses to garner political support was greater than has
sometimes been imagined such that they might have inhibited those actions far less
than transpired to be the case. That failure was foreshadowed instead by a failure of
political argument. It was a failure of politicalnot philosophicalargument not only
because it was staged in a public arena, but also because while a fluid set of conceptual
understandings were in principle available it was at a political level that these options
were closed off. In that sense, one important facet of the failure of political argument
would appear to be that it is contingent, not predetermined: the feasibility of effecting
conceptual change to accommodate new associations and applications turns upon the
selection of viable strategies for doing so, strategies that are capable of speaking
meaningfully both to the emotional demands and the existing understandings of a
broad public audience. Rhetorical overreach can be a case either of misjudging the
emotional tone demanded (a demand that signals limits to the plausibility of an events
interpretation), or of correctly conceiving that tone while misjudging the strategy for
getting a particular language to match it.
Successful anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian rhetoric rests on the capacity to redescribe
its terms of reference with the effect that it carries over that moral denunciation
intuitively bound up with it in a liberal-democratic context. Those terms of reference,
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at the level of political discourse, entail a movable boundary between fascist/

totalitarian and non-fascist/totalitarian political forms; as we have argued, such
boundaries are flexible because languages of this kind are active both as repositories
of public memory and as sites of political contestationand more so than as providers
of viable tools for continuing, analytical inquiry. In view of that, the claim that
anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian rhetoric must fail per sesimply because it has
outlived its era (Moyn 2006, 3)makes little sense. Or, at least, it is incomplete as a
statement, for it assumes the existence of a fixed set of (external) reference points
attaching to those normative vocabularies. Yet the constraints that pertain to such an
exercise in redescription must be carefully negotiated. The arguments must competently handle the surfeit of moral condemnation harboured in those languages,
attentively separating their intended uses from those unintended by channelling that
condemnation both in the right direction and the tone appropriate to it. Therein,
moreover, conceptual adaptations confront a moving target: those associations of
fascism and totalitarianism that hold contemporary, cultural resonance are fluid
subject to change and to varying importance. One achievement of the work of Skinner
and others on conceptual history is to illustrate the extent to which the fixing of
conceptual meanings is not static and ahistorical (as supposed by forms of conceptual
analysis that privilege the vantage points of philosophy and etymology) but is rather
a dynamic enterprise (see Ball 1997, 3536). That claim is usually advanced with an
eye upon those resources that are available to the producers of ideas in order to effect
changes in political language. But as much would seem to turn also on the horizons
of the consumers of those ideas.
Lastly, there are broader implications contained in the discussion here also, for how
the relation between political theory and political rhetoric ought to be conceived.
Too often, in the past and to date, it has been assumed that there is a rigid
distinction between substance and (mere) rhetoric. On that view, rhetoric takes the
character of passions that are strategically affected in order to conceal baser political
motives; or else the two are treated as entirely discrete moments of the same
phenomena, thereby requiring wholly separate modes of analysis. That view has
been challenged in a recent body of literature (see Freeden 2005; Buckler 2007;
Finlayson 2007). But on the reading of post-September 11th discourse offered here
there is even more reason to suppose that there is no cast-iron, hierarchical relation
between shallower and deeper levels of understanding in relation to forms of
linguistic meaning under investigation. For not only is contingent (rather than
predetermined) failure a revealing feature of the connection between theory and
rhetoric, but so too is the process through which changes in the core components
of political vocabularies are legitimated and deployed thereafter, inclusive of the
philosophical level that those changes reflect back upon. In that, such strategies of
persuasion transpire to be rather more important than philosophical efforts to shut
down disagreement by logical reduction, with the corollary that the particular
conditions of the failure of political argument emerge in the conduct of argument
About the Author
Richard Shorten, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of
Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK, email:
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1. Following established precedent, I take this to denote an event that impacts on all aspects of the larger
human experience and in a broader historical perspective. A good example of the occasional hyperbole one finds in this type of claim is Martin Amis (2008, 206), who resists the view that our
experience of that event, that development, [can] be frictionlessly absorbed and filed away ...
September 11 continues, it goes on, with all its mystery, its instability, and its terrible dynamism.
2. From an opposing political direction, we might note also the attempt, in the immediate aftermath of
September 11th, to interpret events through the paradigm of anti-imperialism and the language of
anti-imperialist struggle. See Jameson (2001); Sontag (2001).
3. A central plank of Lillas argument is that the language of anti-totalitarianismbound up with
distinctively 20th-century experienceno longer has any traction on contemporary realities, hence
the need to revisit prior languages. This article is sympathetic to one aspect of that claim; perceptively,
Lilla (2005, 247) notes that the paradox of Western political discourse ever since the Second World
War is the more sensitive we became to the horrors brought on by the totalitarian tyrannies, the less
sensitive we became to tyranny in its more moderate forms. But to seek to reconnect with the theme
of tyranny in classical thought is a curious move, not least of all the lack of an available, public
understanding of that theme. It is also ahistorical in a specific sense; as Richter (2005, 224) notes, one
problem with Lillas analysis is that it finds an unchanging core meaning in tyranny.
4. By the same measure, key figures in the Bush administration are also reported, when having given
consideration to the naming of the response to September 11th, to have urged that it be viewed as an
opportunity (see Woodward 2002, 32; Draper 2007, 166).
5. Note that this is to draw a distinction between political argument and philosophical argument. At the
level of philosophy, an argument may fail tests that are either ethical or logical, if not bothtests that
concern the normative rightness of its prescriptions or its coherence, respectively. But at the level of
political argument, the tests that pertain in this contextand that dictate success or failureare
different; unless, that is, philosophy is to eclipse politics. See Freeden (2005).
6. One feature of post-September 11th discourse is the tendency, from all sorts of political positions,
rather keenly to ascribe motives to proposed and actual courses of action outside their designated
frame of reference. Thus, where public officials and liberal hawks profess commitments to antitotalitarianism and anti-fascism, others ascribe decidedly more prosaic motives like securing oil
contracts. Where Islamists profess grievances with western cultural practices or secular values,
others ascribe anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist motives to what are described (if not celebrated) as
post-colonial political movements.
7. Intentionality, that is, is a question of only second-order importance in relation to receptivity,
particularly given that an agent can never be assumed to be in complete control of the messages he
or she conveys. In the terms expressed by Freeden, it is the action-orientation of certain kinds of
political languageits recommendation of particular forms of conductthat brings the issue of its
consumption, as much as its production, into view (see Freeden 1996, 104105).
8. The politics of memory in this context have even run in different directions in different places. Most
curiously, the movement against the Iraq war in Germany coincided with a renewed interest in the
memory of the Allied air war and the bombings of German cities. For this reason where, in the
United States and elsewhere, the association of Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler was a stock feature
of the case for war, anti-war protests in Germany premised an empathetic identification with the
envisaged suffering of Iraqi civilians upon a timely remembrance of the victims of Dresden. See
especially Zehfuss (2007, 116121).
9. This is a form of study more developed in the United States than in British political studies, where the
concept of the rhetorical presidency, for example, has been advanced as a way of investigating the
presidential role in shaping political realities (see Tulis 1988; Zarefsky 2004; Maggio 2007).
10. Obviously, these different discursive settings bespeak audiences different in social composition, and the
varying positions from which the discourses are enunciated imply a different relation even within any
single audience. Notably, they extend to those more reflective sites of public opinion where, through
a procedure more familiar to political theory, carefully constructed arguments are liable to be given
weight. In that regard, the relevant audience may bear some relation to John Rawls idea of the
background culture of civil society, comprising the educated common sense of citizens, acquired and
sustained variously by education, conversation and reading (see Rawls 1996, 1314 and 2007, 57).
11. It is important to note that this regime-type vocabulary was deployed to cover not only the states that
Lilla primarily had in mind but also those movements brought into view by September 11th
movements associated with terrorism and religiously motivated political extremism.
12. In this sense, the meanings of regime-type concepts are shaped by historical experience: they are both
reworked in that connection, and sometimes supplanted by neologisms coined in connection with
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political innovations deemed to stretch the existing terms to an unworkable extreme. Despotism, for
instance, was invested with new meaning by Montesquieu in the 18th century, in connection with
the absolutist tendencies of the French monarchy. Bonapartism, in the following century, added the
connotation of militarism to despotic rule (see Boesche 1996; Baehr and Richter 2004).
13. It should be registered that both languages, in a directly inverted usage, have figured equally in the
attempt to delegitimate that same broad thrust of the response to September 11thusually with
reference to the purported imperial designs of American foreign policy and its secondary effects
upon the internal arrangements of the American political system. See especially Wolin (2003 and
2008) and Falk (2004, ch. 12, Will the empire be fascist?).
14. George Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, 20 September 2001, (accessed 1 May 2008).
15. President Bush discusses terror plot upon arrival in Wisconsin, 10 August 2006, http:// (accessed 19 March 2008).
16. President Bush and Secretary of State Rice discuss the Middle East Crisis, 7 August 2006, http:// (accessed 1 May 2008).
17. Reported in Washington Post, 30 August 2006,
article/2006/08/29/AR2006082900585.html (accessed 10 March 2008).
18. National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March 2006,
nsc/nss/2006/nss2006.pdf (accessed 10 March 2008).
19. See also Cohens (2007, ch. 1) depiction of Makiya as the Iraqi Solzhenitsyn. On Makiyas (1998
[1989], 115, 284 and 2006/7) (classical) model of totalitarianism, it is notable that he acknowledges
an explicit debt to Hannah Arendts conception.
20. On the idea of a moment of totalitarianism as performing a well-established political function that
sharpen[s] oppositions at the expense of obscuring moral and political ambiguities, see Rabinbach
(2006, 8788); see also Brooks (2006).
21. For related perspectives on conceptual change see Connolly (1983); Ball et al. (1989); Ball (1997).
22. Skinners (1974, 296297) argument is that, at one historical moment in time, shrewdnessalong
with related terms like ambition and frugalitychanged their meanings as Puritan ideologists
teased out different conceptions from an existing normative vocabulary. In a related discussion
Skinner does, at one time, consider one regime-type (democracy) in the same contexttracing its
metaphorical extension into a term of nigh-on universal commendation. Yet it is notable that he
judges the need to re-describe something, conversely, in condemnatory terms to be a conceptual
possibility that is empirically less usual (Skinner 1973, 298). Accordingly, our analysis here takes up
a possibility conceded by Skinner but dismissed as being without much consequence in political and
social reality.
23. Note that this is to draw on a distinction explicit in Skinners original discussion, but that the specific
rendering of it here may depart from Skinners own account. There is no claim, in short, to get
Skinner exactly right here; some features of the distinction are rather teased out with a view to how
they might inform the analysis that is to follow.
24. The concept of democracy, for instance, might be imagined to be made up of various component
partsparticipation, equality, self-determination and libertyeach in differing proportions, the
overall allocation of which is open to redistributive contestation (see Freeden 2004, 4).
25. Goot (2004, 256257), in an overview of world opinion surveys, notes a patternthe United States
excepted, but common to Britain, France, and Germanywhereby majority support, in May 2003,
for American policy on terrorism in the broadest sense had, by early 2004, given way to majorities
agreeing that the war in Iraq had hurt that policy.
26. As a political language, anti-fascism can well be imagined to vary from place to place, in depth as well
as content. Certainly, throughout the post-war period, it has borne a different valence in the political
and cultural life of different western nations, where variation turns upon historical issues like
guilt/victimhood, complicity/opposition and its relative allocation of space in respective political
cultures (Eley 1996, 73).
27. That uncertainty began from the inability of the two regimes which fascism was originally introduced in connection with to develop a recognisably specific doctrine between them. In George
Orwells (1968 [1946]) perhaps too austere verdict, the word emerged as a prime candidate for the
abuse of political words in virtue of signifying simply something not desirable.
28. The detachment, in the public imagination, of fascism from the Nazi period is also something which,
it must be said, has been facilitated by both historiographical and public debates about the appropriateness of assimilating that experience within any broader category.
29. On the political emotions see, for instance, Hall (2002); Marcus (2002); Clarke et al. (2006).
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30. Where the Marxian narrative plots the massesexploited by the bourgeoisieengaged in revolutionary struggle to achieve the communist future, the Islamist narrative (on this view) plots a
community of Muslim believersoppressed by the infidels and the weststruggling in jihad for a
restored caliphate.
31. To a lesser extent, the same discourse suggests the extended meaning is also being made to turn on
a model of (totalitarian) organisational design: a vanguardist conception of a select elite acting in the
name of a broader community and on the authority of privileged access to knowledge (see Hitchens
2001b; Berman 2004, 93; Amis 2008, 191; see also Burleigh 2006b, 2; Gray 2007, 69). Yet that too
was an idea that was without adequate weight, on the ordinary denotations of the term, to gain
32. Typically, in both forms of usage, authoritarianism is that category of the two which is used to cover
the greater number of cases, to the point of often being used as a straightforward synonym for
non-democratic government (see Brooker 2000; Linz 2000). From a polemical direction see also
Kirkpatrick (1982).
33. See Sigrid Meuschels (2000) apt distinction between two often conflated approaches, one denoting
totalitarianism as extermination and the other totalitarianism as total control. As critics of the case
for intervention in Iraq were quick to point out, the Baathist regimes acts of mass killing, even while
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