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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

political debate « Previous | |Next »
April 21, 2004

Tim Dunlop has responded to this earlier post by suggesting that it implies that "political debate isn't about good guys and bad guys!"

I responded to this in Tim's comments box by linking to these posts here and here and here. These posts on Carl Schmitt suggest that political debate is marked by a conflict between friends and enemies.

Tim misses the way the media mediates the political conflict and debate. Let me illustrate this by quoting a passage from a book I'm currently reading, Don Watson's Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. In it he says that:

"Modern politics tends towards an ever-tightening circle. It may reflect a primitive fear--all that media, all that public opinion, all that baying for blood. There are savages out there and ravening wolves. Only a brave politician or a desperate one would try to break out because he is conditioned to fear that, even if he is not cut down, he will never get back in. The aim is to be still alive at the end of the day..... and the end of the day is usually about 6.15 p.m. when the commercial channels are finished with the political news and everyone can relax."

I subscribe to that view of politics. It is all about refusing to concede ground in the daily battle and being seen not to have lost at the end of the news day.

It is not that politics is a battle between friend and foe because the media represents it that way. At its core politics is a battle between friend and foe.

As an example, consider the account given by Watson when sitting in a plane next to Ian McLachlan at the end of a week of parliamentary sitting. Watson says:

"I wondered whether I should speak to Mr McLachlan, the more so because that night I was having dinner with a mutual friend, the grazier and writer Jim Morgan....I felt not animosity to McLachlan, yet I thought I might give up something valuable by attempting a friendly exchange and decided to stay behind the political battlements. I said nothing. Better to remain the anonymous adversary, keep the animus intact, better not to risk the ardour of conviction. So not a word did I speak, even as I thought how crass and hollow it was, and what churls politics makes of us."

Battlements, animus and conflict are the core of politics. It shapes the participants views, personalities, perspectives and strategies. Paul Keating understood this. Watson describes Keating working the floor in Parliament in the spring of 1992.

"There were times...when in the House it seemed as if he [Keating] felt that he must destroy his opponents totally, physically; that he thought his duty would not be done until they were all strewn on the floor, or slumped across the benches massacred like Penelope's suitors and impaled on their flags. No one would be spared."

That makes contact with Schmitt's conception of politics as a conflict between friend and foe. It is a long long way from Tim Dunlop's interpretation of "political debate isn't about good guys and bad guys!"Political conflict is about blood on the floor, death and wounded opponents.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:00 PM | | Comments (8)


Well Gary, that's true, but the point's almost tautological. Politics is also, or should also be, or at least can also be, about much much much more than the imperatives of daily combat, as I'm sure you know. I'll go to your Schmitt posts when I get some time, but the amoral dualistic reduction to friend or foe is, in my view, no more than a trite conveniently self-deluding excuse to put your political feet up. Schmitt has been, of course, a font of inspiration for the neo-cons, all of which is sickly ironic given his career as a Nazi apologist.

BTW, I enjoyed that Watson book very much. If I recall, you are following on from the later Watson?

my use of Don Watson is misleading: it was a post on the run. The Schmitt view is not about the daily battle waged through the media.

I'll add something more to deepen it.

The Watson book--though too impressionistic for my taste--- is interesting. It suggests Paul Keating held to the politics is conflict view.

Sure, Schmitt was a fascist. You are not suggesting we should not read his work because of his politics are you? Surely not.

Yes I am reading the Bleeding Heart after the public language book. It is impressionistic but it captures the experience of political life from the inside. I can relate to a lot of its descriptions of Canberra and Parliament house.

I'm not suggesting anything at all about reading or not Gary.

Goodo cs,
just checking.Just closing out the hell trail that some commentators may be tempted to walk down.

It is good to see the old liberal spirit of the open society is still alive and well in corporate academia.It gladdens my heart.

"corporate" - cheap shot that! What other academe is there outside the, well, academy?

'tis not a cheap shot. True we do not have a modern version of the old Greek academy in Australia. We only have one form of intellectual life---the university.

The quip refers to the transformation of the university through the neo-liberal use of the free market as a mode of governance. Hence we have the transformation from the liberal one of yesteryear (Whitlam) to the corporate one of tonorrow (Latham?)

Currently, some of our universities are more corporate than others.

Fair enough. Sorry to be sensitive.

The irony in the update, of course, is that the whole book is testimony to Watson's belief that politics should be about much more.

Watson does have a broader view of politics. He is a bleeding heart(social liberal?)after all.So he is deeply opposed to the pointy head economist conception of politics as being just about the main game.

(And so do I--being well schooled in Aristotle by way of Hegel and Marx. Politics is about living a flourishing life well.That involves furthering human freedom etc etc)

However, Watson's social liberal conception of politics is at odds with his descriptions of a lived political life as a battle involving blood & destruction.

Watson does not conceptualize those descriptions. Hence my description of the book as impressionistic.

Few academics in Australia have conceptualized the blood and guts of a civil war carried on by other means.But then most academics have never lived the political life, and have little understanding of politics beyond football teams, factions and forums.

Schmitt conceptualizes the way Keating understood politics. You can find a similar conception amongs the classical Roman philosophers who also lived the political life.