June 10, 2003

He who is sovereign

Gary over at Public Opinion has drawn attention to what is sitting behind the recent proposals by John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, to reduce the powers of the Austalian Senate through constitutional reform. He writes:

"...underneath the gambit lurks the spectre of executive rule as a technical means to a functional end: shaping Australia to ensure that it fits the requirements of the global economic systems. You can hear the underground script in the background to Senator Ferris's words: emergency measures are required to preserve a liberal constitutional order in times of crisis. What is required is an all-powerful sovereign who must rescue our constitutional order from its constitutional mechanisms. "

It is a gesture to Carl Schmitt's thesis of an exceptional situation that calls for the emergence of a potentially all powerful sovereign who rescues the constitutional order from its own technical and formal procedures. In Australia there is no emergency situation or a dire crisis; but the Prime Minister is sending out messages that he seeking "emergency powers" to protect the national system of governance in a global world from gridlock. John Howard is wanting increased powers for an exceptional situation.

As Schmitt writes in Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Theory of Sovereignty, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception."

Most of the political commentators that Gary links to support the thrust of reforms for an increase in the powers of the executive. They are in favour of executive dominance in a federal system. Webloggers, such as Tim Dunlop are against. Ken Parish talks in terms of the Dark Lord and Nazguls but he does not probe the idea of emergency powers to explore the development a new form of domination from within liberalism. The concentration of powers as a form of domination is explored by Margo Kingston, from the Sydney Morning Herald.

She writes:

"With one constitutional change, a Prime Minister with the numbers in a joint sitting could roll over Senate scrutiny without qualm, refuse to answer the hard questions, and roll over internal dissenters with the charge of disloyalty....And without the power to reject legislation, the media would take no interest in Senate debates. Why bother, when after a couple of debates a joint sitting would force through exactly what the government wanted? Thus, the structural trigger for detailed public debate on contentious matters would be gone.... Without a Senate with real power, it would be open season for any government to transform our democracy and our rights within it without our permission."

Margo rightly sees it as a power grab by the Howard Coalition Government to continuing imposing its agenda of neo-liberal reforms. And the media chorus chants: 'the nation is threatened from within. It has become ungovernable. The Senate wilfully obstructs. Something has to be done.Things cannot go on like this. ' The chorus is outlining the parameters of an emergency situation---what Schmitt called the exceptional---- that requires an increase in executive power to deal with. The exceptional was framed by Senator Ferris in terms of the Bali bombings and the war on terrorism.

What is going on here? Do we just have a political gambit? Or is something deeper happening underneath the surface of political life? We can probe it by turning to Carl Schmitt.

In Die Diktatur Schmitt explored this situation (his eye was on the Weimer Republic) in terms of a negation of parliamentary democracy through dictatorship. He went back to the Roman Republic where a dictator was often appointed in a time of a dire emergency (a foreign invasion, an insurrection, a plague or a famine) for a limited period of time. The laws is suspended for a short period of time then it is reinstated. The specifics of the crisis generates the specific means to be employed by the dictator.

Schmitt argues that liberalism does not understand dictatorship other than as a form of totalitarianism (eg., Soviet Russia) and so it leaves itself susceptible to emergencies. Liberalism, blinded by the technical scientific mode of thinking, excludes the exceptional from the normal operations of the political process, and so it does not consider the possibility of an exceptional situation.

Schmitt changes tack in Political Theology to consider the way the constitutional contraints--the checks and balances---both hampers the exercise of sovereign power and obscures who is sovereign. No branch of the separated powers has an independent claim on sovereignty. Schmitt aims to remove impediments for executive abolutism and to legitimate this abolutism.

Schmitt has been condemned for making the Reichsprasident sovereign, usurping the authority of Parliament and governing through charimatic and plebiscitarily elected authoritarian Chancellors to keep the destructive social forces at bay. This conservative attempt to supplant liberalism would appear to have similarities with the current conservative agenda underpinning the Bush administration---obedience for protection from terror. In the national security state fear is being used to restore order to a pluralistic society.

And Australia? Do we have a similar conservative supplanting of liberalism through a commandering of the liberal state machinery and a shift to non-liberal state rule? The state becomes efficient instrument that can be utilised or appropriated through executive dominance thereby allowing the knowing elites to guide and rule the people.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 10, 2003 03:05 PM | TrackBack

Hello I'm doing a research paper on the increasing development of Sovereign Power I was wondering if you would seen me some information

Posted by: marcus on November 5, 2003 07:08 AM
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