December 06, 2003

A definition of the political

I've always had a healthy and grudging respect for Carl Schmitt's definition of the political as an existential conflict between friends and enemies. Just as in the field of morals, the ultimate distinctions are good and evil, so the significantly political distinction is between friend and foe. In the Concept of the Political Schmitt says:

"...The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transaction. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are always possible." (p. 27)

Politicans understand that this primordial distinction is the unwritten metaphysics of politics and the constitution. They phrase it more colourfully. Politics is all about blood and gore. As Neville Wran, the former leader of the ALP Government in NSW, once said: I did not get anyway in the ALP until I had a battle plan, identified who had to be taken out and who was my tactical ally, went into the bullring and came out covered in gore and blood. Wran was a most successful ALP leader in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the new breed, so to speak.

One who intuitively understood Carl Schmitt's thesis that the most important thing of politics is to decide upon who are friends and who are enemies because it is not possible to survive politically except under the shelter of groups. The concept of friend presupposes that of enemyand Wran, like Schmitt, understood politics as enemy-making. In the state of war (politically speaking) the first thing to do is the distinction between friend and enemy. And then we make a contract with our friends.

Bill Leak's cartoon in The Australian captures this understanding of the political as a zone of struggle between friends and enemies. That is how it represents the politics of the Howard Government's assault on Mark Latham, the newly elected leader of the ALP.


Schmitt uses this understanding of the political to undercut the liberal conception of the political as dialogue, public reason and reasoned debate.

Politics is very much about sacrifice. Simon Crean, the former leader of the ALP, was sacrificed. His two years of being the leader was one of sacrificing himself for the party. Crean is bleeding from the seeping wounds caused by the sacrifice.

The political as a conflict between friends and enemies makes sense of Schmitt's politico-legal project originally took shape, then, as a reaction to a democracy that had opened the door to threats to the established social order ranging from tax-and-spend government to a dictatorship of the proletariat. It makes sense of Bill Leak's cartoon refers to the struggle of the Howard Government to retain political power.

And it makes sense of the political project of, which is to resist the undermining of a social democratic Australia by the processes of corporate globlization. The existential crisis that we citizens are confronted with is the negative impact of globalization on our way of life and its domestic response in terms of 'strong state and sound economy'.

Schmitt's conservatism addressed the problem of limiting democracy to stabilize the postwar order of German society. Gopal Balakrishnan states that Schmitt's criticisms of liberalism were along the following lines:

"...classical liberalism conceived of parliament as occupying center stage in an enlightened public sphere. The influence of autonomous public opinion on legislation ensured that such legislation would be in conformity with reason—otherwise the rule of law would be little more than a cruel and empty phrase. The crisis of parliamentary government that Schmitt diagnosed was, then, a crisis of over-politicization—the collapse of consensus, under the impact of the intertwined struggles of classes, interest groups, and parties—which undermined the link between law and reasoned impartiality."

Though parliament still occupies a central center stage in an enlightened public sphere, there has been a collapse of reasoned discussion in favour of backroom deal making. Discussion takes place behind closed doors between the Government and the Senators who control the balance of power in the Senate. Authoritative decision, not the discovery of truth through amicable discussion makes law. It is also the case that, with Australia's opening up to the global markets, markets are increasingly supplanting reasoned discussion as a basis of social coordination. Few in the federal Parliament accept this critique ----the hollowing of parliamentarism---- as a challenge to reinvent a public sphere. There is a frustration with deal making, if they are excluded, but this disappears when they are able to engage in dealmaking. Deal making is generally accepted as what politics is about.

The implication of the significantly political distinction being between friend and foeis that state for Schmitt is governed by the ever-present possibility of conflict and annihilation. So it requires a sovereign who, in the face of existential uncertainties, incarnates an authority that is superior to that of the law itself. Hence, the succinct opening of his Political Theology: 'The sovereign is he who decides on the exception' This 'realistic' view of politics, follows Hobbes in subordinateing de jure authority to de facto power. The law is made by the one who has authority (i.e. power) and not the one who possesses the truth (the legitimate sovereign).

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at December 6, 2003 04:36 PM | TrackBack

The problem today, however, at least in the U.S., is that the exception has become the rule. I have long been of the opinion that Bush's "you're with us or against us" statement was nothing other than a Schmittian line in the sand, however, radical pundits prove time and again that such a line still does not allow one to properly distinguish friend from foe (i.e. they claim that all who opposed the war in Iraq were friends of Saddam).

Posted by: chsa on December 7, 2003 10:41 AM
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