Politics by Other Means: Re-Learning How to be Liberal

by Chris Berger

The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.

— Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

Crisis of the Liberal Status Quo

Western politics is changing. While this is acutely felt in recent weeks, it has been a long time in the making, and to be blunt: we had this coming.  After the horrors of two world wars, the defeat of Nazism on the battlefield, the enfranchisement of women and non-whites, the acceptance of sexual equality, and the economic, social, and ideological steamroll over Soviet communism, we Western liberal democrats have assumed the struggle was over. With the exception of a few kinks to iron out, we’ve pretty much settled the ideas – we just need to finish implementing them. Progressive and conservative alike, we all bought into this faith, albeit from different angles. Not one of us has really, deeply contemplated the possibility that liberal democracy may not be self-evidently the final, indisputable solution to the political problem. And so, we now find ourselves in the current soup.

This roiling hellbroth of fear, grievance, and exasperated anger frustrates the desire for monocausal analysis. But if I may be forgiven for making an attempt, I would venture this: our situation is a result of a failure to listen to and articulate arguments, and itself is a symptom of an overreliance on faith. I am speaking of the blind faith in progress, in the idea that we are on the “right side of history,” that history even has sides to begin with, and that there is an historical process that is rational, intelligible, and inevitable.

In bygone days (and in certain parts of the world and human soul today), faith that God or the gods were on one’s side was a potent intoxicant. So it is with the faith that progress and the march of history will forever and irreversibly resolve and liberate the human condition.  The result has been a progressivism that ridicules and scorns those who do not fall into step, and an identity-obsessed, nostalgic reactionism rebelling against this force.

Who falls where in these categories is complicated and often surprising – are Indigenous resurgence movements, with their nostalgia for tradition and emphasis on ethnic and cultural identity, as conventionally “leftist” as we’re used to saying? Are progressives, in their heavy-handed tactics for dealing with their right-wing counterparts, as liberal as our “liberal=progressive” lumping would make it seem? And are neoliberals, with their stubborn defense of globalism and individual liberty and universal human dignity, as right-wing as we used to say they are, compared with the new alt-right phenomenon?

If anything, we can or should be able to agree that the divisions separating these ways of thinking are quickly becoming unbridgeable. Under old-school liberalism, dialogue might have carried the day down a middle road. Now we find a refusal to listen or extend the benefit of the doubt to our counterparts. Here, now, is the choice we’re given: convert to the correct side of history, on the one hand, or fall back on traditional and particularistic sources of identity, on the other.  Progressive elites and reactionary populist-nationalists: these are the teams we can join. Where has liberalism ended up in this?

The temperament of many involved in public conversation today, along with the formidable challenge to liberalism of which it is a symptom, can be seen in a much clearer light by reflecting on Carl Schmitt.  This applies to the so-called alt-right in national politics throughout the West, yes, but it is the educated, progressive left in particular that needs to take heed here. This might seem like a bizarre thing to say; Schmitt, after all, was an unrepentant Nazi intellectual, the “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich.” And the academic circles in particular are stereotypically associated with the Left.  But left and right and progressive and reactionary are deceptively fluid concepts, and as current events are proving, temperament can sometimes be deeper and more telling than the arguments themselves.  As we are re-learning the hard way, reason stands on precarious ground in the human soul; the passions have a way of overwhelming it, if it doesn’t handle them properly.  Schmitt was by no means the first nor the deepest of the illiberal thinkers, but he put perhaps most starkly the articulation of politics that is contributing to the new direction of public intercourse in the West today.

When Schmitt published the first edition of The Concept of the Political in 1927, the Weimar Republic governed his native Germany.  The country was humiliated and reeling after the vindictive Treaty of Versailles, and conditions were ripe for angst. Liberalism was viewed by many of the populace and intelligentsia alike as haplessly moribund – much like today, a mere few decades hence.  Having been buckling under spirited, and not always meritless, critiques from left – e.g. Rousseau, Marx – and right – e.g. Nietzsche, Sorel – alike for upward of a century by that point, liberalism seemed a spent and discredited force in the West.

The perceived impotence and decadence of Weimar and its liberal kin seemed a tangible proof of that diagnosis. From the left, liberalism was a failure in fulfilling its progressivist vision of universal peace, enlightenment, and equality. From the right, it had leached everything noble and energetic from the human spirit, replacing the grandeur of politics and culture with the levelling homogeneity of administration and technology.  Schmitt launched his salvo from the right, but what is striking is how his ammunition and tactics have been adopted so seamlessly, not only by his far-right descendants, but by important segments of today’s left.  We can see the deep footprint of the illiberal critique of liberal democracy everywhere today, and the example of Schmitt provides an illuminating case study.

Schmitt’s Alternative

Schmitt wrote prolifically, but two essays are arguably most important for understanding what he has to say: The Concept of the Political (1927) and Political Theology (1922).  They present two key themes Schmitt believed to be fundamental for understanding political interactions: One, that “the political” is in essence the existential conflict between friend and enemy; and Two, that all the key concepts of modern politics are simply secularized adaptations of older theological concepts.

For Schmitt, the friend-enemy distinction is an insurmountable existential opposition. In his own words, “the enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy.”

Whereas liberalism teaches among other things that conflicts resulting from a plurality of viewpoints and ways of life can be peacefully resolved through rational enlightenment, dialogue, and straightforward goodwill, Schmitt insists on irreducible and unbridgeable subjectivity, partiality, and the “inevitable lack of objectivity in political decisions, which is only the reflex to suppress the politically inherent friend-enemy antithesis.”

Not one to mince words, Schmitt draws this through to its chilling logical, practical conclusion: “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.”  He concludes that, because war is the most extreme manifestation of the political, the friend-enemy distinction is ultimately what underlies and informs every political idea, whether consciously or not, as its bottom line.

This bellicose worship of subjective force of will over objective reason, and the identity-obsessed tribalism it engenders, is given grounds in the Schmittean rendition of political theology.  Schmitt defines the sovereign, a key concept of modern political thought, as the entity that decides on the “exception.”  The exception is therefore the secularization of the theological concept of the miracle, a divine exception, an event inexplicable by disinterested, objective reason. The sovereign is the political equivalent of divine authority, and its decisions are justified not by the justice or morality of their content but by the very fact that they are made through the strength of the sovereign.

Furthermore, “the metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization.” The world of modern liberalism is just the metaphysical interpretation of the world in one particular epoch – it has no universal or permanent, or in a word, no rational validity because reason itself is not universal.  Reason itself has no grounds within such a horizon.

Taken together, we find in Schmitt’s two theses the purest, simplest, and most surefire recipe available for identity politics.  This has infected the temperament of participants in political discussion, rendering them fiery in attitude, frosty and condescending toward the uninitiated, vengeful toward perceived opponents, and hive-minded and conformist with identifiable allies.  Neither left nor right have proven immune to this polarizing and actively anti-rational groupthink that has come to define postmodern politics.  Whereas modernity and its Enlightenment are characterized by the politics of liberalism and universal reason, so postmodern politics is an illiberal reaction against this tradition, fired by the assertion or “resurgence” of identity and the dismissal of reason as an objective check on passion and prejudice.

The Illiberal Infiltrator

We are well familiar with the emerging prevalence of this illiberal politics on the right: the American alt-right’s empowerment via Donald Trump’s presidential win, European ultra-nationalist populism, and the eschatological zealotry of Islamic State are all well documented and extensively analyzed in public conversation. But less seriously discussed is its manifestation among the academic left and their affiliates and proxies.

The left is known for upsetting tradition and orthodoxy. But when upsetting orthodoxy comes to be taken as a given, the question then becomes: for what ends are orthodoxies being upset?  We are familiar with the saying that yesterday’s revolutionaries are today’s conservatives. And it’s true: every tradition revered by a sect of old-guard caretakers had its origin in a radical new beginning of some sort at some point.  Ex nihilo nihil fit.  It is no different now: orthodoxy is being dismantled to be replaced with, lo and behold, another orthodoxy.

“Progress” is an idea interwoven with the concept of History with a capital “H”. This is the idea that the development of human society follows an intelligible, rational process with a determinate end point.  This is an interpretation of history that has been bought into at various points by the left (e.g. Marxist socialism) and right (e.g. neoconservatism) alike, and that it is an orthodoxy is plain enough when we examine the assumptions implicit in talk of being on the correct or wrong side of history.  At its vulgarized extreme today, we most often find this with the general movement of so-called “political correctness,” which more than any other phenomenon exemplifies the faith that its proponents are on the “right side of history.” In its demonization of its critics as uneducated, bigoted ignoramuses, the illiberality of such an orthodoxy, and its lethality for respectful political dialogue, is evident.

More militant still are the identity resurgence movements of the left, which must be admitted to be right-wing in all but name.  The chief difference: we call identity politics right-wing when it takes the form of white nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and nativism, and left-wing when it is in the name of historically disadvantaged identifiers.  They are unified in their chaffing under the levelling yoke of universal reason and fear that their particularity is being bulldozed.  Against rationalism they erect a relativism that defies objective, disinterested reason and analysis.

Schmitt’s militant friend-enemy distinction is inseparable from his relativism. While progressives today see relativism as a fairly benign or even salutary commonplace conducive to peaceful coexistence, our platitudes gloss over what Schmitt was willing to embrace: if values and cultures truly are relative, truly are decisionistic assertions of sheer will not subject to universal, rational adjudication, then the friend-enemy distinction is unavoidable and cannot be anything other than an agonistic negation of the Other. If you want to see absolutism in action, strike up a conversation with a relativist.

The crisis of liberalism is that it sought to have it both ways: to empower the powerless and to unify humanity in reason and equality.  Liberalism seems no longer to take seriously the possibility that there may be a tension here, opting instead to assume a perfect coincidence of truth and justice. One offshoot of liberalism has sought to overcome this tension by embracing an identity politics of the left and paradoxically taken up common cause, whether intended or not, with the identity politics of the reactionary right.  Taken together, this powerful repudiation of moderate democratic thought has forsaken reason for the empowerment of particularism. How Carl Schmitt’s ideas about the political  have been taken up by thinkers of the postmodern, illiberal left can help to clarify this unnerving development.

In one of his few explicitly political books, The Politics of Friendship, deconstructionist Jacques Derrida interprets Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction not as the thesis of an ultranationalist partisan but as the insightful exposé of a presupposition implicit in Western political thought from its very beginning.  This itself points the way to an important insight into Derrida’s politics of “deconstruction,” an otherwise obscure, wholly apolitical form of literary “critique.”  It suggests a reading of the history of political thought and its various ideologies – fascism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism – as all equally unjust because equally groundless.  The left-wing rejection of “logocentrism” for which deconstruction is famous has this political effect, i.e. pure decisionism. Reason can have no place in politics. The question then becomes whether judgment and deliberation about the political is possible at all, and whether Schmittean political theology is then all there is.

Re-Learning How to be Liberal

This is the mess in which liberalism has landed itself and must dig back out of if it is to remain a viable alternative in the eyes of those who feel betrayed by it. The push and shove of progress and reaction is not a sustainable model for politics in a liberal democracy.  It can only result in backlash after backlash, fueled by resentment upon resentment.  Take as a current example President-Elect Donald Trump’s thinly veiled threat not to respect the results of the election in the event of his loss. This was justly decried – but now many of those who did some of the most vocal decrying are rioting to oppose the legitimacy of his win, in some cases violently.  We’ve come to expect some hypocrisy in politics – in itself regrettable for what it shows about our esteem for reason. But this cannot go on without all-too-real consequences, and it will continue to go on unless liberalism takes a stern look at itself, at what allows it to work and what cripples it.

Liberalism has reached yet another crossroads, and how it chooses to learn the lesson of transpiring events (if at all) will determine the course it charts ahead, whether into renewal, debasement, or even, not inconceivably, oblivion.  We can go “forward, step by step, further into decadence,” as Nietzsche diagnosed the situation, and hope to emerge alive on the other side, or we can face the challenge head on to re-learn and re-formulate the arguments for reason in politics.  But this will take coming to terms with difficult truths. Faith in the inevitable, progressive march of History will not save us; nor will nostalgia for an imagined Golden Age; nor will subservience to the fickle Vox Populi.  Far from confronting or averting illiberal decisionism, such alternatives feed and legitimize it, whether positively, in the case of reaction, or negatively, as in progressive liberalism’s sanguine faith in History.

Most important, and most difficult, will be putting the fruits of this re-thinking into action as arguments made in good faith with equals, not as browbeatings dealt out to those who don’t share a point of view. The latter can only lead, and has led, to existential wars between neatly distinguished “friends” and “enemies”. Recent events must be taken as a lesson in humility, as a reminder that History is on no one’s side. We must make our own way. We’re in this together.

Banner Courtesy of Wanderer Online Visual Editor Fren Mah

Related posts: