Liberalism and Democracy: Keith Preston on Carl Schmitt is a site I've been interested in, if a bit wary of, since Keith Preston informed me of its launch earlier this year. I've seen some commentary there that I find not so challenging or interesting, but some of the articles provide food for thought. Of particular interest to me are the realist approaches of many on this alternative right, and acknowledging novel and new insight into the realities of our world need not necessitate the adoption of their politics nor the acceptance of their conclusions. As a staunch leftist egalitarian, I find that maintaining an open mind towards the reactionary wing forces me to ground my ideals in the human. Ignoring or rejecting the ugly is insufficient for those who take ideas and politics seriously.

Still, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard of Keith's plans for a four-part series of articles on German jurist Carl Schmitt (Part 1, Part 2). Here was a thinker who provided the legal basis for a continuity between Nazi-era totalitarianism and emergency, extra-constitutional measures in the present "War on Terror". But as it turns out, Schmitt's actual scholarship on these subjects has been rather narrowly read over the past eighty or so years. One need not adopt his advocacy for the establishment to see the problems with liberal democracies he pointed out. This passage from Keith's latest is particularly compelling:

At a fundamental level, there is an innate tension between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism is individualistic, whereas democracy sanctions the "general will" as the principle of political legitimacy. However, a consistent or coherent "general will" necessitates a level of homogeneity that by its very nature goes against the individualistic ethos of liberalism. This is the source of the "crisis of parliamentarianism" that Schmitt suggested. According to the democratic theory, rooted as it is in the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a legitimate state must reflect the "general will," but no general will can be discerned in a regime that simultaneously espouses liberalism. Lacking the homogeneity necessary for a democratic "general will," the state becomes fragmented into competing interests. Indeed, a liberal parliamentary state can actually act against the "peoples' will" and become undemocratic. By this same principle, anti-liberal states such as those organized according to the principles of fascism or Bolshevism can be democratic in so far as they reflect the "general will."

I think this perspective also has very relevant things to say about current populist phenomena such as the Tea Parties. It's clear that these people talk the language of individual rights, but behind the language is an earnest desire for a return to a social consensus of the 1950s: a feeling of common purpose, belief and aspiration for white middle class people (even if chaos and betrayal lay seething under the rug). It's why they can, in one breath, call their movement apolitical, and in the other breath denounce Obama as a Muslim, communist "other". The homogeneity they seek is nothing if not typical of historical democracies, Schmitt says, which often had stratified societies in which equality was reserved for a particular class.

You won't agree with all of Schmitt's thought on the role of the state, parliamentarianism, "states of exception", etc. But don't you read enough stuff that you agree with already? Those with different politics see the same world we do; it can't hurt to hear them out, for they might expose important facets of the human condition that, though we don't see them, are nevertheless crucial to address. Kudos to Keith for advancing thoughtful anarchist scholarship once more.

Written on Tuesday, August 31, 2010 | Tags: liberalism, democracy, parliamentarianism, politics