This is an excellent video on modern politics from the perspective of the influential (and Nazi!) political theorist Carl Schmitt. I recommend reading Schmitt’s material, but for a quick bite, here’s the transcript from Olly’s video.
Trump & the Problem with Politics
OLLY: At time of filming, the results of the US election are not in. But while we wait to find out what colour we should paint our doomsday bunkers, I invite you to the idea that this election – particularly Mr Trump’s role in it – has revealed something interesting about politics. Especially if you aren’t usually interested in politics at all.
Carl Schmitt was a very influential political philosopher. He was also a Nazi, literally a high-up member of the Nazi party, and as we will see his ideas very much tied into that. But what’s interesting is that they have influenced people not just on the right wing, like him, but also on the left. Schmitt thought that all politics ultimately relies on a distinction between friend and enemy. The friend/enemy distinction is often pretty arbitrary: it’s just about what people identify as – liberal, conservative, American, British, whatever – and who they think is not a part of that identity.
“Enemy” makes it sound like these are people that we actively try to kill, but that’s not quite what Schmitt means. Your political enemies are people that you might not have anything personally against, you might even like some of them, but when push comes to shove you will sacrifice them. That might mean killing them or it might mean just letting them die. You may feel bad about it, but you’ll still do it, because they don’t share your identity. So it’s not so much friend and enemy as it is friend and Other, Us Vs Them.
It should come as no surprise that the friend/enemy distinction is often very vague and even inconsistent. A lot of political distinctions are! Take the distinction between migrants and refugees, where refugees are to be taken in and cared for but migrants can apparently be left to die. This distinction is literally life and death, but if you look at how migration works it’s not actually that clear. But these distinctions don’t need to make sense: they just need us to believe in them.
Schmitt thought that’s what makes political conflict so deadly. If the blue team believe that the red team are a threat to their identity just by existing, just by having a different identity – even if the red team isn’t a threat, even if the distinction between reds and blues doesn’t make sense, and even if the reds don’t buy into the distinction, Schmitt says no amount of evidence is ever going to change the blues’ minds. A true political conflict, he thought, isn’t about facts. It’s about the fight against Other identities – however arbitrarily we might point them out.
So you can chat all you want about the best way to organise the market or manage the economy – liberal governments in the West love to talk about that. But for Schmitt those aren’t really political conflicts. They’re just management disagreements. And if your government can only talk about changing economic growth by one or two tenths of a percent, how are you gonna cope when someone genuinely comes along and says they think Muslims should be banned from entering the country? Or they think trans people don’t exist and therefore can’t have rights?
Those are capital P Political issues, issues about who is allowed to have power over themselves and who is not. Whereas, Schmitt says that liberalism allows people not to care about politics. It doesn’t give them a strong sense of identity that they are willing to kill for. I invite you to the idea that some of what Trump has said in this election truly embraces the Political: the restriction of power to certain identities.
And here comes the twist. Schmitt worried that an enemy group might come along who are very unified and have a very strong sense of identity, and they would take over because there’d be a ‘Them’ but no organised unified ‘Us’ that could resist them. And that is how justified becoming a Nazi. Because he thought, in 1920s Germany, “Some other enemy group is going to come along and take us over, and therefore we have to strike first. We have to unify in a very aggressive nationalist way to crush that enemy.” And in Nazi Germany the enemy became Jewish people. Like I said, the distinction between friend and enemy doesn’t have to make sense.
And what we get is fascism: an authoritarian style of government that doesn’t treat people equally, and doesn’t care – because the people it treats like crap are the enemy. In an ironic way, Schmitt kindof became the very thing he was worried about. The friend/enemy distinction has been a very influential idea on its own. Where Schmitt took the next step was striking first against an enemy that was invented just so he could have one. I invite you to the idea that a version of this “strike first” mentality is something we can see some people using today with regards to Muslims. Some people see Muslims as a threat and say they have no choice but to destroy that identity “in the name of freedom.” Be aware that that move has been made before.
But I said earlier that Schmitt’s ideas have influenced people on the left as well, and they have. The left has also used this friend/enemy distinction but with a bit of a difference. The left traditionally defines itself in opposition to the rich and powerful. Being rich and powerful is something that you can give up; oppression is something you can stop doing. So if you’re a political enemy of the left you can become a friend. If you’re a political enemy of the right because you’re brown, disabled, trans, whatever – the only thing you can do to make them happy is stop existing. The right-wing says ‘People who don’t share my identity should be powerless’ – the left says ‘The identities who currently enjoy wealth and power should not because they got there and stay there by oppressing other identities.’ This is where we get so-called ‘Identity Politics’ – people on the left talking about which identities are currently allowed to have power and which are not, and seeking to redress the imbalance.
Liberalism tends to ignore this important distinction, and to ignore the relation between power and identity generally. Remember when Bernie Sanders suggested free education, or when lots of people suggested that Americans should have free healthcare, or not have an army. Liberalism laughs that off as “unrealistic,” “idealist” or even “dangerous/radical.” Schmitt says that’s because liberalism’s only good if the person you’re talking to basically already agrees with you. If you’re in the centre, politically, it can look like those either side of you are banging similar drums but they’re really asking for very different things.
Part of the criticism of liberalism from the left that it can sometimes ring pretty hollow. Even hypocritical. John Stewart Mill, one of the fathers of modern liberalism, supported the British invasion of India. The men who wrote the United States Constitution placed great value on freedom, but owned slaves. In the UK, many people worry that foreigners will come and “destroy our way of life,” live off “our” resources, and yet we only have a country as rich as we do because we spent centuries doing those very things to the rest of the world and never paid it back, whilst talking about the liberal values of freedom. That apparent hypocrisy is what inspired criticisms of liberalism from all sorts of people from Lenin and Marx to Martin Luther King Jr and Che Guevara. And many of those critics, faced with that hypocrisy, began to doubt whether liberals really meant what they said about freedom and equality at all.
The Black activist Kwame Ture said that liberalism pretends it wants to avoid violence. But, “Is it not violent for a child to go to bed hungry in the richest country in the world? I think that is violence. But that type of violence is so institutionalised that it becomes a part of our way of life. Not only do we accept poverty, we find it normal.” The liberal propensity to avoid the friend/enemy distinction, to avoid discussing which identities are allowed to have power and which are not, Ture says leads to the prolonging of oppression. Because liberalism tries to avoid looking at these Schmittian categories of power and identity it doesn’t realise that in fact all politics is identity politics.
In this video, we’ve looked at liberalism from both sides, from the right wing and the left. Most people, when pushed, will describe themselves as “centre,” “moderate,” “reasonable.” And if that’s you, okay grand. Maybe you can think of some replies to these criticisms, there’s definitely some you could make. What I invite you to think about though is that this election has shown, for better or worse, that liberalism is not the only way of looking at the world. The people who criticise liberalism, from either side, are not mad or joking, they’re serious. And they are talking about politics – the distribution of power. Maybe that’s something we could all think more about?
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Kwame Ture, Stokely Speaks (http://tinyurl.com/jkql8ys)
Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (http://tinyurl.com/jhn2jxb)
Falguni Sheth, Toward A Political Philosophy of Race (http://tinyurl.com/jkost9q)