Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
Let's Be Enemies
Since it seems to be the fashion these days.
What do you think of when you think of “politics”? What is politics about? There are worrying signs that in the West we are moving towards a conception of politics that is wholly negative, and based solely on identification and vilification of an Enemy. That’s the ghost of Carl Schmitt you can see smirking over there in the corner, and he thinks he predicted it.
Like most people who’ve worked in government, my concept of politics is mundane, even banal. Politics is about Getting Stuff Done. Any group of any size has to take decisions, and then put them into effect. Politics is about the structures and processes involved in this: who does what, who has which powers, how the system decides etc.
But if we assume that a functioning political system exists, then the question is what politics itself is about, and how it’s conducted. Since absolute dictatorial tyranny is not possible today (if it ever was), then politics always consists of individuals and groups competing with each other for position, power and influence. In some cases (like ancient Rome or periods of the Ottoman Empire) this could mean basically killing your rivals or forcing them into exile. In other contexts, it meant factions and families competing for power, or a share of it, but under rules that allowed for changes and reversals (think of Whigs and Tories in eighteenth century England.) “Politics” in this sense, was a struggle for power and influence along a continuum from political intrigue and foreign alliances at one end, up to all-out war on the other. But the competitors were seldom divided by any real ideology (we’ll come back to religion in a second.) Competing factions and families might have their power-bases in different areas, might draw support from cultural and linguistic particularities, grievances and ambitions, and make and break alliances, but ideology as such was seldom a factor. (Footnote: politics is still conducted like this in many parts of the world today, although the West, and western liberal political ideology, seems unable to recognise the fact.)
In a democracy of any kind, power rests theoretically with the citizen: it would be more accurate to say that the citizenry is where power is sought. Broadly, the more people you can bring around to your side, the stronger your position will be, other things being equal. In an electoral system (not necessarily entirely congruent with a democracy) organised groups seek power by appealing to electors, usually in an indirect fashion. The result is a Presidency, a Parliament or both, which reflect the degree to which different groups have been able to mobilise their supporters. In some proportional representation systems, the end-result may also reflect quite closely the actual division of opinion within the country, bearing in mind that in practice few electorates agree completely with the parties they vote for, and parties themselves are divided and frequently change their policies.
Of course, all this only works if a number of important but seldom-stated criteria are met. For example, there must be provision for losing gracefully without penalty: more than one African politician must have reconsidered their career choice when Laurent Gbagbo, the (alleged) loser of an election in the Ivory Coast in 2011, was arrested and soon found himself on trial in The Hague. And there must be at least minimal agreement on the nature of the political system itself: some European countries like France are now having to cope with parties following the dictates of Political Islam, and fresh from their triumphs in the Arab world, who believe that democracy is not an acceptable political system, even if they are prepared to make use of it.
In most western states, the terminal decline of class-based politics has started to put these comfortable assumptions into question. As politics itself becomes increasingly a media-driven competition between largely-indistinguishable liberal political parties run by professionals who have never done anything else, people feel that their own concerns about health, education, employment and their very ability to live a decent life, are pushed out of the political domain by hysterical pseudo-controversies that only the PMC think are important. So where are we going?
Well, one person who thought he knew, a hundred years ago now, was the German legal philosopher Carl Schmitt. Now Schmitt is known today, if at all, for two things. One is for being “Hitler’s jurist”, which is silly, and the other for having said that in politics the basic question is “who is my enemy?,” which is true, but incomplete as it stands. Schmitt wrote a lot, and I haven’t by any means read all of it, but I think he is important because, like Nietzsche who influenced him, he raised a lot of inconvenient questions to which there have never been satisfactory solutions. So I’m going to use a couple of his ideas as a loose basis for what follows. (I’m not going to talk about the Theory of Exception, which has recently been treated elsewhere.)
Schmitt saw the fundamental dynamic of politics as the “friend-enemy” antithesis. He insisted that this distinction was not subjective, not based on hatred or on religious or ethical differences, but only on purely objective factors. When the interests of one group (as defined by its members) seriously conflict with the interests of another group (as defined by its members) then the friend-enemy antithesis exists, and violence is a potential, though not inevitable, outcome. Schmitt was primarily interested in conflicts between nations, but he did also argue that the same dynamic could exist within states because “every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.” That is to say that, whereas politics in Schmitt’s view, should be just the responsibility of the state, other groups could play a political role if they organised themselves to do so. When religious groups competed with each other or challenged the state, for example, they were playing a political role, and the friend-enemy antithesis became operational. For Schmitt (a great reader of Hobbes) this was a bad thing because it weakened the state and made it less able to protect its citizens from domestic and foreign threats.
Now it’s interesting that Schmitt did not argue that these groups objectively existed, only that their interests did, or at least were perceived to. In spite of his association with the Nazis, Schmitt was not a racial essentialist: he thought groups were self-defining collections of people who shared the same objective interests to the point where they were prepared to fight, and if necessarily die, for them. Paradoxically, perhaps, this led to his fierce anti-semitism, because he saw Jews in Germany as simply being incapable of joining this self-defining community, although of course many had fought with distinction in the First World War. Unsurprisingly, Schmitt also thought that the state should also have the right to identify and somehow deal with internal “Enemies,” whose interests were objectively different from those of the great majority of the population.
Let’s stop here, and ask what, of anything, we can take from Schmitt’s discussion. The first thing to say (and he does indeed say it) is that it is possible for economic differences to take on the friend-enemy antithesis, for example in struggles between the workers and the state or their employer. Anyone who recalls the almost warlike hysteria which accompanied the disastrous 1984 miners’ strike in Britain will readily agree. The government of the day explicitly referred to the miners as the “enemy within.” But of course those days have long gone, and among the results of the miners’ defeat was the beginning of the destruction of the trades union movement, as well as the end of organised labour as a political force, and the development in Britain (as elsewhere) of a Notional Left no longer interested in the welfare of ordinary people.
Nonetheless, to the extent that human beings naturally form communities or different sorts, the absence of major political differences among professional parties actually encourages the rise of other self-identified groups based on other principles. (Schmitt arguably predicted the rise of identity politics a century ago.) When political, and even economic confrontation have been essentially abandoned, any reasonably strong “religious, moral, economic or ethical” grouping with a sense of identity is likely to take on a political role against those it identifies as “Enemies,” and so compete against them for wealth, influence and power. This is, observably, what has been happening. But identifying someone as an “Enemy” in this sense means that you are, ultimately, sworn to their destruction. For a long time, the Notional Left has used the vocabulary of “war” and “struggle” inherited from clumsy translations from German and French in the sixties and later, but mostly as metaphors. Perhaps Schmitt was right to suggest that once social or ethical groups become genuine political actors, the language ceases to be entirely metaphorical.
Schmitt was not the first critic of Liberalism, but he was one of the first, certainly, to point out that by definition an ideology which is exclusively concerned with personal betterment cannot accommodate the need for collective action, let alone collective sacrifice. Put bluntly, nobody has ever gone out to die for Liberalism, for lower property taxes, fewer regulations and the ability to make declarative changes of gender, and probably nobody ever will. This means two things: it means (a point Schmitt also makes) that a genuinely Liberal society is extremely fragile in the face of external threats, since no argument can persuade a Liberal ideologue that he or she should make sacrifices for a higher cause. We don’t need to invoke military threats here: Covid will do as an example. Indeed, as Schmitt was one of the first to note, Liberalism is an essentially negative doctrine: it is against the state, to protect private property and the freedom of individuals to do as they like, but it is very hard to say what, in practice Liberalism is actually for as a coherent ideology. Indeed, it could be argued that a coherent ideology is by definition impossible to extract from a mindset which says that everybody can do whatever the **** they like you got a problem with that?
So in a society where “politics” has become the purely technical pursuit of power, and controversy is largely focused on social and ethical issues, it is probably inevitable that these issues will become charged with the same kind of emotions that animated genuine political and economic struggles in the past. To the extent that a society remains relatively homogeneous in its perception of a common interest, then the resulting stresses are containable. But over the last generation or so, all sorts of forces have conspired to destroy this perception of a common interest. This is sometimes presented as a conspiracy—pitting black against white, men against women etc to serve the interests of Capital—but in reality it’s doubtful whether the ruling class is sufficiently clever and organised to have done such a thing, for all that it is extremely helpful in destroying unity among those groups which do have an objectively common interest.
Rather, the Left, with its proverbial capacity for self-harm, has largely done this to itself. The process by which it happened is too long to trace here, but essentially it results from the attack on a unitary perception of history and culture. Now inevitably, all such perceptions are artificial constructs, and to some extent the products of power, but they serve the useful political purpose of providing a common point of reference, and a common vocabulary and set of concepts against which debates and political conflicts, and even dissent, can take place. For example, when George Orwell wrote The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941, calling for a Socialist revolution to win the war, he assumed all his readers shared the same basic cultural and historical background, and that the form of English Socialism which would arise would be firmly anchored in the country’s traditions. Likewise, the great French poet and novelist Louis Aragon, one of the leaders of the intellectual resistance to the German occupation, saw no contradiction between his strict Communist beliefs, and his clandestine poetical works which displayed a deep love of France, its history and its culture. The Resistance and the Vichy regime clashed violently, not over abstract principles, but which of their approaches would better ensure the interests and prosperity of the French people. Nothing like that would be possible today.
If we accept the argument that the energies once devoted to the definition of the nation against others and the political struggle against objective enemies had to go somewhere, and that they went into what Schmitt described as the politicisation of ethical and religious controversies, then a number of things become clearer.
First, the objectives sought by different groups cannot, by definition, also be in the interests of the community as a whole. In any major political or economic conflict, there are always losers, and this is how societies develop. But when social and religious groupings become active in politics, they generally advance under the banner of “rights,” to seek to impose obligations and restrictions on other parts of society, either by laws or by social pressure. Individuals within such groups also seek tangible advantages in money and power. For as long as their grievances are objective (religious toleration, or equal treatment of ethnic groups for example) then they do not need to regard the rest of the population as their Enemy: the argument can be presented in terms of overall fairness and the creation of a better society. The problem comes with the entirely subjective modern vocabulary of “discrimination” and “marginalisation.” If there are laws against discrimination, as is the case in most countries, then the issue is no longer with the state or the legal system, but with perceptions of discrimination or marginalisation. And of course such discrimination must necessarily be the result of the behaviour of individual human beings, who then collectively become the Enemy. This has a number of consequences.
To begin with, enemies create enemies. A grievance group which claims to be marginalised, and to deserve better treatment, financial compensation or apologies from another group or groups treats them like an Enemy, and so provokes feelings of enmity on their part. (Schmitt would say, I suppose, that if one community demands financial contributions from another for injuries alleged to have been suffered in the past, then an objective Enemy relationship exists.) So there’s a certain mordant amusement to be had when some grievance groups who have demanded apologies, self-abasement or even financial compensation from other groups become irritable when these same groups themselves claim victim status and treat their tormenters as Enemies. What else did they expect?
In addition, in a world of smaller and smaller identity groups, everyone, in the end, can be perceived as oppressing somebody else. “Oppression,” like “discrimination” is not an abstract phenomenon similar to the weather: it is done by actual named people, and this, no doubt, accounts in part for the level of shrill personal bitterness and hatred which so disfigures the grievance community today. The slogan “the fight against all forms of discrimination,” invented in desperation in the last phase of the Presidency of François Hollande (2012-17) as an attempt to unify the squabbling Socialist Party, effectively destroyed that party instead, as interest groups within it competed to present themselves as each more discriminated against than others (and often by the others as well.)
Second, the internal struggle is as important as the external one: arguably more so, because unless the purity and unity of the movement can be preserved, it will fall apart. Dissidents must therefore be expelled, as Schmitt argued, if not metaphorically or physically destroyed. Now of course parties of the Left have always been prone to splits and bitter divisions on ideological issues. We all remember the old joke about the Italian political party of the seventies whose first decision after its formation was about when the inevitable split was going to come. But the excessive appetite these days for even the smallest political and social movements to ruthlessly expel members and seek to destroy them publicly and politically, is something new, and it can be plausibly argued that it is the result of the projection of the friend/enemy antithesis from state survival onto tiny groups involved with abstruse and complex social issues. Each group or micro-group sees itself surrounded by Enemies, and so having to constantly survey its own members to make sure that there are no dissidents who might weaken the ability of the group to survive.
Third, as this process continues, we approach more and more closely the Liberal ideal of a society made up of individuals lacking all sense of community or collective identity, utility-maximising machines whose relationships with each other are purely commercial. Such a world would be essentially the Hobbesian struggle of all against all, with the role of the Sovereign being taken by the Market. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that such a Liberal society would not be a society at all, but a kind of social wasteland.
Schmitt, of course, was talking in a limited context: essentially the parts of early twentieth-century Europe that he knew. But what’s interesting is that the wider world is full of social and ethical differences and controversies that do not cause conflict, and where opposing sides do not see the other as the Enemy. Religion, as such, is seldom a direct cause of conflict, with the exception of groups like the Islamic State: it is more often an identity and mobilising factor. It’s trivially true that in the ancient world many forms of religion existed side by side. In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto live quite happily together. Indeed, there are many different schools of Buddhism itself, with sharply divergent views and lively controversies, surprising as that may be to some Californians.
Modern tendencies towards religious tolerance (which themselves result from no longer really thinking that the beliefs of one’s religion are literally true) have obscured the fact that within the major monotheistic religions of the world, let alone between them, there have been continual major conflicts actually derived from religious differences. So it was clear to everyone until very recently that Christianity and Islam cannot both be literally true at the same time. But in fact, the problem is inherent in the nature of monotheistic religion itself. Previous religions (awkwardly grouped together as “paganism”) were largely about what you did. It was necessary to make offerings and prayers to the gods, whether at some local shrine, or at a temple in Rome, since otherwise they would become upset and bad things would happen. This is why the Romans persecuted Christians, who refused to follow the customs, and thus put the city in danger. But other than a vague “piety” there was no belief system as such.
With monotheism, all that changed. Not just your happiness and prosperity, but your salvation after death depended on exactly what you believed. Doctrine thus became absolutely critical. As a result, and to an extent that seems unbelievable today, the first few centuries of the Christian era were full of violent (sometimes physically violent) disputes about doctrine. It comes as a shock today to realise just how many fundamentally different types of Christianity existed at around, say, 200 AD, and how ferociously their proponents abused and vilified each other. Distinctions known only to a few scholars today were elements of bitter disagreement between different Churches. (They would have loved Twitter). There was a total confusion of doctrine which was only settled, in the end, by the power of Rome and the Emperor Constantine. Competing Christian tendencies did not scruple to identify others as the Enemy, nor charge them with being servants of the devil, as indeed the Islamic State does today, to Muslims who do not share their fundamentalist conception of Islam. And yes, “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew word for “Enemy.”
This religious energy, and this willingness to (literally) demonise the religious Enemy, remained powerful in western culture for a very long time, as anyone familiar with the polemical literature of the Reformation will be wearily aware. But where did it go, after formal belief in religion among the intellectual classes started to atrophy in the eighteenth century? Well, at this point Schmitt puts his hand up again, and reminds us that he wrote an entire book (Political Theology) devoted to the proposition that all modern theories of the state have their origins in religious doctrine. And it’s true that, broadly speaking, theoretical and practical disputes about politics progressively took the place of those over religious doctrine and practice. But the immense political struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth century are behind us, and, in spite of the pervasive dissatisfaction with the liberal capitalist order, there’s very little fundamental political controversy these days, just as political unrest and violence tends to be anarchic or even nihilistic in nature, rather than in pursuit of defined ideologies.
What’s happened, of course, is that this energy has gone into social issues. We’ve undergone a process of banalisation of content: from controversies about the fate of the soul and humanity to whether the King rules by divine right, to whether the rich should pay more taxes to who should have a right to use which toilet. But the form of the conflict, with its identification of the Enemy to be annihilated has remained very largely unchanged.
Now it may already be obvious how some of this analysis can be applied to western attitudes to Ukraine and the hysteria that surrounds the current conflict, and to be honest I had hoped to devote a substantial section to that point. But my word-box is nearly empty, so that will have to wait until next week.
In the meantime, I want to conclude with some actual illustrations of the problem, which until now I have discussed in terms of theory only. Let me take an article that appeared recently the Current Affairs site, by Nathan Robinson, entitled, revealingly some would say “I Have Now Destroyed All of The Right-Wing Arguments At Once.” Now I don’t want to be unfair to the article, nor the book it is promoting, because I think that the advertised purpose—to respond to right-wing arguments rather than just ignoring or dismissing them—is entirely correct. But I’ll just briefly comment on why I think it’s unfortunately typical of the Enemy-based rhetoric and thinking of today. First, the ferocity of the language (the book, interestingly enough is more moderately entitled “Responding to the Right.”) All of the arguments of the “Right” are presented in stark and extreme terms, that probably few people who consider themselves of that tendency would actually use themselves. For example, one argument of the “Right” that needs to be “destroyed” is “Abortion is Murder.” Now, even stipulating that abortion is a left-wing cause (which historically is by no means obvious) it’s clear that, as formulated, that argument can never be proved or disproved, because it depends on the religious perception from which you start. If you are a Christian, you believe that the soul enters the embryo at the time of conception, and thus that abortion means the destruction of a living being, even though in certain cases (to save the life of the mother for example) it might be justified as the lesser of two evils. If you are an atheist you don’t have that problem, although in practice most atheists do want to draw a line somewhere. But it’s obvious that this isn’t actually an argument of “the Right” it’s a caricature, trying to smuggle politics into what is essentially an issue of faith and ethics.
A second example is “Feminism Hurts Both Men and Women.” Now this is an example of a proposition that as it stands can never be disproved, because you would have to prove a counter-proposition, something like “Acts and speech done in the name of or under the influence of feminism by any definition have never caused perceived or actual harm to any man or woman” which is obviously impossible. Yet if you think about it, most people (including many who identify as of the “Right”) would agree with a statement such as “like any ideology, feminism, as applied, can have good or bad effects on people.” Those of the “Right” might emphasise the “bad” effects, but even that’s not certain, given the number of women in senior positions in government, business and the military today. But again, it’s an attempt to dramatise the issue and turn it from one where there’s actually a large measure of agreement to one of deadly polarisation where the Enemy has to be “destroyed.”
A final example is “Immigration is harmful” which is close to meaningless, since in practice almost everyone would agree that some people in some places benefit from it and others don’t. Again, it seems to me there is little point in trying to “destroy” such an argument, which isn’t really an argument at all, and one which few people would attempt to defend in that crude form.
The second point is how thin the list actually is, and how little it has to do with issues which have historically divided Left and Right, or for that matter, concern ordinary people. If the best that the Right can come up with is “the Nazis were socialists” then they must be in an even worse shape than I had assumed. But in fact I don’t think these are really positions held by thoughtful people on the Right at all (OK, I know we’re talking about America, but even so). I think they’re extreme points of view cynically promoted to get YouTube likes and internet clicks, as well, of course, as continuing the Enemy pattern of politics. But it’s an indication, nonetheless, that whereas there were once popular debates about the nature of the Trinity, now there are arguments about a supposed war on Christmas. This is what happens when the inherited energy of a Christian polemic-based Enemy culture has nowhere else to go.
You can see, I think, how this logic helps to explain the western reaction to the Ukraine crisis. Come back at the same time next week, and we’ll talk about that.