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Their Enemies The Russians
But what about the rest of us?
Last week, I looked at the friend/enemy distinction popularised by Carl Schmitt, and asked whether it could help us understand the deplorable state of contemporary western politics. I argued that many social groupings playing a political role today had in fact internalised this distinction, and now practise it routinely. I now want to look at the consequences of this distinction in international relations, notably, but not only, in the case of the the western PMC reaction to the Ukraine crisis, and to see if we can understand that in the same way.
In last week’s discussion, I suggested that the original objective friend/enemy antithesis identified by Schmitt had been superseded, as he thought it might be, by organised economic and social groups playing a larger and larger political role. With the effective demise of great historical political and economic struggles, buried now under piles of Liberal word-salad and no longer allowed to be discussed, the energies that animated the bitter disputes of the past had now shifted to the fine detail of the social sphere. I argued also that it was a particularly western phenomenon, finding its ultimate origin in the violent and absolutist doctrinal disputes of early Christianity, ultimately secularised in political and economic struggles, and finally banalised in arguments about who gets to use which toilet. Unlike other cultures, where different beliefs can exist side by side without conflict, the dynamic of western culture has been one of a constant tendency towards intolerant, unchallengeable assertions of Truth. Liberalism, which likes to present itself as the guardian of tolerance, is the current example of an absolutist belief system against which there is no appeal.
How could this play out in the international sphere? I want to look at that in the context of some more of Carl Schmitt’s remarks. As before, my purpose is not to praise (or denigrate) Schmitt, nor to try to expound his ideas, but to ask whether we can use what he said as a point of departure for profitable reflection. I think perhaps that we can.
The place to begin is Schmitt’s concept of conflict between nations. He simply called it “war”, but his later remarks made it clear that he understood that conflictual relations could be more complicated than that. But this conflict can only happen when one community ready to fight for its identity comes into collision with another similar community. This collision, making each side the objective “enemy” of the other, is independent, he argued, of any other antithesis based on cultural, racial, moral etc. differences: it is just an objective fact. It follows that it is not necessary to hate the enemy personally.
It follows also that war, detached from any consideration of moral or ethical differences, is a legitimate tool of state policy, if, and only if, is is fought not “for ideals and norms of justice” but “against a real” (ie objective) “enemy.” So there are no just or unjust wars, and in theory at least every state has an unrestricted ius ad bellum. Schmitt seems to have believed that this was the model of war which had obtained until 1914, and had lasted several generations at least, perhaps from the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In this way of thinking, wars were short, if brutal, organisational disputes which settled something in the objective relations between states. Because personal hatreds were not involved, the stakes of war were lower, and the consequences were accordingly limited. All this, he claimed, changed in the First World War, with the dehumanising rhetoric directed against Germany and the notorious Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, making Germany wholly responsible for the War, with associated penalties and punishment.
Now, Schmitt’s characterisation of warfare in the nineteenth century has been challenged, but I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that for most of that time, war was tool of state policy which was limited both in its inherent scope and in the emotion invested in it. During the period roughly from 1789-1815, war had not been like this, because the autonomy of the friend/enemy antithesis was indeed disrupted, with the introduction of moral, ethical and religious elements, and also personal hatreds: directed against Napoleon for example. The major powers of Europe saw themselves defending the timeless moral and religious principle of the monarch appointed by God, against the heresies of France, whether of the Republic, the Directory or the Empire. (The British were regarded as somewhat unreliable on this point.) For this reason, the wars continued until the moral and religious principles were finally enforced. Then, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and bundled off into exile, Louis XVIII returned the Bourbons to power, and divine moral order was re-established
Schmitt argued that, after the period he identified in the nineteenth century, the First World War had been different, because the Allies had attempted to moralise everything, while really pursuing the economic objective of destroying Germany. He argued more generally (but clearly by reference to that War) that it was possible to hijack and monopolise the concept of “humanity”, such that you deny “the enemy the quality of being human” and declare him to be “an outlaw of humanity .” Thus, paradoxically, “war can be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.” The concept of humanity, he argued “is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism.” So the “ideological structure” of the Versailles Treaty “corresponds precisely to this polarity of ethical pathos and economic calculation.”
Schmitt’s defence of Germany has been found wanting by many non-Germans (and some Germans too) both before and since. There is an entire academic industry devoted to the causes of the First World War, and I’ll leave them to get on with it. But it’s certainly true that dehumanisation of the enemy was a constant feature of War propaganda (don’t let’s forget that “Hang the Kaiser” was actually a popular song of the day.) The moralism of the victors was also real enough: even before the end of the war preparations were being made to put the Kaiser on trial, and working groups of lawyers were beavering away trying to invent charges. Schmitt was quite right to claim that, procedurally at least, this was all very much an innovation.
Now the fact that Schmitt was guilty here of special pleading, if not worse, doesn’t mean that his arguments should automatically be dismissed. Indeed, they have a curiously modern and contemporary ring to them. For example, many thoughtful critics of western military interventions over the last thirty years must have worried that
“(w)ar is condemned but executions, sanctions, punitive expeditions, pacifications, protection of treaties, international police, and measures to assure peace remain. The adversary is thus no longer called an enemy but a disturber of peace and is thereby designated to be an outlaw of humanity.”
Schmitt contrasted this view of war with that which, he argued, had typified the pre-1914 world. States had Enemies in those days, but their differences were largely territorial, and wars did not get out of hand. In his later writing, Schmitt seems to have hoped that there could be a return to this situation, with states fighting to defend their own territory, but not seeking to encroach on that of others. But this was only possible if, on the one hand, there was a perfect coincidence between territory and political identity, and on the other hand if nations avoided universalist ideologies. In the first case, more destructive wars can arise where part of the population of one state identify with another state. In the second case, Schmitt argued, Liberal-humanist states believe their values to be universal, and so cannot tolerate the existence of other systems, and feel obliged to intervene in them. For them, war is not about territory but ideas, and is therefore not subject to the inherent moral constraints of purely territorial warfare. The result, thought Schmitt, would be anarchy. Looking around the world today, few would argue that he was wrong about the risk in either case. Whether inhuman and unlimited conflict is the inevitable result, is, of course, a different question.
The last century has indeed been one of characterised by perceived moral superiority in warfare. Now of course throughout history, few if any states or rulers have gone to war cheerfully admitting they were in the wrong, and that the other side was actually morally superior. Until roughly the French Revolution, competing dynastic claimants would typically argue that they had the best claim to the throne (remember the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V) or to a territory, and so their cause was just. The armies of that Revolution, however, represented perhaps the first attempt to fight a war justified purely by moral and ideological superiority. (Let’s not get into the Thirty Years’ War here.)
But there was a qualitative change after 1914, and especially after 1945, when the moral superiority of the victors was so evident (and has remained so in spite of successive waves of revisionism) that it was possible to tell the story of the build-up to the War and the War itself as a moral tale. This was, as Schmitt himself remarked, the first time in history that an entire regime had been regarded as in and of itself criminal, and its leaders put on trial for actions which were only retrospectively classified as crimes (as well of course as many that always had been.) The Nuremberg Trials were effectively unavoidable, since the Nazi leadership simply could not be allowed to survive, although the attendant moral theatrics established a vocabulary and set of concepts that came back to haunt some of the victorious powers later.
But the Second World War was not a conflict of ideologies in any mundane sense. The Cold War was so in theory, but the actual political and military competition was restricted to areas outside the West and the Soviet Bloc proper, thus, incidentally, fulfilling one of Schmitt’s criteria for stability: that different systems coexisted without trying to impose themselves directly on each other. For that reason, whilst the Cold War was sometimes frightening for those who lived through it, and deeply unpleasant for those whose countries were fought over, “peaceful coexistence” was actually the unspoken rule amongst all the parties, since anything else would have been insanely dangerous.
The catastrophic decline in Russian economic and military power after 1991, and the end of the Warsaw Pact, opened the way for the current domination of economic and social Liberalism. There was nothing ideologically inevitable in this: it is just that politics does not tolerate a vacuum, and it so happened that the Liberalism which had progressively replaced the vaguely social-democratic ethos of the West during most of the Cold War expanded, because it had military and economic power behind it and no effective competitor at the time.
As I’ve pointed out frequently before, it’s a peculiarity of Liberalism that to has no real basis for its beliefs other than assertion: no divine revelation, no hallowed traditions, no systematic body of theory claiming to be based in the real world. For this reason, Liberalism’s dominant figures have always felt ideologically insecure and uneasy, especially when confronted with systems of thought that are anchored in something other than simple assertion. Liberalism has always had a problem with Islam, for example, whose intellectual basis is firmly in revelation and whose popular base is in societies that do not share Liberal views. Revealingly, Liberalism has never been able to domesticate and absorb it as it has done with Christianity, and even Buddhism.
It does seem (and Schmitt would claim to have predicted this, I suppose) that Liberalism, with its firmly-held but poorly-grounded ideology, is incapable of living peacefully in the same world as the kind of political and social systems we find in China, Russia and India today. This is an inherent problem with any universalist ideology, as I have described before, and reflects the fact that Liberalism is now the nearest thing that western elites have to a religion, and that it acts as a force for precarious unity, or at least uneasy co-existence, for most of them. The longer the West tolerates the existence of rival systems of thought, however, the more people will start to question Liberalism’s universalist pretensions.
Thus, perhaps Ukraine. Not immediately, of course, because nothing happens that fast, but eventually. During the Cold War, ideological competition between the two blocs was based largely on economic and social performance, as each system claimed to be more successful than the other in material betterment of peoples’ lives. That is no longer the case: Liberalism is by definition universally true and valid, and does not need to prove itself or compare itself with anything. Those societies that have not (yet) embraced Liberalism should therefore be persuaded or compelled to do so. To the extent that they refuse to do so, they are seen as objective enemies. Unlike in the Cold War, peaceful co-existence is not actually possible, nor is it desirable. Similarly, people and factions in other countries who embrace Liberalism are on the side of history, and are to be automatically supported. If they do not win elections that’s a shame, but it’s the fault of the electorate for not being enlightened enough. Eventually, they will come round.
The problem arises when Liberalism encounters a force as large, or larger, than itself, and which refuses to follow its lead, and even refuses to be cowed. Much of the world, of course, has been engaged in passive resistance to Liberalism for some time now, although we seldom notice it. Most nations outside the West are generally concerned to retain at least elements of their traditions, history, culture and society, and not to follow the Liberal West into an individualism red in tooth and claw. But larger and more important countries, like China, India and Russia, have in recent years become tired of simply coping with the West and its Liberal ideology: the have started to actively resist. Now none of these countries, so far as I can see, shares the kind of universalist assumptions that characterise Liberalism. The Chinese seek to spread their influence and the culture, but to my knowledge they aren’t trying to convert the world to Confucianism, any more than the Indians are trying to convert it to Hinduism. Indeed, when these countries talk about a more balanced and plural world system, they are really talking about a kind of ideological peaceful co-existence, that means that nations do not try to impose their norms and practices on each other. But as I have suggested, Liberalism is incapable of peacefully accepting the presence of other ideologies for very long.
It is this, more than anything else, that explains the unremitting enmity to Russia and China that has typified the last 15-20 years. There is, of course, no objective reason for this enmity: the West can live quite happily with these two countries (and India) if it wants to, for the advantage of all. China may be an economic competitor to the US in some ways, but it is also an important supplier and an important customer. No rational human being believes that a war over Taiwan makes the remotest sense, or is even likely. But war, what Schmitt called the “existential negation” of the enemy is understandable (I hesitate to say “rational”) on the basis that the West simply cannot live indefinitely with the presence of other systems of thought that put its universalising ideology in jeopardy. Yet of course the West cannot expect to win a war against either Russia or China singly, let alone together. This creates a highly unstable situation, where western leaders are obliged to use bellicose rhetoric and make threats and escalate tensions, in the hope that somehow these will have the desired political effect. The problem is that the Russians and Chinese are not intimidated, even though western leaders have led their publics to suppose that the West is so fearsome and powerful that it can always get what it wants. Quite how western leaders can escape from that unstable paradox is not clear.
And it is leaders that we are concerned with here, as well as the Professional and Managerial Class, the media and other parasites. The great, albeit unspoken, weakness of the West today, in fact, is precisely the lack of general support for the bellicose promotion of Liberalism. After all, that ideology is in a lot of trouble domestically in most western countries, and few electorates would eagerly support wars for its propagation. To a degree, and for a period of time, wars can be marketed in far-off countries as struggles against evil people: the more so since we risk no inconvenience ourselves. But an offensive war against China on the basis that Liberalism and the Chinese system cannot co-exist would be a difficult initiative to sell, even with Taiwan serving as a pretext.
Yet that’s pretty much where we are with Ukraine. As I pointed out some time ago, the hysteria and hatred displayed by the western PMC is only comprehensible if we understand the messianic ideological dimension and the apocalyptic nature of the conflict as seen from Washington, London and Berlin. How Liberalism will react once it realises that what it thought was an irresistible force has slammed into a genuinely immovable obstacle is hard to say, but it won’t be pretty, and will probably resemble a mass political nervous breakdown of some kind.
Schmitt, of course, argued that any disunity of this sort in a state was extremely dangerous. Not only did he follow Hobbes, he actually wrote a whole book, The Leviathan in the State-Theory of Thomas Hobbes, arguing that Hobbes had been too moderate. The more antagonisms and political differences there were in a state, he argued, the weaker it became. Indeed, he went further, arguing that those who did not join the consensus in identifying another state as an Enemy, were in fact open to the charge of aiding that state: not a new or original argument, of course.
Now whilst we don’t need to go to the other extreme, and warble about strength in diversity, it’s clear that the thesis of Hobbes and Schmitt cannot stand up to serious examination as a historical principle. Perhaps Schmitt had in mind the great difficulty in getting the Bundestag to vote war credits in 1914. Perhaps he was thinking of the “stab in the back” legend that circulated after the war. But there’s no evidence at all that differences of opinion as such harm a country’s interests, still less that totalitarian measures are justified to maintain a false consensus, even if that were possible.
But there’s a good argument that this is exactly what Liberal western governments are actually trying to do. Conscious that their ideology has no firm base, aware of its domestic unpopularity as well, western leaders are clearly terrified that questions will be asked to which they have no adequate answers, especially about their support of the regime in Kiev. Only this, I think, can explain the astonishing efforts being made to ensure ideological conformity by any means possible. Inconvenient opinions, even inconvenient facts, have to be ignored because they might “help Putin”, whatever that means. It has to be said, that if you have a policy on the most important political crisis since 1945 that is so fragile that it cannot withstand simple questioning or banal facts from the ground, then you’re in a pretty bad way. And I think it is precisely a consciousness of this that accounts for the defensive hysteria, and the desperate attempts to retain a consensus by any means possible. You have to wonder if some western leaders studied Schmitt at university.
Above all, I think, these desperate efforts are being made to convince the people (and perhaps themselves also) that western populations are united in their support for the Kiev regime. Back in World War 2, when the moral issues were simpler, governments nonetheless worried about convincing their populations of the moral justification, not only for the War itself, but for who the enemies and friends were. So film directors including the American Frank Capra, were recruited to make series like Why We Fight, designed to convince any putative waverers of the justice of the cause. There were plans, never realised, to produce films extolling the virtues of all the allied nations, including Our Friends the Norwegians, Our Friends the Dutch, and Our Relatively Recent Friends the Italians. These days, technology has advanced quite a bit, and it’s now Our Friends the Ukrainians and of course Our Enemies the Russians, in all the different forms of media. (Those Fascists in Ukraine, on the other hand, has been withdrawn from circulation, and its makers purged.) But the problems of course is that the Russians are not “our” enemy, and there’s no reason why they should be. They are the enemies of the Globalist Liberal tendency, and that’s all.
So in that sense, and perhaps contrary to what Schmitt would have imagined, Ukraine is a “just war,” being fought against a “real enemy,” as seen by those in charge. In many ways, winning the conflict in Ukraine is a matter of survival for the Globalist West—that confusion of Davos, the EU, NATO, the IMF, much of the PMC media—whose credo for the last generation has been, Ever Onwards, Ever Outwards, in the pursuit of worldwide hegemony for its ideology. To see that ideology not merely blocked, as has happened with China, but actually militarily defeated, will represent a challenge for Those in Charge which they will probably be unable to meet, intellectually and morally. Supporting a universalist ideology which is based in fragile and unprovable a priori assertions, incapable of imagining a world where different systems of thought coexist peacefully, they have essentially nothing to fall back on. And as the Liberal Globalist ideology becomes less and less appealing to the populations of the West themselves, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the final consequence of this stupid adventure will not be to shake the thrones of the Globalist rulers themselves. It wouldn’t be the first time in history that an imperial adventure has rebounded against its originators.