Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some very scattered observations on Schmitt and equality

I just finished reading Schmitt’s Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1988 MIT Press). It’s a very interesting text (and I use the word text deliberately, because calling this flimsy work a book is a massive overstatement) for a lot of reasons. From a biographical point of view it strikes me as the first text in which Schmitt seems really, really uncertain politically. His disenchantment with liberal is palpable – as is his fascination with ‘mythical politics’ (which subsumes both Bolshevism and Fascism) – but you can tell that he doesn’t really know what to do.

Now, I’ve always been very aware that reading Schmitt is not an unproblematic exercise, especially because the distinction between description and prescription (witness Telos). So one thing I always want to avoid is whitewashing Schmitt’s politics and denying that his political positions had any connection with his theoretical ones. That being said, I don’t really hold any truck with people who think that everything Schmitt said is tainted by association with his politics. Schmitt clearly has some interesting things to say about liberalism and (by extension) contemporary social life. Anyhow, blurbs aside, I was struck when I was reading this from the preface to the second edition:
[W]here a state wants to establish general human equality in the political sphere without concern for national or some other sort of homogeneity, then it cannot escape the consequence that political equality will be devalued to the extent that it approximates absolute human equality. And not only that. The sphere of the political and therefore politics itself would also be devalued in at least the same degree, and would become something insignificant ... Substantive inequalities would in no way disappear from the world and the state; they would shift into another sphere, perhaps separated from the political and concentrated in the economic, leaving this area to take on a new dis-[12]proportionately decisive importance. Under conditions of superficial political equality, another sphere in which substantial inequalities prevail (today, for example, the economic sphere) will dominate politics.
In a lot of respects this dovetails quite nicely with Marxian concerns. It has long been a criticism of Marxists that formal the move to formal legal equality merely allows other, substantive inequalities to move to the fore. However, I think there are several ways in which Schmitt could extend such a critique but doesn’t (and I suspect this comes down to his politics). Firstly, he doesn’t describe the ways in which this formal equality legitimates and maintains inequality. In his description, there is just a sense in which inequality ‘shifts’, but this misses the fact that formal politico-legal equality is able to mystify inequality. This gets compounded when we think about the labour-capital relationship. There’s a sense in which the employment relationship – in its most fully realised form – is only possible insofar as we have formal equality coupled with substantive inequality. So what we get is a difference in economic power which is only realised through the contract.

This also leads us to a second point. Marx’s account of capitalism doesn’t just suggest that inequality is realised through equality. It also shows how formal legal equality produces inequality through the commodification of labour power and the intensification and concentration of production [c.f. Foucault on discipline here]. This segues quite nicely with Schmitt’s more general concern. Much of the thrust of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (or at least the introduction on the second preface) is the contradiction between liberalism (parliamentarianism) and democracy. Although the argument emerges in lots of different ways throughout the text, it has a specific meaning in the context of equality. Basically, Schmitt argues that the foundation of democracy is homogeneity:
Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second – if the need arises – the elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.
Now, I have to say I really don’t agree with this specifically but I do believe there is a sense in which ‘democracy’ brings with it a certain notion of violence, whereby the majority enforces its will on the minority; but I’ll talk a little bit more about this later. Interestingly, Schmitt also echoes something I’ve written about Hobbes and Locke, only about Rousseau:
The idea of a free contract of all with all comes from a completely different theoretical world where opposing interests, differences, and egoisms are assumed. This idea comes from liberalism. The generally will as Rousseau constructs it is in truth heterogeneity.
Again, I have problems with someone who attempts to make an ‘authoritative’ reading of a contradictory thinker by simply saying what they ‘really’ mean. The contract clearly does a lot of theoretical work in Rousseau. What I think is interesting about this reading of Rousseau, and indeed problematic about Schmitt’s line on liberalism in general, is that what he is trying to do is say is 'here’s one distinct phenomenon ‘democracy’ which has these characteristics’ and here’s another ‘liberalism’ the problem is when you try to combine the two'.

But – both historically and conceptually – I don’t think you can really do this. The example of Rousseau and Locke etc. shows us that, theoretically, liberalism wasn’t simply elaborated on its own and then brought into contact with democracy (or more generally ‘the problem of the masses’) it was always elaborated in the context of a project of mass governance. I think this surfaces quite obviously at the theoretical level too; liberalism has usually had two aims – one of them is try to legitimate state coercion by reference to consent; the other is to use this framework (which has often drawn the masses decisively into politics) to protect certain rights and interests – typically property. As is often observed, this point immediately brings in somewhat of a tension – what has primacy ‘consent’ (which one can take for democracy) or the ‘rights’ which are meant to be protected?

These problems are not just the theoretical problems of liberalism. They are the instead the theoretical mediations of a very practical problem. The fundamental unit of capitalism is the commodity form, which posits every individual as an abstract, formal equal. But the development of capitalism brings people together, in ever greater numbers and causes the unequal development of economic power (in the worker-capitalist relationship). The point here is that the equality/inequality problem isn’t produced by applying ‘equality’ to mass-democracy, instead the two are historically and theoretically linked. There’s a great quote from Discipline and Punish [1991, Penguin] (which I don’t endorse fully) which I think negates the simplistic duality:
The real, corporal disciplines constituted the foundation of the formal juridical liberties. The contract may have been regarded as the ideal foundation of law and political power; panopticism constituted the techniques universally widespread, of coercion. It continued to work in depth on the juridical structures of society, in order to make effective mechanisms of power function in opposition to the formal framework that I had acquired. The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.
Now, I’m probably going to stop here, as I’m aware I’m rambling, but let me say two things on the matter. Firstly, (as I noted about Agamben) it does feel like such a position allows liberalism (and the law) to shirk responsibility for its bad points – even if it also loses some effectivity. Secondly, the perspective I’m outlining sees fascism as – at least partly – internal to liberalism, a certain manifestation of its internal contradictions. This of course would upset both fascists and liberals. Schmitt’s position, on the contrary, allows liberals to remain ‘pure’ and fascism to pose itself as an alternative to liberalism. But my brief considerations might suggest that the fundamental contradiction that produces this problem – capitalist properly relations (and their attendant ideological form – liberalism) – isn’t abolished by fascism, they are only temporarily attenuated, and this is precisely why Schmitt’s ultimate political choice was the wrong one.

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