Carl Schmitt for the Masses: The Problematic Nature of Parliamentary Democracy
A look at Schmitt's dissection of the idea of parliamentary democracy, exposing its philosophical foundations, contradictions and trajectory.
Continuing my ongoing series reflecting on the works of Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy is another difficult book to both read and wrap your head around. The overall thread of the book is hard to tease out and one wonders if there is a single point being made, or if it is a series of vignettes dissecting the flaws in the idea of parliamentary democracy. The introduction by the translator is helpful and I would recommend reading it as well. There is a question as to whether or not one should deal with the material in the preface to the 1926 edition, which is reply to a critique by Toma, before or after dealing with the main part of the book. I am going to deal with it straight away because I think it helps the reader navigate a work that often leaves you with the thought, “Where is Schmitt going with this?” Written during Germany’s Weimar Republic period, it is Schmitt’s reflection on the internal contradictions of parliamentary democracy as he saw them in his day. He also draws in a reflection on Marxism as this represented a real political reality at the time and it allowed him to discuss a path forward out of the contradictions of parliamentary democracy. Suffice it to say, it does not involve the peaceful reform of the mechanisms of democracy, nor the saving of democracy itself.
Preface to the 1926 Second Edition
Because Schmitt’s works build upon each other, he picks up themes dealt with in earlier works. His critiques of parliamentary democracy emerge in part from conclusions he made in his work Political Romanticism which regarded discussion and openness as essential to the whole project of both liberalism and democracy. Schmitt saw democracy as tied to an understanding of how truth was attained. Truth emerges from discussion. As long as that discussion is open and ongoing, we will progressively draw ourselves ever closer to the truth. Parliament, as a discursive body, was instrumental in this ongoing societal pursuit of the truth. The legislative assembly was the symbol of the open and free exchanges of ideas, the perpetual conversation, the marketplace of ideas.
“I regard discussion and openness as the essential principles of parliament”
It was through this mechanism of parliament, the legislature, that society could visibly and openly pursue a quest for a fuller understanding of truth and justice. All parliamentary arrangements and forms receive their meaning from open discussion.
It is at this point that the first problems start to emerge. If the people send a representative to this body to discuss the future of the people, and if this is to be a true quest for what is true and just, then this representative must be independent of his constituents. He must be free to pursue the truth. Is his role to represent the interests of his people, or is it to seek the truth for society?
Having laid this in front of us, Schmitt shifts gears to note that democracy rose up to challenge the monarchy and with it the idea of an unelected social elite, the nobility. Montesquieu, he notes, argues that the principle operative idea behind the monarchy is that of “honor.” Schmitt makes the point that when you select out representatives for a parliamentary body that is supposed to debate the future of the people, you cannot impose upon them this idea of “honor.” Neither can a monarchy be founded on openness and discussion.
Why does this matter? He questions whether it is possible to build a political elite capable of rule through the mechanism of parliament. Democracy implies that there is no elite. But a parliament in which the few are selected to govern on behalf of the many implies a governing elite. An elite class cannot be founded on these twin notions of openness and discussion. The idea of an elite has its basis in the idea of honor.
“Whether parliament actually possesses the capacity to build a political elite has since become very questionable…many would regard such hope as already outmoded and the word illusory.”
Once “representatives” are in place who are there to “represent” the interests of the people, a shift occurs in the purpose of parliamentarianism: there is a movement away from the pursuit of truth and justice through open and ongoing discussion towards a system of negotiation and compromise between competing interests.
“Parliamentarianism has already produced a situation in which all public business has become an object of spoils and compromise for all their parties and their followers.”
Very quickly the legislature stops being the locus for the marketplace of ideas, and become a means to direct the resources of government and society to the benefit of ones backers, one’s constituents.
Next, Schmitt draws our attention to the idea of discussion. It is in theory supposed to be the free exchange of opinion for the purpose of persuasion through sound argumentation. Laws are supposed to arise through this ongoing discussion, this conflict of opinions. This discussion is supposed to reveal both the will of the people and the greater truths towards the production of laws. Laws are supposed to arise out of the clash and conflict of opinions, the best ideas winning the day. They are not supposed to come about due to a compromise agreement reached as the result of the give and take between the interests of two parties. Parliament is not supposed to be like negotiating a business deal.
The pursuit of truth is not the same as two business interests agreeing to a mutually beneficial business arrangement that profits them both. Horse trading and reaching compromises are not the same thing as pursuing the truth. In a time of mass society where there is the use of mass communication, invariably propaganda of some form or another will try to win people over by appealing to their interests as opposed to making an argument for the truth.
Why is this difference important? Why does it matter that parliament is not pursuing the truth, but is instead negotiating on behalf of various interests for their mutual benefit? That seems much more sensible than all this lofty pursuit of the truth stuff anyways. Much more down to earth and business like. The problem is that once you are doing horse trading between the interests of various stakeholders, you don’t actually need parliamentary debate. Much of the actual business of government happens behind the scenes, negotiated in committee or in the bureaus, over lunches or at parties. Once you reach this point, you don’t actually need parliament. Do you ever wonder why the legislative branch seems so powerless and useless these days? The truth is that it really isn’t needed and is only kept around to maintain the façade of the democratic pursuit of truth. In two extended passages Schmitt makes this point and it is better to hear him in his own words:
“In the history of political idea, there are epochs of great energy and times becalmed, times of motionless status quo. Thus the epoch of monarchy is at an end when the sense of the principle of kingship, of honor, has been lost, if bourgeois kings who appear to seek to prove their usefulness and utility instead of their devotion and honor.”
What Schmitt is saying here is that every type of governing system has its own core idea, its own inner logic, its own set of rules that makes it work. As long as a feudal society is able to maintain its honor culture, it retains its inner logic for existing. As soon as it abandons the honor culture and tries to be useful to the success of the rising bourgeois merchant class is the moment that it is no longer needed. The merchants will find a new system of government that is based on the kind of utility they desire. Schmitt continues:
“The convictions inherent in this and no other institution then appear antiquated; practical justifications for it will not be lacking, but it is only an empirical question whether men or organizations come forward who can prove themselves just as useful or even more so that these kings and through this simple fact brush aside monarchy. The same holds true of the ‘social-technical’ justifications for parliament. If parliament should change from an institution of evident truth into a simply practical-technical means then it only has to be shown via facts, through some kind of experience, not even through open, self-declared dictatorship, that things could be otherwise and parliament is then finished.”
The essence of what Schmitt is saying here is that if the open discussion truth seeking nature of the parliamentary instrument is no longer at the heart of what it does, then as soon as a useful replacement can be found, it will be shoved aside and replaced by another instrument that is aligned properly with the social-technical impulse of today’s society. That instrument is the administrative state. This is in large part why the role of the parliament is no longer actual debate over the wisdom or benefit of legislation; but rather, it is vehicle by which the administrative state presents its plans to the electorate so that they can, through a plebiscite vote, provide legitimacy for those plans. The members of the legislature are the public face, not of the voters, but of the process of negotiation and horse trading which happens behind the scenes primarily through the instruments of the administrative state. Because of this, the legislature is largely an artifact of a past that is no more and plays little or no role in actual governance. They are like a ceremonial monarch, kept around to maintain the forms of a past age.
At this point, Schmitt begins to draw an important distinction between the idea of “democracy” and the idea of “parliamentarianism.” Schmitt argues that this idea of the parliament, the legislature belong within the worldview of liberalism. Democracy, on the other hand, is an idea that can exist independent of liberalism. Liberalism and democracy must be distinguished.
Democracy, he argues, rests not on the principle that all men are equal; rather it rests on the idea of homogeneity and the elimination of heterogeneity. A democracy is built on the idea of a unitary society. A democracy is built on keeping a people unified and homogeneous—physically, morally, religiously—its goal is to create and maintain the unity of a people.
But this unity does not imply that a people must be equal or all the same. This type of sameness was only possible in non-industrial agrarian societies like the pre-revolutionary colonial states which had a high degree of physical, psychic, spiritual and economic unity and equality. Schmitt argues that a democracy can continue to be a democracy if only one part of society participates as long as those who do participate are relatively equal and excludes those who are not equal. He uses the British Empire as an example. Most of the people were excluded from the mechanisms of parliament and thus democracy, but that did not make the instruments any less democratic nor those excluded any less British.
This is an important point to grasp. Schmitt wants us to understand that equal rights only make sense when there is homogeneity. This idea of universal suffrage and universal rights, making each person equal to every other person is a liberal idea, but not a democratic idea. The very idea of a state or of a nation presupposes that within the confines of the state, even if equal rights are extended to all within the state, that if those same rights are extended to all mankind, the state ceases to exist. The existence of the nation implies a state of inequality between those within the nation and those without. To have a nation mean that those outside the nation are not equal, that is the same, as those within the nation.
“Even a democratic state, let us say the United States of America, is far from allowing foreigners to share its power or its wealth. Until now there has never been a democracy that did not recognize the concept of “foreign” and that could have realized the equality of all men.”
There is some irony in giving this example, because the liberal impulse towards instantiating the equality of all men now seems to have as its implied goal the elimination of the peculiarity of the United States in favor of idea of the global equality of all humanity. This, argues Schmitt, is not a democratic idea, but a liberal one.
Every sphere has its own equalities and inequalities. And even if we may wish to respect the worth of every human being, this does not therefore make them all equal. In the political, people are not abstractions and you cannot make equality an abstract thing. The idea of equality, for it to mean anything at all, actually requires the notion of inequality for it to gain real substance.
“The equality of all persons as persons is not democracy but a certain kind of liberalism, not a state form but an individualistic-humanitarian ethic and weltanschauung (that is an all encompassing world-view).”
This distinction between democracy and liberal ideas of equality are then built upon as Schmitt continues to unpack more elements in the modern idea of democracy. Since Rousseau, two elements have stood incoherently next to each other. That of the “social contract” and that of the general “will of the people.” Schmitt argues that if there is such unanimity within a people that a general will can be produced, why would such a people need a social contract? A social contract implies a lack of unity that is then resolved through said contract. The idea of a social contract seems to negate the idea of, or need for, the will of the people. What he is doing here is separating out and cleansing the idea of democracy from that of liberalism. The idea of the social contract, coming out of Rousseau, is essentially a liberal idea. It presupposes that all of the competing interests in society can come together and rationally develop an agreement for working together.
In a democracy, though, those who command and those who obey are supposed to be the same people, they are identical. But the idea that there are those who govern and those who are governed implies an inequality. Liberalism argues that this inequality can be overcome through a contractual limitation of power, producing a limited state. The crisis of parliamentarianism springs from the circumstances of modern mass democracy. The problem of equality and homogeneity cannot be resolved. The crisis of parliament must be distinguished from the crisis of democracy. The problems aggravate each other, but are distinct.
If we take seriously the idea of democracy, then no constitution, no social contract, can stand against the will of the people. If a society is truly democratic, a representative body based on discussion by independent representatives has no justification for its existence. This is because the belief in discussion is a liberal idea and not a democratic idea. As is the idea of the social contract.
“In a democracy there is only the equality of equals, and the will of those who belong to those equals.”
“The crisis of the modern state arises from the fact that no state can realize a mass democracy of mankind, not even a democratic state.”
What Schmitt is saying here in these two quote is that democracy can function as long as the democratic group is homogenous assembly of equals. That type of homogeneity cannot be extended across an entire society, let alone all of humanity. As long as the decision making process is contained within a unitary group, it can be said to be “democratic” even if that group does not include the whole of society. Once the liberal impulse for equality tries to extend the franchise equally to all, the democratic process is destroyed, because homogeneity is lost.
To make his point, he asserts that both Bolshevism and Fascism, like all dictatorships, are anti-liberal, they are not necessarily anti-democratic.
“The will of the people can be expressed just as well and perhaps better through acclamation…dictatorial and Caesaristic methods not only can produce the acclamation of the people but also can be a direct expression of democratic substance and power.”
What Schmitt is saying is that democracy does not necessarily require the mechanism of voting, nor does its outcome need to result in a liberal parliamentary form of government. There are various ways that the will of the people can be authentically expressed and this homogeneous will can want a dictator and this can still be democratic. It would cease to be a liberal state, but it could still be very much democratic.
Democracy and Parliamentarianism
The 19th century, can in many ways, be summarized, asserts Schmitt, with a single phrase: the triumphal march of democracy. Throughout this period to today human progress has been associated closely with democracy. The primary opponent of democracy, though, was the monarchy and with it the idea of a hereditary elite. As the power and influence of the monarch waned, the democratic impulse lost its precision. Because of its associations with progress, all political ideas wanted to make use of the democratic impulse. At the time, many saw this as a good thing.
“If all political tendencies could make use of democracy then it proved it had no political content and was only an organizational form; and if one regarded it from the perspective of some political program that one hoped to achieve with the help of democracy, one had to ask oneself what value democracy itself had merely as a form.”
This is a subtle point. If democracy has no content of its own, then it really is not essential to any particular political agenda. In other words, if this is the case, then you don’t really need democracy in order to be a liberal society. So what then is the point of democracy?
Schmitt argues there is a tendency to argue that a free market economy seems to demand a democracy, but this does not answer the question as to the essential purpose of democracy. As we discussed above, the idea of social contract is distinct from the notion of democracy. The market economy is based on this idea of competing interests and the freedom to enter into mutually beneficial contract within a rule of law context. Because this is essentially a liberal idea and not a democratic idea, you cannot argue that a democracy is necessary for the maintenance of the economic.
Schmitt, at this point, draws from Max Weber to note that the state is essentially just another large business enterprise. The administrative state and a large factory are essentially the same thing from a structural perspective. They may have different ends, but they employ the same systems and the same logic to manage the organizational problems that are very similar for both. Because business largely runs on this idea of private law, that is, contracts negotiated between two parties, if the political begins to run on private law it ceases to be political.
What Schmitt means here is that if the legislative body acts to negotiate settlements between interests groups, or acts on behalf of interest groups in a manner like that of a business—i.e. the horse trading idea of getting legislation done—it ceases to be political and becomes simply another business interest. If parliament acts on behalf of the interests of political parties, lobbying groups, corporate or private interest groups, if it negotiates a settlement through the legislature on behalf on any group or interest, it ceases to be political. It is just another business.
Because of this, Schmitt asks the question: is democracy only valid for those who come together to make a decision? Are the only participants in democracy those who are actually negotiating the compromise agreements on behalf of their interests?
Moving on, the idea of “the people” is essentially an abstraction that cannot be realized in reality. They do not form a unity and thus cannot be identified with a single label. They are too heterogeneous to be identified with a single moniker “the people.” For example, what do you do with the outvoted minority? They must be ignored. Do they then cease to be part of “the people?”
“The will of the outvoted minority is in truth identical with the will of the majority.”
The outvoted minority must be ignored because their desires, their will only causes difficulties, both theoretical and practical. Because of the nature of how the democratic process works, the citizen effectively agrees to laws that are against his own interests and against his own will. The citizen never really gives his consent to any specific content, a specific will, but rather he is giving an abstract ascent to the result that emerges from the voting process. This vote result becomes “the general will.” Thus, if you have a multi-party system, the largest voting block might be a minority, but yet can appeal to democracy while ruling over the majority. This is the condition in Canada where most “majority” governments are formed with a percentage of the popular vote that is often in the 30-40% range. These are not coalition governments, but true majorities formed out of a minority of the popular vote. Thus, in Canada, the general will of the people is identified with the ruling Liberal party and somewhere between 60-70% of the will of the voting public becomes identified now with the will of this minority as they act in the name of the “general will.”
“The will of the people is always of course identical with the will of the people.”
This democratic process creates an artificial and abstract sense of the will of the people through the voting mechanism.
“It really makes no difference whether one identifies the will of the majority or the will of the minority with the will of the people if it can never be the unanimous will of all citizens.”
This is an extremely cynical view, but it is the correct one. The will of the people is an irrelevant idea in a democracy unless that will is expressed as a unity. There is no guaranteeing that a majority vote will actually produce the will of the people. People deceive themselves all the time. With the techniques of propaganda, public opinion can be manipulated such that the will of the people is little more than the will of the propagandist.
Not only this, but democracy is also only possible for a people who are able to think democratically. In other words, democracy is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a content free mechanism for elucidating the will of the people. For it to function as it should, it requires a population that has a strong democratic spirit, is self aware and able to converse intelligently upon all the issues facing the community.
This issue of the will of the people is one of the main weak points in the democratic idea. Democracy is incapable of doing the main thing which it is tasked to do, that is, give expression to the will of the people. So how is this problem overcome? How do the people come to know their own will such that it can be expressed democratically? The liberal impulse says that this will is formed through proper education. In order for the citizen to be properly democratic, he must be educated into situation whereby he can give proper expression to his own will. In order to create a citizenry able to participate fully in the democratic process, to properly express their will, an educational dictatorship must be instituted in order to save democracy from itself. But there is a problem:
“Only political power, which should come from the people’s will, can form the people’s will in the first place.”
You are thus caught in a trap. In order to legitimately claim the will of the people necessary to engage in the kind of education efforts that will sufficiently allow the full citizenry to express their will confidently in the political process, you must have the will of the people to begin with. But how can they know their will if they have not been taught to know there will? Who can claim the necessary legitimacy to educate them, if the people cannot know this is their will in the first place?
With this in mind, the will of the people is not all that dissimilar from the concept of the will of God. The idea that power flows from the people take on a similar meaning to the belief that all authority comes from God. What makes this observation interesting is that divining the will of the people is not that different from discovering the will of God. It really has nothing to do whatsoever with the voting process and is in contrast something mystical, more akin to what the priest or the prophet does.
The end result of all this discussion is that parliamentarianism can live without democracy and democracy without parliamentarianism. And if the above paragraph is true, then a dictatorship can be every bit as democratic as a parliament whose members are chosen by vote. In fact, it may actually have a better chance at being democratic, that is, giving true expression to the will of the people.
The Principles of Parliamentarianism
For a long time now parliament has been seen as the highest form of government. But upon what basis does our belief in parliament rest? It is generally seen as a place where the interests and wishes of the people can be brought forward and discussed. It is just not practical in a nation of millions, or hundreds of millions, to allow everyone to speak and have their say. We elect a committee, so to speak, to do that work on our behalf:
“Parliament is a committee of the people, the government is a committee of parliament. The notion of parliamentarianism thereby appears to be something essentially democratic.”
This creates a problem, though. Once you have admitted into the democratic idea this notion that a few can effectively represent the will of the many, it is relatively straightforward to argue that parliament is unnecessary. Why? Because if 435 plus 100 plus 2 persons can effectively represent 332 million people, why do you need that many at all?
“If for practical and technical reasons the representatives of the people can decide instead of the people themselves, then certainly a single trusted representative could also decide in the name of the people.”
“Without ceasing to be democratic, the argument would justify an antiparliamentary Caesarism.”
Carl Schmitt makes the argument that there is effectively no difference between a democratically elected dictator and a democratically elected legislative body. In fact, a single person is likely to be more decisive in a crisis and may actually be better in tune with the will of the people than is a representative body. The legislative body may be more liberal in orientation, but is not more democratic, nor does it better guarantee that the will of the people will find its proper expression.
Liberalism, he argues, must be understood primarily not first of all as a political project, but rather as a comprehensive metaphysical system that expresses itself through politics:
“That the truth can be found through the unrestrained clash of opinion and that competition will produce harmony.”
Liberalism is born out of the commitment to pursue the truth as a society. The symbol of this quest for the truth is the parliament, for it is here that debate is engaged.
“Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of discussion, are not only useful and expedient, therefore, but really life and death questions for liberalism.”
Without these freedoms, the unending conversation that leads to truth cannot continue, argues Schmitt. Looking at the above list, it becomes more apparent that many of the political debates in the United States are really a debate over the nature, character and future of liberalism. The “conservative” liberal wishes to preserve or return to an older form of liberalism, one which places greater value on the society wide pursuit for the truth through open, ongoing discussion as symbolized in the legislative; whereas another stream of “progressive” liberal wishes to emphasize another aspect of liberalism, realizing the absolute equality of people, the universal franchise extended into all things.
One of the key qualities necessary for this ongoing discussion across society is that it requires “openness.” All of the discussions which have an impact on the people must be out in the open. In a liberal democratic society committed to the society wide pursuit of the truth, all of these discussions must be available to all. The first challenge this fundamental liberalism faces is that a state must have secrets. Even if it wishes discussion to be completely open within the body politic, there are enemies who might gain a harmful advantage because of this. Thus, every society needs to be able to keep secrets. The presence of a secret, means that openness is no longer possible, that all of society can no longer freely engage the debate over its own future. I can no longer fully quest for the truth.
After Machiavelli, there developed the idea that one could oppose the politics of “power” and “might” by developing a moral, ethical and legal ethos within society. Two counterforces were proposed, that of openness and that of the division of powers. The idea is that closed door policies are perceived as an evil. Secret police are perceived as an evil. There were those that proposed that secret diplomacy was a societal ill. Any secret politics, any secret act of the state is an evil that needs to be combatted through getting everything out into the open, making everything public.
“The light of the Public is the light of the Enlightenment, a liberation from superstition, fanaticism and ambitious intrigue.”
The theory of enlightenment liberalism is that an enlightened public opinion makes the abuse of power impossible. Where there is a free and engaged press, the abuse of power is impossible. By shining light upon power, you could eliminate corruption and abuse.
What is interesting, though, says Schmitt, is that when society is divided, it is quite possible that the one person, the minority, is closest to the truth and the rest of the people, the majority, are wrong. He argues that the vote, as a form of speech, also becomes a form of pressure of the majority upon the minority to abandon their understanding of the truth in favor of that of the majority. The majority always pressures the minority to rally their support around the majoritarian view. We see this in calls for everyone to support the president. Once elected he is everyone’s president and deserves the support of all of the people, whether you voted for him or not. The majority is always pressuring the minority into silence.
Thus, to avoid this kind of pressure, the vote is made secret so as to protect it from pressure and prevent it from being silenced. But if this is the case, the secret vote calls into question the whole foundation of the liberal system of free and open speech. The secret vote says that minority opinions will not be welcome. If they were welcome, you would not need a secret vote so as to express the unpopular minority opinion. Thus, the secret vote says implicitly that any opinion which differs from the majority can only be expressed in private. In public, one can only be open with one’s opinion if it is majoritarian. Otherwise, one must keep one’s opinion a secret, as symbolized in the secret vote.
This means that at the very outset, with one of the core mechanisms used to combat the use of authoritarian power, that of openness, that true openness is not possible because it is always subject to the majority and to power. At the outset, liberal ideas about free and open speech are an illusion, it is a lie. Speech is always subject to majoritarian pressure and the pressure of power to conform. Thus the recognition that speech can only be free if it is private or, dare we say, anonymous. Schmitt here hits on the essence of the need for anonymous speech in that open speech is subjected to majoritarian pressure and sanction by power. But this then calls into question the very foundation of liberal society, the open pursuit of truth.
The Division of Powers
The notion of competition is seen in liberal parliamentarian theory as necessary for the truth to emerge. Power must be countered by power. If the truth is to emerge, then various powers must set against each other so that the competition of ideas can then move society closer to the truth. But along side of this mechanism of competition, the image of balance is often put forward. The idea is that offsetting powers will hold each other in check and thus prevent one power from encroaching on the other power, preventing conflict, and thus creating a stable, peaceful society.
Not only should this balance be created between different branches within the state, so too even within the legislature there should be a balance. This is the theory that gridlock is good and it prevents hasty action as well as one power imposing itself unduly upon another power in society. This balance, this gridlock, is seen as a good. In this sense, the idea is that equilibrium is created in society through negotiation between powers. This negotiation would replace the potential unity created through a vigorous pursuit of the truth, such that the truth emerges through debate and society is unified around the truth. In contrast, this pursuit of truth is replaced with either a negotiated settlement or with gridlock.
This leads to the idea that both society and its government requires not unity, but rather controlled opposition, such that at minimum there are always at least two parties playing off against each other and negotiating with each other. Rather than seeking unity in truth, the goal is to create a stable division of powers or interests within society. This controlled balance of powers between branches and within the legislature is then cemented in the form of a legal agreement, the constitution.
“The constitution is identical with the division of powers.”
This idea of the division of powers is central to constitutional theory, argues Schmitt. What happens in this shift, is that the liberal idea of the pursuit of the truth, of learning the will of the people, is replaced with the negotiated settlement between competing powers. This notion of the separation and competition between powers becomes so central that the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens says:
“Any society in which the separation of powers and rights is not guaranteed has no constitution.”
This idea of constitutional thinking, enshrining the rules which govern the competition of powers gains ascendency as the idea of elucidating the will of the people and the quest for truth recedes. Whereas the idea of a legislature acting as the committee of the whole, whether that body is 500 people or one person, it really does not functionally change its role. But once you introduce the idea of the competition of powers, this notion of the committee of one shatters the foundation of constitutional thinking, the competition between powers:
“Such a theory understands dictatorship not just as the antithesis of democracy but also essentially as the suspension of the division of powers, that is, as a suspension of the constitution, a suspension of the distinction between the legislative and the executive.”
So while a dictator is perfectly compatible with democracy, it shatters the foundation upon which constitutional thinking is based, that of a social contract between rival powers, a negotiated settlement bringing balance between competing powers. A dictator destroys that balance, and thus the constitutional order.
The Concept of Law and Legislation in Parliamentarianism
This idea of a constitutional order is the basis for the idea of “the rule of law” (rechtsstaat). But to understand what is meant by the rule of law, we have to understand the distinction between “law” and “legislation.”
“The whole theory of the rechtsstaat rests on the contrast between law which is general and already promulgated, universally binding without exception, and valid in principle for all times, and a personal order which varies from case to case according to the particular concrete situations.”
Legislation is that which is concrete and specific and varies from time to time, such as a budget. A budget is not law, it is legislation.
Schmitt notes that in the philosophy of the rule of law, it is a long standing controversy whether or not the impersonal law is sovereign or the king is sovereign. The United States cast itself as a government of law in contrast to a government of men. Schmitt draws on Bodin to note that no matter how comprehensive or timeless the law may seem, there will always come a time in which an exception is necessary. From Bodin he draws an idea that will be further refined in his Political Theology that:
“The sovereign is whomever decides what constitutes an exception.”
That said, though, the cornerstone of constitutional thought is this idea of the rule of law. The rule of law is a system of rules put in place that are valid at all times, enshrined in the constitution. The government, then, deals not with the timeless rule of law, but rather grapples with what is occurring in a particular time and place. In this sense the officials of government do not so much rule, as they reason from the rules.
This is where it gets interesting. Schmitt argues that the “general will” of the people that is so essential to democracy finds its expression in the rule of law. Yet, the instrument that enshrines the rule of law, the constitution, is the product not of a pursuit of the truth, but of a negotiated settlement, a social contract, between competing powers. It is not the product the pursuit of truth that leads to a singular unifying expression of the truth of the people, the general will, but rather of a setting aside of that quest in favor of a negotiated settlement, the social contract. As a result, the constitution that purports to set forth the timeless “rule of law” in fact gives us merely a negotiated “social contract,” something akin to a business deal.
Parliament Limited to Legislation
Having set out this distinction between law and legislation, Schmitt next turns to the difference between the legislative and the executive. Law as such is intellectual, abstract and deliberative, whereas the executive is active. We see this clearly in the executive’s role as commander in chief:
“No armed force can deliberate.”
He then draws on Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 70:
“The executive must be in the hand of a single man because its energy and activity depend upon that.”
The legislature is the a body that represents open discussion in assembly, whereas the executive represents decisive decision making and the guarding of state secrets. To the executive belongs unity of decision. But to the legislative:
“The guarantee of civic freedom can only be logically implemented in the legislative, not in the executive.”
The American system, says Schmitt, identifies law with the truth. Parliament is the place where one deliberates and a relative truth is achieved through discourse. Discourse requires multiple parties. They also need to be open so that the citizen can learn to recognize the true character of its interests in the debates. But the division of powers fundamentally undermines this openness. The conflicting demands of open discussion with secret, active decisions undermines the whole project of parliamentary democracy.
“As soon as there is a demand for parliamentary government…the idea of parliamentarianism finds itself in a crisis because the perspective of a dialectic-dynamic process of discussion can certainly be applied to the legislative but scarcely to the executive. Only a universally applicable law, not a concrete order, can unite truth and justice through the balance of negotiations and public discussion.”
What he is saying here is that the pursuit of truth that produces timeless universally applicable law can only happen in and through the process of the legislature. But the necessity of the executive is, by its secretive and active nature, is cut off from that process. The system finds itself, from the very outset, at odds with itself and its fundamental principles.
The General Meaning of the Belief in Discussion
Again, we state that openness and discussion are the principles upon which parliamentarianism depend. For a liberal who operates with the idea of “the rule of law,” the naked use of power and force is an evil in itself. Locke argued that the way of beasts can only be overcome through openness and discussion. In this regard, discussion replaces force, that is violence. Dialogue is synonymous with human progress.
“All progress, including social progress, is realized through representative institutions, that is, regulated liberty—through public discussion, that is reason.”
Reason worked out through open discussion is meant to replace violence within society. But, argues Schmitt, as parliament has evolved, much of the discussion has been removed from the main body to committees. Once debate shifts out of public view, parliament becomes a mere façade. Even if this is out of necessity, once parliament is practiced this way it has abandoned the idea of free and open speech in the pursuit of the truth that produces law and thus loses its rationale.
Small committees of interested parties and even bureaucrats make decisions behind closed doors. Big interests, especially business interests, will have more sway than the will of the people and are functionally more important that the will of the people.
The conclusion that Schmitt reaches is that the parliamentary system has lost its foundation and meaning. It is no longer what it says it is and has become a shell of what it is supposed to be, mere window dressing on how things actually work in practice.
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Dictatorship in Marxist Thought
We now reach the portion of the book that will leave you wondering, “Where is Schmitt going with this?” Throughout this next section we must keep in mind that Schmitt is attacking a liberal conception of government organized around parliamentary democracy by exposing its internal contradictions, many of which were reaching a crisis point in his own time. We have seen him focus in on the idea that the voting and parliament mechanisms are not necessarily the only, nor even the best way to ascertain the will of the people. It is also possible for a dictator to discern and act in accordance with the will of the people.
With this in mind, Schmitt turns to examine a political force that was very live and very active in his time, that of Marxism. Specifically, he bores into the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Marxist argument was that the parliamentary mechanism was part and parcel of the dominance of the bourgeoise class. Once swept aside, there would be an interim period prior to full communism called the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would prevent counter-revolution and begin the process of transferring ownership of the means of production collectively to the proletariat. This dictatorship would be acting on behalf of the people, acting according to their will.
Marxist Science is Metaphysics
Schmitt argues that scientific socialism was a rejection of revolutionary Marxism. Marxism in its pure form was an involuntary, inevitable force of history that would realize itself on its own without direct human involvement. Scientific socialism was a rejection of this historical utopianism, transforming Marxism into a social and political reality that can be grasped immanently and from this knowledge a correct praxis can be developed. Thus they reject the “iron necessity” of Marx, in large part because it is hard to organize people to participate in something that will happen anyways without their direct involvement. Schmitt wants us to examine this political socialism, because it is important to do so in order to properly understand the concept of the dictatorship.
He argues that a certain rationalist socialism attempts to produce a kind of mathematically exact social system, like that of the enlightenment rationalists. Kind of a Rousseau meets Marx sort of thing that results in an attempt to bring about the communist reality through social engineering. It shifts energy from the moral aspects of Marx, directing it towards a kind of absolute technocracy, a dictatorship of the rationalists. It attempts to make human activity the master of historical events. Man, through technology, can master the irrationality of human fate. This approach remains very much with us today and forms the organizing ideology of much of the elite across the globe.
“According to Marxist belief, humanity will become conscious of itself and that will occur precisely by means of the correct knowledge of social reality. Consciousness thus achieves an absolute character.”
The technocrat argues that such knowledge is produced through scientific examination.
“An active person then could have no other interest than to grasp with absolute certainty current events and the contemporary epoch.”
This drive to grasp the truth of the forces of history—Hegel as expressed through Marx—to see the true metaphysical reality beneath the events that we see, leads to a rationalist sociological construction and to a rationalist dictatorship. Having seen the truth of the forces of history, we must master and bend them through social engineering towards the goal of equality by means of a rationalist dictatorship.
Dictatorship and Dialectical Thought
In examining this, Schmitt lays out the case that it is difficult to connect these two ideas, the dialectical move of history with that of the rationalist dictatorship. The socialists make the attempt, but the two seem mutually exclusive. The unending process of the unfolding of the world spirit that develops through contradictions and negations, must include within itself its own contradiction. The dictatorship becomes part of the dialectic, just another historical force and it thus robs the dictatorship of its essence: human decision. In Marxist and Hegelian thinking, an exception never comes from outside the historical process to grab hold of and direct the process. The diktat of the dictator becomes just another moment in the unfolding of the world spirit.
Schmitt reminds is that in Hegelian philosophy there is no foundation for the distinction between good and evil. The good is merely that which is rational and good for that stage of the dialectical process. Thus, in practical socialist politics, those who have the higher consciousness and believe themselves to be the representatives of this great historical force, the champions of historical progress, shake off the constraints of history to look at the objective necessity. They are able to see these forces at work and are thus in a position to force the unfree to be free.
“In practice that is an educational dictatorship.”
If history is to move forward, then the false conceptions of reality must be constantly defeated. By necessity, this educational dictatorship will become a permanent reality.
“The highest level of consciousness can and must exercise dominion over the lower.”
In practical terms, this rationalist educational dictatorship which enlightens the population towards the true progressive move of history, negates the individual as an accident of history and elevates the whole into an absolute. The person can and must be sacrificed for the realization of history. The guardians of this dictatorship are chosen out by the forces of history to be its guardian.
“It was the Hegelians, conscious of knowing their own time correctly, who demanded a political dictatorship in which they would naturally become the dictators.”
There is a connection here that Schmitt does not draw out explicitly between this Hegelian/Marxist socialist educational dictatorship and the more purely liberal idea of the will of the people expressing itself in and through the mechanism of the parliament, the legislature. There is the question of how do the people in a democracy come to be aware of their own will, and thus full participation in democracy? They must be educated into it. They must be educated such that they can know and grasp what there will is personally as well as what the will of the people is collectively. In either case, whether you come to it through the mechanism of liberal parliamentary democracy, or you come to it through a socialist state, both require a form of educational dictatorship. One is education towards democratic participation. The other is education towards socialist awakening to the forces of progress. Socialism and parliamentary democracy become the same thing through the necessity for education. In case you have not made the connection, public schooling is the core of dictatorial control, the heart of the educational dictatorship. This is also why the left wishes to control the means of media and cultural production: through propaganda the educational dictatorship must be life long and no one should be free from its grasp.
We press on.
Dictatorship and Dialectics in Marxist Socialism
Marx’s Communist Manifesto is the concentration of the class struggle into one final decisive struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. All class contradictions become one contradiction, explains Schmitt. This simplification signals a powerful increase in the intensity of the struggle.
“Everything must be forced to the extreme so that it can be overturned out of dialectical necessity.”
The higher stage of classless humanity will only reveal itself when it retains the structure of Hegelian dialectics: the inhumanity of the capitalist social order will necessarily produce its own negation. But from where does the certainty come that this moment has indeed arrived?
The certainty comes through the enlightened consciousness of the enlightened. Their understanding of the social process is proof of its arrival. The enlightened, the woke, are proof that they are at the peak and that all development lays behind them.
This elevates the bourgeoisie to the level of inhumanity. Their very presence is a crime against the revelation of humanity’s true and final form. All contradictions will be resolved and all ties to family, religion or fatherland will cease.
The Marxist Tautology
Schmitt presses on and through. In some sense, the proletariat have no real existence of their own. They really exist only as a contradiction of the bourgeoisie, that is, in its negation. In contrast, the the bourgeois must be fully known, because its essence lies at the heart of the current epoch. The bourgeoisie belong to history, are its major subject matter. They must be understood and known in their entirety. This is not merely practical, but rather has a metaphysical element.
Being conscious of the true nature of the hidden metaphysical realities of the world spirit is the criterion for beginning the next stage of development. To properly understand the bourgeoisie is to provide evidence that its era is at an end. In this sense, it is the proletariat who must understand properly the true nature of the bourgeoisie. But in return, the true nature of the proletariat remains closed and opaque to the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, in grasping the bourgeoisie, is the force that rises up and negates it, revealing itself only after sweeping aside the bourgeoisie, at which point Hegel’s Owl of Minerva takes fight and all is understood.
What is interesting is that in this educational dictatorship, effectively run by the bourgeoisie technocrats, the subject matter is the bourgeois themselves. The true goal of the dictatorship is not the education of the masses or even the bourgeoisie themselves, but rather, it is the elimination of the bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of education seeks its own negation.
Here is where the payoff comes. Schmitt argues that in response to the absolute rationalism of the educational dictatorship a new theory of the direct use of force reveals itself. This new theory of the use of direct action takes aim at both the foundations of parliamentarianism as well as the institutions of democracy that remained as part of the liberal/socialist rationalist educational dictatorship.
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Irrational Theories of the Direct Use of Force
Because of liberalism’s and socialism’s rationalism, Schmitt argues, whatever works to replace the rationalist educational dictatorship must be essentially irrational in its nature.
“Even if the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat still retains the possibility of the rationalist dictatorship, all modern theories of direct action and the use of force rest more or less on irrationalist philosophy.”
You might be thinking that this escalated quickly. We have to remember that Schmitt’s own time was one of great volatility. The threat of Marxist revolution was very real. So, looking at a system of parliamentary democracy that was crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions and seeing the threat from Marxism and socialism, Schmitt sees in those two forms a similarity in their inherent technocratic rationalism, and so looks elsewhere for answers. He drew on Georges Sorel and his irrationalism to attack the governing orders of the day:
“Anarchism meant a battle against every sort of systematic unity, against the centralized uniformity of the modern state, against the professional parliamentary politician, against bureaucracy, the military, and police, against what was felt to be the metaphysical centralism of belief in God.”
This is radical indeed for a man who was himself a Catholic. But Schmitt saw the danger of both parliamentary democracy and rational socialism, seeing both as a form of despotism.
What draws Schmitt to Sorel is the power of myth. Myth is an expression of culture, of the spirit of the people. He argued that the ability to act and the capacity for heroism resides primarily in the power of myth. Only in myth can a nation or social group find its historical purpose and realize its historical moment. Myth is what gives the strength for sacrifice and martyrdom. It is myth, the fundamental power of one’s own culture, that provides the strength to use force, violence, and it is this that drives world history.
The power of myth, Schmitt declares, is not there in the modern bourgeoisie, with their anxiety over money and property, ruined by skepticism, relativism and parliamentarianism. The endless discussion centered in parliament cannot be the driver of myth. The bourgeoisie ideal is the peaceful agreement, the prosperous business arrangement that benefits all. In the end, it becomes a monstrosity of cowardly intellectualism.
I want to pause here to reflect on current phenomenon of mass immigration. In a place like Canada, for example, the country has been turned into a multi-cultural technocracy where immigrants come from all over the globe to take advantage of the economic opportunities. The conspiracy minded might, having read Schmitt this far, begin to wonder whether or not mass immigration and the multi-cultural society is an attempt to destroy the mythos of the people? Or, in the case of Canada, to ensure that it is aborted before ever being born and thus never has a chance to take root and flourish, thus removing the primary threat to the power of the regime. I think it is time to see mass immigration, not primarily as an attack against the working class, although it is that, but rather as an assault on the mythic core of the people, thus sapping their strength to revolt.
Sorel was at heart a Marxist, but one who criticized other Marxists for their lack of violent impulses. He argued that battle and war are the true impulse of the intensive life. The class war must be more than a symbolic battle, it must be real. Schmitt puts forward that it is myth that gives courage for the final battle.
For Schmitt, there is no greater danger to the people than professional politics and politicians. Parliamentary democracy saps the energy and focus of the people. They get tied up in the business of parliament, wearing down their enthusiasm, killing their instincts for decision. Drawing on Juan Denoso Cortes, Schmitt explains that a day of decision is coming in which there is a radical rejection of the present order, a day of sovereign declaration. Every rationalist interpretation of the situation falsifies the immediacy of life. Our current system and its inherent rationalism is sucking the life out of our society, robbing it of its vitality.
In confronting the situation of the rational technocracy of socialist liberalism, the only force that has the strength to challenge the power of the state is violence. From Sorel:
“Rather in the place of the mechanically concentrated power of the bourgeois state there appears a creative proletarian force — ‘violence’ appears in place of power.”
This, argues Sorel, is the only way to break the hold that the current techno-rationalist regime has on power. Trying to work within the system for change means putting aside your most potent weapon:
“For the proletariat, the only danger is that it might lose its weapons through parliamentary democracy and allow itself to be paralyzed.”
While seeing the value in Sorel’s argument for direct action, for Schmitt the most powerful driver of the kinds of myth powerful enough to ignite a people are those of nation, not class. Culture in Schmitt’s mind is more powerful a driver than economics. In fact, worrying about one’s economic position will actually make you less likely to challenge the regime, more likely to submit and be ruled by the technocratic educational dictatorship. He puts it this way:
“The more naturalistic conceptions of race and descent, the apparently more typical terrisme of the Celtic and romance peoples, the speech, tradition, and consciousness of a shared cultural education, the awareness of belonging to a community with a common fate or destiny, a sensibility of being different from other nations—all that trends toward a national rather than a class consciousness today.”
He declares that when nation and class collide, the national myth prevails.
“The theory of myth is the most powerful symptom of the decline of the relative rationalism of parliamentary thought.”
Finally, Schmitt argues that as the power of myth grows within a people to counter the rationalism of parliamentary democracy or the rationalism of technocratic socialism, that myth leads to an authority based on order, discipline and hierarchy.
Parliamentarianism can no longer simply content itself in asking the question in the face of its problems: if not parliamentary democracy, then what? The answer cannot simply be more discussion, more voting, more bureaucracy. There has to be another answer. Schmitt points to decisive action arising out of myth as expressed in violent action as the way forward.
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