Carl Schmitt for the Masses: The Problematic Nature of Parliamentary Democracy
It is much easier today to see that there are problems with democracy and the idea of a democratic legislature. But what are those problems? How best to understand them? Alternatives?
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.
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