This is the second of a series of three diaries on agonistic politics. The series originated in a long, dense diary a couple of weeks ago; because that diary was highly abstract and very long, the series looks to simplify and concretize the concepts in more manageable chunks.
The first diary in the series discussed what political theory means by "constituting citizens," and it contrasted traditional liberal theory with contemporary social theory. This diary will look at how political theory deals with enemies, contrasting the work of Carl Schmitt with agonistic theorists. The third diary will apply this theory to analyzing the viability of secular binational state in Israel/Palestine.
The good stuff is on the other side...
Agonistic political theory developed in part as a critique of Carl Schmitt's conception of politics. Schmitt, a German political theorist who was a member of the Nazi party and whose ideas were influential in the Third Reich, believed that the fundamental, most important aspect of politics was the conflict between irreconcilable enemies. For Schmitt, politics was about struggle, and meaningful struggle was potentially to the death.
In his Concept of the Political, Schmitt wrote that the enemy is:
the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specifically intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible....
The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy. It is the most extreme consequence of enmity (as cited in Frank Vander Valk, "Decisions, Decisions: Carl Schmitt on Friends and Political Will (.pdf file)," Rockefeller College Review, Volume 1., No. 2, page four).
Along with his belief that the relationship with enemies formed the foundation of politics, Schmitt developed a broad theory justifying dictatorial power. Dictatorship, he held, was essential to decisive action, and decisive action was needed to defend states from internal and external enemies. The dictator, he wrote, was capable on his own of interpreting and executing the will of the people, and every state needed to allow for the emergence of dictators in times of crisis. In the extreme, that is, Schmitt believed in establishing dictatorial power in order to manage the conflict between enemies.
I want to be clear that Schmitt was a complex and sophisticated political thinker, and my summary here of his views doesn't do justice to their full range. Nevertheless, I do believe my summary is accurate and defensible as far as it goes, and it is what we need to understand how Schmitt has influenced but is still significantly different from agonistic theorists.
Schmitt's political theory has been quite popular among rightwingers. The Concept of the Political referenced above was edited and released in 1996 by none other than Leo Strauss, the intellectual godfather of the neoconservatives who run George Bush's foreign policy. You can definitely see elements of Schmitt, in fact, in Bush's conception of the unitary executive and of the Great War on Terror.
According to Renato Cristi, Schmitt also influenced Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian 1980 constitution, which attempted to legislate the country's leftwing parties out of existence.
Schmitt himself joined the Nazi party in 1933, after Hitler had come to power. At the time, Schmitt was already a prominent and powerful conservative political theorist in the Weimar Republic, allied with the groups that brought Hitler into the government. Most of his biographers believe he joined the party out of political opportunism, but there was also clearly an ideological affinity between the theorist and the politicians: Schmitt hoped to use the Nazi dictatorship to resolve longstanding problems he believed characterized the German polity, and the Nazis were thrilled to have a legal scholar of his standing on board.
Eventually, the true believers and bureaucratic climbers in the party isolated him from power, but he remained a member until Hitler was overthrown by Allied troops. He then lived out a long life, dying in 1985, trying to establish himself as an intellectual defender of traditional European aristocratic values, against the onslaught of the Americanizing Atlantic alliance. (There's a good analysis of Schmitt by an anonymous author at the University of Chicago Political Theory Workshop here (.pdf file).)
Agonists agree with Schmitt on the significance of enemies in political life, but differ with him on just about everything else. Where Schmitt's theory was essentially pessimistic, considering his belief that difference leads to conflict and that force is an acceptable way to resolve conflict, agonists look to contain conflict within a democratic political process.
They do this by noting that while an adversarial relationship may result in an existential conflict (i.e., in a fight to the death), it does not have to do so. Samuel Chambers, as cited on wikipedia, has written:
Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other... marked not merely by conflict but just as importantly, by mutual admiration...
Agonists hold that one's political identity is determined in part by their political enemies. The political theorist Chantal Mouffe puts it this way:
power should not be conceived as an external relation taking place between two pre-constituted identities, but rather as constituting the identities themselves.
Now, this idea runs a little contrary to the way we normally think about things, or in fancy language it's counter-intuitive. Most of us probably think of our enemies as those who prevent us from being who we really want to be, from doing what we really want to do.
But if we think it through a little more concretely, the concept actually makes sense. Our identity is manifested through our behavior and our consciousness, what we do and how we think about what we do. Look at Daily Kos. How often do LGF, Red State, and Free Republic get mentioned in diaries and comments? How much do we discuss the practice and behavior of the "Republic" Party? A critical part of who we are, as "a Democratic blog with one goal in mind: electoral victory," contrasts us directly with our political opponents. Our identity as a political blog, that is, is bound up with the existence of other parties and other blogs that we interact with in a conflictive way. Those others are our adversaries, and they help make us who we are.
Think for a moment about the Cold War. Often portrayed as a fight to the death between two competing ideological systems, it actually never was that. In fact, one could make a good argument the Cold War didn't really get off the ground until the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, and the height of the Cold War clearly was during those years when both sides had the nuclear weapons capacity to obliterate the other. Mutually Assured Destruction may have led to a cute acronym (MAD), but it also effectively described the reality of large scale nuclear war between the USSR and the USA.
US foreign policy during the Cold War always incorporated the conflict with the Soviet Union as either a constraint or an objective -- or both. Soviet policy also focused a great deal on its conflict with the West. Yet this conflict never, and could not ever have, led "to the real possibility of physical killing" -- at least, not in the sense of all out war between the two adversaries -- to cite again Schmitt's phrase about the real meaning of the term enemy.
I'm even willing to take this example further. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the mid to late 1980s, the United States entered into a deep identity crisis, one which is still not resolved today. In fact, I would argue, the Iraq war itself is a product of this unresolved sense of identity in our country, a result of the competition among different interest groups in the US government to determine what our role should be in the world.
To sum up. The relationship between adversaries is a fundamental political relationship, one which helps constitute the identity of each adversary and one which will never be resolved in political society. Democratic societies need to acknowledge adversarial relationships, and not pretend in a fictitious consensus among groups that have diametrically opposed understandings of their place in the society.