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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.

Originally posted to litho on Sat Apr 14, 2007 at 06:41 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  and from a completely different perspective - (7+ / 0-)

    there is at least one Anglican theologian who suggests that politics is (at its best) a truth-seeking process. That is, if we believe (as rational folks do) that we have over-lapping, non-identical sets of knowledge and further believe (as rational folks do) that policy should be based on knowledge, then it follows that taking into account as much of the joint knowledge as possible should produce better policy. This does come from a tradition that emphasizes the complementary contributions of individuals to community.

  •  Interesting (7+ / 0-)

    ideas. thanks.

    Other interesting adversarial relationships exist within a community like DKos. In some cases, those labeled 'concern trolls' and 'purity trolls' (I just started seeing that last one) seem to be people who define themselves in terms of adversarial relationships  that do not neatly fall within Democratic/Republican relationship.

    For example, some of us here define ourselves in terms of 'anti-empire' or anti-corporate globalism, which puts us in an adverarial relationalship with a certain 'exceptionalist beliefs' that are strongly rooted in the Democratic party. You can see some of this in the strong reaction to some David Sirota's blogs; the I/P threads. Somebody from Code Pink posted a diary a few weeks back and they were completely hammered! Why? Because they concentrate many of their anti-war actions on Democrats -

    I don't want to blather on - but I guess the main question for me centers around the tension between 'party' on one hand and 'principle' on the other.

    •  Democrats vs anti-democrats is how Lappe (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cambridgemac, litho, npbeachfun

      puts it in her book "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to save Our country By Bringing Democracy To Life".  She divides Americans into those who are inclusionary and those who are exclusionary.  Those who like honest dialogue, mutual respect, basic fairness and reciprocal responsibilities.  The early divide in this country was between the Few Good Men Federalists and the Wisdom of Crowds Republican Democrats and it's played out ever since.  It is the ongoing dialogue (occasionally erupting into violence) that makes the democratic experiment.   Why?  I think it comes down to basic Jungian psychological types and trying for the yin and yang in our lives and government.  Right now we are  out of balance and off kilter.  We've gone too far in the Schmitt direction i.e. empire and need to turn sharp left back towards democracy.  

      The real war is the class war as Palast, Hartmann, Sirota, Greider, and others preach day in and day out.
      And DKos still has a far amount of Eisenhower Republicans who are uneasy small "d" democrats hiding here as refugees; their own party taken over by whackos.  If they would just take back their party we'd probably have less warring here.

      "Whatever is calculated to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man, I am for that thing." Abraham Lincoln

      by MontanaMaven on Sun Apr 15, 2007 at 06:42:49 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks for the tip on Frances Moore Lappe's (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        latest book.  I had missed that one, and I'm going to check it out.

      •  Democans and Republicrats (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The problem, though, is that the, uh, "opposition" party in the US is embracing most of the neocon agenda and accepting it as a "given". The neocons, in a nutshell, want the US to dominate the world, politically, militarily and economically. And the Democan leadership does not reject that goal — they simply disagree with the harsh unilateral neocon methods of implementing it.

        The Democan leadership did not oppose the Iraq war, it simply thought Bush was bungling the job, and they originally wanted to send MORE troops to, as they put it, "get the job done". The Democan leadership allowed Ned Lamont to twist in the wind, and gave virtually no support to the antiwar movement until it was FORCED to, kicking and screaming the entire time.  And indeed the Democan leadership's "support" of the antiwar movement STILL remains largely verbal, with virtually no effective practical steps taken to actually end the war and bring the troops home.  And the reason is simple --- the Democan leadership has never been against the war.  The Democan leadership not only supported the war, but utterly opposed those people in its own ranks who were against the war, until forced to modify its position by insurgent campaigns like Lamont's and by the massive groundswell of popular opposition to the war (65% or so of Americans being against the war).

        The Democan leadership also doesn’t oppose the globalization (read "Americanization") of the world economy — they simply think the neocons are clumsily implementing it and provoking too much hostility and resistance, where a "kinder, gentler" approach is required.

        To both Democans and Republicrats, the very idea that perhaps the US has no inherent right whatsoever to run the world as it sees fit, is met with the very same incomprehending blank stare.  They both simply treat the US's inherent right to dominate the world as a "given" that doesn't NEED to be explained or justified. The Democans won't do anything to change that. They'll just be less openly belligerent about it.

        Back in the days of slavery, there were two contending schools of thought as to how best to control the slaves. One school of thought was to work them as hard as possible, and simply beat or kill anyone who objected. That is the Republicrat view of the world. The other school of thought was to feed your slaves well, treat them well, and make them like you so they worked hard for you. That is the Democan view of the world. If you suggest to them, however, that perhaps they shouldn't be masters over their slaves, both of them would laugh at you. That is the American view of the world.

        The US, whether run by Democans or Republicrats,
        simply will not leave the Middle East or give up control over it until we are guaranteed control of its oil. It's the only reason we are there. We can't afford to not have it. Since the US can't compete anymore economically, the only way we can continue to dominate is through raw naked military power. And every tank that rolls, every jet that flies, every naval taskforce that sails, is utterly totally completely absolutely dependent upon one thing --- oil. Our dominant position in the world depends utterly on a steady supply of cheap oil. Neither the Democans nor the Republicrats are willing to give up our dominant position in the world -- indeed, both want to expand it. So they will do anything -- absolutely anything at all --- to maintain the flow of cheap oil. They have no choice.  Governments come and go --- but INTERESTS remain the same.

        Both Democans and Republicrats share the same goal and the same interests —- it is only in their preferred methods of implementing that goal that they differ. I want to see just how much of the neocon agenda the Democans actually REPEAL once they take power. Unfortunately, I don't expect them to repeal much of it at all -- the Democan leadership doesn't actually REJECT the neocon agenda, they just want to be kinder and gentler about implementing it. Carrot vs stick.

        I reject the goal itself, right from the start. And, alas, neither the Democans nor the Republicrats seem to be compatible with that view.

        Author: "Deception by Design: The Intelligent Design Movement in America" http://www.redandblackpublishers/deceptionbydesign.html

        by Lenny Flank on Sun Apr 15, 2007 at 08:50:48 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  agree, with one exception (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          What the elite (Republican and, to a lesser extent Democratic) want is not for "the US" to "control" Mideast oil.  No one controls a commodity, particularly not one that transports as easily as oil.  They want US investors/corporations to own the business and with it the incredible profits - and access to cashflow.

          That said, your analysis reminds me of my favorite metaphor:  We Merkans believe in Aztec economics.  

          The "Economy" must be kept healthy through periodici massive human sacrifice of the poor and the non-white.   Both Republicans and Democrats believe in ripping their hearts out.  The Democrats argue for administering some anesthesia, however - a kindler, gentler approach.  

          The Republicans, out of tradition, lack of imagination, and, in some cases, sadism, argue that you the sacrifice won't be effective if you use anesthesia.  And that, ladies and gentlement, is the range of debate in the US.

  •  Aggressive vs. Assertive (7+ / 0-)

    A distinction we used to invite while facilitating a batterer's intervention class was between acting assertively and acting aggressively.

    The idea was to consider aggressive as pursuing some goal without care, empathy, or concern for one's counterpart. Being assertive was about pursuing the goal AND continuing to care about your counterpart.

    In this schema, abuse is all tied up with aggressive behaviors and language.

    Authentic learning ends where faith begins.

  •  Yoink! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    npbeachfun, ormondotvos, heathlander

    Can we get this series at ProgressiveHistorians?  I think it would make a wonderful addition to our site.

  •  We Need Our Enemies (4+ / 0-)

    Great work once again, litho.

    In terms of the Cold War, it's also noting the ways in which the very presence of an enemy produced some of the more valuable advances in American policy: the civil rights movement (for African-Americans, for women) for example was explicitly accelerated by a negative definition of what "America" represented. That is, we couldn't very well continue to blather on about human rights in Moscow when they were so obviously trampled in Mississippi. This is a whole strain of conversataion that has disappeared -- or been wholly bastardized -- in this country (cf. that special olympian of current political theory, Dinesh D'Souza).

    For me, one of Mouffe's key insights about Schmitt comes here:

    By stressing that the identity of a democratic political community hinges on the possibility of drawing a frontier between 'us' and 'them', Schmitt highlights the fact that democracy always entails relations of inclusion-exclusion. This is a vital insight that democrats would be ill-advised to dismiss becuase they dislike its author.

    Her point here is that the Liberal democratic (note the Big L and small d, not referring specifically to the American political landscape) goal of consensus will invariably turn into hegemony, and that we have to continue to renegotiate those relations. Healthy democracy will require just as many people questioning and interrogating and calling out "our" candidates as "theirs," and this one of the reasons why the current crop of neocons are so profoundly dangerous: because while The Progressive was very tough on welfare-ending, Iraq-sanctions-upholding, Somalia-bombing Clinton, National Review demands a lockstep praise of The Leader and a presupposition about who should be excluded.

    Sorry for such a rambling comment -- keep up the good work.

  •  Possible error? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kj in missouri

    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.

    "...pretend a fictitious..."


    by ormondotvos on Sun Apr 15, 2007 at 12:58:50 AM PDT

  •  This is very interesting when combined with (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, kj in missouri, heathlander

    cognitive science decision making process analysis.



    by ormondotvos on Sun Apr 15, 2007 at 01:00:19 AM PDT

  •  brother, can you spare an economist a dime? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, heathlander

    you suggest schmitt claims people are extremely heterogeneous nd thus innately conflicted. i suppose shmitt says these conflicts keep us from attaining things we could attain were there consensus. so far, he could be a communist. but the appeal to dictatorship suggests he is more than that. he believes a small group can be "right" on what the consensus "should" be- so far, he could be a stalinist. but, of course, he ends up being but a feudalist, the natural extension of aristocrat. feudalism is not intellectually honest, of course, for there is no honest competition to choose the most able to lead. i do understand the aristofeudalists problems with representative democracy. but they end up making their determinations in an imperfect manner based on observables like skin color, and in the end it is the aristos who are the fools, because the truth is these observables are only spuriously correlated with the determinants schmitt claims to endorse.

  •  Good job! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, npbeachfun

    I should have read the other diary when it was rescued. I have now corrected this.
    The use of the Cold War as an example shows that agonistic relationships seek one's enemy's defeat. For a one-state solution, both sides would already have suffered a defeat. The idea of a Jewish State would be defeated, but so would the idea of an Islamic state in Palestine. If the people who would accept one state prevail, and some reparations are given to the Palestinians, do they really have anything to fight about anymore? The mere presence of a better government than either side has now might smooth down conflicts. The idea of agonism is useful to say that those who would create one state don't have to solve every problem, except for random terrorism and mayhem. Islamists from other countries would be interested in such terrorism because there will be no Islamic state.

    This diary made me think about the commandments to destroy Amalek and the 7 nations(the 7 nations are NOT the Palestinians. You will get Rambam among others to say that we have no idea who is a member of any of these nations anymore.) Destroying the 7 nations is showing intolerance for idolatry in the Land of Israel. However, it is stressed more that the Jews themselves should not be idolators than that the 7 nations are. Idolatry is an internal enemy. Amalek is the only enemy whose enmity is forever, in any time and place. The agonistic relationship is necessary in the entire picture which promises at the end peace and security from all one's enemies. We have an agonistic relationship with Amalek in part because he did not act like a proper enemy, attacking "all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God." (If you believe Rashi on this, this one attack encouraged all the proper enemies to think they could defeat the Bnei Israel.) But as a general rule, an enemy that has any power is a punishment, a projection of something wrong with the society.

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