Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mouffe and Schmitt

Just a brief note here. In my earlier criticism of Chantal Mouffe, I was especially irked by what appeared to me to be a Schmittian note in her insistence on the impossibility of transcending conflict. Like him, she is convinced that there can be no politics without the friend-enemy distinction. Her error is in drawing the conclusion that such a distinction must therefore always be affirmed. Nothing says that the goal of politics must be politics, just as nothing says that the goal of war must be war. 

Be that as it may, I recently had a look at The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, edited by Mouffe, to explore her view of Schmitt a bit further. What is immediately apparent is the high regard in which she holds Schmitt. While he is an “adversary”, he is one “of remarkable intellectual quality” whose “insights... can be used to rethink liberal democracy with a view to strengthening its institutions” (from her "Introduction", p.1). What she values in Schmitt is that he reminds us of the necessary conflictual dimension in politics, which is tidied over in liberal thinkers like Rawls or Habermas. Her only disagreement with Schmitt is that: 

...while he asserts the conflictual nature of the political, he does not permit a differential treatment of this conflictuality. It can manifest itself only in the mode of antagonism… According to Schmitt, there is no possibility of pluralism – that is, legitimate dissent among friends. (p.5)
This sounds disingenious, considering Schmitt's own lament for the decline of the European Völkerrecht, in which war itself was "bracketed", reduced to a contest between legitimate adversaries, i.e. sovereign states and their regular militaries. Schmitt himself is hardly a person who would celebrate the abyss of total conflict or all-out war. What Mouffe does is not so much to introduce the notion of "legitimate dissent" into his thought, as to turn bracketing around, re-applying it to the domestic arena. Where Schmitt talked about international relations, Mouffe talks about political dissent within the state.

The result of this re-application is her own "pluralistic agonism" - a perpetual discursive war contained within the safe framework established by the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy. As she readily admits, this is a very "liberal" and hence circumscribed view of the legitimate manifestations of conflicts. Its necessary corollary is a distinction between legitimate enemies, or "adversaries", who stick to the framework, and the illegitimate enemies who don't.
The adversary is in a certain sense an enemy, but a legitimate enemy with who there exists a common ground. [Adversaries] share a common allegiance to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy. (p.4)
This is an astounding sentence, following as it does her characterization of Schmitt as - remember? - precisely an "adversary". From the standpoint of her agonistic pluralism, this is a generous designation to say the least, but also one that blurs the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate opponents. Where in his works does she detect an adherence to the principles of liberal democracy? Or is being a Nazi after all not necessarily any impediment to being considered a legitimate opponent?

She also contributes to the volume with an essay, "Carl Schmitt and the Paradox of Liberal Democracy". Here she rejects “humanity” and “abstract universalism” as a basis of democracy. Democracy always dismisses and excludes, because “if the people are to rule, it is necessary to determine who belongs to the people” (p.42). I am dismayed by these formulations, not only because of their crudeness but also because they are so obviously bound to please some of the elements I most loath in today's political scene. I know that she is not a racist or nationalist, but she writes this in 1999, near the end of a decade in which such forces achieved a comeback in European politics. What on earth convinced her that attacking Habermas or Rawls was such an urgent task that statements about the necessity of determining "who belongs to the people" had somehow become excusable? 

Mouffe herself seems to realize that upsetting existing determinations of "who belongs to the people" might be at least as necessary as establishing them, and - inconsistently - hastens to add that:
...the articulation with the liberal logic allows us constantly to challenge – through reference to ‘humanity’ and the polemical use of ‘human rights’ – the forms of exclusion that are necessarily inscribed in the political practice of installing those rights and defining ‘the people’. (p.44)
Pulling back from the abyss in this fashion is certainly commendable, but how can she admit of such a "reference" and such “polemical use” if she rejects all universality? And if she does admit of this recourse to universalism, then why the implacable attacks on Habermas and Rawls?

Mouffe, Chantal (ed) (1999) The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, London & New York: Verso.

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