Saturday, 24 November 2007

Carl Schmitt on parliamentary elections

One doesn’t normally mention the German jurist Carl Schmitt in polite company. But since today all Australians are (compulsorily) voting in the federal election, I thought a few remarks from Schmitt might be appropriate.

In his incisive little book, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), Schmitt argues that the foundational principle of modern parliamentarism is “openness and discussion.” And the situation of parliamentarism has become critical today since “the development of modern mass democracy has made argumentative public discussion an empty formality.” Parties no longer face each other discussing opinions, but they face each other “as social or economic power-groups calculating their mutual interests and opportunities for power, and they actually agree compromises and coalitions on this basis” (p. 6).

Further, public opinion is not won over through open discussion; instead, “the masses are won over through a propaganda apparatus whose maximum effect relies on an appeal to immediate interests and passions. Argument in the real sense that is characteristic for genuine discussion ceases. In its place there appears a conscious reckoning of interests and chances for power in the parties’ negotiations; in the treatment of the masses, posterlike, insistent suggestion or … the ‘symbol’ appears” (p. 6).

What about elections? Schmitt contrasts liberal parliamentary democracy with other forms of democracy, and he describes as “undemocratic” the liberal conception “that a people could only express its will when each citizen voted in deepest secrecy and complete isolation, that is, without leaving the sphere of the private and irresponsible…. Then every single vote was registered and an arithmetical majority was calculated” (p. 16).

What is lost in this liberal conception, he argues, is an understanding of “the people” as a public entity. “The unanimous opinion of one hundred million private persons is neither the will of the people nor public opinion”; nor is our modern “statistical apparatus” the only way of expressing such public opinion. Indeed: “The stronger the power of democratic feeling, the more certain is the awareness that democracy is something other than a registration system for secret ballots” (p. 16).

Even if we shudder to recall Carl Schmitt’s own political sympathies, I think we still have a few things to learn from his elucidation of the historical foundations of liberalism and his critique of the modern apparatus of liberal democracy.

7 Comments:

::aaron g:: said...

Indeed democracy is not primarily a system of government but a way of life.

And here's to hoping the Greens pull off a last minute surprise victory...

CJW said...

I hear you loud and clear, Aaron.

Schmitt's criticism sounds particularly prescient when applied to Work Choices: a person can do any thing except work openly and in concert with others.

steph said...

Nevertheless I hope Howard disappears forever and Australia goes Green. Haven't heard much about Rudd excepts what you think of him knickerless.

kim fabricius said...

It is interesting that John Stuart Mill (who, by the way, is wrongly trumpeted as the father of human rights-based liberalism - he set liberty in the larger context of human flourishing - while the right comfortably ignores his proclivity for experiments in socialism) thought that the biggest threat to freedom in 19th century Britain was - public opinion.

Is it just me that thinks that our contemporary political leaders - indeed our leaders as such - are such small fry?

Richard said...

After months a references on in the blogging minor leagues (namely on my site) Schmitt has hit the big time!

The more I read Schmitt the more unsettled he makes me; he is a amzingly relevant thinker both in terms of liberalism (the Liberal/Democratic paradox) and the rule of the exception/sovereignty which Agamben takes up (and is also used to great effect in the 'war against terror'.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Richard: yes, I've really appreciated all your posts on Schmitt. And your posts have also introduced me to Mouffe's appropriation of Schmitt, which I've found extremely helpful.

If anyone else is interested in checking out Richard's posts, you can see them here.

byron smith said...

Great quote. O'Donovan makes a number of similar points in Ways of Judgment.

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