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.

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