Last week I read a couple of Schmitt texts I had lying around but had never gotten to, namely Political Theology II and Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. I’ve already written on the former, but the latter is in my opinion more worthy of discussion. In it, Schmitt’s critique of liberalism seems to be that, broadly speaking, the ideal of governing through the reasoned deliberation of parliamentary representatives engaged with a broader public sphere has essentially never worked out the way it was supposed to. The self-binding of government through the division of powers and other related concepts led to the dominance of capital as the only other real power center, and meanwhile the supposed “reasoned debate” in parliament itself has been reduced to a facade that no longer even tries to hide the backroom deals between special interests that actually determine policy.
The liberal responses to this critique in Schmitt’s time seem to have been “but there’s no alternative” — and this lack of a real response, a real principled defense of parliamentarism in face of its decadence and failure, represents half of the “crisis of parliamentary democracy” (the other half being the conceptual conflict between parliamentarism and democracy in Schmitt’s opinion). Contemporary defenders of parliamentarism in the United States seem to have arrived at an interesting mutation of this defense: “since there’s no alternative, we must act as though it’s working.” This commitment to maintaining the fiction of the “normal” operation of liberal government creates a situation in which enemies of liberal government are more than usually able to game the system.
This is clearest in the Senate, whose sacred role is supposedly that of a “deliberative body” slowing down the galloping pace of political conflict so as to allow reasoned debate, etc. In this body, the right wing has taken a step beyond the normal practice of preserving the facade of debate while actually cutting deals behind closed doors — they have actively weaponized the pretense of debate itself through their profligate abuse of the fillibuster. Meanwhile, the Democrats, whose sole remaining commitment seems to be to liberal formalism itself, are constitutionally incapable of combatting this abuse in any meaningful way, as they collapse immediately whenever a Republican opportunistically whines that such a change will radically destroy the nature of the Senate as a uniquely deliberative body, etc.
This is only the most notable instance of the paralyzing effect of Democrats’ commitment to the fiction of liberal government. Examples could be endlessly multiplied, as Democrats either treat opportunistic “counter-arguments” as good faith attempts at discussion or else politely ignore the most insane conspiracy theories of the right (for instance, Obama’s fake birth certificate). For the two-party system to appear valid within the paradigm of parliamentarism (especially the American version), the Democrats must have a good-faith discussion partner, and given that the Republicans are the only plausible candidate for that role, they must in fact be a good-faith discussion partner, a partner that is out only for the fair compromise that has been such a hallmark of America’s unique political institutions, etc.
Everyone knows that the reality underlying the superstructure of “political debate” is a struggle for power, primarily among moneyed interests of various types — yet somehow it is impolite to say it out loud. Instead we must imagine that the Founder’s vision of “limited government,” with its “division of powers” that prevent over-hasty application of power (which would, due to its very haste and lack of deliberation, be out of tune with the demands of universal reason) was a product of a special genius for which we can only thank divine providence and, even worse, imagine that whatever problems appear to be plaguing our system result from a divergence from that vision. In this case, both liberals and conservatives constitute variations on this theme. For liberals, “progressive” policies inherently make more sense and would in fact prevail if politics were not corrupted by propaganda and moneyed interests, while for conservatives, government’s overreach into inappropriate spheres has distorted and undercut the realm of individual freedom that it was supposed to protect.
While the concrete results desired on both sides are radically different (and the liberal side radically more preferable if that is to be our choice), the formal structure that sees a close correspondence between our institutional structures and the free, reasonable individual is the same. And the practical result is not radically different: if the liberal commitment to debate, etc., renders government ineffectual for the most part, the conservative desire to combat illusory government overreach leads to the direct instrumentalization of government for capital’s purposes. For instance, now capital has captured the executive branch in a variety of states and is using that to meet the long-time goal of crushing labor unions — and of course the only thing momentarily stopping the progress of that goal in Wisconsin is a legal judgment based not on the substance of the law, but on the formal violation of the principle of “open meetings.”
Meanwhile, most mainstream liberals are very suspicious of the only real attempts to exert power on “their side,” outside of the formal democratic mechanism of voting: public protestors and labor unions. Public protest supposedly forecloses a debate that could otherwise reach out to the mass conservative public by creating social disorder and otherwise indulging in either hippy-like or (in a mismatch that is never really interrogated) violent behavior. Every time a protestor’s sign lacks nuance, so the story goes, another swing voter in Ohio decides to vote Republican.
Labor unions, for their part, are widely regarded, even by many “progressives,” as being filled with lazy thugs of various types, corrupted by ties to the organized crime that they already virtually are. Unions, one hears, corrupt the system of hard work and proportionate reward by imposing self-interested systems of seniority and arcane restrictions on the labor process — and most damning of all, they are the only social body that dares to use actual force in their relations to capital, both in excluding non-members from working in a given firm and, most horrifyingly, in directly stopping production through a strike. The Wisconsin proposal to remove unions’ collective bargaining rights and ability to collect dues and to require that the union be voted back into existence every year may be shocking to liberal sensibilities, yet it does turn labor unions into a type of organization that is more compatible with broadly liberal values of deliberation and free consent — the union will become a group that asks nicely for permission from its members to exist so that it can then ask nicely for management to thoughtfully consider its requests — and thereby demonstrates how completely powerless and ineffective those values are in the confrontation with capital.
What defenses of union organization one hears are generally instrumental rather than principled: they help create the mass middle class that is supposedly the “normal” state of American public life and, more narrowly, they are a valuable means for helping to elect Democrats to public office through their “get out the vote” efforts. Union members may be a bunch of racist Ultimate Fighting fans, but they do have their uses! Countering the power of capital where the constitutional design of the state systematically impedes its ability to do so is apparently not among those uses, however. Aside from the isolated individual, in American society, only one type of organization is permitted in principle to exercise the direct power of money to get its own way: the capitalist firm.
And indeed the capitalist firm has been enshrined in the law as a rational individual who bears the same relationship to the real human individual as the angel bore to the human being: an immortal being unrestrained by the needs of the body, dominated by the exercise of reason and unburdened by emotions or human affections. Surely the firm is the subject that liberal government was waiting for, the purely rational subject who relates to the outside world purely by means of rationally agreed-upon contracts — who indeed is itself a kind of living rational contract. Like angels, these firms govern us on a day-to-day basis, nominally regulated by the earthly and surprisingly ineffectual God of the state. Is it any wonder that all our other institutions aspire to the corporate form, from the neoliberal university to the “seeker-sensitive” megachurch to the organs of the state itself?
Everything in our society aspires to the stature of middle management — and in the cut-throat competition of the corporate climbers, the principled idealists trying to hammer out a compromise that satisfies everyone will always lose, will always trade effective power for the self-satisfaction of righteousness. Schmitt was right that the sovereign is the one who decides on the exception, but the sovereign in our system is not really the president, at least not on the effective day-to-day level. The sovereign is the middle manager you are sometimes lucky enough to speak to after hours on the phone, who normally grants you an exception just to demonstrate, both to you and the haplessly rule-bound underling, that he can.