Have you been part of a Twitter flame war over politics? A war to the knife on a Facebook group? Have a dinner party disrupted by some heated political argument? These painful struggles are mostly pointless, of course, but they reveal a deeper truth about politics in general. They set people against each other in a zero-sum game. That’s mostly the whole point of contemporary politics, which is ever more defaulting to its most extreme forms.
In politics, winners take all. The losers lose all. They are supposed to be good sports about it, observing the beauty of democracy and acquiescing to the results. But something has changed since the election of Trump. The partisan wars are more intense and never seem to end. The divisions are growing deeper. Politics seems to divide the world between friends and enemies.
In markets, matters are different. We come together to trade. All parties benefit. Most of the material wealth around you comes from this win/win dynamic. Its discovery and development in the late Middle Ages would eventually restructure the experience of life itself. We take this all for granted today, with every trade ending in a mutual expression of thanks.
The Political Mind
We all know people whose whole lives are politicized. They seethe with loathing of their enemies. They come to the defense of their friends, defined by common enemies. You are trying to have a normal dinner with them and they keep lecturing people as if they are being filmed for a Sunday talk show. You just want to say, hey, can you please order a cocktail and chill for a bit?
What’s puzzling about the contrast is how the same people behave differently in different contexts. Go to the mall, a local music festival, the club scene in the city, a farmer’s market outside of town, or any chain restaurant. What you see for the most part is that people get along. The great political struggles of our time are nowhere evident.
Markets require that people play nice. Give these same people a forum in which to argue politics and they become barbaric.
What we see here is a contrast in perspectives about how the world can and should work. Is it all about peace, trade, and progress for everyone? Or is it all about struggle, destruction, victory, and rule? Taking the pro-trade and pro-peace position are those once call liberals, the conviction from Voltaire through Paine to your local merchant today that believes that commerce is the great palliative. Taking the pro-conflict perspective are many people who consider their personal identity and life mission bound up with left-wing or right-wing ideology (distinguishable by their cultural constituencies but not by their preference for statist means of social and economic organization).
The most famous theorist of conflict in the 19th century was Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday came and went on May 5 with floods of articles on his legacy. For a century and a half, Marxism has shaped what we call leftism. Less well known is his counterparties on the right, from Thomas Carlyle to Madison Grant to Carl Schmitt. Among this long lineage of pro-conflict right-wing thinkers, Schmitt is the most compelling, in my view, and the person to grapple with.
The Schmittian Way
If you believe in freedom and trade, it is worth your time to read the opposition. As it turns out, the theories of Carl Schmitt, whom Ludwig von Mises despised as that “Nazi jurist,” was the leading opponent of freedom in Germany during the rise of the national socialists. He was their philosophical prophet. Even now, his is the voice behind the thinking of many political activists today. His own thought was influenced by Marxism of course, but the thinking of both trace to the Hegelian paradigm shift in German academia that took place in the early 19th century.
Marx emerged as the paragon of the left-Hegelians and Schmitt as the embodiment of the right-Hegelians. In a strange way, they agree on the essentials but end up applying it in different ways. At least Marx acknowledged the achievements of liberalism. Schmitt was not so gracious. His 1932 essay “The Concept of the Political” heaps disdain on the fathers of the liberal theory of life, precisely because they imagined a world of peace, prosperity, and progress.
Politics must demand “the sacrifice of life.” But liberalism does not tolerate that. “Such a demand is in no way justifiable by the individualism of liberal thought,” wrote Schmitt.
“No consistent individualism can entrust someone other than to the individual himself the right to dispose of the physical life of the individual. An individualism in which anyone other than the free individual himself were to decide upon the substance and dimension of his freedom would be only an empty phrase. For the individual as such there is no enemy with whom he must enter into a life-and-death struggle if he personally does not want to do so. To compel him to fight against his will is, from the viewpoint of the private individual, lack of freedom and repression. All liberal pathos turns against repression and lack of freedom….what this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom.”
Keep in mind that this what Schmitt opposes this view with every breath. True, it all begs the question: what’s so awful about this? It’s a no brainer to Schmitt. This would mean that life would consist entirely of trades and debates but no bloodshed. This would be “a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.” He found such a world dreadfully boring, devoid of any philosophical meaning (in a Hegelian sense).
Such a world “might contain many very interesting…competitions,” he observes, but “there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.” His point is that the “friend-enemy grouping” is “ever present,” “regardless of the aspects which this possibility implies for morality, aesthetics, and economics.”
Now, you might observe that Schmitt is not only positioning himself against everything a civilized person regards as the good life; he further seems to be auditioning to be the high priest of a death cult. I don’t think that observation is entirely inaccurate. His writings disparage liberty, cheer conflict, exalt dictatorship, and celebrate bloodshed. His fundamental desire is to turn back the clock on everything that makes life grand.
In our hyper-politicized times, when people are discovering new excuses to hate on others, when identity politics makes it possible merely to look at a person to discern him or her to be the enemy, and when the blood-sport of demonizing people based on competing ideological paradigms is on the rise, both Carl Schmitt and Karl Marx are enjoying something of a resurgence.
But by exalting these twin brothers of struggle, these champions of dehumanizing our neighbor based on political categories, let us be aware of what we are rejecting. We are tossing out the philosophical foundations of material progress, peaceful relationships, and the good life as liberalism has always understood it. We are throwing out the greatest innovation in ideas in history, the insight that human beings can cooperate to their mutual betterment without central management from the central state.
Read enough of these two, and you end in a very dark place, only to be rescued by the delightful observation of Voltaire (a true voice of sanity) about the London stock market, a passage that would cause both Karl and Carl to scream in despair:
“Go into the London Stock Exchange – a more respectable place than many a court – and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men. Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt. Here the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist and the Anglican accepts a promise from the Quaker. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies some go to the Synagogue and others for a drink, this one goes to be baptized in a great bath in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that one has his son’s foreskin cut and has some Hebrew words he doesn’t understand mumbled over the child, others go to heir church and await the inspiration of God with their hats on, and everybody is happy.”
Indeed, liberty does imagine and work toward a world of happiness. That strikes me as a much better model than Hegelians of the right and left ever offered, to say nothing of the social-media trolls who are trying to draw you into becoming a pawn in their illiberal ambition to make life ever more miserable.