Dictatorship and the Decline of
Carl Schmitt’s Theory of Political Sovereignty
Nowadays the representative system is associated with the republican form of state. But originally it arose in monarchies, wherever the monarch, representing the unity of the state, opposed the estates, representing the diverse private interests which had to be rewoven constantly into a unified whole. This dualism is basic for the system of representative government. In modern political life it appears in the polarity of ‘state’ and ‘society’, of the unity and diversity of interests of a people.
The Age of Liberalism
The representative assembly, or parliament as it is called most often, is one of the oldest, most commonplace and - for the socialist tradition - most controversial democratic institutions. Suspicion of parliament is certainly not confined to the socialist tradition. The modern history of parliament - the ultimate political symbol of peaceful compromise and quiet agreement - have been littered with bitter conflicts, paralysis and open violence. In the early decades of this century, these trends reached something of a climax. With the Bolshevik Revolution, the severe political crises that followed in the aftermath of the First World War, and the rise of syndicalism and fascism, parliament appeared to have little or no future. This period saw not only the first successful government. It also witnessed a deep loss of confidence in the spirit of parliamentarism among its closest supporters, many of whom publicly lamented the declining legitimacy and effectiveness of representative assemblies.’
Carl Schmitt, whose political writings are little known outside his native Germany, was undoubtedly the shrewdest and most controversial European critic of parliament during this period. His writings on parliament directly address the subject of civil society and the state. They cast serious doubts on the capacity of parliament to regulate the relations of power within and between civil society and the state. Schmitt’s rejection of parliament raises fundamental political questions concerning state sovereignty, civil war, dictatorship and the future of democracy, and these in turn have a strikingly contemporary ring about them. For these reasons, his writings on parliament deserve careful reconsideration, freed from the highly personalized and bitter reaction the typically evoke in West Germany today.2
Schmitt situates his criticism of parliament within a wider account of the grip of liberalism upon nineteenth-century European politics. The essence of modern liberalism, in his view, is its deep antipathy to state power. In its struggle against the arcane power of absolutist states, liberalism developed a deeply negative distrust of political power without, however, defining a positive political view of its own. Liberalism admits the need for state and governmental power - suitably subdivided into legislative, executive and judicial branches - but only inasmuch as it serves the specific purpose of enhancing individuals’ freedom within civil society. Every transgression by political rulers of their properly limited prerogatives is therefore denounced by liberals as tyranny, as eo ipso evil
Schmitt does not consider the objection that liberal individualist thinkers from Hobbes to Bentham, Guizot and MohI were often driven, by the force of their liberal individualism, to support strong state measures in matters of domestic rule, colonization or military conquest.3 He instead
emphasizes that the central preoccupation of liberalism is the protection of individuals’ rights of property ownership and freedom of speech. The liberal schema supposes that free competition among freely speaking and propertied citizens within civil society neutralizes state power and renders it nearly superfluous. In contrast to the notion of politically enforced unity and balance of its absolutist predecessor, liberalism views social and political equilibrium as a consequence of the absence of political
regulation - as the effect of ‘perpetual competition and perpetual discussion.’ 4
From this perspective, Schmitt views parliament as a key liberal mechanism for ensuring equilibrium between the state and civil society.5 Parliament is supposed to openly, fairly and peacefully resolve differences of expressed opinion within civil society, as well as subjecting the state apparatus and its governmental executive to processes of deliberation and legislation. Parliament is the fulcrum between civil society and the state, the guarantor of non-violent and unforced social and political harmony. ‘The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half-measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate which permits the decision to be postponed forever in an unending discussion.’6 The ‘essential principles’ of parliament are openness and discussion. According to Schmitt’s strict definition, tussles among conflicting
interests, and mere negotiation and compromise, are not features exclusive to parliament. They are clearly evident, for instance, in private meetings between company directors and political party or trade union officials, and at diplomatic conferences. Open parliamentary discussion is essentially different. It rests on a shared commitment to principled argument and counter-argument. It supposes the willingness to be
persuaded of another’s point of view and, hence, freedom from particular loyalties and selfish interests. ‘Discussion means an exchange of opinion that is governed by the purpose of convincing one’s opponent through argument of the truth or justice of something, or allowing oneself to be convinced of some thing as true or just’.7
In the liberal view, various parliamentary arrangements are supposed to facilitate this form of open and principled discussion. These include unrestricted parliamentary proceedings, the rights of free speech and legal immunity of representatives, as well as their freedom from party or constituency instructions, their obligation being only to their own principled conscience (as in article 21 of the Weimar constitution). Parliamentary arrangements of this kind ensure that opinions are formed not by a noisy clash of jostling interests, but through an unhindered exchange of reasoned arguments. Every matter before parliament is supposed to be discussed, negotiated and agreed in a process of calm and open deliberation. According to Schmitt, Bentham’s observation that in
‘parliament ideas meet, and contact between ideas gives off sparks and leads to evidence’8 correctly summarizes the liberal parliamentary principle, On this view, legislators seek the truth together honestly and openly. Political truth, as it crystallizes in universal norms and promulgated, generally binding laws, consists neither in the discovery of transcendental standards nor blind compromises among dogmatists defending their selfish interests. Rather, it is a function of unrestricted competition among freely expressed opinions within the legislative assembly. In this sense, liberal parliamentary government, in contrast to its absolutist predecessors, is visible government, openly reported by a free press. Parliamentarians find themselves under the watchful eye and attentive ears of the citizenry, whose access to a free press (here Schmitt
draws upon a central theme of Guizot’s Histoire des origines du
gouvernement representatif en Europe) enables them in turn to ascertain
the truth of matters and express it to their parliamentary representatives.9
The Spiritual Crisis of Parliament
Schmitt’s account of the nineteenth-century liberal era of parliamentarism
is brief and overly simplified. Yet it serves the deeper purpose of foregrounding and defending his claim that twentieth-century parliament is facing a profound crisis. In his view, classical liberal parliament and its ideals are degenerating into a rump parliament without ideals. This process is likened to the slow disappearance of monarchy. Just as the end of the epoch of European monarchy was signalled by growing criticisms and outright rejections of the monarchic principles of kingship and honour, so the loss of legitimacy of parliamentary ideals indicates that the hour of parliament has tolled, even if, like monarchy, it survives indefinitely as a crippled and hollow figure from the past. Symptomatic of the loss of reality and spiritual crisis of parliament is the militant rejection of parliamentary institutions by communists, fascists and anarcho-syndicalists.’10 Among its staunchest defenders, Schmitt observes, the old intellectual arguments for parliament have also run out of steam. They appear ever more antiquated and idealistic and, in their place, purely pragmatic reasons are adduced in favour of parliament. Compared with the untried and risky -experiments in direct democracy, for instance - parliament is said to ensure a minimum of political order and governmental continuity. Or parliament is favoured on the equally pragmatic grounds (spelled out in Schmitt’s time by Max Weber, Hugo
Preuss and others)11 that it functions primarily as a ~means of screening and selecting competent political leadership - as a testing ground for a future political class. Schmitt reasons that such pragmatic defences of parliament are frail and unconvincing, since they fail to explain the essential principles upon which it rests. The distinction between essential principles and pragmatic considerations is basic to Schmitt’s argument that contemporary parliament is suffering a deep spiritual crisis: ‘Parliamentarism consists today of a method of government and a political system. Just like everything else that exists and functions tolerably, it is useful - no more and no less. It counts for a great deal that even today it functions better than other untried methods, and that the minimum of order that is today actually maintained would be endangered by frivolous experiments. Every intelligent person would concede such arguments. But they do not carry weight in an argument concerning principles.’12
This spiritual crisis has several causes. Among the most vital is the growing influence of democracy. Schmitt argues that the struggle for greater political democracy pressures governments to expand their scope and power in order to satisfy growing social demands. Thereby, the nineteenth-century trend toward a noninterventionist liberal constitutional state is reversed. By increasing the strategic importance of state power, the struggle for democracy also makes a mockery of the old
parliamentary principles. The open deliberations of parliament are destroyed by mass democracy, and especially by the concomitant growth of competitive party politics.
Schmitt’s analysis of this trend thinly veils his well-known lifelong
disdain for party politics. The masses are subjected to a constant barrage of party campaigning, which utilizes propaganda geared to voters’
passions and immediate interests, in order better to manipulate and govern them. Parties ‘create electoral propaganda, process the masses,
and dominate public opinion’.13 Elections become a plebiscitary contest among sectional interests, ‘a roll-call of the standing party-army’.14 The
tide of organized party domination in the electoral arena naturally spills over into parliament, which becomes a prime target for tightly disciplined party machines battling for newly enfranchised electorates.’15 The scope for independent deliberation and the rational balancing of opinions among members of parliament is destroyed. In a context in which combatants have already decided their bargaining positions before discussion begins, government by open debate becomes simply impossible. Parliament becomes cluttered with party manoeuvrings and purposeless and banal discussion. It is choked by the obstructive tactics and misuse of parliamentary privilege by its radical (class) opponents, whose First aim is to manipulate parliament for their own particular economic and party-political ends. This threatens the equilibrating function of parliament. In Schmitt’s eyes, nineteenth-century liberal
parliaments, which normally defended their existing constitutions, were threatened by executive domination. By contrast, twentieth-century parliaments, dominated as they are by self-paralysing party politics, threaten the constitutional order and unity of the state. As parliament falls into decline, the state tends to degenerate into an ‘unstable coalition Parteienstaat’.16
The corrosive effects of democracy by no means spare parliament’s guiding principles of openness and discussion. According to Schmitt’s
idiosyncratic interpretation, the hybrid term ‘parliamentary democracy’ is self-contradictory and self-paralysing, since the essential principles of
liberal parliamentarism and democracy are fundamentally at odds with each other.
This contradiction between parliament and democracy went unnoticed during the heyday of liberalism, when the two phenomena gained ground simultaneously. With the growing victories of democracy, however, it becomes evident that democratic principles are antithetical to limited government by unrestricted discussion. Democracy rests upon a principle of exclusion (here Schmitt draws upon an aspect of Aristotle’s definition of democracy17). It specifies that even though all persons may be equal, some are certainly more equal than others; that is, that only equals, and not unequals, are worthy of being treated equally. The practice of universal and equal suffrage among citizens is based upon this democratic principle. So also are attempts -evident in Bolshevism, fascism and other forms of dictatorship18 -to exclude from the franchise unequals, whose admission to citizenship would ruin the spirit of equality and homogeneity so essential to democracy. ‘A democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to eliminate or keep at bay something that is foreign and unequal and threatens its homogeneity.’19
The democratic principle of equality among equals also supposes that the citizens’ will is sovereign, and that these citizens are capable of expressing a unanimous opinion - a general will -on matters of common political concern. Essential to democracy is the argument (here Schmitt draws upon Rousseau’s Du Contrat social) that the real will of outvoted
minorities is in fact identical with the general will, as and when it is expressed in the will of the majority.294 In principle, democracy therefore supposes that political harmony will reign when authority comes from those over whom it is exercised, that is, when rights of control are fully entrusted to those who are to be controlled.
These democratic ideas concerning equality and unanimity have profoundly subversive implications for liberal parliamentarism - or so Schmitt argues. Obviously, the characteristic yearning of democracy for homogeneity and (restricted) equality contradicts the liberal, parliamentary emphasis upon the (initial) diversity of social interests, and therefore upon the probable controversy and disagreement among citizens and their representatives. Less obviously, democracy confronts parliament as an unnecessary and outmoded institution. (Schmitt particularly directed this point at the Weimar constitution which, in his view, contained a self-contradictory mixture of arguments for liberal and democratic principles, for the Reichstag and the Reichsprasident.) According to Schmitt, the democratic idea supposes that it is the assembly of citizens, and not parliamentary representatives, who enjoy the ultimate prerogative of deciding and altering laws. Democracy further supposes the possibility of an identity of the governed and the governing, of those who command and those who obey.21 This supposition becomes especially evident in a crisis situation when, according to the democratic principle, the people’s sovereign will should hold sway, regardless of the
constitutional framework or the decisions of parliamentary
representatives. It is a short step from this claim to an anti-parliamentary conclusion: Since the state can and should become identical with the popular will (through devices such as elections and referenda), the institutional separation of the state and civil society - as well as the equilibrating role of parliament - become redundant. Democracy views undivided state power as a natural and healthy consequence of the growth of active citizenship among equals. It destroys the anti-political hopes of classical parliamentary liberalism.
The Total State
The growing victories of democracy over parliamentary liberalism reinforce Schmitt’s conviction that the age of parliament is coming to an
end. Under pressure from the accelerating push for greater democracy, the state, in responding to social demands, begins to absorb civil society into its bureaucratic structures. The classical liberal separation of the state and civil society is destroyed, and replaced by the total state.22In several respects, this argument is less than convincing. Schmitt’s claim that there is a symbiotic relationship between democratic principles and total state power is highly questionable.* His thesis that democratization - in the sense of popular power - stimulates the growth of the total state also fails to anticipate fully the ways in which democratization stimulates the renewal of the cleavage between the bureaucratic state and civil society.23 He merely expresses concern that the growing influence of organized social powers within the state may destroy or weaken its capacity to govern.24 Faced with that threatening possibility, he emphasizes the exciting political implications of the loss of identity and independence of civil society. The collapse of civil society into the total state (potentially) destroys parliament in its classical liberal form. It becomes an empty apparatus situated in the shadows of state power.25 The merging of civil society into the total state also (potentially) dissolves the liberal illusion - here Schmitt attacks Otto von Gierke’s
theory of association, as well as Figgis, Laski and the English pluralists26 - that the St ate, as the servant and guarantor of civil society, is merely one association among others. Thanks to the emergence of the total state, political power makes a comeback and, Schmitt hopes, this in turn will stimulate awareness of the essential principle of politics: the ability to distinguish between friend and enemy.