ideal liberalism cannot derive a positive content from its own concept

(Excerpt of a comment at Crooked Timber, from that extended Schmitt discussion of a few months ago, dug up now for purposes of continued discussion with Faheem Hussain, because helpful on a point I frequently return to – in short: “no true liberal praxis” – see also comments on “Hume’s finger.” I have explored the problem elsewhere, always dealing with definitional complications – for instance in comments on libertarianism, understood in context as a kind of “pure liberalism,” also, often following Paul W Kahn’s thinking, in relation to war, patriotic rhetoric, executive prerogative, torture-terror, drones, and so on. I’ll also note that Professor Robin, “the blogger,” asserted that Schmitt had “misapprehended” liberalism – though I think Robin misapprehended Schmitt’s apprehension… My main purpose is to preserve the extended Schmitt quote and some of my own observations for future use/re-consideration. At some point I’d like to collect, where necessary re-work and re-organize, where possible expand upon, this discussion in a single treatment.)

When Schmitt goes so far as to deny that there is an authentically liberal politics, he is obviously and very emphatically not (absurdly) denying the existence of liberals or nominally liberal governments or liberal policies or a “diverse” liberal “tradition,” in which among other things what we’re calling the “authority” problem has been solved as a matter of practical politics:

Liberalism has changed all political conceptions in a peculiar and systematic fashion. Like any other significant human movement liberalism too, as a historical force, has failed to elude the political. Its neutralizations and depoliticalizations (of education, the economy, etc.) are, to be sure, of political significance. Liberals of all countries have engaged in politics just as other parties and have in the most different ways coalesced with nonliberal elements and ideas. There are national liberals, social liberals, free conservatives, liberal Catholics, and so on. In particular they have tied themselves to very illiberal, essentially political, and even democratic movements leading to the total state. But the question is whether a specific political idea can be derived from the pure and consequential concept of individualistic liberalism. This is to be denied.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics. As a result, there exists a liberal policy in the form of a polemical antithesis against state, church, or other institutions which restrict individual freedom. There exists a liberal policy of trade, church, and education, but absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics. The systematic theory of liberalism concerns almost solely the internal struggle against the power of the state. For the purpose of protecting individual freedom and private property, liberalism provides a series of methods for hindering and controlling the state’s and government’s power. It makes of the state a compromise and of its institutions a ventilating system and, moreover, balances monarchy against democracy and vice versa. In critical times—particularly 1848—this led to such a contradictory position that all good observers, such as Lorenz von Stein, Karl Marx, Friedrich Julius Stahl, Donoso Cortés, despaired of trying to find here a political principle or an intellectually consistent idea.

(The Concept of the Political: Expanded Edition. Kindle Locations 1430-47 and following).

Schmitt is in other words strongly implying that conventional political language is somewhat misleading. In his view, the “liberal” acting politically is always acting on behalf of some other concept or content, perhaps unwittingly, always contradictorily, or, again, liberal political action cannot derive a positive content from its own concept. The liberal or self-styled liberal can draw upon a so-called liberal history or history of nominally liberal policies, but, according to Schmitt (and not Schmitt only by any means) the authentically or self-consistently liberal posture is not a political, but rather an anti-political posture, and what the liberal will be drawing on is not liberalism per se, but a history of necessary yet often unacknowledged, in some instances single-mindedly denied, compromises. Schmitt appeared to believe that the ills of his era, which would be the midpoint of a multi-generational European catastrophe, were in effect the concrete realization of the contradictions inherent in a governing philosophy always governing against itself, somewhat suggesting the near-absolute rule of unhappy consciousness, to increasingly unhappy real results.

Schmitt was, of course, particularly concerned with his own times, but the evidence supporting his depiction of a typically liberal or liberalist agony extends well beyond Weimar. It is, naturally, a prominent feature of American politics. The argument between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, repeated after ratification and periodically re-played throughout American history up to the present day, exemplifies the difficulties of maintaining any pure or philosophically self-consistent “individualistic liberalism,” an ideology that we might today identify as “libertarianism,” in the face of practical political exigencies.


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  1. That seen consistently there is no such thing as a liberal argument in favor of the state is basically why the US has “progressives” now. Concept of government force for them is a given need just as admitted conservatives claim, for maintenance of a certain “order” at all costs, the only detours being mere culture fight & coincidence. They head to the rare position nodding at individual liberty not because they feel the proper authority is no authority, but because the other cultural group Cannot Win.

    After the specific preferences, difference between them and the Right is moot. It’s force, hierarchy & bowing to one’s declared betters all the way down.

    • I agree with you in part, or anyway recognize that your own jaundiced view of contemporary political parties and partisans allows you to absorb the Schmittian analysis with less resistance than others (including Prof Robin, who may not even consider himself “a” liberal, though probably qualifies as liberal).

      The difference between Schmitt and you or someone of your persuasion is, of course, that he presumed (like the vast majority of us) the need for and utility of authority, and accepted that a hierarchy of values conforming in one way or another to a hierarchy of power and responsibility neither is nor can in any desirable society be considered a matter of mere “declaration” (at least outside of its declaratory moment, a special instance).

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  1. […] begin with the seminal critic of the old liberalism, Carl Schmitt, whose summary on the political incapacity of liberalism includes the following statement of the […]

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Noted & Quoted

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The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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