(Roughly) Daily

“Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?”*…

 

carlschmittpurple

 

Donald Trump’s presidency has made the dominance of strongmen elsewhere only more vivid: in Russia, Thailand, Hungary, Brazil, Nicaragua, the Philippines and many other countries. Since around 2016, the question of where the strongman phenomenon comes from has been a constant issue for political theorists. What allows these men to rise? And why now? The answer is often wrapped up in some idea of ‘populism’. ‘The people’, so the thought goes, have gained control of ‘the elites’. This is a view of populism as essentially thuggish and anti-intellectual. The people are insurgent, and with great bluster and bravado the leader claims to speak for them.

But there is, in fact, a robustly intellectual foundation for strongman politics. Populism is not just a bull-in-a-china-shop way of doing politics. There is a theoretical tradition that seeks to justify strongman rule, an ideological school of demagoguery, one might call it, that is now more relevant than ever. Within that tradition, one thinker stands out: the conservative German constitutional lawyer and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). For a time, he was the principal legal adviser to the Nazi regime. And today his name is approaching a commonplace. Academics, policymakers and journalists appeal to him in order to shed light on populist trends in the US and elsewhere. A recent article in The New York Review of Books argues that the US attorney general William Barr is ‘The Carl Schmitt Of Our Time’. The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt (2017) came out in print the year after Trump’s election. After decades as a political rogue, forced to launch his attacks on liberalism from the sidelines, Schmitt’s name has returned to prominence.

He was the great systematiser of populist thought, which makes him useful for understanding how populist strategies might play out in politics, as well as in the legal/constitutional sphere…

Demagogues do not rise on popular feeling alone but (as seen, e.g., in the advocacy for Brexit and in the opinions of Neal Gorsuch) on the constitutional ideas of Weimar and Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt: “Lawyer for the strongman.”

For an authoritative explication of Schmitt’s beliefs and arguments, see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

And for an account of Schmitt’s impact beyond the law per se, on political theory and practice– his advocacy of “national greatness” and its centrality both to neo-conservatism and to the reactions against it– see “Carl Schmitt: The Philosopher of Conflict Who Inspired Both the Left and the Right” (from whence, the image above).

…for monarchy easily becomes tyranny, aristocracy easily becomes oligarchy, and democracy easily converts to anarchy. Thus anyone organizing a government according to one of the good forms does so for but a short time, because no precaution will prevent it from slipping into its opposite, so closely are the virtues and vices of the two related.    — Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses, Vol 1

* “…an animal, at the end of a few months, is what it will be all its life; and its species, at the end of a thousand years, is what it was in the first of those thousand years. Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?”  — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

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As we grapple with “greatness,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.

170px-Forest-charter-1225-C13550-78 source

 

 

Written by LW

June 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

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