Supporters and opponents or friends and enemies

I partially agree with the Philosophy Tube speaker linking Donald Trump’s rhetoric with the German writer Carl Schmitt’s characterisation of politics as being about friend and enemy, i.e., as antagonistic. But it seems to me that there is a general drift towards a more hostile form of politics in many countries currently, and in the USA for at least 50 years since the upheavals of the 1960s. Trump is far from an isolated phenomenon, being rather a new episode in a long running saga. As Philosophy Tube is well aware, it is no accident that Carl Schmitt was a fierce critic of liberalism and liberal conceptions of constitutional government and law even before he became a Nazi in the 1930s. For, if the notion of politics as antagonistic is taken to the level of friend and enemy we say goodbye to the ordinary idea in constitutional democracies of dealing with supporters and opponents. There is still antagonism there, but it is limited – you may not be friends with those who support your case, you are simply pleased to have their support. Likewise, opponents remain part of society and, indeed, you might even be friends with them on a personal level. But friends and enemies will have to actually make peace before they could accept one another.

Philosophy Tube is generally correct to say that movements of the fascistic or ‘hard’ Right will not recognise an enemy’s right to exist (mainstream conservatives can be different), but overlooks the comparison between the Left’s willingness to accept enemies who would give up power and join them and the pattern of religious conversion or even imperialists from the Romans to date who will allow others to join them – on their terms. The complaint that (philosophical) liberalism does not recognise the antagonistic nature of politics comes from thinkers of the Left, such as Chantal Mouffe, as well as from those of the Right such as Schmitt. But especially when ‘liberalism’ becomes applied in the shape of constitutional law and government, it is probably more accurate to say it seeks to keep the antagonism limited to the level of supporters and opponents, rather than escalating to the level of friends and enemies. It’s all about keeping the peace.


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