The liberalism that has guided modern western governments for the past half century faces challenges today from both far left and far right. Some people challenge the assumptions underpinning liberalism; others question its effectiveness in practice. Neither challenge can be ignored: if liberalism’s assumptions are wrong, its practices cannot be justified; if it fails to meet its stated goals in practice, its assumptions must be flawed.
The far right explicitly find fault with liberalism’s core values of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity, but there have long been anti-liberal leftists whose approach to political change suggests that their underlying objections to liberalism are similar. Today’s self-described progressives believe that liberalism impedes the creation of a political system in which people are more equal. They have adopted a confrontational political stance aimed at dismantling liberal political and social structures. Like members of the far right, these progressives focus on identifying and opposing enemies, and seek to use antagonism toward those enemies as a catalyst for change. Although the far left tends to identify social conservatives, free speech advocates and older, white, male centrists as their collective enemy, and the far right tends to identify economic migrants, refugees and the culturally diverse as theirs, the two groups’ critique of the liberal system is substantially the same.
Carl Schmitt’s Legacy
Early twentieth-century political theorist Carl Schmitt was a prominent critic of both liberalism’s assumptions and its practical effects. His work is a useful lens through which to understand the similarities between far right and far left critiques of liberalism. Schmitt is an unlikely candidate for membership in either camp, and his complex personal life has long made him a controversial figure. Many have seen him as a member of the far right because of his association with Nazi politics, his efforts to discredit constitutional liberalism as a form of government, and the increasing popularity of his ideas today among Russian and Chinese leaders, who oppose liberalism’s norms from what has come to be seen as a right wing perspective. Some see his political theories as primarily motivated by his early support for the Nazi regime. Hannah Arendt called Schmitt a “convinced Nazi,” and Richard Wolin notes that Schmitt supported and cooperated with early Nazi policies, attended openly antisemitic legal conferences, supported the Nuremburg laws, earned the moniker “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich,” and wrote five books and thirty-five tracts between 1933 and 1936, including a defence of the night of long knives (“The Fuhrer Protects the Law”) and the openly antisemitic work, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes.
However, others have seen Schmitt as merely a conservative. Joseph Bendersky, a Schmitt biographer, suggests that Schmitt consistently argued in support of the Weimar Republic, tried to save it from falling, and found himself out of his depth when the Nazi state emerged. David Dyzenhaus, another Schmitt scholar, argues that Schmitt’s best ideas emerged during his work for the conservatives within the Weimar Republic, that his legal theories were not Nazi theories, and that he never fully secured the Nazis’ trust or worked with them for long.
Schmitt’s Political Claims
Schmitt defined democracy, not as a system of constitutionally mandated elections, but as an expression of the people’s collective will—which he argued should ideally be homogeneous. He believed that homogeneity holds the state together, and that political differences should be subsumed to the goal of unity because unity empowers societies to create political order. When democracy is achieved through the creation of unity, he argued, both state and society can better distinguish friends from enemies.
He advocated creating unity through what he called the friend–enemy dichotomy: everyone should be defined either as a friend or an enemy. Schmitt viewed liberalism as anti-democratic because it encompasses constitutional protections that limit the will of the people (in order to prevent the tyranny of the majority). He viewed the parliamentary system not as a decision-making mechanism but a means of neverending debate. He also viewed liberalism as intrinsically apolitical because it aims to reduce enmity and it is the strength of our enmity that allows us to create the enemies that Schmitt found so crucial to politics.Thus, Schmitt’s ideas are the antithesis of liberalism, which values pluralism, adherence to moral norms, and protection of minority rights. In Schmitt’s view, liberalism is incompatible with democracy.
Schmittian Right and Left
Today, political systems that resemble the one advocated by Schmitt tend to be associated with the authoritarian right. Hungary and Poland have increasingly discarded constitutional and liberal norms in favour of what they call a people-led approach to governance. These self-described illiberal democracies claim to preserve democracy without the need either for liberal safeguards on individual rights or for limitations on state action. For example, Viktor Orban’s government is stripping away constraints on its actions and increasingly presenting an ideological programme at odds with those of liberal democracies.
Despite Schmitt’s association with right wing thought, his framework has also long appealed to political actors on the left, as Jan-Werner Müller details in A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought. Like Schmitt, many anti-liberal leftists disagree with liberalism’s goal of reducing enmity in politics, and with liberalism’s support for universal moral values, reasoned discourse and reaching decisions through compromise rather than forced conformity. Like Schmitt, they worry that the practical effect of these values is to neutralise people’s political energy and stymie necessary change. Therefore they seek instead to use identity politics to heighten feelings of enmity in order to motivate people to action in furtherance of their political goals.
Prominent leftist thinker Chantal Mouffe has drawn on some of Schmitt’s ideas. She takes seriously Schmitt’s idea that homogeneity is necessary to democracy, arguing that humans naturally tend to identify with political allies, rather than with humanity. In The Democratic Paradox, she envisions a political system that would be pluralistic, but make more room for antagonism among what she calls friendly enemies.
Mark Wenman believes that it is risky for the left to try to implement Schmitt’s ideas about the value of enmity, because it is a potent force that cannot always be controlled and may have unintended harmful effects. For example, as Marx and Lenin noted, there is an inherent enmity between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Attempts to redirect that enmity to serve novel political goals may be fruitless. It is doubtful that antagonism based on economic disparities can be redirected to energize efforts towards cultural homogeneity or social equality.
The potential dangers inherent in such attempts is evidenced by some recent leftist social change efforts, such as the Evergreen College affair. While a lecturer there, self-described liberal Bret Weinstein fell foul of an attempt to increase a sense of racial equity at the college. Some students organized an event that involved telling white students and faculty members to absent themselves from campus on a given day. Weinstein’s decision not to support this event provoked hostility, threats of violence and aggressive protests that proved impermeable to reasoned discussion.
The protesters were trying to force unity by demanding that the entire college community participate in an event they had decided was a test of support for the ideal of racial equity. To those who challenged their claim, they responded, not with expressions of disagreement, but with accusations of racism and white supremacy, threats to physical safety and demands for that people be removed from the college, either through bullying, firing or goading people into resignation. Benjamin Boyce’s excellent YouTube series on the Evergreen College affair documents the campus community’s slide towards a Schmittian worldview and the emergence of a friend–enemy dichotomy in which any staff member or student who criticised the activists’ ideas was identified as an enemy. Once this student protest movement identified certain people as enemies, the violence of the enmity that rapidly arose was all too clear.
The Evergreen College affair is not an isolated example of the harm that can arise from using enmity as a force for change; it is merely the most well-known and vivid. It is becoming ever harder to engage in honest discourse with progressive movements that largely focus on identity, such as Black Lives Matter or trans rights groups. Whilst some assume that cancel culture is only a meme manufactured by the right, there is plenty of evidence that it is real. On campuses and in workplaces, the drive to promote equity and to deconstruct the idea of privilege has narrowed the range of pluralistic discussion. These movements focus on personal experiences and aim to extend the areas in which the personal is considered political. As a result, the number of potential personal enemies has expanded, and those enemies have become a flaw in the political structure that needs to be eradicated. Those who do not automatically accept these anti-liberal progressive ideas are not reasoned with, but simply told to read the room—or check their privilege. That is, they are treated only as parts of the political structure that need to be removed; if they do not submit, they themselves need to be removed. This approach to restructuring a political system replaces pluralism and diversity of thought with a forced unity grounded in submission to the dominant ideology.
Schmitt’s recipe for how to practice politics is more far reaching than the prescriptions of the far right. It has been used by proponents of opposing ideologies who seek to challenge or dismantle liberalism for differing reasons. Some authors, and political figures such as Mouffe, have tried in good faith to apply some of Schmitt’s ideas to improve political systems. But none have offered a way to avoids the pitfalls inherent in forcibly creating a homogenous political culture that is held together by shared antagonism toward anyone who fails to support that culture.
Attacks on liberalism are most clearly seen in the modern movements—on both left and right—that emphasise identity politics. Even though members of the authoritarian right and progressive left loathe one another, they have a shared goal: they both seek to dismantle liberal democratic structures and values in favour of a system that promotes enmity and forced conformity. They are increasingly dominating our political lives, but while they talk about defending personal identity and promoting justice, they reveal the hurtful consequences of their approach. Even a quick internet search turns up accounts of hundreds of incidents similar to the Evergreen College affair. In order to avoid the increased enmity and forced conformity inherent in a Schmittian approach to politics, it will be necessary to oppose the anti-liberal efforts both of the far right and of the far left.