Democracy in the Eyes of Fascism:
Observations from Carl Schmitt during the Weimar Era
by David Kerner
Out of all the myriad of political ideologies, few are so universally reviled as that of Fascism. To most Americans the mere mention of this despicable word is enough to conjure images of jackbooted Nazi's committing horrific atrocities. While that may in fact be a warranted fear, we unfairly dismiss the often valid critiques of western Democracy by Fascism's supporters.
One of these particularly brilliant and probably evil individuals was the political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt published a number of influential papers after the First World War during the years of the Weimar Republic. As a noted intellectual, Schmitt became an important figure in the Nazi party. It was his support for Nazism, even after the fall of the Reich, that would ultimately stain his record and exclude him from mainstream academic discourse. Despite this clear stain on his personal character, attempt to read the following points from his Weimar era treatise “The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” without the feeling they were written about modern times.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
To quote our dapper friend Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” This is a motto I have heard everywhere from academic debates to public schooling about why parliamentarianism (which for the purpose of this article includes American Federalism) is the best form of government. Schmitt feels that this very attitude represents a primary failing of parliamentarianism. Why should so shallow a justification be accepted?
"political thought stays intellectually sound and vital only so far as its central myth is beleived."
Schmitt argues that every epoch of political thought stays intellectually sound and vital only so far as its central “myth” is believed. An example of this would be the rise and fall of European absolute monarchies. Originally, the “myth” these monarchies were built upon was the divine right of each ruler. God imbued the king with justice and wisdom, meaning loyalty to the king was loyalty to god himself. Once kings started pandering to the bourgeoisie as being fit to rule based on supposed positive economic reasons, the central myth of the system was broken. While absolute monarchies still existed for a time after this shift, they were merely placeholders. Schmitt believes that the central myths of parliamentarianism have lost their intellectual sacredness leading us into a twilight period of waiting for the next big myth to appear.
A representative government is based on people investing their own political influence and will into elected officials, the logical conclusion is the investment of all power into one best official who would embody the gestalt will of the people. The myth that fascism creates is one of passion instead of reason, and the passions of man have always proven to triumph over reason. How fascism fits in to this critique is Schmitt's assertion that it is one of two alternative options left, with the other being Marxist Socialism. His interpretation of the current incarnation of Marxist Socialism as being based on scientific reasoning causes him to think of it as a “dictatorship of reason.” However, he posits that this supposed reason is but an unfounded myth that actually leads to horrific consequences for those under its thrall. The counterpoint to this “dictatorship of reason” is its polar opposite, a dictatorship of irrationality. Schmitt argues that the benefits of this nationalistic fervor are superior to those of Marxism even in the Soviet Union itself.
Parliamentarism espouses many ideals that Schmitt portrays as being bankrupt. Foremost of these are openness in government, free speech, and representativeness of officials. Schmitt explains that while the intended result of openness is to facilitate progress through public discussion thereby finding the optimal policies, most people understand this to be complete fantasy. All major discussions are made behind closed doors in specialized committees which are only getting more secretive and more beholden to special interests. Similarly, Schmitt points out that freedom of speech is now held to be just as insincere. People realize that every representative government has placed limits on free speech which could damage it. Schmitt argues that the since the very institution of parliament has recognized deficiencies in dealing with crisis, the inclusion of an executive branch that actually enforces the will of the parliamentary body casts questions on the ladders necessity.
I would say that these points are more relevant now than ever about the United States. It is common knowledge that all the speeches and gesticulations on the floor of the House and Senate are purely for sound bite purposes. In many cases the articulate and passionate speeches are literally given to empty chambers. No one thinks that public discourse among our elected representatives actually leads to compromise between the parties. Everything from the debt ceiling debate to funding 9-11 first responders health care is hashed out behind closed doors, with most leaks reaching the media for political gain.
On the matter of secrecy the Obama administration while promising to be the most transparent administration ever has been one its most secretive, and has even built a vast system to facilitate executive executions of suspected terrorists entirely cloaked from legal scrutiny. This unprecedented expansion of executive power has, like the Bush administrations baby steps before been entirely rubber stamped by the legislative branch. What we must take away from Schmitt is that we must reflect on the grounds upon which the “myth” of our government is grounded. Perhaps when if we realize where power truly lies, we can expect to see real and sweeping reforms.