Giles Fraser

Canon Dr Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Rector at the south London church of St Mary’s, Newington

October 3, 2019

“For democracies to work, politicians need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary.” So wrote Michael Ignatieff in The New York Times in 2013. It’s a distinction that seems more necessary than ever. And one I want strongly to defend. For it is under threat from a number of places, and not just from the usual suspects — social media, boorish politicians, etc.

First, Ignatieff’s argument is a reminder about how Brexit could not have been better designed to undermine the very conditions of a healthy deliberative democracy.

“Adversaries … will beat you if they can,” he said, “but they will accept the verdict of a fair fight. This, and a willingness to play by the rules, is what good-faith democracy demands. Between enemies, trust is impossible. They do not play by the rules (or if they do, only as a means to an end) and if they win, they will try to rewrite the rules, so that they can never be beaten again.”

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The problem we have, is that the very meta conditions for good adversarial politics are precisely what we are now arguing about. Adversaries will accept the verdict of a fair fight, he insists. Ah, but the fight — the referendum itself — wasn’t fair, argue Remainers, citing shady Russian influence or the presence of dark money. Rubbish, Leavers reply. For them, this line of argument is precisely akin to those who “will try to rewrite the rules, so that they can never be beaten again”. In other words, the framing conditions for limited adversarial conflict have been seriously damaged. And without them, adversaries become enemies.

But there are other, perhaps more surprising voices, that go so far as to argue that Ignatieff’s conditions for a fair fight between adversaries are themselves loaded in favour of the status quo.

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe, writing in The Guardian, describes political contestation as always and necessarily involving an “us” versus a “them”. Indeed, she insists, the politics of consensus as typified by the third way ‘big tent’ movements of Clinton and Blair were always the attempt to by-pass legitimate contestation by the presentation of a false consensus in which voices of dissent were silenced or delegitimised.

These movements assumed that the big ideological questions had been largely settled and that, after the fall of the Berlin wall, politics was essentially little more than a glorified management exercise between people who broadly agreed on their basic goals and aspirations. Following the Iraq war and the financial collapse of 2008, this idea of a common framework no longer seems to exist. Politics has become genuinely agonistic again. Little wonder Tony Blair has admitted he does not understand politics any more.

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Does this idea of agonistic politics threaten the distinction between enemies and adversaries? Perhaps it does. For despite the fact that Mouffe is a thinker of the Left, she acknowledges the profound influence on her thinking of the work of the Nazi law professor Carl Schmitt, and in particular of his concept of the political as necessarily involving the contestation between “friend and enemy”. In other words, for Schmitt and Mouffe, the idea of the enemy is built into the very existence of the political, just as the idea of beauty is built into aesthetics and the idea of the good is built into mortality. It is of its very essence.

“A political community exists wherever a group of people are willing to engage in political life by distinguishing themselves from outsiders through the drawing of a friend-enemy distinction,” writes Lars Vinx, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“Liberal states, in Schmitt’s view, have a tendency to fail to distinguish properly between friends and enemies, and thus to extend rights of membership to those who do not truly belong to the political nation. In a liberal state, Schmitt fears, the political nation will slowly wither and die as a result of spreading de-politicisation, it will succumb to internal strife, or it will be overwhelmed by external enemies who are more politically united.”

Whatever the grain of truth some may recognise in this description, one would have thought that Schmitt’s unrepentant Nazi past would disqualify him as a political commentator who has helpful things to say about our present circumstances. And one might not be especially surprised that his influence reaches the likes of Steve Bannon and extreme Russian nationalists — even to the Chinese leader President Xi Jinping — who are all reaching for Schmitt. But what is more troubling is the extent to which his philosophy is now receiving thoughtful consideration even amid the supposedly liberal institutes of higher learning. As Gideon Rachmann noted in the Financial Times this year:

“Perhaps more surprisingly, the study of Schmitt has also entered the academic mainstream. In 2017, Oxford University Press published The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt. The blurb notes: ‘Despite Schmitt’s rabid anti-Semitism … the appeal of his trenchant critiques of … representative democracy and international law … is undiminished.’”

So, Nazi past aside (and I can’t believe I am even typing such words while currently living in Israel) what exactly is wrong with the friend/enemy distinction as the basis for political life? Partly, it is the failure to recognise that politics involves the negotiation of multiple identities, commitments and desires. There is not just one “us” and one “them” in the political, but overlapping and shifting patterns of solidarity.

I have political ‘friends’ in one area of life who are ‘enemies’ in another. I share with some a commitment to the redistribution of wealth, I share with others a belief in Brexit, elsewhere I share with some a common religious faith and with others a belief that climate change is real and a human creation, and so on — and these groups are decidedly not the same. In other words, those who are ‘friends’ in one area of political life are ‘enemies’ in another — which is to say that the very distinction between friends and enemies breaks down very quickly in the real world of political contestation.

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OK, there is something to Mouffe’s “us” and “them” distinction to this extent: the centrist politics of consensus is often a way of silencing diverse opinions and maintaining the status quo – its default option being to advantage those who recognise their own values being met within the present arrangements. I suspect the Queensbury rules favoured the Marquis of Queensbury. Likewise, Ignatieff’s rules of the political game may indeed favour his own liberal world view. Such rules can — sometimes should — be challenged.

So I don’t go along with much of the general pearl-clutching that politics has become too heated. Heat is the inevitable by-product of political change. But it is immature – and dangerous — to think that this makes you and I enemies. Tomorrow we will be on the same side about something different. This too will pass.