This year, with two elections in Victoria, Australia, it’s time to think about the political. Not that I ever stop thinking about it, given my past: the uncivil sixties, two communist parties, decades of feminism and a talismanic text, Bloch’s three volume The Principle of Hope, purchased from the International Bookshop as late as 1986.
Ah, the past. Or should that be ex-past? You know, the Python joke about ex-parrots. Sometimes that past seems just as stuffed, just as feather-dustery.
Still I’ve been mulling over ideas (new to me) on the political, ideas that shimmer the way mirages do on country roads in summer, elusively out there. But let’s forget for the moment about theory – Schmitt’s and Mouffe’s, and their interpreters. Let’s get down in the dirt where what happens happens, in a small coastal town on the Great Ocean Road at a community meeting.
The meeting aims to make our town plastic bag free. The room is full of people – about thirty of us, more than the usual – people I haven’t met before who probably wouldn’t label themselves activists or environmentalists. They express general keenness for the proposal while interjecting and questioning the organisers. Which plastic bags? Carriers, the ones with handles, not the little ones for vegetables. Why not? And what about the doggy bags dispensed on the public foreshore? Why stop there? What about plastic bottles? Banning their sale, now that would be something! People shift excitedly in their seats, nodding agreement.
The organisers, I note, react nervously. Their world has expanded into an uncontrolled public space. Careful now, careful! Like infants trying out their ability to stand upright, they must accept unsteadiness. One step at a time. This has to be what the community wants. We’ll confer with the chamber of commerce. We’ll find out what’s happened in other towns. We need the community behind us.
The community. For me, the word brims with millennial longing. Peaceable. Univocal. Small is beautiful. And for them? What do the organisers think of the town’s recent bitter fights over logging in the Otways and against developers’ ‘great ocean greed’ which threatens the coast from Point Lonsdale to Port Campbell by proposing canal-side residential subdivisions on wetlands and floodplains, multistorey hotels and glittering marinas? Do they too repeat the mantra ‘growth is good’ in the face of an already inadequate water supply and forecasts of the town’s likely submersion due to climate change?
The organisers of this meeting are traders whose livelihood depends on local goodwill. They don’t want to make enemies. They want to make profits. It crosses my mind that going plastic bag free will save them money, and later a supermarket manager acknowledges this. These traders seem to fill the criterion for Hegel’s definition of the bourgeois that Carl Schmitt paraphrases in his The Concept of the Political:
The bourgeois is an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere. He rests in the possession of his private property, and under the justification of his possessive individualism he acts as an individual against the totality.
But human motivation is usually overdetermined, and tonight these traders have taken a public stand that aligns them – however temporarily – with countless others.
Perhaps they entertain an inkling of the potentially political nature of what they’ve done and it’s this which makes them jittery. Being political is to court conflict. It gives rise to ugly feelings. It divides where people seek to unite. Even environmental groups here claim they’re not ‘political’. This is the way Schmitt puts it:
The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy. This provides a definition in the sense of a criterion and not as an exhaustive definition or one indicative of substantial content.
For Schmitt, the enemy/friend antithesis forms the conceptual bedrock of the political just as good/evil underpins the moral and beautiful/ugly the aesthetic.
The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.
When Schmitt wrote these words in 1932, he had in mind sovereign states and the recent world war where nations lined up for battle. But he extends the distinction to conflicts within a state – civil war, revolution, general strikes, militant social movements.
The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend/enemy grouping.
Everyday jockeying for advantage by our leaders, electioneering and policy making in liberal democracies are far from this extreme case. In her essay On the Political, Chantal Mouffe describes numerous efforts theorists have made to convince us that the old struggle between Right and Left is over and how, in a post-political world, we citizen-consumers can happily look forward to greater consensus and the ‘democratisation of democracy’. Even politicians are keen to demote the political in favour of the economic and the moral. As Noam Chomsky once remarked elections in the USA are nothing more than a competition between two branches of the Party of Commerce. What each party is fundamentally against is the competitor’s gaining the contract to govern. Sounds familiar. And remember Rudd’s grand rhetoric of 2008? ‘Climate change represents the greatest moral challenge of our generation.’ What happened to the political?
Schmitt writes: ‘Every religious, moral, economic or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.’
But who would fight over plastic bags? No need, my town happily gave up this environmental scourge. Women in the quilters’ circle produced dozens of colourful bags from fabric scraps to sell on charity stalls. Retailers put up signs reminding us to bring our own or buy another green one. Contributors to the weekly news-sheet offered advice: ‘for picking up dog poo think alternatives – bread bags, sugar bags, dog food bags’. Yes, we’ve successfully taken the first collective step – we’re free of ‘free’ plastic bags! As a community, we might take the next one, and then another. Or we might not.
The first World People’s Conference on climate change was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia this April. Over 20 000 people from more than 125 countries attended. Yet this event rated only a tiny mention in the Age and, if it made the TV news, I must have blinked. The conference’s rallying cry – Planet Earth or Death – offered a fresh antithesis with indigenous peoples declaring themselves against the UN and the old political classes, global corporations and capitalism. For them the choice is stark. ‘Either capitalism dies or Mother Earth.’ But no leader uses the c word here, not in that context. Capitalism, consumerism, that’s us. Our way of life. How can we fight against ourselves?