TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Pluralism and Political Identity

On Tuesdays at the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Michael Gorup looks at Hans Sluga’s “The Pluralism of the Political: From Carl Schmitt to Hannah Arendt,” from Telos 142 (Spring 2008).

The ostensibly simplest questions are always the most deceiving. Socrates, of course, knew this quite well. His childlike questioning, more often than not met with awestruck confusion, has continued to animate philosophical discourse for well over two millennia. The Socratic inheritance—mostly evidently exemplified by the “what is . . . ?” question structure—forms the implicit grounding for Hans Sluga’s comparative study of the political thought of Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt. The key question here, of course, is that of politics: namely, “What is politics?” The writings of Arendt and Schmitt form the two most significant twentieth-century corpuses that attempt to answer precisely this question. In Sluga’s account, the primary issue at hand in thinking the political is, for both Arendt and Schmitt, the question of pluralism (or in Arendt’s idiom, plurality). For both thinkers it is fundamental for politics that we are both many and different, though this ontological grounding plays out quite differently in either case.

For Arendt, plurality is the condition sine qua non for political life, and it is with her emphasis on plurality that Arendt diverges from the tradition of political philosophy. Arendt does not seek to arrive at the primacy of the political upon the mobilization of a particular philosophical anthropology (e.g., with Aristotle’s characterization of man as, by nature, a political animal [zoon politikon]), but rather in positing an ontology of irreducible difference backgrounded by the fact of natality. As Sluga relays, for Arendt “plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.” It is such a condition that makes possible self-disclosive, and often agonistic, action in public. For Arendt, such activity is the lived experience of worldly freedom. In her conception, if politics is for the sake of anything it is for that of freedom.

In Schmitt’s hands, pluralism plays a vastly different role. No doubt, existential difference among a plurality of nations and peoples is central for Schmitt, but this is not to come at the expense of internal political unity. In a world of radical difference, the Tritinarian political structure of State, Movement, People (Staat, Bewegung, Volk), outlined by Schmitt in the essay of the same title, serves to grant political stability in times of uncertainty. Schmitt reveals “the political” to lie along this dialectical interplay between internal homogeneity and external difference, where the ever-present threat of the enemy serves to corroborate the internal coherence of the political unity. Both moments coalesce in the act of decision—that is, in deciding upon the distinction between political friend and political enemy. As Sluga tells us, “what makes an action political for Schmitt is the formal characteristic that it serves to discriminate.” In deciding upon my antithesis, I come into my own politically.

In concluding Sluga reminds us of the shared historical background of Schmitt and Arendt (despite falling into opposing camps upon the rise of National Socialism in 1932), which forms the horizon for their reflections upon the question of politics:

Such overlapping agreements and disagreements remind us that Schmitt and Arendt belonged more or less to the same time and came more or less from the same culture, and they consequently struggled with similar questions. Both concerned themselves, in particular, with the question of how politics should be understood, not for reasons of scholastic clarification but because they saw our political world coming apart. . . . Faced with the rifts and conflicts generated by human plurality, Schmitt sought refuge in the idea of political unity; appalled by the potential for totalitarian oppression, Arendt strove to conceive of politics in terms of plurality.

In an unmistakably globalizing world—which, depending upon the lens through which we view it, may be understood as a process that embraces the heterogeneity of human plurality or, on the contrary, one that moves us ever closer to a state of the world marked by thoroughgoing homogeneity—the reflections of both Schmitt and Arendt prove more and more prescient. The latter mentioned threat of homogenization—most clearly articulated in universalist discourses that invoke humanity as a political subject (discourses met with heavy criticism at the behest of both Arendt and Schmitt), and clearly present in the globalizing power of capitalism that seeks to turn all, regardless of nation, into loyal consumers—poses a grave danger to politics in both Arendt and Schmitt’s conceptions. At stake here for both of them is precisely the issue of identity. Invoking Augustine, Arendt reminds us in The Human Condition that the politically relevant question is not “What is man?” (a question, for Augustine, that may only be answered by God) but rather “Who are you?” Politics, for Arendt as well as Schmitt, is thus about establishing identity, an identity that is always relational and contingent upon the recognition of others. Political identity, in this case, is the only means by which we may (to borrow a phrase from Hegel) find ourselves “at home in the world.” However, the radical contingency of political identity is only further proof of politics’ inherent frailty. Hence, both Schmitt and Arendt’s reflections point to the fact that, despite our best efforts, perhaps the biggest political threat today is that directed toward politics itself. The chief political task at hand, therefore, is one of ensuring those conditions that make possible any future politics.

Read the full version of Hans Sluga’s “The Pluralism of the Political: From Carl Schmitt to Hannah Arendt” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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