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Notes on Liberal Democracy & its Alternative

2,981 words

Carl Schmitt, 1888–1985 [1]

Carl Schmitt, 1888–1985

The political regime under which much of the world labours (and the entire Western world) is called “Liberal Democracy.” Francis Fukuyama has praised the ever widening expansion of this regime over the globe as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and [it consists in] the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[1] The source of Fukuyama’s thesis, the Russian Hegelian Marxist, Alexandre Kojève, called this End State the “universal and homogeneous state”: it is the ultimate goal of both Liberalism and Communism. 

We often refer to our system of Liberal Democracy simply as “democracy” and use it as our undisputed standard with which to judge the political arrangements both of ourselves and other countries (“But that’s undemocratic!” is often heard in political debates to settle any issue under discussion, as if there were no legitimate regimes besides democracy). Its mere mention is enough to anaesthetise lingering doubts about the justice of our system of government and the fairness of its delivery of “outcomes.” “Democracy” is however a term which is equivocal, having more than one meaning, and Liberal Democracy – the system which promotes the bourgeois, capitalism, and now globalisation, is not the only type of democracy nor even the only type of legitimate government. Inasmuch as Liberal Democracy is the system which has (intentionally) caused and ensures the continuance of our present problems of neo-liberal capitalism, individualism, and (latterly) globalisation and its accompanying universalistic suppression of the particular ethnic diversity of nations and exploitation of workers (wherever possible), it is in our interest not only to critique it, but also to look for alternatives to replace it.

What has obscured the fact that there are other legitimate forms of government and even of democracy than what is presently put forward as the only possible one is that the predominant political regimes of the last 100 years or so have been Statist in nature, namely: Liberal Democracy, Communism, and Fascism, and that out of these, Liberal Democracy became the “last man standing” by the beginning of the last decade of the previous century with the fall of Soviet Communism. Liberal Democracy has also had the good fortune to be the best of these Statist alternatives (merely in a strictly comparative sense), so that while Bolshevik Communism was presenting itself as the wave of the future the lesser of the two evils was certainly Liberal Democracy. However, the fall of Communism now allows us to re-examine our own system of government without the charge being laid against us that we are enemy agents working on behalf of a foreign power, nor that what we want for our own country is manifestly worse than what is being presently provided for us.

Nor should we meekly accept the commands of others on what we can or cannot find objectionable, just because the Left thinks that it has a monopoly on political issues. Graham D. Macklin’s reactionary defence of leftist only criticisms of Liberalism, Capitalism, and Globalisation is a typical reaction of the Traditional Left when it is outgunned on what it considers its own turf. His desperate plea for such groups as “ecological subcultures” to remain limited or fully-committed only to critiques of the means to achieving the “universal and homogeneous state” show that the left establishment is intellectually powerless against the more consistent and thorough-going criticisms of those who reject both the means to the end and the end itself of Globalisation. Further, his article is premised on an unreflective and unargued charge of “racism” (left undefined) amounting to the political demand that acquiescence or indifference to injustice and exploitation – if it is whites who are the ones who are being suppressed – is the only course possible and that such injustice and exploitation need not concern us nor should that injustice be the basis of corrective political action. Macklin here plays the part of Christ in the New Testament in his political insistence not to resist evil, but without the accompanying divine promises of Redemption and Retribution that underwrite Christ’s command. Yet, Macklin remains unaware that his position is not at all persuasive. Criticism of Globalisation – its causes and inherent features – is not the privileged prerogative of self-appointed spokesmen on the Left. In fact, it is more important for those who oppose Globalisation in toto to speak out against it and to organise activism against the injustices that necessarily – and not accidentally – follow in its wake.

With regards to the most notable feature of Statist political regimes – the separation of State and Society – which all Statist political regimes embody, it is neither the only possible political arrangement nor the only legitimate one. The political writings of the German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, can be of use in formulating how and why this is so.[2]

Despite Liberal Democracy being conflated into the single term, “democracy,” Carl Schmitt insists that “Both, liberalism and democracy, have to be distinguished from one another…” since “[t]he belief in parliamentarism, in government by discussion [i.e., by one of the two distinguishing features of Liberal Democracy, the other being “openness”], belongs to the intellectual world of liberalism,” and it “does not belong to democracy.”[3] In other words, two separate ideas are combined in Liberal Democracy which are in tension with each other. Further, the Liberal element in Liberal Democracy takes precedence over or supersedes its democratic element: this is what causes “the crisis of Liberal Democracy,” viz. its lack of legitimacy and reliance on legality (or force) alone: it brooks no fundamental opposition.

So, if – according to Carl Schmitt – Liberal Democracy is characterised by government by “discussion” and by “openness,” what are the defining characteristics of non-liberal Democracy? It is that of an identity of the ruled and ruling, where there is a shared common good – achievable through homogeneity of the populace.[4] Parliament (the cornerstone of Liberal Democracy) impedes the common good, i.e. the identity of the ruling and ruled, by relying on 50% + 1 votes (always ensuring that there is rule of a majority over a minority). This leads to the separation of the political rulers from the constituency that they are meant to represent and the creation of an impersonal system of bureaucratic rule indifferent to the content or interests of the society over which it presides.

Party rule predominates – where representatives of the people rule and the people themselves do not rule nor do they rule in turn. Thus, “parliamentarism has become an object of spoils and compromise for the parties and their followers, and politics, far from being the concern of an elite, has become the despised business of a rather dubious class of persons.”[5] Who does not immediately recognise the character of Australian politics here summed up both presently and indeed since Federation? And Schmitt’s holding to account the Liberal Democratic cheer-squad of the 19th century rings just as true now as then: “It is like a satire if one quotes Bentham today: ‘In Parliament ideas meet, and contact between ideas gives off sparks and leads to evidence’.”[6] A perusal of Hansard or the televised sessions of Parliament Question Time emphatically confirms Schmitt’s assessment. And the entire reason for the rotten edifice in the first place is brought undone by considering its own claim to legitimacy: “Where is there any kind of certainty that the possessors of particles of reason are to be found precisely in parliament?”[7] The suggestion only has to be articulated to be revealed as absurd. And “[if in reality] in the actual circumstances of parliamentary business, openness and discussion here become an empty and trivial formality, then parliament, as it developed in the nineteenth century, has also lost its previous foundation and meaning.”[8] And so, the arguments originally used to found, support and defend Liberal Democracy are irredeemably obsolete: “Burke, Bentham, Guizot, and John Stuart Mill are thus antiquated today.”[9]

However, there is yet a further equivocacy with the term “Democracy,” related to the long history that this word has. This is revealed when Carl Schmitt asserts, “Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally.”[10] The source cited for this statement is supplied by the editor of this book by Schmitt, Ellen Kennedy, is Aristotle’s Politics, 1280a (using the standard reference of the Bekker edition’s page and column number). We will compare Carl Schmitt and Aristotle on this point in a moment.

The conclusion Schmitt derives for this principle of treating equals equally and unequals unequally is that “Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second – if the need arises – elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.” “A democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity.”[11] Universal equality detracts from politics and obliterates true differences: “Equality is only interesting and valuable politically so long as it has substance, and for that reason at least the possibility and the risk of inequality.”[12]

The term used by Carl Schmitt to oppose Liberal Democracy is democracy (without the attached ‘liberal’ qualification). The reference to Aristotle’s Politics which links this term to the notion of treating equal things equally and unequal things unequally shows that Schmitt has in mind the type of regime called by Aristotle – not “democracy,” but – politeia, the general term for any type of regime or form of government. Politeia gets translated by Latin authors as res publica, which has as its descendant our English word “republic.” A politeia in the sense of a specific type of regime (rather than as a term for regimes generally) is a mixed regime, using the principles of both democracy (viz. equality) and oligarchy (viz. inequality).

Is there anything to be said for Liberal Democracy? A final, rearguard support for Liberal Democracy which is neither unreflective nor oblivious to modern liberalism’s inherent theoretical and practical failings has in fact been put forward by Leo Strauss: “… liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking which cannot be called modern at all: the pre-modern thought of our western tradition.”[13]

Liberal Democracy could be based on two different understandings of liberalism:
1. Modern liberalism (the type we call “Democracy” or Liberal Democracy),
2. Ancient liberalism (the “pre-modern thought of our western tradition,” viz. Plato and Aristotle, in particular).

Recall that Schmitt used the pre-modern understanding of “democracy” to draw a useful distinction to critique modern Liberal Democracy. This pre-modern understanding of “democracy” is equivalent to option number 2, the variety of ancient liberalism.

Strauss provides a handy summary of this development of modern thought by use of a “poetic analogy” which helps us visualise the successive innovations which led to the foundation of Liberalism and Liberal Democracy in the first place: that of the “Three Waves of Modernity.” The main regime types we see or have seen and are aware of in the world today (or in the recent past) have all had philosophic founders. These founders emerged in a sequence and relied on earlier developments upon which the further articulation of their own positions was founded, while having a beginning and source which presented itself as a revolt from the thought of the past. This provides us with the following schema:

According to Strauss, “The theory of liberal democracy, as well as of communism, originated in the first and second waves of modernity; the political implication of the Third wave proved to be fascism.”[15]

If it is true that modern thought arose as a break with the past (in the “first wave of modernity” and on which the subsequent “waves” also depend as their own foundation) in full awareness of what it was doing (as Strauss asserts was in fact the case) it is hard to see how pre-modern thought could be somehow incorporated into the modern thought represented by Liberalism or how that modern thought could draw support on the very past with which it consciously broke and repudiated.

In another work, Liberalism, Ancient and Modern, Strauss repeats and amplifies some of these contentions. While still claiming that “There is a direct connection between the notion of the mixed regime and modern republicanism [i.e. Liberal Democracy],”[16] and that there are two senses of the term “liberal,” he now provides what the content of these different conceptions is. The original, pre-modern sense of being liberal is displaying the virtue of liberality where “the genuinely liberal man is identical with the genuinely virtuous man,” and in contrast the modern sense of liberal as that which underlies contemporary Liberal Democracy: negative freedom, in the Isaiah Berlin sense, i.e. a freedom from something, not a freedom for anything.[17] This is confirmed by the original form of liberalism being opposed to the very end posited by modern Liberalism and Communism: “…classical political philosophy [viz. that of Plato and Aristotle in particular] opposes to the universal and homogeneous state [i.e. the goal of both Liberalism and Communism] a substantive principle. It asserts that the society natural to man is the city, that is, a closed society that can well be taken in in one view or that corresponds to man’s natural (macroscopic, not microscopic or telescopic) power of perception.”[18] The “city” here is the Greek polis, which does not separate State and Society like modern Statist regimes, such as Liberal Democracy, et al. By being a closed society, it protects and favours its own, and is opposed to universalism which threatens both its ethnic identity or particularity and its homogeneity.

On the basis of this closed society which antedates the distinction between State and Society concomitant with Liberal Democracy, the political thinkers of classical antiquity favoured the following solution to the political problem: “For all practical purposes they were satisfied with a regime in which the gentlemen share power with the people in such a way that the people elect the magistrates and the council from among the gentlemen and demand an account of them at the end of their term of office. A variation of this thought is the notion of the mixed regime, in which the gentlemen form the senate and the senate occupies the key position between the popular assembly and an elected or hereditary monarch as head of the armed forces of society.”[19]

The Athenian Democracy of the 4th Century BC, though not fully embodying the combination of equality and inequality as recommended by Aristotle that could have stabilised its political history, certainly overcame the separation of State and Society, and thereby the symptoms of political and civic alienation and degradation and withdrawal which we experience and witness in our own societies today. The political and social interaction of the average citizen is quite extraordinary for us to behold: “Historians have often described the wide array of institutions in which the Athenian democrat took part and the intense civic experience it produced. By 400 BCE, property qualifications for citizenship had been eliminated; the principal legislative body was the Assembly of all citizens; the boards of lawmakers (nomothetai) and the juries were chosen by lot from the citizens; the Council, which prepared the agenda for the Assembly was chosen annually by lot from the citizenry; the decisions of the Assembly were subject to review only by the people’s courts. Citizens not only deliberated and took decisions in the Assembly, Council, and the courts, but they chose leaders, made decisions about foreign policy and war, judged the credentials of officeholders, issued decrees, and much more. To this should be added the flourishing local political cultures centered in the demes.”[20]

The problem now is: How to obtain a viable modern equivalent to the ancient achievement of republican government in the small, closed society which does not separate State and Society, and is neither Statist nor Liberal Democratic.


Caton, Hiram. 1988. The Politics of Progress: The Origins and Development of the Commercial Republic, 1600-1835. Gainesville. University of Florida Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (Summer): 2-18.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York. Free Press.

Hamilton, Alexander, Jay, John, and Madison, James. 1937. The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, ed. Edward Mead Earle. New York: Modern Library Edition.

Kojève, Alexandre. 1968. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. (Ed. Allan Bloom, Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr.) Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press.

Macklin, Graham D. 2005. “Co-opting the Counter-Culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction,” in Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 39, no. 3, 301-26.

Schmitt, Carl. 1923. The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. (Trans. Ellen Kennedy). Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1985.

Schmitt, Carl. 1932. The Concept of the Political. (Trans. George Schwab). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Strauss, Leo. 1968. Liberalism Ancient and Modern. New York. Basic Books.

Strauss, Leo. 1975. “The Three Waves of Modernity,” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays. Indianapolis and New York. Bobbs Merrill/Pegasus.

Wolin, Sheldon S., 1993, “Democracy: Electoral and Athenian,” in PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Sep.), 475-477.


1. Fukuyama (1989) 271.
2. Even though Carl Schmitt is compromised by his later opportunistic submission to Statist Fascism, this need not retro-spectively invalidate his analysis – at least for those of us who wish to avoid the charge of committing the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.
3. Schmitt (1923) 8-9.
4. Ibid. 15.
5. Ibid. 4.
6. Ibid. 7.
7. Ibid. 35.
8. Ibid. 50.
9. Ibid. 7.
10. Ibid. 9.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Strauss (1975) 98.
14. Cf. Caton, Hiram (1988). The Politics of Progress: The Origins and Development of the Commercial Republic, 1600-1835. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
15. Strauss (1975) 98.
16. Strauss (1968) 15.
17. Ibid. ix.
18. Ibid. x.
19. Ibid. 15.
20. Wolin (1993) 477.

Source: http://www.newrightausnz.com/2008/02/25/notes-on-liberal-democracy-and-its-alternative-by-john-gordon/ [2]