Think Piece

Should Global Politics be Universal?

by guest contributor Artur Banaszewski

By Artur Banaszewski

At first glance, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Carl Schmitt are two scholars who could not be more different from each other. However, one common element can be found in their works: a shared suspicion of universalizing conceptualizations of the global. They both stress the negative consequences of universalist approaches to political theory, and reformulate global as a concept in conscious opposition to universalizing intellectual traditions deriving from European Enlightenment. Consequently, the comparison of the two scholars reveals striking similarities in their views on epistemological certainty in politics and creates an unlikely link between postcolonial and continental theory. By putting the ideas of Spivak and Schmitt in conversation, this essay argues that global as a concept in political theory should be conceptualized in opposition to the universal. Further, it formulates three methodological recommendations about how the global should be re-conceptualized in the field of intellectual history and political theory.

Gayatri Spivak on Subversive Festival 2012 in Zagreb by Robert Crc,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Spivak is critical of the global to the extent where it is conceptualized through discourses embedded in the European historical context. She emphasizes that the process of production and dissemination of knowledge is not neutral, but instead is determined by political, historical, and spatial conditions of a given society. Leading European intellectuals of the past were preoccupied with creating philosophies and theories concerning problems of all of humanity, but the subject of their theories remains European, embedded in local European contexts, relations, and interests. Consequently, whenever the experience or knowledge of a third-world subject does not correspond to the conceptualization of the world of the European theorist, he has the ability – because of his status, authority, and symbolic power – to qualify it as an exception or disregard it completely. Therefore, Spivak posits in her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” that knowledge is produced by the privileged and it represents their perspective and interests.

Epistemic violence does not affect various oppressed groups equally. Spivak conceptualizes being mute and transparent as the most extreme form of oppression and subjugation. Because they are excluded from the processes of knowledge production, the voices and the perspectives of the subalterns are obliterated and remain unknown. However, Spivak warns against the idea of speaking for the subaltern. By invoking the history of the Sati practice in India, she explains how supposedly universal discourses of morality can be used to reproduce hegemony of those who create them. For the British, the prohibition of Sati was a justified application of supposedly universal morality for the sake of freedom and lives of Indian women. But it simultaneously justified British colonial rule in India by presenting the local population and its culture as in need of superior European civilization. Furthermore, the colonial social engineering had a disastrous impact on the lives of non-upper-caste women in colonial India who had not partaken in the Brahminical ritual before, but now were compelled to as a marker of Brahminism. The application of Western norms in the Indian context strengthened the colonial interests of its creators while maintaining the subalternized status of Indian women. The case of the Sati ritual exemplifies how Western discourses of freedom, justice and progress can become tools for controlling populations of the colonized world. Therefore, any attempt to speak in the name of the subaltern contains the risk of reproducing existing relations of power and perpetuating its subjugated status.

According to Gayatri Spivak, assuming the universality of an idea or phenomenon is bound to neglect other possible approaches, experiences, and convictions regarding it. Knowledge is not neutral, and it has the potential to support the political and economic interests of its creators. Consequently, if a theory assumes that a concept or a process is universal, it will always raise concerns regarding whether that universality truly describes the global or if it is simply a globalized local phenomenon or concept. Spivak argues that in most cases, the latter will be the answer.

In the case of Carl Schmitt, two fundamental assumptions determine his political theory. The first is that the global corresponds to the international political order consisting of multiple sovereign nation-states. Schmitt understands the state as the essential political entity representing the political community, whose necessity comes from the friend-enemy distinction and the constant possibility of conflict and war. Every state has its legitimate motivations, values and is committed to preserving one’s way of living. Therefore, Schmitt conceptualizes the political world as a multiverse, not a universe: a political universe cannot exist, for it would have no enemies and therefore would not be political.

Carl Schmitt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons..

The second assumption is that politics is independent from morality. Just as morality is based on the distinction between good and evil, Schmitt argues, politics is based on the distinction between friend and enemy. However, politics and morality constitute two separate realms that do not correspond to each other; the fact that someone is morally good does not instantly make them our political friend. Schmitt assumes that if politics is possible in a multiverse only, and every political entity is preoccupied with preserving its way of living, then no genuine moral unity is possible. Friendship and enmity depend on mutual interests and priorities, not on moral qualification.

Schmitt does not, however, view this negatively. If morals and economics are independent of politics, they cease to be potentially divisive factors. The separation of morality from politics makes no political enmity permanent and limits its destructive potential. Therefore, cooperation with subjects holding normative and moral convictions different to ours is not only possible but natural and desired. As Gabriella Slomp has argued, politics, for Schmitt, is not about realizing an aesthetic, economic or moral ideal; instead, it is about finding one’s identity through the process of shifting alliances and enmities. According to Schmitt, a world united under a universal idea or state would be a world without the friend-enemy distinction, and therefore a world without politics. The lack of the ability to distinguish between friends and enemies, to choose whom one supports and opposes, makes politics objectless. Therefore, if the global were to be conceptualized through a universal ideology, community, or state, it would be fundamentally anti-political. For Schmitt, universality was synonymous with total depoliticization.

The existence of political movements and ideologies that conflate morality with politics and define their purposes in universalist terms is not contrary to Schmitt’s theory. Quite the opposite, he believed that universality is a political instrument. Schmitt considered all attempts to conceptualize one’s political struggle in universal categories of justice, progress or humanity as a usurpation aiming to deny the same values to the enemy. Whenever universal concepts are involved in politics or war, understanding or friendship becomes impossible – the enmity becomes absolute. Schmitt viewed politics based on absolute enmity as futile because it does not allow one to choose friends and enemies. In such a scenario, the only course of action available is the physical destruction of the enemy in total, and unrestricted war. Thus, Schmitt considered all ideologies which considered their prerogatives to be universal, as fundamentally divisive.

For Carl Schmitt, universality poses a danger to “real politics” in two ways. First, it is internally anti-political: it cannot be a basis of politics because unity excludes the possibility of conflict and the friend-enemy distinction. Second, if a political entity assumes its beliefs to be universal, both friendship and enmity become permanent and absolute. Absolute enmity is just as anti-political as the lack of enmity. According to Carl Schmitt, real politics ceases to exist whenever universality becomes the conceptual framework for determining the relation between various political actors.

Equating the global with the universal may appear to be a convincing analytical choice which creates a progressive and inclusive framework for political analysis. However, Spivak and Schmitt prove that such an approach has far-reaching, negative consequences. Despite their methodological and axiological differences, Spivak and Schmitt share one fundamental conviction: that assuming epistemological certainty in politics creates a sphere for division, abuse, and hegemony. It risks committing epistemic violence, neglects the importance of difference in politics, and divides political subjects on an arbitrary basis. Assuming universality in political theory limits its ability to criticize existing relations of power and undermines cooperation of people holding different normative convictions. Finally, as universality is always a construct embedded in a historical context, assuming political universality subverts theory’s claim to represent the global.

Based on the works of Spivak and Schmitt, it is possible to formulate three main methodological conclusions about how the global in intellectual history and political theory can be re-conceptualized.

First, the global should not be defined based on arbitrary, normative qualification. Spivak demonstrates that normative convictions are not neutral, and that they can be used to exercise the power of the dominant over the subaltern. Similarly, Schmitt notes that invoking humanity or universal values in politics, particularly in the global context, can be a tool for aiding imperialism. Furthermore, visualizing the global on their basis can lead to absolute enmity which excludes meaningful politics. To be truly global, political theory must not discriminate beliefs of various political subjects and needs to include them all in its scope – even if they are contrary to those of the theorist. Otherwise, it will impose concepts of the dominant and maintain the existing relations of power inequality and oppression. Instead of arbitrary normative qualification, conceptualizing the global through common political questions or problems provides a more inclusive solution.

Second, the global should be conceptualized as a political multiverse. It should by default assume the existence of multiple political subjects with different convictions, practices, and experiences. As Schmitt noted, universality is inherently anti-political because it excludes the possibility of division and conflict. In addition, it conceals differences in perspectives and interests of political subjects, such as those between the first and the third world. By its very definition, Global political theory should consider questions such as the limits of a political community, political responsibilities towards others and cooperation of people holding different fundamental ethico-moral beliefs. Creating a theoretical framework for managing transnational interdependence with various political subjects should be one of its main goals. Political theory should conceptualize the global not in negation, but in relation to the Other.

Third, global political theory should recognize the value of conflict and disagreement in politics. Political plurality makes the possibility of conflict ever-present. Accordingly, assuming frictionless coexistence based on rational debate between political subjects holding different existential beliefs would be equal to accepting hegemony. To remain political, global theory should recognize what Chantal Mouffe calls agonism; a type of political rivalry which recognizes the legitimacy of opponents and does not threaten the cohesion of the political community. The existence of disagreement is what allows democratic politics to progress and improve. Political conflicts have a destructive and dangerous potential, but its presence is indispensable for maintaining the meaningfulness of politics.

Spivak and Schmitt convincingly present the possible perils of conceptualizing the global as the universal. Thus, the conclusion of their comparison is clear. The global in political theory can be either universal or political. The universal and the political are opposites.

The conceptualization of the global is the greatest single challenge of contemporary social and political sciences, and these debates have been central in the field of intellectual history. Theories formulated in Western academia, assuming a universal consensus based on reason, contain significant dangers when applied in the global context. Thus, it is high time for political and social theory to find new paradigms based on heterogeneity, multipolarity and diversity. Only then will it be able to evolve an inclusive, egalitarian, and democratic framework needed for the conceptualization of global politics.

Artur Banaszewski is a PhD researcher in History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Featured Image: Bacon’s new chart of the world Mercator’s projection, 1906. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply