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Backstage Politics

Carl Schmitt: identity politics and the total State



How does identity politics work in the total State? Let’s see it.




Today, I want to speak to you about the role of identity politics in the total State. I know most people understand by identity politics the political stance that holds there are oppressed groups under systemic social inequities, which makes them articulate their suffering in terms of their experience thanks to a process of consciousness-raising and collective action. It has much to do with the topic of the current discussion, but I don’t want to focus on it now. Rather than that, I’m going to address how identity politics works in the total State. I believe that Schmitt’s thought is helpful in this respect. It will allow us to see the connections between identity politics and the total State and its relation with decisionism and sovereignty. The following discussion will address the role of identity politics in two different structural contexts.

On the one hand, I’m going to address identity politics in the weak total State. It will lead us to analyze some policies adopted in western countries regarding some social differences that became political.

On the other hand, I’ll discuss the role of identity politics in the strong version of the total State.

In order to contextualize all of this, I’ll make some introductory remarks about the political and identity politics.


The political and identity politics


The political in Schmitt’s thought is the distinction between friend and enemy. It is the result of a decision based on extreme dissociation. That dissociation stems from social differences that become political because they gather people in friends and enemies. Consequently, these groups develop hostilities because they consider each other as an enemy because of their identity. Indeed, every group considers others’ identities an existential negation of their identities. Any social difference may become a political identity because they are the result of a politicization process. Although I spoke about this on another occasion, I’m going to say something else.

The plurality we find in any society is the source of conflicts when this diversity organizes and mobilizes people in groups of friends and enemies. It happens when everybody finds others’ identity as a threat and the negation of their identity. Identities become incompatible, and people oppose each other because the politicization process turned their identities into something political. In this way, antagonism redefines social relations and loyalties. Depending on your identity, namely, your race, social class, cultural background, and so on, you become part of the political struggle between opposing groups. That leads us to identity politics.

In this regard, when we talk about identity politics, we refer to a specific approach and analysis based on the most relevant concerns to particular groups. These concerns are related to their particular condition: race, religion, culture, gender, and so on. The politicization of these identities becomes the promotion of groups’ interests. They do so by asserting their respective identities. Usually, this process involves the victimization of these groups that present themselves as an oppressed group by the whole society. So, they depict themselves as marginalized groups that look for justice and redress of grievances.

Now it’s time to see how identity politics works in the weak total State.


Identity politics in the weak total State


Before moving on, what is a total State? I talked about it before, but I’m going to make some preliminary clarifications for a better understanding of this discussion.

Schmitt referred with this concept to the interpenetration between society and the State. Due to the expansion of the State and its increased capacities to intervene in society, it led to extend the scope of the political. No human sphere is beyond its reach, and therefore, everything is political. The Schmitt’s thought reflects how modernity develops in the political realm because the modern State has contributed to this situation up to the point of becoming total.

The weak total State involves a situation in which the State’s scope covers the whole human life. Still, it finds some constraints that prevent it from becoming a strong total State. I refer to constitutional provisions that limit the capacity of the State to intervene in individuals’ affairs. That is the case of the liberal State. For this reason, the way identity politics works in this political context shows some peculiarities.

In general, identity politics has been a driving force in constitutional regimes for the expansion of the State. It has entailed the extension of its scope by intervening in more realms. In this way, identity politics is another expression of modernity. Indeed, it is a modernizing force.

In constitutional regimes, identity politics contributes to the growth of the State’s control of society. We witness this phenomenon because identity politics not only politicize existing social differences to transform them into political identities. It also builds a narrative of victimization aimed to draw attention to issues related to a specific group. In this way, it denounces injustice and asks for the redress of grievances by adopting measures intended to put an end to its oppression.

Identity politics looks for changes in the polity that don’t pursue equalization, but the preservation of differentiation through specific public policies. So, policymakers tackle identity politics matters in a very particular way according to the identity of every single group and their peculiarities. They don’t want to integrate these groups in the whole society with the same status in political and legal terms, but to develop policies aimed only at these groups. That procedure protects differentiations, and they receive a differentiated treatment from the government. In the long run, it involves the segmentation of society insofar as more and more policies have a specific approach because they tackle certain social group matters. Besides, identity politics becomes part of the political dynamic insofar as more and more groups assume a victimization narrative and end up involved in a politicization process that leads them to ask for specific government measures.

Therefore, identity politics boost the integration of social groups and their problems in the State’s scope. They ask for a governmental intervention to tackle those matters that represent a great concern for them. The authority finds here a political excuse to strengthen its position in society and expands its powers by intervening in more domains. Thus, identity politics turns out to be a reformist and modernizing attitude because it politicizes anything it touches. That involves the integration in the State of everybody and everything. In this way, it reinforces the State that becomes even more total.

As a result of this dynamic, the weak total State becomes a space in which power struggles between different social groups occur. They pursue power and, in this way, to manage public affairs according to their particular interests. This dynamic may lead to the transformation of the weak total State, namely the constitutional regime, into a strong total State, that is, a totalitarian State as it happened in Germany in the 1930s.


Identity politics in the strong total State


The way identity politics work in this case is quite different, even if we still consider this phenomenon as identity politics. We can’t deny the fundamental role that identity plays in politics in this kind of State. So, in this situation, we have two different levels of analysis. One of them is the internal domain in which relations between the State and society develop. And the other one is the external realm of international politics. In both cases, identity represents a relevant element to understand how politics works.

The strong total State stands out for resorting to force and seeking to maximize its power. It doesn’t have the constraints of the liberal State because any limitations to its power vanished. The individual is alone before the overwhelming State power. In domestic politics, identity works as an instrument of cohesion for society because the State assumes a specific identity that imposes to all members of society. That is one dimension of this matter. In this way, the State looks for unity and the identification of society with the ruling elite and the State as the supreme institution. However, identity also has another dimension that has to do with the distinction between friend and enemy. In this respect, the State is not only who defines society’s identity but also determines who its enemies are. They end up out of the law, excluded from the social and political order. Besides, they don’t deserve any judicial or legislative guarantee because they are not considered humans. They represent an existential threat to the State because their identity is the negation of the official identity imposed by the political authority.

Hence, the State prosecutes those who represent a threat. It resorts to all means available to assert its identity and its authority. As historical records show, it leads to all sorts of repression. Furthermore, it involves a process of politicizing society insofar as it splits into friends and public enemies. Propaganda, social control, the regulation of social relations, and the overseeing of all individual’s activities are the usual practices of this kind of State to silence any dissent or opposition.

All of this links with the notion of sovereignty because it rests on that person or political body that has the supremacy and can make the final decision. Therefore, who can decide who the enemy is, is also sovereign because they determine how the polity behaves regarding a specific group or individual. That is even clearer when dealing with international politics because it involves the redefinition of foreign relations and the reorganization of the global stage. So, the enemy in the external sphere contributes to unifying the political community in the domestic realm. The external enemy strengthens internal cohesion because it represents an existential threat that comes from abroad. Then, the polity’s specific traits become fundamental in political terms because the whole society ends up involved in this struggle against the foreign enemy. They feel they are part of the same community, united against an external threat that poses an existential danger. Nationalism is a clear example. However, totalitarian regimes provide an extreme case of this.


Question of the day


Question of the day! What do you think about identity politics? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.


Bibliography used:

Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political

Schmitt, Carl, Dictatorship

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