When the Prime Minister endorses the violence of war to refer to parliamentary politics, he aligns himself with a tradition of thinking for which those with whom we disagree are not just adversaries to engage with, but enemy targets to be destroyed, writes Lea Ypi.
‘Tempers on both sides have become inflamed’, Boris Johnson declared recently while refusing to apologise for his dismissive remarks in response to MPs’ concerns about far-right violence. Only a few days ago, his advisor, Dominic Cummings had invoked the same kind of ‘all sides are responsible’ rhetoric to answer a question about whether he believed MPs were liable for the abuse received. ‘People on all sides have said things that veered between unwise and very unpleasant, and sometimes criminal’ Mr Cummings said.
These comments bear more than a passing resemblance to President Trump’s remarks on the aftermath of the killing of a young woman at the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. As Trump told reporters on that occasion, there was ‘blame on both sides’. But Johnson went even further than Trump. He not only failed to condemn unambiguously far-right violence, he shared its philosophical justification. That justification took the form of explaining, indeed vindicating, the appeal of military metaphors when discussing parliamentary politics. Johnson suggested he felt ‘very strongly’ about that, about clarifying to the public why war metaphors were appropriate. If you cannot use martial metaphors in politics, he argued, ‘then you are impoverishing the language and diminishing parliamentary public debate’.
War metaphors and the appeal to responsibility on all sides go hand in hand. The theory of war in international relations is premised on recognising the symmetry between belligerent parties whilst registering the responsibilities of all sides. War is what nations resort to when they have run out of ways to negotiate, when diplomatic tools fail, and when deliberation breaks down. Then all parties agree that violence is an acceptable way to solve conflicts, armies line up against each other, and whoever wins decides the terms of the ensuing peace. War, as Carl von Clausewitz famously argued, is the continuation of politics by other means.
Yet, at the national level, the relation between politics and war has always been very different. At the international level, might makes right only because of the absence of a sovereign authority able to establish and enforce common laws. At the national level this is clearly not the case. Shared institutions exist to prevent conflicts from lacerating the political community. Within the state, war is not the continuation of politics, it is the collapse of it.
The celebration of violence, and the argument that all politics is essentially akin to war, are some of the most important tropes of far right discourse. In Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis of the Übermensch, which is one of the philosophical inspirations of the far right, martial heroism is both a means to liberate humans from traditional authority and an expressive end in itself. The Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt famously argued that all politics is reducible to a distinction between friend and enemy. He rejected liberal parliamentarism, mocked the separation of powers, and argued that in circumstances of crisis only the decisive intervention of a sovereign dictator can articulate the true will of the people.
For a Prime Minister who is embattled with Parliament, who has been found guilty of breaking the laws by the Supreme Court, and who has lied to the Queen, the celebration of martial heroism and the theory of sovereign dictatorship may be just what is needed to blur the boundary between ordinary and crisis politics. Belligerent metaphors and the rhetoric of blaming all sides may come in handy to conceal the cost of his deeds. But when the Prime Minister endorses the violence of war to refer to parliamentary politics, he aligns himself with a tradition of thinking for which those with whom we disagree are not just adversaries to engage with, but enemy targets to be destroyed.
This is how minorities and those who defend them come under threat. In blaming all sides when racism is at stake, in considering all parts at war with each other, protagonists become morally indistinguishable. The legitimate anger of the victim is equated with the violence of the perpetrators. Those who have been historically excluded and disenfranchised, those with less power, and those who deserve special protection by democratic institutions are reduced to just one of the many belligerent sides. In the symmetry of war, when all parts are equally culpable, and all authority has been destroyed, compromise loses ground. Only violence and the will to power are left to adjudicate each claim. This is how history is erased and how fascism returns.
Note: a version of the above was first published in The Independent.
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