Many political philosophers have dealt with the issue of conflict, one of them being Carl Schmitt, whose theory of friends and enemies is currently in vogue with many political scientists (the fact that Schmitt was a Nazi does not diminish the value of his theory, or its application in the analysis of reality).
According to Schmitt, the friend-enemy distinction is what defines politics. He does not attach any moral or personal meaning to these categories: the enemy is ‘the other’, he who objectively antagonises us, and by doing so helps us define ourselves. Friends and enemies are also contingent and circumstantial; they can vary.
From this it is easy to infer that, despite the combative nature of the friend-enemy relationship, the ultimate aim is not eliminate the other. There is a creative tension between antagonistic groups that keeps the political wheel spinning. There is a degree of confrontation that is politically healthy, and any attempt to suppress it – be it through violence or by an idealistic ‘universal consensus’ – goes against the very notion of politics.
In times of a highly polarised political landscape like the one we live in Latin America in general, and in Argentina in particular, many see conflict in a negative light, as a inhibitor to any kind of constructive political activity. However, conflict can also mean that there is a genuine debate taking place in society, with a plurality of points of view and alternative political projects. The question is, at what point does the confrontation become unhealthy?
One obvious answer to this question is: when it becomes violent. Schmitt thought that the greater the antagonism – the more it challenged a group’s very existence – the more ‘political’ it was, with the greatest antagonism of all being war. There was a time in Argentina when violence was seriously considered by many as a legitimate political option. That is not the case anymore and the threat of violent uprisings nowadays is, fortunately, negligible.However, verbal violence can also be worrying, as it’s often seen a preamble to physical violence. Hence the concern over some of the signs seen in recent cacerolazos (mainly the one in September, not so much the one in November) calling for the death of the president. Or the posters that appeared afterwards showing a gruesome photomontage of Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno lying in a coffin with a bullet wound in his forehead. It’s highly unlikely that the authors of these signs and posters would ever act on their wishes of seeing politicians dead, but that level of verbal (and visual) violence adds little to the public debate. The desire to eliminate the enemy (even if symbolically) is anti-political, it shows an unhealthy disregard for the political system.
Our democratic political system is the best way to channel and manage conflict that we have come up with so far. And it’s based (ideally) on public debate and the free exchange of ideas. Insults and threats annul that debate, making it about people rather than ideas.
Another symptom of an unhealthy confrontation, one that is much more relevant to us right now than the threat of violence, is fanaticism. When politics becomes a dogma, debate becomes impossible. Unfortunately, this is one symptom we are seeing too much of at the moment in Argentina, and it seems to be here to stay.
There is a difference between passion in the defence of one’s ideas, and the kind of fanaticism that turns life into a football match. When that kind of irrationality takes over, meaningful discussion goes out the window, and, at the individual level, people risk becoming pawns in the power struggles of others. A moral discourse is often introduced into the debate, which becomes a confrontation between good and evil – both concepts alien to the political categories of friend and enemy as described before.
Once again, the much talked-about issue of political representation could be key to bringing the public debate back on track. Well thought out and articulated political programmes on ‘both sides’ of the spectrum (government and opposition) are a necessary base to ensure the discussion is centred on ideas and not on people or irrational loyalties. They would help define friends and enemies, strengthen ideological positions, and channel the conflict that true democracy stands on.