The term depoliticization is often used, but rarely defined in a precise way or related to its conceptual background. It is perhaps all too easy to take it at face value: de-politicization signifies a process whereby something is made non-political. This embryonic definition is a good start, but it is not clear what follows from it. For instance, do we mean the same thing when we describe both the increasing role of experts in democratic government and the way mainstream media represents terrorism as ‘depoliticized’? As a first step in our conceptual analysis, it is important to realize that the concept does not refer to political reality in a stable way. What ‘depoliticization’ means depends in no small way on the concept of politics or ‘the political’ employed by the analyst in question. This in turn means that depoliticization critique is part of a historical back-and-forth between different positions on what one should consider politics, or political. We can thus expect depoliticization itself to display a degree of fluidity of its own.
The latter insight – that the concept of depoliticization, like all other political terms, can only be made meaningful by reflecting on the political circumstances that inform its usage – is relatively recent in philosophical terms. One of the central developments in theoretical work on depoliticization is its formulation in the political writings of Carl Schmitt. Two aspects are especially important: first, Schmitt’s distinction between (institutional) politics and ‘the political’, which he describes as an antagonistic relationship that underlies every other sphere (1932a); second, his essay on ‘the age of neutralization and depoliticization’ (1932b ). In that essay, Schmitt defines a long European history of ‘neutrality’. Successive generations of intellectuals tried to find neutral domains or spheres in order to stifle antagonism. These attempts were continually necessary, as the central sphere of one era was quickly turned into the latest cultural battleground. Schmitt sees theology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, economics and, finally, technology as the successive stages or phases of this development. He understands this succession in terms of internal dynamism which will necessarily reintroduce conflict (Schmitt 1932b). For instance, while religion can function as a strategy for uniting people behind common doctrine, this strategy of neutralization seemed less promising after the dominating influence of religious warfare in the early modern age. A similar principle is at work in moral philosophy, which begins as an attempt to derive moral values that will enable everyone to lead a life of virtue, but ends as an intellectual battle of arguments in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century is the province of economics: through the politicization of society “from above” (Greven 2009), it seemed possible to steer society in a unitary direction. This, too, has proved to be an illusion. Technology is Schmitt’s final stage because it promises to be “the most neutral” of the entire development (Schmitt 1932b).
While the process of neutralization as a whole is described in uniform terms as an unsuccessful ‘suppression’ of the political, it seems clear that the processes of depoliticization and (re)politicization that define the different historical steps are different in each case. Seeking neutral ground in metaphysics entails seeking comfort in the deep structure of reality itself; turning to economic science is an unmistakably less secure foundation.
We can therefore interpret Schmitt as implying (rather than stating) the view that depoliticization occurs in historical stages, so that the concept should be seen as essentially contextualized. This is a promising starting point in theoretical terms. For now, we should note that the concept of the political involved for Schmitt is one of intense antagonism. It is this feature of intensity that accounts for politics as a ‘total’ concept. When artistic or economic disputes gain enough intensity, they are turned into political disputes. In that sense, politics underlies the totality of all the spheres of human activity. The hallmark of a political dispute is the distinction between friend and enemy. The enemy constitutes a “negation of one’s position on the ontological level” (Schmitt 1932a) and for that reason has to be combated. This makes politics into a matter of experienced existential opposition, and because of the high stakes involved it seems only reasonable to assume that Schmitt sees the ‘negation of the negation’, that is to say the total destruction of the enemy, as its only possible outcome. While this is a matter of controversy, it makes clear that the stakes are potentially disastrously high.
Against this background we can certainly understand why European culture would want to depoliticize. Schmitt’s version of the political is a principle of potentially destructive conflict, without any other explanation for this conflict than that it is felt to be necessary. Religion, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and economics all provide perspectives that aim to transcend this state of unmitigated conflict by generating criteria about what is right and wrong, or scientifically accurate (depending on the phase). They are both, for a time, able to settle ongoing disputes and put out fires before they start; until they, themselves become controversial and the cycle repeats itself.
For those involved in the various disciplines in which depoliticization is discussed, it will perhaps seem obvious that, pace Schmitt, economics is the primary domain used to make decisions, assertions and actions non-political. But is Schmitt wrong to say that the nineteenth-century use of economics as neutral ground was succeeded by a ‘technological’ one? We will have to look more closely at the development of depoliticization as a philosophical concept. This glance backward in time can only be undertaken once we have a clear view of depolcrit today. What kind of criticism is being developed when it comes to depoliticization in our day and age? Now that we have established the importance of context, what is the present context?