Relocated from a previously pseudonymous account.
Dr Sarah Greenwald Smith of St. Louis University has an aesthetic objection to slogan tees and is very bored of incremental progress and liberal democracy, and has therefore decided to take to the Los Angeles Review of Books to air her jaded superiority in an essay called Friends and Enemies: On Slogan Tees.
Dr Greenwald Smith opens with an anecdote of her adolescence in Portland in the 90s. There is no need to quote it in detail: being a teenager is embarrassing, Portland is doubly embarrassing, one may empathize. She buys a cheap t-shirt with an anti-racist slogan on it, but somehow race relations in the US are not instantly improved.
The shirt looks cutest with super-short cutoffs and docs, but it also works with jeans. It dresses up, knotted at the bottom over a denim mini; it dresses down, tucked into too-big men’s slacks from the Goodwill.
I get tons of compliments. No one ever mentions race.
She could have mentioned race at any time, but this doesn’t occur to her now any more than it did when she was a teenager.
We jump-cut to 2018, and she is back in Portland over her summer vacation. She describes new construction in her old neighborhood: we are clearly supposed to think this is bad, but she doesn’t go so far as to say so outright. She goes to Powell’s Books, where she sees a woman in a t-shirt that says “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS”.
When I get home, I Google the T-shirt and learn that it retails for $710 at Dior. That is when I learn that I can no longer tell the difference between friends and enemies.
When I Googled the shirt, the first listing I found was on Amazon, selling for $20. The next three listings were Amazon, Amazon, and Etsy. None of them were over $30. I didn’t find the Dior shirt until halfway down the page: it seems to be a fundraiser for Rihanna’s charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation. I won’t speculate on the virtue or not of Rihanna’s charity. It probably isn’t any better or worse than any other celebrity charities. And strictly speaking it is true that Dr Greenwald Smith can’t know for sure whether the woman she saw at Powell’s was wearing the Dior shirt or the mass-market edition, but by now it’s certainly worth being suspicious of her intentions.
Then she quotes Carl Schmitt. This is the point at which I spilled my coffee on my plain white sloganless shirt in shock.
In his 1932 study, The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt offers the following definition of politics: the “political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping.”
Schmitt believed that the political sphere was inherently antagonistic, and that any attempts to make it otherwise amounted to a denial of politics as such. To be political, he argues, is to be fundamentally concerned with the distinction between one’s friends and one’s enemies.
According to all the reports, we are in a new era of political fashion, with a particular emphasis on the slogan tee. From high-fashion designers such as Prabal Gurung, Christian Siriano, and, of course, Dior, to small boutiques such as Portland’s own Wildfang, to online print-your-own novelty shops, slogan T-shirts can be found virtually everywhere. Even The New York Times has gotten into the slogan tee business, prompting controversy with its shirt responding to Donald Trump’s assault on journalism. Designed by Sacai and currently available for $300 at Saks, the shirt reads: “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.”
Kari Molvar, assessing the phenomenon for Allure, sounds accidentally Schmittian when she argues that the slogan tee offers “a form of bonding among those who share the same beliefs.” Other fashion insiders agree. The season’s obsession with slogan tees, according to Sarah Young, is a function of the desire for “a visual marker for what you believe in.” The slogan tee, according to this notion, is like a military uniform or tribal marker. It should alert a person to who her friends are. It should be a vehicle for the intensification of politics.
And in a certain sense this is the case. The slogan tee is one of many cultural markers of polarization in the United States today. The left has pink hats and NASTY WOMAN T-shirts; the right has red hats and DON’T TREAD ON ME T-shirts. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that pink and red could take the place of blue and gray in a 21st-century civil war.
A hint: if you are citing Carl Schmitt approvingly, without feeling any need to mention that he was the foremost Nazi jurist and theorist of dictatorship, you are the enemy. We will, unfortunately, come back to Schmitt in a bit. She goes on.
But on the other hand, the slogan-tee-as-fashion-item has a longer history, one that precedes our current moment. The trend has roots in the commercialization of the counterculture in the 1960s and punk in the 1970s. Slogan tees with bold black letters first became a fashion trend in the 1980s and ’90s. They took a hiatus during the ironic 2000s and minimalist early 2010s and are now back. This history does not coincide with a steady rise in political polarization. The ease with which the slogan tee was marketed after the end of the 1960s is a sign not of a populace generally more concerned with politics, but of something quite different: the increasing speed with which oppositional cultural markers are subsumed into commerce and incorporated into the mainstream.
The slogan tee, as a symptom of this trajectory, is not a vehicle for politics, for marking the difference between friends and enemies. It is rather evidence of the ease with which dissent can be marketed. Rather than a sign of increased polarization, of increased political energy, the popularity of the slogan tee is evidence of the dissolution of the political.
One wonders: how long has it been since she went down into the city and talked to someone who neither has tenure nor earns six figures nor lives in bloody Portland?
It isn’t countercultural to mock a $710 political t-shirt. It just isn’t. The absurdity of the Dior shirt is entirely uncontroversial, no matter how much of the proceeds are devoted to microloans for orphans. And yet by the time she finally mentions the “online print-your-own novelty shops”, she has mentioned six different ridiculous high-fashion sources of slogan t-shirts and only two plebeian ones, as if the primary market for slogan t-shirts is West Coast tech millionaires and not teenagers and middle-class moms who go to demonstrations. People get their slogan shirts in political fundraisers. They print them online so they can wear matching shirts to the protest. They impulse-buy them off Redbubble for fifteen bucks. Hardly anyone gets them from designer fashion houses.
Dr Greenwald Smith still hasn’t told us who the internal enemy, the wolf in the sheep’s slogan shirt, is supposed to be, but she gives herself away by complaining about “the increasing speed with which oppositional cultural markers are subsumed into commerce and incorporated into the mainstream.” People were selling the slogan shirts all along. The old THE FUTURE IS FEMALE shirt was a promotional item for a lesbian bookstore as well as a political statement. This isn’t really about commerce: this is about normies. The normies decided to express their normie politics with an almost universally affordable and easily-reproduced piece of clothing, and worst of all, much of what was once radical is now normie politics. In 2018 it’s profitable for major-league baseball teams to sell pride-themed merch. Change the culture enough and the oppositional cultural markers aren’t so oppositional anymore.
What a loss for for self-conscious radicals.
And then we’re back to Schmitt. To my intense irritation I have not only re-read far too much of The Concept of the Political but also hunted down Strauss’s notes on Schmitt, and there is no way anyone could possibly read either The Concept of the Political itself or Strauss’s notes thereon and not notice. The most charitable interpretation I can offer is that Dr Greenwald Smith hasn’t really read Schmitt with attention.
Schmitt has a name for the belief that we can all be friends. He calls it liberalism.
There is, he argues, “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.” An ideology based on individual rights, liberalism at root concerns itself with the individual, which means that collective commitments like friends and enemies are inconvenient.
The result is that liberalism replaces politics with two other domains: ethics and economics. In the place of a concept of the state, we get an ethical collectivity — the “humanitarian conception of humanity” — on the one hand and an economic collectivity — the “economic-technical system of production and traffic” — on the other. A citizenry becomes, on the one hand, “a culturally interested public” and, on the other, “a mass of consumers.”
Now if she knew much at all about interwar Germany, she would know that the attack on liberalism occurs in a larger context in which the Nazis are working hard to discredit the rule of law, humanitarian morality, and social democracy so they can convincingly present fascism to the intelligentsia as the only proper expression of human nature and to the petit-bourgeois mass as the only possible alternative to Marxist-Leninist revolution; while, before 1933, Schmitt and the conservatives are also trying to discredit the rule of law, humanitarian morality, and social democracy so that they can present conservative dictatorship as the only possible alternative both to Marxist-Leninist revolution and to Nazism, and after 1933 they embrace the Nazi project. This is not obvious from The Concept of the Political, because Schmitt is at pains to conceal his intent, but it would have sufficed to read the translator’s introduction.
Second, she doesn’t appear to understand Schmitt’s structural critique of liberalism: his complaint is not that everything ‘political’ is flattened under soulless consumerism. Enemy doesn’t mean “someone outside my ideological-cultural tribe.” Enemy means “enemy combatant.” According to Schmitt, politics is war, but rather than the Hobbesian individualist war of all against all, it is the war of all groups against all groups. Liberalism’s attempt to banish war and replace it with parliament is therefore internally contradictory. Parliament is at best a pale substitute. In practical terms, this means that liberal systems are forced to tolerate enemies of the system and allow them to participate in government so long as they adhere to the formalities of law (as if this is a problem liberal political theorists had not already noticed). Schmitt’s apparent critique of the international economic system isn’t really an economic critique: again, enemies of the liberal international order are presently tolerated and will, if unchallenged, eventually destroy it, but the liberal international order is constructed so that attacking the internal enemy is itself a rejection of the system (this also has been a live debate in international relations since the beginning, and it should have been easy for Dr Greenwald Smith to find any number of realist scholars who manage not to be Nazis). But at the end Schmitt concludes not that liberalism must be superseded by some system that is better able to contain the status belli, but that politics as status belli should be dragged back out into the light of day and embraced.
Because Schmitt has such idiosyncratic definitions for words like “freedom” and “politics”, presenting short quotations out of context often distorts or even inverts their sense. For instance, “No matter how large the financial bribe may be, there is no money equivalent for political freedom and political independence” sounds like a nice sentiment about economic self-determination, but political freedom to Schmitt does not mean self-governance in a broad sense, it means unrestricted freedom to wage war. It’s worth quoting the full passage in which “a culturally interested public” appears:
Ethical or moral pathos and materialist economic reality combine in every typical liberal manifestation and give every political concept a double face. Thus the political concept of battle in liberal thought becomes competition in the domain of economics and discussion in the intellectual realm. Instead of a clear distinction between the two different states, that of war and that of peace, there appears the dynamic of perpetual competition and perpetual discussion. The state turns into society: on the ethical-intellectual side into an ideological humanitarian conception of humanity, and on the other into an economic-technical system of production and traffic. The self-understood will to repel the enemy in a given battle situation turns into a rationally constructed social ideal or program, a tendency or an economic calculation. A politically united people becomes, on the one hand, a culturally interested public, and, on the other, partially an industrial concern and its employers, partially a mass of consumers. At the intellectual pole, government and power turns into propaganda and mass manipulation, and at the economic pole, control.
Now I don’t know Dr Greenwald Smith: maybe along with Schmitt she prefers war to discussion, or, which is the same thing, unitary dictatorial authority to parliament.
If I apply the most charitable interpretation, she seems to be saying something more like this: “Anyone whose ‘political’ project is based in a desire to secure pluralism and individual rights is not in fact engaged in a political project, because politics is supposed to be the war of all against all, and also smash capitalism.” What she shares with Schmitt, in the end, is fear that life under parliament is unserious and meaningless. This is, presumably, why she is so troubled by the ubiquitous feminist slogan tee. I doubt that she has any interest in joining a militant left-authoritarian political movement, but she might feel better if she did.
I can’t begin to answer either the original Schmitt or Dr Greenwald Smith’s bastardized version nearly as well as Leo Strauss does, so I’ll just quote (if it were up to me, “political” would be in scare quotes throughout):
Let us now make thoroughly clear what the affirmation of the political in disregard of the moral, the primacy of the political over the moral, would signify. Being political means being oriented to the “dire emergency.” Therefore the affirmation of the political as such is the affirmation of fighting as such, wholly irrespective of what is being fought for. In other words: he who affirms the political as such comports himself neutrally toward all groupings into friends and enemies. However much this neutrality may differ from the neutrality of the man who denies the political as such, he who affirms the political as such and thereby behaves neutrally toward all groupings into friends and enemies does not want “to place” himself “outside the political totality . . . and live only as a private man” ; he does not have the will to neutralization, to the avoidance of decision at all costs, but in fact is eager for decision; as eagerness for any decision regardless of content, this neutrality makes use of the possibility — which originally was made accessible for the sake of neutralization — of something that is beyond all decision. He who affirms the political as such respects all who want to fight; he is just as tolerant as the liberals — but with the opposite intention: whereas the liberal respects and tolerates all “honest” convictions so long as they merely acknowledge the legal order, peace, as sacrosanct, he who affirms the political as such respects and tolerates all “serious” convictions, that is, all decisions oriented to the real possibility of war. Thus the affirmation of the political as such proves to be a liberalism with the opposite polarity.
It’s Sarah or the fascists, lads — or Sarah and the fascists.
And then after all that cryptofascist handwringing we find out that she is, herself, still wearing a slogan shirt. How can she stand to go out in public? What if someone sees her and thinks that her “politics” are entirely performative?