The central thesis of this book can be roughly summarized as follows: The theoretical justifications of parliamentary democracy are no longer valid since they no longer accord with the reality of parliamentary democracy as it is actually practiced (assuming they ever did).
The book itself, however, is broken up into four separate sections and only the second section deals explicitly with the intellectual foundations of parliamentarism. The first section is about the theoretical foundations of democracy, which Schmitt does not consider to be identical to those of parliamentarism. The third section deals with the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat, and the final section deals with Georges Sorel and his theory of myth and the irrational grounds of political action.
The book is not as unified, in my opinion, as it could be. So I will attempt to deal with the sections individually.
In the first section Schmitt defines democracy. In the preface Schmitt writes, "Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second...elimination or eradication of heterogeneity" (Pg. 9).
This is certainly a controversial statement and I must admit I had a great deal of trouble in following Schmitt's argument here. I would love it if someone who has studied Schmitt, or democratic theory, more than I have would respond to this review and fill in any gaps in my argument or correct any mistakes.
As far as I have been able to determine Schmitt's argument runs something like this: First, Schmitt sees democracy as resting on a series of identities; an identity between governed and governing, sovereign and subject, the subject and object of state authority, etc. (pg. 26). These identities seem, for Schmitt, to require a certain degree of homogeneity within the community. If heterogeneity is introduced (in the form of classes for instance) it will no longer be possible to define the "General Will" and there will be a duality between ruling and ruled. The actions of state will be seen as based on the will of a particular group, who will be the rulers, and the rest of the population will be the ruled.
I should point out that Schmitt nowhere in this book actually makes this argument explicit. This is simply my attempt to understand why Schmitt would make the claim that democracy requires homogeneity. It is certainly true that a democracy will need to make certain distinctions between people (the most important perhaps being that between a citizen and non-citizen). And it is certainly true that no democratic society, as of yet, has tried to define every person in the entire world as having equal status before the law. The principle of universal human equality is not, therefore, strictly speaking a principle of democracy. But I see no reason, other then that outlined above, why this distinction should require homogeneity (social, cultural, or racial) among the citizens of a democracy. This is the part of Schmitt's argument I am not following...
But I will leave this part of Schmitt's argument aside for the moment. The more interesting claim, in my opinion, that Schmitt makes about democracy involves the purely formal character of democracy and the "dialectical iversion" of sorts that democracy is prone to due to its purely formal character.
Schmitt argues that democracy on its own has no political content and can be used in the service of various political programs, some of which may even be anti-democratic in terms of their content. This puts the defender of democracy in a curious position. The defender of democracy is faced with having to either suspend democracy in an attempt to defend it, or remain faithful to democracy despite the fact that doing so will lead to democracy's destruction. As Schmitt points out this is not merely an abstract dialectic thought up by ivory tower professors. There are plenty of examples in history of political movements using democratic means to pursue anti-democratic ends. This dialectic certainly needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about and defending democracy.
The second section of the book is where Schmitt develops his main thesis which I outlined above.
Schmitt first dismisses the idea that parliamentarism is simply based on the practical necessity of having representatives for the people's will. Schmitt points out that the democratic principle of the identity of the governed and the governing does not require that there be more than one representative of the people's will. This practical necessity does not, therefore, constitute an adequate intellectual foundation for parliamentarism.
Schmitt, instead, sees the ultimate intellectual grounds for parliamentarism in the notions of openness and discussion. Ultimately this view rests on a certain interpretation of the nature of reason. According to this view it is through the clash of opinions that human beings are able to approach the truth. Parliamentarism finds it's justification in the fact that it creates an open and public forum for discussion, in which opinions can be presented, questioned, and defended, and through this process the "true" or best policy or course of action will become evident.
Schmitt believes this intellectual justification for parliamentarism does not accord well with the facts. The reality of parliamentarism as it is actually practiced reveals that it is a system based on parties. These parties make their decisions about policy in private meetings and committees, behind closed doors, before they ever enter the arena of public debate (I trust this description will not sound wildly unfamiliar to anyone). This is what constitutes "the crisis of parliamentary democracy". It is ultimately a legitimacy crisis. The best reasons that have been offered for the superiority of parliamentary democracy over other forms of government by thinkers like John Stuart Mill, and Jeremy Bentham, are not valid reasons for preferring parliamentary forms of government to other forms because they are purely ideal.
There is a lot more in this second chapter then I am able to summarize in this relatively brief space. The second section is, in my opinion, the most interesting and thought-provoking section of the whole book. But that is at least a brief summary of Schmitt's central thesis.
The last two sections can be dealt with more briefly. I believe they are an attempt on Schmitt's part to explain two alternatives to parliamentarism that were influential in Schmitt's own time. One of Schmitt's main thesis is that it is not enough of a defense of parliamentary forms of government to simply say "What else?" The lack of any truly legitimizing arguments for parliamentary government leaves a vacuum that can be filled by alternatives. Since this is the only book I have read by Schmitt I am not sure what Schmitt's own personal preferences would be in terms of an alternative to parliamentary forms of government, I know he briefly supported the Nazis, which will certainly not recommend him to many readers today. But he does, in the last two chapters, present two alternatives to parliamentarism, though I should point out that Schmitt nowhere endorses either of these alternatives.
One alternative is the Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat. Schmitt has a somewhat interesting understanding of the theoretical justifications for a Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat. Basically he sees it's justification as resting on an alternative, dialectical, notion of reason. This notion of reason is in direct contrast to what might be called the intersubjective notion of reason which is based on open discussion. The dialectical view is ultimately based on Hegel's dictum that "the real is rational, and the rational is real." On this view history itself is a rational development of dialectical reason in which each new historical era is the dialectical negation of the previous era. It is necessary, therefore, to attempt to understand one's own time as best as one can in order to have a true insight into it's dialectical negation and to align oneself on the correct side of history. Those who have this insight are in possession of the absolute truth and there is, therefore, no longer any reason for open discussion. This makes it possible to justify a dictatorship of reason.
The final section addresses the theories of Georges Sorel. Georges Sorel claims that every political society finds it's ground in a sustaining myth. Myths are what engage the vital instincts of humanity. Parliamentarism on this view is the abandonment of myth and the enthusiasm on which every form of government depends. This can be seen as the ultimate negation of parliamentarism because it does not replace it with another version of rationalism but replaces it with a conscious irrationalism. It is not just the rejection of the particular form of reason parliamentarism is based on, but is an attack on reason itself at least as a ground or justification for a form of government.
In conclusion, I would simply say that I found this book extremely interesting and worth reading. At the very least it requires us to take a closer look at our justifications for democracy and parliamentarism.