The Concept of the Political (Carl Schmitt)

Status
Not open for further replies.

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [reprint 2007].

In what concrete apparatus does political authority lie? Answers could be God or natural law or the social contract? That might be true in an ultimate sense, but power is always mediated. To phrase it another way: who is the actual sovereign?

Carl Schmitt begins on rather innocuous grounds: the state cannot be simply equated with the political. In other words, society cannot be equated with the political. What, then, is the political? It begins “with the distinction between friend and enemy” (Schmitt 26). To be sure, as Schmitt notes, this is a criterion, not an exhaustive definition. (Schmitt is using ‘enemy’ in a terminological sense, not in a moral sense of ‘bad guy’.) The enemy is one who intends to negate your way of life. To ward off confusion, Schmitt says it is a public, not a private enemy. Indeed, the enemy in this sense “need not be hated personally” (29).

Jesus’s comments do not contradict this. He is speaking of private enemies. As Schmitt notes, “Never in the thousand-year struggle between Christians and Moslems did it occur to surrender rather than defend Europe out of love toward the Saracens or Turks” (29).

The contrast between friend and enemy is most stark in the context of war. There contrast becomes absolute and internal tensions within the political structure become relativised (e.g., as a patriot I dislike moderates, but in the face of an existential external threat, I put that dislike aside). Indeed, “War is the existential negation of the enemy” (33). A world without war would be a world without the friend-enemy distinction: it would be a world without politics.

We can now tentatively define the political as an entity which is able to escalate the friend-enemy distinction to war. It is any community “that possesses, even if only negatively, the capacity of promoting that decisive step” (37).

Subordinate societies within the political certainly exist. These are Burke’s “little platoons” or “free associations.” They are necessary to health of the state. Schmitt’s reiterates his point, though, with stark clarity: “the political entity is by its very nature the decisive entity, regardless of the sources from which it derives [its power]. It exists or does not exist. If it exists, it is the supreme, that is, in the decisive case, the authoritative entity” (43-44). We might recoil at his conclusion, but it remains true that the political, not the church or the guild, is able to use the sword.

I think at this point Schmitt is still at the level of theory, for there are examples in European history where entities other than the state had the power to wage war. Theoretically, he is correct.

Any group that has the power to make this distinction and does not do so ceases to exist. As Schmitt notes, if a group within the political chooses not to engage in the friend-enemy distinction, it in fact joins the enemy. “Only a weak people will disappear” (53).

Interestingly enough, we can apply Schmitt’s insights against globalism. If the political presupposes an enemy, it means another political entity, another state, must exist. “As long as a state exists, there will always ben in the world more than one state. A world state which embraces the entire globe and all of humanity cannot exist” (53). The enemies will not cease to exist. The world-state will simply transfer the category to a group of whom it deems “deplorables.”

The Contradiction of Liberalism

Liberalism seeks to protect individual rights and liberty. It does so by hindering the state’s control. While noble, this also means liberalism cannot really accommodate the existential nature of the political as mentioned above. If war arises, the political can demand that you sacrifice your life. Classical liberalism says it can’t make that demand. It is here that Schmitt gives his famous rule of the exception, the rule that fundamentally kills liberalism: “An individualism in which anyone other than the free individual himself were to decide upon the substance and dimension of his freedom would be only an empty phrase” (71).

This doesn’t mean liberal societies cease to exist. They undergo a transformation. “A politically united people becomes…a culturally interested public.” “Government and power turn into propaganda and mass manipulation, and at the economic pole, control” (72).

Evaluation

This isn’t as shocking as it appears. Politics is about negating the other. I want my political candidate to win. That means I want the other to lose. Completely. Democrats want Republicans to lose. Republicans want patriotic Republicans to lose, and so on. Of course, at this point it hasn’t yet come to war. Actually, that’s’ not true. The Democratic Party has numerous paramilitary groups burning cities.

I’m not sure I would build a political worldview on Schmitt’s thinking. Questions like pursuing the Good and virtue are not relevant for him. He doesn’t dismiss them, to be sure, but they have no meaning on the friend-enemy distinction. Nonetheless, he writes with bracing clarity and forces the reader to grapple with hard issues.

Note on Hegel: all spirit is present spirit. Hegel is also the first to bring the nature of the bourgeois forward: “The bourgeois is an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere” (Schmitt 62). The enemy, for Hegel, is “negated otherness.”
 

Brian T

Puritan Board Freshman
Thanks for this.

Ah! Carl Schmitt!

Some time ago I went through a Carl Schmitt phase and spent about 6 months reading about 4 or 5 of his works. I've forgotten most of it by now, but there was something about Schmitt that I found fascinating. Least of all was how he was destined to become one of the greatest legal minds Germany ever produced. But then he noticed something that upended the legal positivism that was all the rage in his day and the paradigm in which he would have been operating: the impossibility of creating a legal system that could cover all possible concrete situations, and the impossibility of interpreting and applying laws in a value-free and logical manner. He realized that the interpretation and application of specific laws depends upon the interpretation and decision of an individual judge, not upon another law or legal norm. The seeds of his "decisionism" were already being sown...

Then WW1 breaks out, followed by its aftermath, when the specter of the dictatorship of the proletariat loomed large. That sends Schmitt down the meta-political rabbit hole, and he ends up demolishing modernity's comfortable myths that the concepts of sovereignty and authority can be secularized and reduced to mechanical rules and procedures, and that the political can be bracketed out of existence, as we all live comfortable lives in a smooth-running machine as free-floating individuals, following rules and pursuing our own personal interests.

Fat chance!

For Schmitt, the political isn’t some separate, neutralized domain but instead permeates all existence. Everything is subject to politicization.

Why?

Because, in his view, we are finite, mortal creatures. And because of this mortality and finitude, we are always already an open question and are fundamentally without ground. (This is where his thought intersects with Martin Heidegger’s and it’s no wonder they were good friends and joined the Nazi party together on the same day). When Schmitt asks the question “who may I recognize as my enemy?” the answer is “whoever can question my existence.”

And this is related to his famous “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

The essence of sovereignty is both to decide when a situation is exceptional, and what to do about the situation in order to create or restore political order, and there is NEVER a set of pre-existent rules (legal or otherwise) that can tell us that a specific situation is an exception.

This can only be decided through a “genuine decision” that ultimately transcends all rules, regulations, and the current order. And Schmitt observes that the sovereign’s decision is akin to creation ex nihilo and a “miracle” that imposes order on chaos (which is why he calls his work where he first explores the nature of sovereignty “Political Theology.”)

Ugh. That was some stuff I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

For me the most important takeaway I remember from reading Schmitt was his demolition of the hysterical optimism of modernity that humans can create some peaceful, technocratic social order of free-floating individuals doing their own thing, producing and consuming for the rest of their lives in peace and harmony.

Another takeaway was that it showed why “conservatives” (here in the US) always lose. They don’t understand the political. They seem to think that politics is about debating ideas and neutrally choosing the best ones: “why if we can just get our opponents to see that free-market economics™ is better than “socialism”…they will come to their senses and vote for our side!!”

Um no…the Left knows that the political is ultimately about the “friend-enemy distinction” (though I doubt any of them have read Schmitt), and they always seek to neutralize (and, today, DESTROY) anything that stands in their way. There is no debate and no compromise with an “enemy” who wants you neutralized and, ultimately, dead.

Gloomy prospects for the here and now, but alas that’s how it shall always be until Christ’s Return.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Thanks for this.

Ah! Carl Schmitt!

Some time ago I went through a Carl Schmitt phase and spent about 6 months reading about 4 or 5 of his works. I've forgotten most of it by now, but there was something about Schmitt that I found fascinating. Least of all was how he was destined to become one of the greatest legal minds Germany ever produced. But then he noticed something that upended the legal positivism that was all the rage in his day and the paradigm in which he would have been operating: the impossibility of creating a legal system that could cover all possible concrete situations, and the impossibility of interpreting and applying laws in a value-free and logical manner. He realized that the interpretation and application of specific laws depends upon the interpretation and decision of an individual judge, not upon another law or legal norm. The seeds of his "decisionism" were already being sown...

Then WW1 breaks out, followed by its aftermath, when the specter of the dictatorship of the proletariat loomed large. That sends Schmitt down the meta-political rabbit hole, and he ends up demolishing modernity's comfortable myths that the concepts of sovereignty and authority can be secularized and reduced to mechanical rules and procedures, and that the political can be bracketed out of existence, as we all live comfortable lives in a smooth-running machine as free-floating individuals, following rules and pursuing our own personal interests.

Fat chance!

For Schmitt, the political isn’t some separate, neutralized domain but instead permeates all existence. Everything is subject to politicization.

Why?

Because, in his view, we are finite, mortal creatures. And because of this mortality and finitude, we are always already an open question and are fundamentally without ground. (This is where his thought intersects with Martin Heidegger’s and it’s no wonder they were good friends and joined the Nazi party together on the same day). When Schmitt asks the question “who may I recognize as my enemy?” the answer is “whoever can question my existence.”

And this is related to his famous “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

The essence of sovereignty is both to decide when a situation is exceptional, and what to do about the situation in order to create or restore political order, and there is NEVER a set of pre-existent rules (legal or otherwise) that can tell us that a specific situation is an exception.

This can only be decided through a “genuine decision” that ultimately transcends all rules, regulations, and the current order. And Schmitt observes that the sovereign’s decision is akin to creation ex nihilo and a “miracle” that imposes order on chaos (which is why he calls his work where he first explores the nature of sovereignty “Political Theology.”)

Ugh. That was some stuff I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

For me the most important takeaway I remember from reading Schmitt was his demolition of the hysterical optimism of modernity that humans can create some peaceful, technocratic social order of free-floating individuals doing their own thing, producing and consuming for the rest of their lives in peace and harmony.

Another takeaway was that it showed why “conservatives” (here in the US) always lose. They don’t understand the political. They seem to think that politics is about debating ideas and neutrally choosing the best ones: “why if we can just get our opponents to see that free-market economics™ is better than “socialism”…they will come to their senses and vote for our side!!”

Um no…the Left knows that the political is ultimately about the “friend-enemy distinction” (though I doubt any of them have read Schmitt), and they always seek to neutralize (and, today, DESTROY) anything that stands in their way. There is no debate and no compromise with an “enemy” who wants you neutralized and, ultimately, dead.

Gloomy prospects for the here and now, but alas that’s how it shall always be until Christ’s Return.

That's an excellent summary.
 

Brian T

Puritan Board Freshman
Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [reprint 2007].

In what concrete apparatus does political authority lie? Answers could be God or natural law or the social contract? That might be true in an ultimate sense, but power is always mediated. To phrase it another way: who is the actual sovereign?

Carl Schmitt begins on rather innocuous grounds: the state cannot be simply equated with the political. In other words, society cannot be equated with the political. What, then, is the political? It begins “with the distinction between friend and enemy” (Schmitt 26). To be sure, as Schmitt notes, this is a criterion, not an exhaustive definition. (Schmitt is using ‘enemy’ in a terminological sense, not in a moral sense of ‘bad guy’.) The enemy is one who intends to negate your way of life. To ward off confusion, Schmitt says it is a public, not a private enemy. Indeed, the enemy in this sense “need not be hated personally” (29).

Jesus’s comments do not contradict this. He is speaking of private enemies. As Schmitt notes, “Never in the thousand-year struggle between Christians and Moslems did it occur to surrender rather than defend Europe out of love toward the Saracens or Turks” (29).

The contrast between friend and enemy is most stark in the context of war. There contrast becomes absolute and internal tensions within the political structure become relativised (e.g., as a patriot I dislike moderates, but in the face of an existential external threat, I put that dislike aside). Indeed, “War is the existential negation of the enemy” (33). A world without war would be a world without the friend-enemy distinction: it would be a world without politics.

We can now tentatively define the political as an entity which is able to escalate the friend-enemy distinction to war. It is any community “that possesses, even if only negatively, the capacity of promoting that decisive step” (37).

Subordinate societies within the political certainly exist. These are Burke’s “little platoons” or “free associations.” They are necessary to health of the state. Schmitt’s reiterates his point, though, with stark clarity: “the political entity is by its very nature the decisive entity, regardless of the sources from which it derives [its power]. It exists or does not exist. If it exists, it is the supreme, that is, in the decisive case, the authoritative entity” (43-44). We might recoil at his conclusion, but it remains true that the political, not the church or the guild, is able to use the sword.

I think at this point Schmitt is still at the level of theory, for there are examples in European history where entities other than the state had the power to wage war. Theoretically, he is correct.

Any group that has the power to make this distinction and does not do so ceases to exist. As Schmitt notes, if a group within the political chooses not to engage in the friend-enemy distinction, it in fact joins the enemy. “Only a weak people will disappear” (53).

Interestingly enough, we can apply Schmitt’s insights against globalism. If the political presupposes an enemy, it means another political entity, another state, must exist. “As long as a state exists, there will always ben in the world more than one state. A world state which embraces the entire globe and all of humanity cannot exist” (53). The enemies will not cease to exist. The world-state will simply transfer the category to a group of whom it deems “deplorables.”

The Contradiction of Liberalism

Liberalism seeks to protect individual rights and liberty. It does so by hindering the state’s control. While noble, this also means liberalism cannot really accommodate the existential nature of the political as mentioned above. If war arises, the political can demand that you sacrifice your life. Classical liberalism says it can’t make that demand. It is here that Schmitt gives his famous rule of the exception, the rule that fundamentally kills liberalism: “An individualism in which anyone other than the free individual himself were to decide upon the substance and dimension of his freedom would be only an empty phrase” (71).

This doesn’t mean liberal societies cease to exist. They undergo a transformation. “A politically united people becomes…a culturally interested public.” “Government and power turn into propaganda and mass manipulation, and at the economic pole, control” (72).

Evaluation

This isn’t as shocking as it appears. Politics is about negating the other. I want my political candidate to win. That means I want the other to lose. Completely. Democrats want Republicans to lose. Republicans want patriotic Republicans to lose, and so on. Of course, at this point it hasn’t yet come to war. Actually, that’s’ not true. The Democratic Party has numerous paramilitary groups burning cities.

I’m not sure I would build a political worldview on Schmitt’s thinking. Questions like pursuing the Good and virtue are not relevant for him. He doesn’t dismiss them, to be sure, but they have no meaning on the friend-enemy distinction. Nonetheless, he writes with bracing clarity and forces the reader to grapple with hard issues.

Note on Hegel: all spirit is present spirit. Hegel is also the first to bring the nature of the bourgeois forward: “The bourgeois is an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere” (Schmitt 62). The enemy, for Hegel, is “negated otherness.”

One more thing that I just remembered of interest which is somewhat apropos here:

In his early work (1921) Dictatorship, Schmitt, haunted by the threat of a Soviet takeover of Germany via the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", held that there were only two ways to deal with this threat, as well as the threat posed by the ravages of modernity:

1. The Church, being the last embodiment of any common European political civilization, could, in theory, mediate between class conflicts, thereby neutralizing them, and maintaining the current political order;
2. An ultra-authoritarian counter-revolutionary sovereign who would smash the revolutionary forces. A "right-wing version of Vladimir Lenin."

He concluded, however, that #1 was no longer a realistic option in the then-current climate, so #2 it was.

He wrote Dictatorship before his more famous works that dealt with his ideas of sovereignty and "the political" but he's already got the same basic ideas governing his thinking. Only a sovereign can come in and impose order on the chaos, and this will ultimately require anti-democratic, anti-parliamentary, and extra-legal measures.

I guess that's the other thing I found so interesting about Schmitt: for him, none of this is abstract political theorizing...his thought is born out of bullets flying and blood on the streets in Germany, which he was witnessing first-hand. And it all leads to his infamous decision in 1933 to support Hitler, who he saw as the "right wing Lenin" necessary to restore order all the way back in 1921.
 

ZackF

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Thank you. I know Paul Gottfried is influenced by Schmitt but I haven’t heard him elaborate too much. Of course I’m reading Gottfried's memoirs and maybe that will be covered.
 

Brian T

Puritan Board Freshman
Thank you. I know Paul Gottfried is influenced by Schmitt but I haven’t heard him elaborate too much. Of course I’m reading Gottfried's memoirs and maybe that will be covered.

Ah! There's another name I haven't thought of in a while! If memory serves, Gottfried wrote a decent book on Schmitt...and another one on Leo Strauss. Apparently, Gottfried was also the first one to use the term "Alt-Right" to describe the nationalist, anti-liberal flavor of right-wing politics that's become increasingly popular in the past decade.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top