Carl Schmitt on Political Power

Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) is one of the most influential conservative political thinkers of the 20th century. His work remains very controversial, but his ideas allow us to think through some of the old problems of political philosophy in a fresh light. What can we learn from him today, in the midst of the current transformation of the political sphere?

The nature of political power

At the core of the political process are always considerations of power. Politicians may have a vision of what should be done, but without the power to affect a change in this direction the vision is useless. So what is political power? How is it created? Political power is the ability to make decisions for the community as a whole. The German political philosopher Max Weber (1864 to 1920) defined it as the ability to impose one's will "even in the face of opposition from others", and he defines the state as an organization grounded in violence, and in “a relation of men dominating men.” (Weber, Max: Politics as a Vocation.) A somewhat softer definition is given to us by another German political philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975). She states that "political power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” (Arendt, Hannah; On Violence 1970.) Whoever directs this concert has political power. Political power is the ability to exercise control over groups of people.

Another German philosopher, Carl Schmitt, defined the political as the motives and actions that result from our perceptions of who is friend and who is enemy:

The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy… in so far as it is not derived from other criteria, the antithesis of friend and enemy corresponds to the relatively independent criteria of other antitheses: good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on. In any event it is independent, not in the sense of a distinct new domain, but in that it can neither be based on any one antitheses or any combination of other antitheses, nor can it be traced to theseThe political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger, and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third party.” (Carl Schmitt: The Concept of the Political. Rutgers University Press, 1976. P. 26)

This definition has influenced many political philosophers in the 20th Century. The early Frankfurt School philosophers tried to ignore Carl Schmitt, because he supported National Socialism. Nevertheless, his ideas are worthwhile to consider outside the narrow context of Germany in the 1920s and 30s. He suggests a view of politics as a distinct domain grounded only in adversarial human relations, and not derived from any other consideration. Schmitt is one of the 20th-century political philosophers who is obsessed with the question of how politics works, if one rejects any natural law foundation. The question arises: How does his existential political philosophy relate to the idea of a common good, or to the idea of a social contract as the foundation of society? Before we discuss this further, let's take a short look at his life.

Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt

Carl Schmitt's life

He started his university career during the Weimar Republic, which he initially tried to defend. But then he witnesses the weakness of the Weimar parliamentary system, and calls for a more robust role of the state as Sovereign. His major works were already published before Hitler came to power:

  • Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. 1922.

  • The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. 1923.

  • The Concept of the Political. 1927,

  • Constitutional Theory. 1928.

  • Legality and Legitimacy. 1932.

  • The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum. 1950.

  • Theory of the Partisan. 1963.

  • The Tyranny of Values. 1979.

Schmitt joined the National Socialist Party in 1933 when Hitler became the German chancellor. Starting in the early 1920s, he had begun to develop the rationale for a power-oriented form of politics that was incompatible not only with the struggling parliamentarianism of the Weimar Republic, but with a universalized liberalism in general. In 1936, the SS accused him of being an opportunist, a Catholic, and a Hegelian state thinker. They also attacked his anti-semitism as a mere pretense. He gave up some positions in the party and focused solely on teaching. When the Americans came in 1945, he was arrested and imprisoned for a year. He later refused to participate in denazification programs, and was barred from academic jobs. He remained academically and intellectually isolated, and died in 1985 in his home-town in Plettenberg, Germany.

In spite of his Nazi past, many other political philosophers found his ideas interesting. Frankfurt School thinkers mostly shunned him, or referred to him only indirectly (Walter Benjamin, see below.) What makes him interesting even today is his definition of politics, his view of sovereignty in relation to the democratic state, and his critique of liberalism. The quoted text above demonstrates that he views the political as a primordial dimension for us. It cannot be reduced to other considerations: It does not correspond to the distinction of good versus evil, even though political enemies oftentimes vilify each other. The distinction between friend and enemy is an existential quality; it arises from the concrete situation and only the actual participants can decide who they are in relation to each other.

Friends and enemies

If the distinction between friend and enemy is the original starting point for the political process, then our political institutions are also marked by this origin: they are not just meaningful because they allow a better organization within the society that created them; they function to protect us from the enemy, or, in Schmitt’s words, from the “other”. The state thus gets defined in relation to the enemy; it has the purpose to defend us against strangers, and it serves to ameliorate our own fears of the unknown. Schmitt says that we have not really grown much beyond a tribal view of political life. We witness again and again how leaders consolidate their powers by warning against outside dangers, by rallying the people against potential enemies. They often create dangers that did not exist before they were evoked. Many wars have been fought that were unnecessary - when we look back a few years later, the war seems senseless.

War … has no normative meaning, but an existential meaning only … There exists no rational purpose, no norm no matter how true, no programme no matter how exemplary, no social ideal no matter how beautiful, no legitimacy or legality which could justify men in killing each other for this reason. If such physical destruction is not motivated by an existential threat to one’s own way of life, then it cannot be justified. Just as little can war be justified by ethical and juristic norms. If there really are enemies in the existential sense as meant here, then it is justified, but only politically, to repel and fight them physically.’

(The Concept of the Political, pp. 48–9)

To evoke dangers from the outside is one of the strongest tools available in order to unify the people behind their leadership, and to overcome the internal divisions of political dissent within a society. But why does this work so well?

Schmitt takes the polarization between friend and enemy for granted, as if it is within human nature. His approach is pragmatic, but not innovative, and neither revolutionary nor critical. Therefore he is sometimes also called a political realist. But why can we not problematize the distinction between friend and enemy, us and them, for each case? Is it possible to go beyond an approach that is based on the conception of politics as adversarial?

Politics and the law

By accepting the idea that the unity of the state is created largely in relation to an enemy or a challenge from the outside, Schmitt also postulates the primacy of politics over the system of law. Schmitt says that the concept of the state requires the concept of the political, but not vice versa: the existence of states is not necessary for the functioning of a political process. This idea raises the question of the relationship between law and politics: what comes first? For Schmitt, the law is not sovereign. We are not ruled by laws; we follow laws and are obligated to do so in normal social conditions. But that is not “ruling.” He argues that there are always people who "embody" the law in one form or another, no matter how much we try to de-personalize the act of ruling.

Schmitt operates to some degree in the tradition of Machiavelli, who became famous for his realist and cynical advice to the prince: The ruler does not have to be a friend of the people; he should be beyond reproach in public, and he may do things secretly that are immoral, as long as it helps him to secure his power. Power justifies its own use; since it creates a lawful environment it is itself to a certain degree outside of the law.

The law cannot rule without being supported by force, and force is always grounded in violence or the threat of violence. An Aristotelian philosopher would argue that even though the law may require some violence in order to function, its appeal and its justification transcends this origin. Law is based on another kind of power or authority. In a broad sense, it is the voice of reason, and perhaps it is grounded in something akin to natural law. The view of the relationship between power and politics on the one hand and law and ethics on the other decides the fate of political systems. Schmitt is not an Aristotelian thinker; his "realism" is an inverted idealism.

Politics is by its nature an imperfect and incomplete process. It requires that groups, individuals, or political parties, that represent partial interests moves into a political position that expresses the interests of the whole society, including its political system. The Government speaks for the totality of society, but it gets created through the interplay between different factions. This dilemma of leadership cannot be avoided and must be addressed effectively in order to have a functional and cohesive political system. Democracy works best when it creates a sense of legitimacy because it organizes the process of political representation better than other systems. It is also better than any other system in regards to the transfer of power: Elections are the best way to facilitate the transition of political power.

The sovereign and the state of emergency

In his book “Political Theology” (1922), Schmitt famously declares that the sovereign is he who determines the state of emergency, and thus has the political power to act outside the boundaries of the law in times of crisis. With this definition of the sovereign, Schmitt distinguishes between the rule of the law, and the rule of people. Should we allow society to be ruled only by a system of by laws, which means that the actions of rulers also have to be law-abiding? Or should we accept that we need people to be in control of the system, who can at times override or disable the law in order to deal with an emergency, or with a situation for which the law has no provision? According to Schmitt, the essence of political power is the ability to suspend normal law and assume special powers, just like the ancient dictators did. In his definition, the exception defines the limit, and this boundary constitutes what politics is. The answer to “Who decides the exception?” is the precondition of the law being obligatory and being, in fact, obeyed. Even proto-liberals such as John Locke, admitted that the executive must be permitted the power to suspend the laws if necessary for the good of society. The conflict between executive and legislative branches of the government plays itself out in US constitutional law in the different interpretations of the power of the President, or in cases where the President overrides or evades congressional authority.

The two elements of Schmitt's theory, sovereignty as independent decision-making power, and friend/enemy distinction, play together, but they also create tensions. The focus on the unity and the agency of the state raises questions about the relations between the rulers and the ruled. Schmitt operates with questionable separations between inside and outside, because who knows where the enemy really is? In his later works, Schmitt reflects for good reasons on the growing importance of guerilla warfare (Theory of the Partisan, 1963). Isn't it our experience that many politicians have internalized the teachings of Machiavelli, and therefore the enemy is more often than not the political leadership itself? What causes trouble for many societies is mostly their own corrupt and misguided government, rather than an outside enemy. It is revealing that in Machiavelli’s tradition, a key question for the sovereign is whether it is better for him to be loved or to be feared? But in a democracy, political leadership based on fear cannot survive for long. Hence, political power can easily go underground and operate through a strategy of threats, seductions, and alliances. As Althusser pointed out, real politics becomes almost unrecognizable through a process of ideological coding, a massive distortion of the real meaning and implications of political actions. From a different angle, Schmitt also criticizes parliamentary democracies: This kind of political system is not, as its advocates believe, a discussion about truth; it is a negotiation over interests. It relativizes all interests and claims, and ends up selling them out. It creates a political culture that incentivizes parties to gain power by telling people what they want to hear, and not by telling them the truth about their circumstances.

Walter Benjamin's critique

Walter Benjamin responded to Schmitt’s definition of the sovereign by declaring in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” (Benjamin, Walter: Illuminations, transl. by Harry Zohn, New York, Schocken, 1969, p. 257. This response turns Schmitt’s argument upside down, and challenges the common notion that we live in some kind of normality. Benjamin, who lived through the horror of Nazi-Germany and WWII, reflects on the systemic lack of stability in all political systems; many do not end peacefully. Benjamin became a refugee himself, and he did not survive the experience that the state in which he grew up, and which was supposed to protect and represent him, became his worst enemy. He also witnessed the coincidence between Schmitt’s theories and Hitler's rise to power: Hitler became the political leader of Germany after regular elections, but then he declared a state of emergency and assumed dictatorial powers.

Political existentialism?

Schmitt is a political existentialist in the following sense: ‘The political’, that mode of human experience that expresses itself in interpersonal relations of power and struggle, is logically and temporally prior to all political institutions. It is expressed in the distinction between friend and enemy, which is from Schmitt's point of view a fact of human psychology. We are naturally hostile not only to strangers, but to others. In this regard, his position is close to Thomas Hobbes. Benjamin subverts this idea by adding a perspective of compassion: We may be hostile to strangers, but most of us are also strangers, aliens, immigrants, or refugees. We live in times of global migration, and nation states have lost their importance for the definition of political identity. But Schmitt would counter that any call for an inclusion of the "tradition of the oppressed" never brought us closer to a humanitarian turn in history. Instead, Marxist, anarchist, or liberal progress thinkers have several traits in common: they dream of a better future, but by doing so they instrumentalize the present. In reality, they attempt to overcome the political dimension, because for them the struggle for political power is dirty, and fundamentally, they want to abolish political power altogether. But politics with utopian aims often culminates in the creation of a Leviathan - an uncontrollable and powerful sovereign entity that forces us to abandon our humanity in exchange for the membership in a system that tends to become totalitarian.

Anarchism, Marxism, and Liberalism

Schmitt criticizes the spectrum of political philosophies on the left, from anarchism and Marxism to liberalism. He argues as follows:

Anarchists want the abolition of the state and view political power as inherently evil. They differ from liberalism only by opposing sovereignty more radically than liberalism. Anarchists and Marxists claim that representational democracy is not an answer. It is a residual power-formation left over by the bourgeois revolutions in Europe. IN the eyes of these people representational democracy is flawed, because it operates with a conception of political power that anchors it in elected leaders rather than in issues. They claim that this formation of political power cannot stop the process of erosion and corruption that occurs within the body of the state.

In addition, anarchists, Marxists, and other left-wing liberals understand the human being in a fundamentally bourgeois sense, that is, non-nationally, non-racially, non-religiously, and non-gendered. From a leftist point of view, bourgeois identity is grounded in a shallow sense of rationality in relation to social affairs. Marxists see the nation state as a temporary problem and expect a fully liberated and universalized humanistic future where political conflicts are not longer necessary, and where the idea of sovereign power becomes obsolete. Liberals also try to eliminate sovereign power, but unlike Marxists, they have no notion of history driven by political-economic transformations. Therefore they developed a constitutional strategy of the separation of powers with checks and balances, as well as the universal rule of the law.

Whereas Marxists pursue class warfare to advance their goals, liberals pursue an opposite strategy of the neutralization of conflicts. They refuse to distinguish between friend and enemy, and thereby they reject the core of the process that creates political identity. Liberals by nature want to diffuse social tension and struggle, and by doing so, they try to turn politics into administrative affairs. Schmitt criticizes this tendency towards neutralization and asks them: "how can you decide not to decide?" By avoiding conflicts, they reject the other as other. Liberalism allows differences, but only within a legal framework that understands itself to be rational, hence also universal. This will render fundamental differences into degrees of similarity, thus failing to recognize the real differences between people or groups of people. Liberal parliamentarians try to decide all questions by law, but what they really do is attempting to defang and tame politics. The consequence of a liberal understanding of the state is a weakening of the state that exposes it to the dangers of political factions, such as fascists, Bolsheviks, or, in today's environment, to large corporations and lobbying groups. Schmitt argues that liberal republicanism is not really a political doctrine; it is a negation of politics, an attempt to replace real politics with law, morality, or economics. In fact, liberal parliamentarians are elitist as well, without admitting or recognizing it. They think they represent moral and legal humanism. The enemies of liberal societies, then, are easily labeled as anti-humanist, or even as terrorists whose motivation nobody can understand. The next step is to treat them as insane, anti-social, or as enemies of all of humanity.

Schmitt suggests to attack liberalism by exposing the neutralization tendency. This will allow us to see that liberalism in its core is not a philosophy of law and politics based on impartial, Enlightenment-style rationality, but rather a form of political theology, because the hope is to dissolve the sovereign nations into a system of universal legality. Schmitt's critique of modern liberal thinking is based on a nuanced reading of Hobbes and the history of sovereignty itself. In his final analysis, he detects a process in modern times that transforms politics as unavoidable power struggle into a form of politics that aims to establish a universal humanism as a secularized version of theology.

Political theology?

Scmitt writes in his text Political Theology from 1922:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries.

The study of traditional theology is based on a distinction between the sacred and the profane. It attempts to reconcile a worldly rationality with something else that appears to be irrational, like a miracle, but is the manifestation of a divine will. Schmitt uses his concepts of sovereign political power and of a conception of politics resting on decision-making, in order to excavate the secularized religious assumptions in the modern liberal view of the human being, the state, and international order. Schmitt says that the constitutional legal state must ultimately be based in something pre-constitutional, pre-legal, and pre-rational. He is pursuing a project of political theology by engaging in the study of these pre-conditions of the political. He wants to demonstrate, for instance, that the superficial rationality inherent in universalist political philosophies are themselves examples of irrationality. If religion disappears, but Christianity migrates into universal human rights, then the traditional distinction between politics and religion erodes; law becomes universal, and real political power evaporates into an opaque network of institutional relations and background maneuvering. The profoundly political nature of human existence becomes invisible. Accepting irrationality (the decision-based nature of the state that requires the sovereign) is more rational than the rationality of universal humanism, either liberal or Marxist. Schmitt understands human existence to be by nature political, which means constituted by opposition between Others, not because they chose to be opposed but because the very fact of the Other as 'Other', as itself, is "opposition". We are left with politics, which is to say the inescapable act of recognizing differences, and the only means of organizing these differences are political and require a sovereign actor.

Schmitt takes yet another step in his analysis of the state: The concept of the state is the return of the repressed in the political domain; it is the product of the West's philosophical program of a liberal de-politicization in the last centuries. The need for the state is the ineradicable inscription of politics into the rule of law, and law is therefore an example of politics. Rule of law is the consummation of de-politicization, the result of a neutralization strategy, and ultimately a reaction-formation to nihilism. That we can today say "everything is political", and consequentially that nothing is political, means the state has decided not to decide politically, and has chosen to become a neutral institution. For the state, deciding politically means unconditionally excluding the Other so as to ensure internal homogeneity. The state requires some homogeneity within itself in order to be able to decide at all.

Schmitt practices political theology as a rigorous study of sovereignty. He does this by outlining the necessity of sovereignty within the realm of 'law', understood as legal normativism. Schmitt wants to recuperate the fundamental domain of politics. Sovereignty itself is achieved through politics, which is the wholesale differentiation between friend and enemy, us versus them. If it's us versus them, then we are necessarily presupposing that each differing side is internally homogeneous. If it wasn't, we couldn't determine who belongs with us or with them. Schmitt also implies that this determination gives each of us our identity and so our purpose in life. In this form of political identity-thinking, our very existence depends on excluding the Other, not because of a hatred of difference or fear, but because of the fact that 'we' are simply not the same. Schmitt's political theology opposes modernist universal humanism as just another example of bourgeois liberal neutralization, because it leads to the nihilism and inhumanity of eradicating all differences. The abstract modern political subject is supposed to be "equal and free," but this is only achieved through de-contextualizing and de-historicizing it. What remains of this politically denuded subject is devoid of discernible differences: we don't discriminate based on sex, religion, race, or age. This liberal strategy, however, easily leads to an attitude synonymous with "we don't care..."

To put this into the context of the political situation in the US: political liberalism remains a "white" project, but the undercurrents to it are racially defined. A political left wing does not exist any more; it has been replaced by a coalition of ethnic and cultural groups dedicated to an identity politics which has one common enemy, the former "white" ruling middle class. White liberal middle-class culture, however, has such a geopolitical monopoly that it can afford to be culturally neutral and include people with many different ideas and identities. The normative vanishing of differences only reifies liberalism and all it's consequent fissures. Schmitt is still relevant because he developed a political thinking that functions like a compass: it enables us to navigate even the maelstrom of an American society that has no center but pretends to be unified, when in reality it carries huge cultural, economic, and religious differences.

Schmitt deeply conservative political thinking has staying power because it emphasizes commitment and choice against emptiness and indifference. Nazism was a natural affiliation for Schmitt, who is clearly operating with the knowledge of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The latter once stated that "Communism is just a variant of Americanism." In the same vein, Schmitt also fights a modernity that has become deeply nihilistic, and has engaged in all-encompassing consumerism. This modern way of life does not want to be disturbed in its enjoyments, and is marked by profound political ignorance.

© 2016 Jurgen Braungardt. All rights reserved.


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