Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Carl Schmitt’s “Concept of the Political”: Understanding Liberalism

In continuing an examination of Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, we turn to focus in one his widely influential and much debated understanding and critique of liberalism.  Schmitt’s critique of liberalism has been influential to those on the New Left (post-Marxist Left) as well as those on the political Right (conservatives proper) who share an agreement with Schmitt’s analysis of liberalism and what it entails.  So what exactly is all the fuss about Schmitt’s critique of liberalism?

Part of Schmitt’s critique of liberalisms rests with Schmitt’s metaphysical understanding of liberalism as being rooted in materialistic monism which necessarily leads to political universalism.  An expert in the political philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, Schmitt also saw in liberalism the techno-utilitarian economistic dream that liberalism portends to offer humanity: Endless self-pleasure through consumption.  For in Hobbes and Locke there is no importance given to culture, duties, or even religion, within liberal philosophy.  Therefore, as Schmitt understood it, if freedom was absence of external impediments or opposition to the liberal dream, everything that served as the antithesis to the liberal conception of the political: Culture, Religion, Science, and (protectionist) Economics, would all have to be transcended for liberalism’s consummation over the world.  In other words, culture, religion, science, and economics would all have to be destroyed, or suppressed, or utilized, for the furtherance of the liberal goal as its internal logic played itself out.

Liberalism and De-Politicization: The End of Man

Perhaps the most difficult concept for first time readers of Schmitt to grasp is his theory of “de-politicization.”  As we examined in the first part of this serialized explanation of Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, Schmitt is in agreement with the ancient philosophers that man is a political animal.  And being a political animal means that man’s nature is rooted in political community, the organization and decision-making that is required when being a member of a political community – which manifests itself in the decisions of who to include and exclude (who to see as a friend and who to see as an enemy – and the defense of sovereignty since sovereign power has always been the end sought by man’s political nature.  Schmitt views liberalism as holding a faulty view of human nature rooted in its anthropology (principally in Hobbes and Locke, though Hobbes is the main focus of his criticism in Concept).

There is a paradox in how Schmitt understands the liberal conception of the state.  As he says, liberalism offers no positive theory of the state insofar that the state in liberalism is merely acting as that construction from the social contract to avoid the state of nature.  We do not find fulfillment in the concept of the political because man is not a political animal by nature in liberal anthropological theory.  Therefore, the state only really exists for benign hedonism (political hedonism) that advances self-pleasure among “individuals.”  As Schmitt writes, “[Liberalism] has attempted only to tie the political to the ethical and to subjugate it to economics. It has produced a doctrine of the separation and balance of powers, i.e., a system of checks and controls of state and government. This cannot be characterized as either a theory of state or a basic political principle.”  That is to say the theory of the state—t if you can even call it that (and Schmitt doesn’t consider it really to be a theory of the state)—in liberalism is one that advances the cause of consumeristic economism; man is depoliticized to be subjugated to the tyranny of economics.  After all, Hobbes and Locke (and Spinoza) all stated that the emergence of the state and the social contract were to “secure” the natural right (via the law of nature) of life, liberty, and property.  Of which life, liberty, and property were all tied together under the law of nature of economic self-preservation.  As Schmitt continues, the paradox of liberalism and the state is furthered insofar that liberalism portends itself (on the surface and in public) to call for a limited state of checks and balances yet evolves to becoming a “total state.”

An additional part of Schmitt’s criticism of liberalism is that liberalism is not compatible with democracy.  Liberalism, in fact, destroys democracy.  Why?  Because of its faulty anthropology.  Man is “sinful,” that is to say, “evil” and “irrational.”  We know this in different economistic language when commentators talk about “voters voting against their economic interests.”  Liberalism, since it is all about economism, doesn’t care about how citizens organize themselves and what aims (besides economic ones) they have.  The only “rational” impulse of man should be economic gain and upward mobility, which is what liberalism portends to offer man in hope to satisfy his consumeristic desires.  But since man is more than a consumeristic animal (more than homo economicus), man often seeks to preserve other things that give his life meaning: Art, Culture, Community, Religion, and Nation.  When the people act to preserve these things instead of advancing economism, liberalism strikes down against the people because art, culture, community, religion, and nation are the antitheses to the liberal conception of the political.  Embrace of particular art, culture, community, religion, and nation often leads to conflict with the “other” (the enemy) which negates the peaceful consumeristic and hedonistic lifestyle that liberalism was constructed to provide.  Therefore, if democracy challenges liberal hegemony liberalism lashes out at democracy.  We see this today with liberal elites speaking of “illiberal democracy.”  Schmitt suggests that democracy and liberalism are wholly incompatible with one another.  Schmitt is an authoritarian democrat, insofar that democracy without a head is aimless but with a head the people will willfully and willingly engage politics and defend their sovereignty at all costs.  Democracy is simply the rule of the people.  There is nothing “good” or “bad” about it.  Moreover, democracy is actually the most natural way people organize themselves into the friend-enemy distinction.

The internal contradictions and paradoxes of liberalism play themselves out in peculiar ways.  Liberalism wants to check the state with its system of checks and balances and compromise.  This system of checks and balances aimed at compromises “de-politicizes” society.  That is, it transforms how we understand politics.  Instead of it being about hard decisions, defense of sovereignty, and collective effort, politics becomes about self-interest via economic self-preservation.  Everyone is turned into rational economic actors that can be “reasoned with” or “bargained with.”  Yet, human nature and human experience shows us the opposite.  Man is a domineering animal.  He advances group interest first.  He sometimes makes choices and decisions “irrationally,” that is, based upon his desires.

At the same time as liberalism wants this system of checks and balances, the very construction of the state was necessary to secure those rights which were threatened in the state of nature.  And for humans to enjoy greater and greater economic benefits, the state must expand in its power and size to fulfill the demands of an ever expanding economizing society.

Liberalism separates the self from his political nature and reduces him to a bare economic consumer.  And yet, when conflict and struggle rears its ugly head, as it often does, liberalism cannot call upon its citizens to make the ultimate sacrifice: His life, for his community.  This is de-politicization.  Liberalism reduces man into a catatonic economic and materialistic worm wherein no virtue remains in him and he has nothing to truly life for, which means he also has nothing he is willing to die for.  His political nature has be oriented to the politics of the self, which is the politics of nihilism (e.g. political hedonism).  His body overwhelmed with “joyful” pleasure, man doesn’t want to surrender this.  In short, man abdicates the difficult questions and demands of political society.  As Schmitt argues, “We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.”  Man is drunk on hedonistic nihilism.  He no longer knows who he is.  But the danger is that other people know their nature, in its warlike, conflictual, and friend-enemy distinction, whereby those “savages” will overwhelm and displace “enlightened man.”  As a result, liberalism reduces and totally destroys collective sovereignty and power by becoming the domineering power over man in its own peculiar ways.

We can also understand Schmitt’s idea of depoliticization in this way: Liberal man wants to consume things or engage in activities without consequences.  War without war.  A race without winners or losers.  Consuming beverages without after effects or ill-effects.  We want cheap goods without cheap labor.  Man simply wants to consume and be left alone without consequences of his actions.  But the real world is very different than this world that liberalism forcibly creates.  There will come a moment when a people who are political, e.g. willing to fight, struggle and die for something, arrive knocking at our door and we’re no longer capable of responding to them so we die as they thrive.

In other words, Schmitt understands life as being marred by struggle or conflict.  Liberal man is de-politicized, meaning he is risk-averse.  He seeks not struggle but compromise, or fools himself into thinking there are no struggles worth dying over.  Reality is different, Schmitt asserts.  Reality is filled with people and societies fighting and dying for something.  Ultimately, a society that is liberalized will invite its own death because it will not have the will to fight for its own survival.  Yet, the paradox of liberalism is this: Liberalism struggles to bring about the end of the will to struggle.  The success of liberalism is that man no longer has the will to survive and accepts death as the most painless acceptance of what awaits him.  Thus, for Schmitt, the exhaustive logic of liberalism is nihilistic.  It will bring about the destruction of peoples and cultures by eliminating from people (who embody and represent a unique culture and civilization) the will to survive.  Man is dominated into submissive decadence.

Liberalism and Capitalism as Alternative Means of Domination

Because human nature is “sinful,” that is, domineering, liberalism cannot escape this reality so it too becomes a domineering and oppressive system despite considering itself a system of liberation and freedom.  “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.”  What Schmitt means here is that the struggle that dominates reality is what liberalism engages in, even if liberalism is claiming to be about peace, discussion, and resolving disputes without physical violence.

The very essence of economic growth requires competition (or struggle).  Even economists admit to this.  And yet, competition is what leads to conflict according to Hobbes and Locke and this is bad and should be avoided.  The double-face of liberalism’s essential economism is that it lies to people about how competition isn’t about domination but is about free trade, free movement of capital and labor, expands our choices in goods, allows for a free system of exchange whereby one is not being exploited or dominated.  The reality is the opposite.  Of course you’re being taken advantage of, oppressed, and exploited!  That’s human nature.

Therefore, liberalism with its propaganda of freedom, progress, and “reason,” allies itself with the forces of bourgeois techno-capitalism: Industry, technology, and economy, and comes to overwhelm political societies in order to consummate itself.  As Schmitt writes:

The extraordinarily intricate coalition of economy, freedom, technology, ethics, and parliamentarianism has long ago finished off its old enemy: the residues of the absolute state and a feudal aristocracy; and with the disappearance of the enemy it has lost its original meaning. Now new groupings and coalitions appear. Economy is no longer eo ipso freedom; technology does not serve comforts only, but just as much the production of dangerous weapons and instruments. Progress no longer produces eo ipso the humanitarian and moral perfection which was considered progress in the eighteenth century. A technological rationalization can be the opposite of an economic rationalization. Nevertheless, Europe’s spiritual atmosphere continues to remain until this very day under the spell of this nineteenth-century historical interpretation. Until recently its formulas and concepts retained a force which appeared to survive the death of its old adversary.

This returns us to Schmitt’s understanding of the political as rooted in friend and enemy and Hobbes definition of freedom as being absence of opposition (having no enemy in Schmitt’s language): The cost of peaceful consumerism from the liberal perspective means the liberal state will shed itself from the checks and balances that liberalism claims will check the state because the state is what best achieves totalizing economic uniformity to advance the human desire to consume more and more economic products.  Liberalism arose to confront an enemy historically as Schmitt says: “The residues of the absolute state and a feudal aristocracy.”  With liberalism having destroyed these enemies liberalism is without aim until it finds a new enemy to overcome.

If freedom is as Hobbes said it was, and if the goal of liberalism is peaceful consumption without conflict, that means anything that is different from liberalism is a potential enemy.  Because the friend-enemy distinction is the nature of politics, liberalism will attempt to destroy those enemies to achieve its totalizing consummation.  National sovereignty, religion, particular cultures, etc., all of these things serve as impediments, or oppositional barriers, to liberalism’s dream of universal and homogenous peaceful consumerism.  Ergo liberalism must transcend nation-states, religions, and cultures (that is to say, destroy them) in order to achieve that peaceful homogenous state of consumerism which secures the liberal ideals of life, liberty, and property.

Thus, liberalism is a domineering and exploitative force because it must dominate and destroy whatever opposes it.  Herein lies the double-paradox that Schmitt sees in liberalism.  Because the friend-enemy distinction is unavoidable, liberalism does, in fact, embrace conflict.  But the consequences of liberal politics is the reduction of man to a bare economistic nihilism of self-indulgence wherein he is separated and isolated from community and social bonds.  Therefore, liberalism cannot draw upon men to defeat its enemies when liberalism becomes threatened.  Therefore the liberal state must, itself, overcome the barriers holding it back (the systems of checks and balances).  This is as much as what Locke already saw in his Two Treatises concerning how executive power would grow over time.  Shedding off the system of checks and balances the liberal state becomes the “total state.”  Because liberalism cannot rely on humans to confront the enemy, the liberal state turns to utilitarian forces: capital, technology, and industry, in order to defeat its enemies.  The use of technology, capital, and industry subjugates man and destroys him.  And this is a greater oppression than feudalism or monarchy ever was historically.

Liberalism, then, depoliticizes man so it doesn’t have to face opposition to its own consummative ambition.  And since Schmitt is a sovereign theorist of the nation-state, his worry is that nations that begin to embrace the liberal ideal will become weakened and then be overwhelmed by “the enemy,” whether it is liberal capitalism or, say, a foreign culture or foreign nation.  As Schmitt chillingly states:

The economic way is declared to be reciprocity of production and consumption, therefore mutuality, equality, justice, and freedom, and finally nothing less than the spiritual union of fellowship, brotherliness, and justice. The political way appears on the other hand as a conquering power outside the domain of economics, namely, thievery, conquest, and crimes of all sorts… Economic antagonisms can become political, and the fact that an economic power position could arise proves that the point of the political may be reached from the economic as well as from any other domain. The often quoted phrase by Walter Rathenau, namely that the destiny today is not politics but economics, originated in this context. It would be more exact to say that politics continues to remain the destiny, but what has occurred is that economics has become political and thereby the destiny… It is also erroneous to believe that a political position founded on economic superiority is “essentially unwarlike,” as Joseph Schumpeter says.

Liberal economism becomes political and warlike, in other words, because this is the fundamental nature of reality that liberalism cannot escape from.  It subjects men to domination and conflict just like all politics does.  The danger of liberal economism, in particular, from Schmitt’s perspective is not only is a dangerously terrifying domineering system, it is also going to reduce man to bare nothingness – stripped of his political identity and heritage and turned into a parasitic consumer, man no longer lives for anything but wants everything.

One can know hopefully see how Schmitt has become an influential figure for both leftwing, and rightwing, political thought.  The liberal state comes to serve the god of economism.  And anything that opposes this must be destroyed for this god to be manifested in the world.  Schmitt is warning us this: Do not be fooled by the claims of liberalism as being about tolerance, compromise, peace, and freedom; it is, in fact, about conquest, domination, and war, just in a way that we’re not used to (and it will lead to the death of your particular community and culture if allowed to succeed).  The end of liberalism and capitalism is the politics of class conflict where the financiers and the capitalist class, the so-called “new aristocracy” of recent fame, are waging a war against the “common man.”  The difference between Schmitt and Marx is that Marx thought the proletariat would rise up and claim their inevitable victory as predetermined by the material fates.  Schmitt felt that if nothing confronted capitalism and liberalism then the capitalists would destroy us; thus the uniqueness of liberalism de-politicizing man and eroding his will to struggle which causes capitalism to achieve its victory: no one challenges the liberal-capitalist machine which is intrinsically imperialistic because it is universalistic.

Furthermore, Schmitt’s critique of liberal economism is that economics will replace the political.  Everything in life will be reduced, once economism achieves its victory, to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis.  People will see themselves, their relations with others, and relation to community and country, in purely economic terms.  This, for Schmitt, also represents the end of man.  For man, in this state, won’t be willing to fight or die, or sacrifice, for anything!  Man’s decision-making is not made on behalf of self-sacrificial love, the want to sustain traditions, customs, or cultures; man adopts a mode of decision making that is based on whatever brings about most material affluence.

The paradox of liberalism in Schmitt’s perspective is this: While it de-politicizes man it remains political (warlike and premised on the friend-enemy distinction) until it accomplishes this total de-politicization of man.  Liberalism has many enemies it must defeat: Trade protectionism, nation-states, borders, etc. (must establish the global system of capitalist economics and free trade), religion, national identity, and culture (such things are barriers to the economistic way of life and may restrict an individual’s choice and movement).  While liberalism is very effective in destroying its enemies its unintended consequence is that it offers nothing for its citizenry to truly live for since it has destroyed the citizenry’s culture, religion, identity, and, in embracing free trade, has embraced open immigration which facilitates the destruction of organic culture, religion, and identity and the concept of the nation.  And this, for Schmitt, opens up the community that has been infected by liberalism to be invaded and easily conquered from outside threats.  Schmitt’s warning is this: When something arises to confront liberalism, liberalism cannot defend itself because it has de-politicized the body politic and will therefore fall to whatever challenges it.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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