Carl Schmitt is one of the most notorious and important political philosophers of the 20th century. He is an enigma. An unrepentant Nazi Party member, he refused de-Nazification after the war. Despite this, he is a mainstay in the political canon—and, ironically, it is the New Left that has taken up the mantle of Schmitt in recent decades (as a non-Marxist critique of liberal capitalism). His most enduring and famous work is his short but influential and much debated treatise, The Concept of the Political.
The State and Politics
“The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.” That is Schmitt’s famous opening to his work. Schmitt establishes basic definitions before moving forward with his work. What is the political and politics? What is the state?
Politics is rooted in the friend-enemy distinction, as he famously says, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” Concerning the state, Schmitt follows Max Weber in seeing the state as having a monopoly on force and violence. The state “[has] the decisive case [of] ultimate authority” and “the state is truly a clear and unequivocal eminent entity confronting nonpolitical groups and affairs—in other words, for as long as the state possesses the monopoly on politics.”
State and politics, as Schmitt famously concludes, are inseparable from each other and cannot be exterminated.
There are three prevailing wells of political theory to ascertain from Schmitt’s magnum opus. The first is the universal concept of the political: what is politics and what is the state? We have just outlined his basic framework. The second is a between the lines reflection on human nature. Third is Schmitt’s critique of liberalism and the problem liberalism poses to modern societies. We shall look at each in turn.
Returning to the concept of the state and politics, Schmitt can be classified as a statist political theorist. The state is, as he says, the ultimate arbiter of authority and force in life. The state supersedes all other organisms of politics: the judiciary, the legislative, civil law, etc. Schmitt has in mind, then, the executive state as the supreme arbiter of political power and the highest manifestation of politics. For it is in the state that the power to declare enemies and wield force resides. The state precedes society.
Likewise, the concept of the state is intimately tied to politics. Politics, Schmitt argues, is based on the friend-enemy distinction. In other words, politics isn’t about compromise or unity but about defined opponents whom one is willing to do combat with. War is the highest expression of politics since war is the most extreme manifestation of friend vs. enemy and the willing to inflict destruction on the other, “For to the enemy concept belongs the ever present possibility of combat,” Schmitt writes. “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.”
The state, however, is sometimes threatened by enemy alternatives to it in society. The two most concrete examples Schmitt gives are religion and socialism, or the labor unions. Schmitt professes something important here. Whenever a community or movement of people—irrespective of what banner it lives and marches under—employs force and violence against the other (its enemy), it ceases to be a religious community, an economic movement, or a civil organization and becomes a political entity. For that is the essence of politics: to have an enemy and to wield violence against the enemy. Religious holy war, for instance, becomes a threat to the state when religion declares its enemy and calls upon its members to kill. Socialism is also a threat to the state when it declares its enemy (the capitalists) and calls upon its members (the proletariat) to revolution (which is a physical manifestation of violence). Even civil organizations, clubs, and petty gangs transcend their original purpose and become political when they declare an enemy and utilize violence against the enemy.
Therefore, Schmitt writes, the state does have enemies: religion, cultures, economic systems, laws, etc. Anything, or any movement, that can marshal the spirit of the friend-enemy and the weaponize that distinction and employ violence against the enemy is, by definition, political.
The state, however, sits in a precarious position with regard to its power and its antagonistic others. Schmitt understands that anything can be wielded by the state for its purposes, “The political can derive its energy from the most varied human endeavors, from the religious, economic, moral, and other antitheses.” Yet at the same time, these other human endeavors and organizations can pose a real threat to the state, “Particularly striking…is the coordination of religious associations and labor unions, which could result in an alliance because of their common antipathy toward the state.”
Schmitt’s naked simplicity is shocking to moderns who have been force-fed the antipolitical drug called liberalism. Schmitt doesn’t suggest, in the slightest, that politics is about debate, compromise, and unity. On the contrary, it is purely premised on friends-enemies and the desire to rid the other from existence. Intuitively, we all know this is true. We form tribes. We have teams. There are Democrats and Republicans. Conservatives and Socialists. Monarchists and Republicans. Nationalists and Communists. We can go on but you get the picture. We take pride in our identification with our friends and have a certain spirit of malice and enmity toward the other, the enemy, whoever it may be within the context of our political identity. Politics is about the use of force against the enemy. And the ultimate manifestation of the political is seen in and through the state. For the state can decide who the enemy is. The state can decide to put itself outside the boundaries of the law (like declaring a national emergency or instituting martial law, and seeing anyone breaking curfew as an enemy allowed to be beaten, arrested, even killed).
While a stark realism guides Schmitt’s analysis of the state and the political, he is also astute in seeing threats to the state. The most antithetical opponent to the state is another state. However, from within a state and society can be threats too. The most visible example of an enemy to the state is what we call civil society, all the societal organizations and free associations that gain power through their vibrancy and independence from state oversight. In fact, this is what motivates Schmitt’s implicit animus against Anglo-Saxon democracy: Britain, Canada, and the United States had—during Schmitt’s life, and still today though in a far diminished capacity—vibrant civil societies of churches, free associations and clubs, and labor movements, that gave meaning and community to its members. Additionally, the “liberties” and “rights” of civil societal organizations necessarily limit the power of the state; the state loses that monopoly on force as a result.
Lastly, Schmitt makes scandalizing claims about war. War, so long as it persists, reveals the totality and truth of the political. The rush to ban or outlaw war is not the triumph of the political but the destruction of the political. The want for a universal ark of fraternity is the antithesis of politics; without war there are no friends or enemies. The push for depoliticization is a world rid of war where we all hold hands and sing kumbaya. But just because we may legally outlaw war or profess pacificism or non-interventionism, this does not eradicate the reality of politics because politics is also tied to human nature.
Within The Concept of the Political, Schmitt is also commenting on the nature of humanity. Schmitt’s political theory rests on a fixed understanding of human nature. No matter how much makeup and lip gloss you put on a human, a human is still a human. He is tribal animal who seeks friends, makes enemies, and is willing to die and kill for his friends and those to whom he believes he belongs. Schmitt does not believe, as anarchists, liberals, and socialists do, that man is naturally good. He scoffs at that notion, “A part of the theories and postulates which presuppose man to be good is liberal. Without being actually anarchist they are polemically directed the intervention of the state. Ingenuous anarchism reveals that the belief in the natural goodness of man is closely tied to the radical denial of the state and government.” If man is naturally good, Schmitt goes on to say, he doesn’t need the state to organize and order for him; he can do that on his own.
Anarchism, as Schmitt uses it, is not internet or reddit anarchism. By Anarchism Schmitt is referring to any belief that places the primacy of organization and identity away from the state. Religion, therefore, is a form of anarchism insofar that it opposes the primacy of organization and identity from the state. Civil Libertarianism is a form of anarchism for the same reason, it places the primacy of organization and identity on the individual to choose for himself what his identity is and how he is to organize his own life. Hell, even the family can be a form of anarchism insofar that your primary organizing identity is to your family and not the state. The most radical realization of anarchism is absolute individualism. But Schmitt uses the term anarchism as anything that is an alternative to the state’s organizational and identarian primacy.
Because man is tribal and “evil” (i.e. prone to conflict as a result of his tribal identity), he needs order and organization. He finds that in the state.
Part of the danger of modernity is in its radical denial of human nature. Schmitt identifies the Enlightenment theories of man’s a-moral nature or essential goodness as a crisis for the modern state and man to overcome. Why?
Following Machiavelli, if man is tribal and conflictual, it doesn’t matter if we outlaw war or organize our societies along civil societal grounds: church, family, town clubs, the trade union, etc. This is just a slow moving form of depoliticization. Man grows weak as a result of this. He is unwilling to see his neighbor as his friend. His neighbor becomes his enemy because he is a different religion, he comes from a different ethnicity, or was born out of town and moved in from elsewhere; or he is a business owner while I am a member of the union, etc. Because we start to see ourselves through our domestic affiliations before our state, or volk (national), identity first, we are unwilling to sacrifice for others.
Moreover, rationalist theories of human nature depoliticize our thinking. We see other humans as rational economic agents who we can bargain or reason with, compromise with, to get what we want and allow them to get what they want. It is a purely transactional theory of human nature. Alternatively, by seeing other people as just people, and not having a primary identity that abrogates “common humanity,” we are dangerously exposed to human nature’s vengeful hand. For instance, some people who we want to think are good and kind are still tribal; they view us as the enemy irrespective of how we view them. “Only a weak people,” Schmitt says, “will disappear.”
Weak people are those who have been depoliticized from the essential political nature of humanity. Depoliticization sets in, again, for several reasons: a vibrant civil society that has inculcated a sense of civil identity before state or national identity; belief in the goodness of human nature and the refusal to allow oneself to be organized by the state and have a primary identity tethered to the state. After all, Schmitt wrote “the state is the specific entity of a people.” There is no such thing as a multicultural state in other words.
Furthermore, weak people allow themselves to be subjugated or disappeared—killed—by those who are still in touch with human nature and its political spirit. While we may like to fancy otherwise, most of us are also intuitively aware of this crisis. Some people have an enthusiastic tribal or state identity. Ignore human nature and reality all you want, that doesn’t make the phantasmagoria any more real. It just makes you a fool. And a dangerous fool at that because your naivety puts us all in danger. As Schmitt writes, “It would be ludicrous to believe that a defenseless people has nothing but friends, and it would be a deranged calculation to suppose that the enemy could perhaps be touched by the absence of resistance.” In other words, human nature isn’t going to suddenly take pity or compassion on you because you’re willing to surrender everything and not fight back; the enemy will take full advantage of the situation irrespective of whether you’re begging for mercy or crying for forgiveness.
We moan and complain about backwardness, savagery, or fanaticism, when, in reality, we are the weaker tribe having shed our primary human nature and having accepted the myths of rationalist and Enlightenment thinking. The greatest culprit of our demise, Schmitt goes on to argue, is liberalism.
Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism
Perhaps the most difficult concept for first time readers of Schmitt to grasp is his theory of “depoliticization.” Which is why we just provided a concise analysis of depoliticization when examining Schmitt’s internal commentary on human nature within The Concept of the Political.
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.” This outlook, of course, is the very antithesis to the definition of the political Schmitt opened with.
Furthermore, the liberal construction of political society disarms the state and politics and makes it a weaker political entity than the strong, autocratic, or total states that preceded it. 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 depoliticizes 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. 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 depoliticization in action. 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. 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.”
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 aftereffects 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.
In other words, Schmitt understands life as being marred by struggle or conflict. Liberal man is depoliticized, meaning he is risk averse. Is life defined by adversarial struggle of isolated goodness and self-interest?
Because human nature is defined by friend-enemy conflict, 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: human nature itself with all its tribal identities.
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, “The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism.” 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 consequence 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). 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.
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!
The paradox of liberalism in Schmitt’s perspective is this: While it depoliticizes man it remains political (warlike and premised on the friend-enemy distinction) until it accomplishes this total depoliticization 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 state and its people that have 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 depoliticized the body politic and will therefore fall to whatever challenges it.
Schmitt’s enduring relevance is often found in his critique of liberalism. Modern scholars who have orchestrated the Schmittian renaissance in political philosophy since the 1980s have latched onto Schmitt’s critique of liberalism. First, those on the New Right see Schmitt’s critique of liberalism as leaving “the West” vulnerable to foreign adversaries and in a societal decadence and malaise is deeply prescient and concerning. Second, those on the New Left—especially after the fall of the Soviet Union—have taken up championing Schmitt’s analysis of liberal economics and capitalism as destructive and domineering as a non-Marxist alternative to anti-capitalist and anti-liberal theory. Schmitt remains, for many reasons, an essential read in politics in the twenty-first century.