The Concept of the Political

In this book, Nazi political philosopher Carl Schmitt sets out to identify what distinguishes politics from other human concerns like ethics and economics.  He claims that political thinking has its own distinct criteria of evaluation.  Just as ethics distinguishes good from evil and economics distinguishes profitable from unprofitable, politics distinguishes friend from enemy.  The identification of a friend or enemy is, Schmitt insists, entirely independent of other evaluative criteria.  The enemy needn’t be identified as immoral, ugly, or unprofitable as a trade partner.  I will follow Schmitt in concentrating mostly on the category of “enemy”.  Political consciousness is at its highest in identifying an enemy.  What does this mean?  A few key points.

  • Enmity is a relation between two rival groups of people.  It is distinct from one’s personal adversaries.  Schmitt claims that the Gospel imperative to love one’s enemies refers only to the latter group.
  • The enemy is a threat to one’s group’s way of life.
  • Between oneself and one’s enemy, there is no higher authority recognized by both sides to resolve disputes.
  • Political discourse can be recognized from the fact that its key concepts are purely polemical, i.e. are vacuous aside from the context in which they are being used to attack some other group.  Schmitt mentions words like “society”, “dictatorship”, and “constitutional state”.  If he were alive today, he’d probably add “racist”.
  • Identification of an enemy–and, hence, politics itself–requires the possibility of armed conflict.  An enemy isn’t just a group of people you profoundly disagree with.  The prospect of physical killing must be there.
  • The political entity is defined as the one competent to decide for war.  The substance of this entity–whether it is motivated fundamentally by religious, economic, or other considerations–may vary, but from the moment a Church / labor union / whatever acquires the power to make friend / enemy decisions, it becomes most fundamentally a political entity, a sort of state.

This definition will sound odd to Americans, since political enmity as Schmitt describes it sounds more like a description of the relation between rival nations like France and Germany than like what we call the political contest between Republicans and Democrats.  The latter would only be “political” in his sense if the parties were organized such that civil war was possible.

According to Schmitt, liberalism is intrinsically hostile to the concept of the political.  Its philosophy recognizes only moral and economic categories.  As a form of individualism, it can’t justify the sacrifices demanded by war.   (Schmitt, by the way, argues that pluralist doctrines are ultimately individualist, because the individual ultimately gets to pick which association’s authority to recognize.)  Most of all, liberalism puts faith in neutral procedures, while the ascription of friend and enemy, the absence or presence of an exceptional threat, is inescapably a decision.  In being presented with this decision, a people is forced to take responsibility for preserving its way of life.

Is it not a good thing, though, for liberals to attempt to squeeze out the political–the realm of violence and repression–in favor of profit and humanitarian morality?   Schmitt denies it.  First, it is hypocritical.  So long as there are multiple states, the logic of the political cannot be avoided.  Economic and moral doctrines that become sufficiently powerful simply become political themselves, at which point they act like any other political forces.  Economic exploitation of less developed states is defined as peaceful; resistance is defined as violent, while the retaliation of the economic powers (including, as Schmitt quotes from a League of Nations resolution, cutting off the food supply of the civilian population) is defined as peaceful.  France may loot a defeated Germany, but since these are “reparations”, it’s supposedly an act of disinterested justice.  Wars fought in the name of “humanity” implicitly place the enemy outside of humanity, as enemies of the human race.  By moralizing the conflict, the enemy is no longer just a threat that must be neutralized but an evil that must be exterminated.  Humanitarian wars are thus particularly inhumane.

The book’s argument is most compelling where it comes closest to self-contradiction.  The picture of humanitarian hypocrisy is indeed outrageous, but my outrage is, of course, a moral response.  Because Schmitt wants to argue the independence of the political, he must avoid falling into moral categories.  The most he can say is that liberalism fails to overcome the logic of the political and that its self-understanding is therefore false.  However, this will only seem important to the reader because of the moral critique he suggests but doesn’t make.  One wonders if Schmitt is using words like “morals” and “ethics” ironically to refer to a liberal conception of ethics that he doesn’t share, and whose inadequacy he is in fact demonstrating.  Mustn’t the political trade in morality, at least in some extended sense, if it is to invoke a duty to sacrifice one’s life for one’s country?  Whether or not they are justified on “humanitarian” grounds, duties are intrinsically moral phenomena.  It is clear that Schmitt really believes that the political decision itself, the identification of the enemy which is made by the ruler, transcends claims of moral duty and economic calculation.  He explicitly rejects the idea of a just war, for instance.

What are we to make of this?  As a picture of the essence of politics, it is surely too narrow.  I would not wish to define contests over the order of the polis around the prospect of physical warfare.  However, that there is a qualitative novelty in one’s relation to an enemy is an important insight.  I disagree at least to some extent with everybody, but there is a threshold beyond which my difference with another person is in our loyalties rather than our understandings, in the ends we seek rather than the means we recommend.  Debates with people on my side are part of a common effort to get at the truth; debates with people on the other side are about neutralizing an ideological threat.  Another important point is the importance of appreciating the contingency of a social order.  In moments of peril, we cannot evade our responsibility by blind appeal to procedures.

2 Responses

  1. […] just added a review of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political to my book reviews.  It relates to this discussion, because tribal Christianity is about the […]

  2. […] vs. Enemy.  Carl Schmitt famously put this distinction at the core of his political theory in explicit defiance of the liberal humanitarianism of his day that wanted to reduce all questions […]

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