Carl Schmitt – The Concept of the Political

A crisis in politics is widely assumed these days. Sometimes I am not sure whether this crisis is real or imagined. But I must admit there is a political crisis that is evident in the polarization between Republicans and Democrats. There is a political crisis because institutions have failed to deliver meaningful solutions to real problems. But there is an expectation this crisis has deeper roots in economic and social conditions.

This political crisis has brought an end to many democratic norms so many have taken for granted. The greatest advantage of Donald Trump has been his willingness to set aside political expectations that have shackled politicians in the past. According to Carl Schmitt, “Every norm presupposes a normal situation, and no norm can be valid in an entirely abnormal situation.” Unfortunately, the abnormal situation has been the behavior of Donald Trump. This is all so tautological. The real question is whether Trump is the abnormality or whether he is a symptom of an abnormal historical moment.

Carl Schmitt pushes his explanation of the political to its absolute extremes. He saw “the political [as] the most intense and extreme antagonism.” I imagine the current state of polarization in America as I read this line. And yet, Schmitt is willing to take this idea so much further. He goes on to write, “What always matters is the possibility of the extreme case taking place, the real war, and the decision whether this situation has or has not arrived.”

Politics implies the possibility of violence for Schmitt. There is a hint of Hobbes within the thought of Schmitt. Hobbes believed humanity was naturally violent. He said the state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short.” But the state was established to bring this violence to an end. Max Weber builds on the Hobbesian tradition in his definition of the state as a “community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” There is a sense in both Hobbes and Weber that the state imposes order through violence.

Schmitt extends the tradition of Hobbes and Weber in associating the state as a source of violence. The violence of the state is fueled by the violence of politics. This has eerie implications upon recognition of Schmitt’s personal involvement in the Nazi Party. But it also explains political behavior in many of the darkest moments of history. It helps to explain but it does not justify. Ultimately, Schmitt misses his mark, but his ideas channel (and sometimes influence) the political sensibilities of many.

The political right has long claimed a monopoly on the message of small and limited government. But this was never entirely accurate. Conservatives have argued for the elimination of social welfare programs, but also advocated the expansion of other aspects of the state like the military and the police. The Black Lives Matter protests have placed conservatives on the side of big government and liberals on the side of limited government. It is a bit paradoxical but makes sense when the distinction between the right and left is defined by the role rather than the size of government.

I have already mentioned Weber described the state as a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” Conservatism defines the state as a source of coercion. Ayn Rand, for example, reinterpreted taxation in these terms when she described it as theft. Limited government has come to mean a reduction of the state to its core purpose. A source of violence. This means conservatives embrace a role for the violent aspects of government from the military and police but have been resistant to the nonviolent aspects of the state like social welfare or environmental regulation. It brings about the ironical situation where they resist an expansive role of government out of fear of becoming a police state, yet have no concern about their support for the actual police.

The great debate has never been about small or large government. The debate has always been about the role of the state. The debate has been about the role of politics. Schmitt embraces violence as the natural destination of the political. He does not find liberalism consistent with the reality of politics. Instead he imagines “liberalism in one of its typical dilemmas of intellect and economics has attempted to transform the enemy from the viewpoint of economics into a competitor and from the intellectual point into a debating adversary.” Liberalism is a fantasy in the mind of Schmitt. It requires the abolition of the political which would also mean an abolition of the state. But Schmitt does not believe this is possible. He believes the “state and politics cannot be exterminated.”

The politics of violence leads to a rejection of democracy because it divides society into friends and enemies. Schmitt assumes an environment of unreconcilable social conflict. He divides communities into friends and enemies. Foreign conflicts are reconcilable because they are foes or adversaries. Schmitt believes true enemies are within the community. He claims the enemy is anyone “who no longer must be compelled to retreat into his borders.” He classifies those who have no where else to go as enemies. Clearly, he means racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. In his time, these were the Jews. Politics for Schmitt becomes a vehicle for prejudice, discrimination, and racism. It is no surprise he was ultimately attracted to totalitarianism.

Schmitt begins On the Concept of the Political with a single sentence, “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.” This is where he breaks with Hobbes and Weber. Rather than view the violence of the state as an antidote to the violence of humanity, Schmitt views it as a tool to extend conflict. Chantal Mouffe describes Schmitt as “the most radical challenge to liberalism.” It is tempting to ignore his ideas, but this is irresponsible. Schmitt has reappeared in the populist philosophy of the far right. Democracy depends on ideas. It is through ideas where these conflicts must be resolved. It is through ideas where humanity finds redemption. Remarkably, it was Carl Schmitt who wrote, “Only individuals who consider man to be evil are evil.”

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