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Carl Schmitt for the Masses: The Concept of the Political pt.1
Most these days have heard of Carl Schmitt's Friend-Enemy distinction. What is it all about and why is it important for us today to understand this idea?
Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political is one of his more accessible books, which means it is merely a difficult read, and not hellishly imposing. There is so much material relevant to today in this work. “Prescient” is a fitting word. At the same time, this volume is challenging not so much because he is difficult to read but because Schmitt attacks most of the concepts and presuppositions upon which our modern ideas of politics are based. He has little but contempt for western style liberal government. He also disdains ideas such as equality. Working your way through this book is like having the rug pulled out from under you, falling, hurting yourself and finding you are ok with that.
I am going to break up this piece into several shorter essays. I was reading through the 31 pages of notes in my Moleskine and doing this book justice in a single article will have a definite tl:dr character. Let’s begin and see how far we get today.
In order to properly understand the idea of “the state” as conceived of by Schmitt, we have to let go of our usual understanding. We generally think of “the state” as “the government.” But just because you have a government does not necessarily mean that you have a state. The common conception of the state is that it is the political organization of people within an enclosed territorial unit. You have borders. You have people. The entities that govern those people within those borders are commonly thought of as “the state.” Not for Schmitt. Just because you have a government, does not mean that you have a state.
Schmitt leaves open the question of the nature of the state. Is it a machine? Is it an organism? Is it a person? Is it an organization? Is it a body? Is it a society? Is it a community? Is it an enterprise? Is it like a beehive? Is it merely a set of rules and procedures? Before we can know what is meant by the state we have understand what we mean by both politics and the political:
“The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.”
Once we understand what we mean by “the political” we will be better understand what is meant by “the state.”
The state is a specific entity of a specific people. The state and the political are often thought of with circularity. The state appears political and the political seems to belong to the state, such that it becomes a unified circle. Schmitt argues that this idea that the state = politics often becomes erroneous and deceptive when the government and the society interpenetrate each other. Just because you have a government and a body politic does not mean that you have the existence of “the political.” It is “the political” that defines a properly constituted “state.”
To help understand what he is meaning here, he looked back to the 1800’s to argue that in this period the state had a monopoly on politics. It stood above society as a stabilizing force. It was distinct from the broader social forces. Society as a whole was not involved in politics. The state and the society were two distinct entities. As the state and society began to mix at the end of this period, matters of state became social matters and social matters became matters of state.
This is important because once you start mixing society and the state, formally neutral domains such as religion, culture, education, and the economy become politicized matters of the state. The more that the state and society mix, the more totalizing it becomes. Schmitt argues that this occurs largely as a result of the democratizing of society. The more you emphasize that every person should have a political voice, the more that the state must pay attention to these once private issues. In a non-interventionist state, religion, culture, economics, science and all these other private domains remain non-political. Democracy, by its very nature, blurs the boundary between the state and society in that it involves the individual. Once the individual is involved in politics, it invites state activity into the life of the individual. The state must respond to the needs and concerns of individuals. And the individual will look to the state to do things for him that society will not. This sets the state on an increasingly totalizing trajectory. It must involve itself in the lives of everyone and nothing can be left alone from the purview of the state.
This creates a fundamental contradiction in a democratic and liberal constitutional state. It is at once supposed to be the expression of the ideas of every party, every participant in the system. Yet this is not practically possible. So it expresses the ideas of the people, but only on an ad hoc basis. It does things partially and in half measures. It wants to do everything and yet can’t. So it does some things, but then does them haphazardly. As noted already in Political Theology this works fine until there is a crisis. When the true crisis arrives the democratic state will be unable to act because each man wants to participate in power. All of these interests demanding recognition will cause the state to freeze up when it needs to act decisively.
Originally, the state was above society and did not involve itself much in the day to day life of the citizenry. The people didn’t have any input or say either. But the state largely left them alone. This is a paradox of the state. A state that is hierarchical tends to be less intrusive in the lives of the people on a day to day basis. The people have no political power or ability to shape the questions of government, but it is removed from their lives. A democratic government, by virtue of citizen input and its responsiveness to their needs, tends to be more involved in the lives of the people with a totalizing impulse.
As Schmitt closes out this section, he notes that when a society sets up the state in such a way as to divide power and have these powers compete against each other—he does not name the American situation, but this seems to be where these comments are directed—what ends up happening is a penetration of politics and the state into every area of society. Once you let interest groups compete within the state, more so if you design the state to be a competition of interests, then the state will exert its influence back onto these private interests. Once you open the governing process up to competing interests, everything becomes political. When everything is political, you have a totalitarian government. Nothing is a-political. In spite of all the appearances to the contrary in the United States with its emphasis on grass roots political organizing, voting, a strong culture of personal autonomous choice, the government is involved in pretty much every area of people’s lives. When every part of your life is touched with politics, you live in a totalitarian state. It may not be a tyrannical totalitarian police or surveillance state, but it is none the less totalitarian. Why? Because politics touches the totality of one’s life. This is the inherent nature of democracy, that it must end up at this point because the state must pay attention to the needs of the citizen to secure legitimacy through elections. We see this most clearly in the phenomenon of “do-somethingness.” But that impulse is baked into all parliamentary democracies.
The Concept of the Political
After this brief look at the concept of “the state,” Schmitt now begins his explanation of what he means by “the political.” To discover the essence of the political, we have to look specifically at the category that is uniquely political and not something else. He names another few areas of life and asserts that each of these areas is bound by its own unique binary. The moral finds its expression in the good-evil binary. Aesthetics finds its expression in the beautiful-ugly binary. Economics finds its expression in the profitable-unprofitable binary. Once he has gotten us thinking in this manner of fundamental binaries, he asks if there is a fundament binary for politics. There is. It is the friend-enemy distinction. Just as question of good or evil defines morality, so too the question of friend or enemy defines the political.
The friend-enemy distinction denotes an intensity of union or separation, of association or disassociation. It can be both theoretical and practical. The enemy does not have to be evil or ugly or even a competitor. But the enemy is always the “other,” the “stranger.” For someone to be an enemy it is sufficient for them to be different or alien. You do not have to be in conflict for someone to be an enemy. You do not have to hate someone for them to be an enemy. There just has to be the possibility of conflict between us and them for “them” to be the enemy.
The other key to this is that only those who are involved in the friend-enemy binary can decide who is enemy and who is friend. This decision cannot be made by a third party. An outsider cannot look at a situation and decide that two groups are friends or enemies. Only they can decide the terms by which one is an insider or an outsider, one is a friend or an enemy. Only the in group can decide who the other is.
There is one last detail that brings this together. It is this question: is the “other” such a threat to us and our way of life that we must fight and potentially die to preserve our own form of existence? Much of what you will hear when people talk about with the friend-enemy distinction is them running around pointing fingers here and there identifying “enemies.” But far more decisive to the concept of the friend-enemy distinction is knowing who your friends are. Do we have such a shared way of life, a shared existential bond, that we would be willing to die to protect this way of life. Once you have answered this question, you will know who your friends are. Once you know who your friends are, you can then clearly identify who potentially threatens that way of life and is thus the “other,” the “enemy.”
It is relatively easy to say that some group or some public figure is disliked, their ideas are dangerous, their policies are harmful and so we toss out the label “enemy.” It almost becomes a kind of party game. It’s a way of sounding edgy. Then we will reference the friend-enemy distinction and people will nod like we have said something profound. It is much more important, as we said in the previous paragraph, to identify who your friends are. This is not as easy as it seems. In theory, everyone within one’s country is supposed to be a friend. We are all Americans. We are all Canadians. We are all French. But these days, those lines don’t seem to capture who is “friend.” As I look around the landscape of the “new right,” of which I consider myself a part, who is my friend? This is the biggest issue holding back the movement today. There is not a shared existential connection worth dying for.
Is the Republican Party a friend of the new right? That is not really clear. Is the Conservative Party of Canada a friend to the new right? I don’t think so. So who is friend? It is not enough just enough to feel an affinity. There has to be a connection to something deep enough that you would be willing to fight and die with and for your friends. Would you die for the Republican Party? The Conservative Party of Canada? Probably not. I would die to protect my country from invaders, so maybe that is a thing. But increasingly, though, people are hesitant to be willing to die in some far off land when there is no clear threat to me and mine.
More commonly it seems today that the fault lines are not one country to another country. We are seeing growing tensions within countries. For the political to be operative, there does not have to be violent conflict. It just has to be a real possibility of it. We came very close to that possibility becoming a reality in the recent trucker protests in Canada. As part of that protest movement, I believe we saw the birth of a new political consciousness among a segment of the Canadian population. The key question: was the felt threat to “us” and “our” way of life of such magnitude that “we” must fight to preserve our form of existence from “them?” My assessment is that this was operative. Perhaps we were seeing the birth of the political. Time will tell.
I also think this consciousness is not quite there yet in the United States. It is developing, but there is a lot of baggage that has to be worked through first before a true “new right” political consciousness emerges. There is not a clear enough understanding of “friend.” There are too many ties to existing structures and ideas. I think the notion of the “big tent” holds many back from developing a clear “us” and “them,” if it is going to develop at all. Does the idea of the “us” meaning “Americans” hold back any real internal political fracturing from happening? Would that be a bad thing if it did? My sense is that multiple political consciousnesses are developing in the US, but they are a ways away from a level of “friend” where people are willing to fight and die to preserve their shared sense of the “us.” They may not be asked to die, and conflict may not be necessary, but it is the possibility that awakens the political consciousness.
Before concluding this piece, there is one more thing that we need address and that is people’s general squeamishness when it comes to dealing in categories of “us” and “them.” Following the great waves of European immigration to North America and the development of the “melting pot” and of “multiculturalism” the idea of the “other” is somewhat of a taboo. We have been made culturally resistant to thinking in these terms. Yes, during the cold war communist Russia was the “other.”
But with waves of people crossing illegally into the US over its southern border, there is a real effort to push back against the idea that these illegal aliens represent a threat. Are they an “other?” In these enlightened times, this idea of “the other” is very much frowned upon. Are they threatening “us?” Some would say, yes. Some vehemently argue that they are not a threat. Again, this issue of immigration awakens the possibility of the friend-enemy distinction. Is the migrant the enemy? Is the one who allows the migrant to come into the country illegally the enemy? Is it such a threat that I feel the need to fight, that the real possibility of conflict is there? Is this issue creating a context in which “the political” is in play?
I think that walking through The Concept of the Political will take three articles. Next we will dive deeper into the concept of “the political” exploring its depth and nuances. The final piece will examine its operation in a world of globalization. Already, though, I hope you can see the power in this concept as a tool for understanding what is happening politically, and perhaps what needs to happen.