Carl Schmitt for the Masses: The Concept of the Political pt. 2
We continue our deep dive into one of Carl Schmitt's best known and most influential books.
Fighting, Dying and the Enemy
There is much confusion surrounding Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction. We often try to domesticate the category of “the political” and so miss the essence of what he was talking about in this distinction. Schmitt puts forward the idea of the “the political” and the “friend-enemy distinction” that gives rise to the political as a direct critique of modern parliamentary democracy. We hear the word “enemy” and immediately want to begin naming our most disliked political opponents and competitors as “enemies.” In today’s battles over culture, with its often histrionic language, it is relatively easy to apply the enemy label to many foes. Perhaps they are enemies, but in Schmitt’s mind that would mean something very different than the meaning we often apply to the word. A competitor is not an enemy. An opponent is not necessarily an enemy.
We have to say this very clearly at the beginning and keep reminding ourselves of this, that an enemy is someone, some “other” who is a threat to “us” such that there is a real possibility of combat where people could actually die.
“To the enemy concept belongs the ever present possibility of combat.”
Why is this important? In large part, because one of the aims of liberalism is to transform enemies into something like “competitors” as exists in the realm of economics, or into debating partners as in the faculty room. This is the essence of the perpetual conversation of liberal democracy as it sprang up in the aftermath of the Protestant-Catholic religious wars. The idea was that through the “marketplace of ideas,” engaged in and through a so-called value-neutral legal framework, an ongoing conversation of parliamentary democratic values could take place such that war and conflict could be avoided. Schmitt thought this was nonsense.
And so, he argued, we have tried to deny the political, muddying the concept, confusing it with other categories like morality, economics or even aesthetics. To recover the idea of the political we will have to rescue it from such obfuscations. Likewise, the political is not the expression of our personal emotions or tendencies, nor our personal dislikes or preferences.
Schmitt is very clear. The friend-enemy distinction may seem barbaric, like the remnant of an older time that we have transcended. We in the liberal west like to think that we have lifted ourselves above the idea of the enemy, that in our enlightened times such a thing as the enemy does not exist at all. All problems can be solved through reason and discussion. But, he argues, whether we like it or not, we always group ourselves by the categories of “friend” and “enemy.” They always exist. There is always an “us” and there is always a “them.”
He notes that this is not built out of the realm of private grudges and animosities. The friend-enemy distinction is at work when there is collective of people confronting a similar collectivity. When one group confronts another group and there is the real possibility of conflict, this is the situation in which “the political” comes into play.
“An enemy is not the private adversary whom one hates.”
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