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Carl Schmitt for the Masses: The Concept of the Political pt. 3
We finish our look at the concept of "The Political" as Schmitt discusses how the idea plays out in the era of global realities. Is world peace possible? Can we transcend political conflict?
The State and Its Justification
Schmitt sees “the Political” as the foundation of the state, its primary reason for existing. Without it, there is no state. The first objective of the state should always be to protect and maintain the existential way of life of the people who are forming this political unity. Everything else flows out of the political. The fight for the continued existence of a unified people is the reason for the state:
“As long as a politically unified people is prepared to fight for its existence, independence and freedom [that is freedom from the domination of other states] on the basis of a decision emanating from the political entity, this specifically political question has primacy over the technical means by which the battle will be waged.”
As we saw in the previous pieces on this book, Schmitt understands war as the basic reality of politics. What this means is that politicians are always at war, but they may not always be engaged in fighting and combat. This turns Clausewitz’s thinking on its head. He argued that war is the continuation of discussion and negotiation by other means. War is what happens when talking breaks down. Discussion is the basic condition. War happens when discussion is no longer effective. Schmitt, on the other hand, sees war as the essential reality of politics. Even when there is not actual fighting, the ever present possibility of war remains in the background. Discursive politics is just a form of war through talking and negotiation. Every people must face the reality that its continued existence is dependent upon its willingness and ability to wage war and defend itself as a people.
If smaller states cannot defend themselves against larger states, they face the constant reality that they will have to abdicate their own sovereignty. They will be conquered and absorbed by a larger or more aggressive people. If a smaller people is absorbed into a larger political entity, this does not mean that the political ends. New political groupings will always emerge. Mutual interest, a common bond, a shared sense of existence will draw people together into new groupings that have the potential to become political; that is, they will be willing to fight and die for the continuation of their new group identity.
The state wields tremendous power in that it can wage war. It can ask people to fight and die for the people. It is not just the power to ask people to die. It is a double power that can also demand people kill as well. It is the imperative that “friends” must kill and be willing to die in order to defend the interests of friends. In order to demand this sacrifice of it citizens, of those who share the “friend” grouping, the state must provide for the security and order of its people. It must also foster a unity of purpose as a people. Once the state has this unity of purpose, it can identify enemies, both internal and external. With external enemies, the decision is always whether war will be necessary or not. Internally, it must face the prospect that enemies, those who do not share the unity of the people, those who are not “friends,” also must be reckoned with. If they undermine a people’s unity of purpose, they represent a threat. They must be then exiled, expelled, ostracized, outlawed, etc. The state must know its enemies. The survival and flourishing of the “friend” is its utmost priority. If you have not caught on by now, Schmitt was not a proponent of multiculturalism. He would view this as an inherent attack against the unity of the people, thus weakening its purpose and undermining its future.
If this unity breaks down such that there are multiple sets of “friends” within one’s borders, this effectively dissolves the unified state. In a culturally divided community or nation, there can be no state. Without a unified sense of identity and purpose, the state cannot exist. Such a situation must be decided with weapons in order that unity can be restored and the state can be reestablished with a renewed purpose.
Because of the state’s power over the lives of the citizenry, it transcends all other associations and societies. Schmitt uses the example of the church to illustrate what he means here, specifically in regards the to question of asking its members to die. He argues that a religious community can call for people to make a personal choice for martyrdom, that is, to die for the faith, but only for their personal salvation. The church cannot ask its members to die for it as an institution or an earthly power. In this case, the church would become “political.” The decision of the church to ask and/or demand its members to die for it is a political decision.
Schmitt goes on to say that an individual can choose to die for whatever cause they see fit. This is a personal decision. But it is, he argues, sinister to ask men to die for social reasons, for economic reasons, for some program, for some social ideal no matter how beautiful. The only justification for asking men to die is a threat to their very existence as a people. Are the people and their way of life threatened? In this instance war can be justified.
“If such physical destruction of human life is not motivated by an existential threat to one’s way of life, then it cannot be justified.”
To demand a politically unified people to wage war for a just cause is either something manifestly self-evident, or it is part of the hidden political aspirations of some other party. I suspect Schmitt would not look favorably on American military adventures of the past twenty plus years.
“The justification of war does not reside in its being fought for ideals or norms of justice, but in its being fought against a real enemy.”
Asking men to die for causes such as “spreading democracy,” or “western values” would likely not pass muster in Schmitt’s eyes. I doubt that asking men to die in a fight against “terror” would be a sufficient reason for war, in part because “terror” is not a real enemy. “Terror” is an abstract concept. “Terror” does not represent a real existential threat to a people’s existence. It is worth noting that for Schmitt, arguments for just war must serve a “political” purpose.
It is a mistake to think that a nation can eliminate the friend-enemy distinction. By declaring friendship with the world and voluntarily disarming, the world will not suddenly become depoliticized. If a people is afraid of the risks of politics, then another people will become their protectors and take over the political role. This is essentially the basis of feudalism. It is an agreement between the protector and the protected, the lord and the vassal.
“No form of order, no reasonable legitimacy or legality can exist without protection and obedience.”
If the state cannot protect its people and establish reasonable order and a minimum threshold of safety for the population it loses its justification. The one who protects you from violence is your master.
“The protego ergo obligo is the cogito ergo sum of the state.”
When the unity and effectiveness of a state begins to break down and another party within the state offers better protection than the current state, the citizen knows whom he will have to obey. This is the dynamic that leads to civil war.
“The fundamental correctness of the protection-obedience axiom comes to the fore even more clearly in foreign policy and interstate relations: the simplest expression of this axiom is found in the protectorate.”
I would argue that this seems to be one of the failings of American foreign policy since the end of World War Two and the rise of the Global American Empire. It appears to me that America did not fully embrace its role as “protector.” It wanted to have global influence while at the same time also being seen as advancing abstractions such as “freedom” and “democracy.” Thus, it never properly subjugated its vassal states such as Germany, Japan, Canada, or the Middle East. It has seemed to want “influence” without being willing to enforce the protection-obedience dynamic. As a result, it has often acted at odds with the best interests of its own people to pursue ends that were not strictly “political.”
Schmitt is clear, that a people not willing to defend itself is a people not able to maintain itself. It is folly to believe that a defenseless people has nothing but friends. A weak people will disappear.
The Political and the Ideal of Globalism
Any political entity presupposes the existence of other, potentially conflicting, political entities. Schmitt argues that a world state is an impossibility. It cannot exist. Ever. The world of the political is always a pluraverse not a universe. The theory of the state is always pluralistic, but not as in domestic pluralism. If there is no conceivable enemy or no prospects for civil war, the distinction of friend-enemy would disappear and thus the state would disappear. Culture, civilization, economics, morality, law, art and entertainment would all remain but not the state or politics. The concept of “humanity” as a single global phenomenon excludes the idea of the enemy, because “enemies” in the way Schmitt has described them thus far, do not lose their humanity by virtue of being enemies.
When a war is fought in the name of “humanity,” it is not a contradiction, but an attempt to take a universal idea and put it into service in a conflict with a military opponent, much the way that we would use other concepts such as “peace,” “justice,” “progress,” or “civilization,” claiming them for ourselves as justifications and thus to deny them to the enemy. Thus the enemy is one who is against “progress” or against “peace.” In this case, one is making the implicit claim when one is fighting for “humanity” that your combatant is against “humanity.”
“Whomever invokes humanity wants to cheat.”
By claiming for yourself the side of humanity, you deny the same to your enemy. Wars thus become extreme because who has to show restraint when one’s opponent is less than fully human, is less human than you. If you claim the mantle of fighting for humanity your opponent becomes sub-human, the untermensch.
Schmitt argues that since the 18th century this idea of “humanity” was proffered as a counter to natural hierarchies within society. We are all the same. We are all human. We all share an essential humanity. According to the liberal-individualist frame, “humanity” is a universal, an all embracing social ideal, a system of relations between individuals that wants to exclude war in favor of a society without nations, without borders, without political entities, without class struggles, that is, a world without enemies. The idea of globalization, of a global organization of society, means nothing less than the ideal, the ideology, of a depoliticized world.
Schmitt observes that the kind of power this would involve is frightening. Who would control such a global organization? Who will manage such a system of global economic and administrative power? You cannot assume that a single global society without politics will simply just run itself.
Globalism, the Goodness of Man, and Economic Governance
Schmitt then takes what seems like a detour in his discussion on globalism to talk at length about the “dangerousness” of man. What he seems to be doing is trying to talk about the divide, especially in the west, between those who believe in the innate goodness of humanity and those who believe in some concept of original sin, in the fundamentally flawed and corrupt nature of human beings. He argues that all political theories come down to a basic distinction, whether you presuppose man to be by his nature good or by his nature evil. Is man dangerous or not? Is man a risky or a harmless creature?
Schmitt argues that liberalism rests on idea of the fundamental goodness of humanity. He then continues to make the case that the radicalism of the state grows in proportion to the radical nature of one’s conception of the goodness of man.
“For the liberal, the goodness of man signifies nothing more than an argument with whose aid the state is made to serve humanity.”
It seems to me that Schmitt is arguing that the idea of the goodness of man shifts the focus for the state away from the political, from focus on the friend-enemy distinction, towards a social, economic and administrative function. The goal is not the preservation and protection of one’s way of life that one shares with those who are friend; instead, the goal of the state is bent towards social engineering and economics through the instruments of the administrative state.
Because of its belief in the goodness of man, liberalism does not actually produce a theory of the state, says Schmitt. The idea of the state finds its justification in the friend-enemy distinction. The friend-enemy distinction finds its basis in that acknowledgement that we live in a dangerous world. The very idea of the state with its justification coming from the friend-enemy distinction can only find meaning in a world where there is original sin, a world where people are born corrupt, and thus dangerous and threatening. The “other” in this world is always inherently threatening. The state is organized to protect “us” from the “other.” It is the acknowledgement of this constant existential danger to the “friend” that gives the state its reason for being:
“What remains remarkable and, for many, a certainly disquieting diagnosis that all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil and by no means unproblematic but a dangerous and dynamic being.”
Because of this, Schmitt does not think that liberal constitutional parliamentary systems of government actually have a real theory of the state at their core. They are built towards ends other than the survival of “the friend.” The goals are often internal or economic in nature. With an eye to the American system he says this:
“Liberalism 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 principal.”
Essentially, he argues, liberal government is organized to protect the interests of the bourgeois commercial class, specifically to protect the interests of the individual from the totality. The system is designed to protect the bourgeois from government interference in their affairs. In this, commercial interests are placed above all others. His goal is maintaining the security of his ability to pursue his enrichment and the protection of his property over all other interests. There is a belief in the ongoing rational discussion of parliamentary debate combined with the utility of the administrative state such that the citizen will be able to avoid war, thus being freed to focus on their private commercial interests.
“The bourgeois is an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere. He rests in the possession of his private property, and under the justification of his possessive individualism he acts as an individual agent against the totality. He is a man who finds his compensation for his political nullity in the fruits of freedom and enrichment and above all in the total security of its use. Consequently, he wants to be spared bravery and exempted from the danger of a violent death.”
Thus, the American system is not really a theory of the state, a theory of the nation. Rather it is a set of economic interests masking itself as a nation. There is strictly no “Political” in the advent of the American system of government. It is not built out of the necessity of the friend-enemy distinction, and is thus not a true state. It is more of a commercial cooperative than true nation-state in the eyes of Schmitt.
This is perhaps one of Schmitt’s core disagreements with the whole system of parliamentary democracy, in that, as a governmental system, it primarily serves the commercial interests of the bourgeoise who put it into place and not the interests of the nation as a whole. Because its logic as a system does not originate in the friend-enemy distinction, it cannot represent the interests of the people, of the nation; rather, it is a system designed to further the interests of the commercial class. The implication of this is that modern wars originating in liberal democratic countries have nothing to do with the survival of a people’s existential way of life; rather, they are merely a way of extending commercial interests at the point of a gun. This renders them all unjust.
Schmitt argues, contra to this, that the idea of the “dangerousness” of mankind, of the flawed, corrupt, nature of humanity will always lead to divisions between peoples:
The fundamental theological dogma of the evilness of the world and man leads, just as does the distinction of friend and enemy, to a categorization of men and makes impossible the undifferentiated optimism of a universal conception of man.”
The idea of a universal humanity all bound together in their basic goodness around institutions of parliamentary discussion and administrative efficacy all working towards the economic prosperity of all humanity is a pipe dream in his mind. It is a denial of the religious in man. It is a utopian fantasy:
“In a good world among good people, only peace security and harmony prevail.”
In this world of good people there is no need for the friend-enemy distinction. They expect that it will simply disappear. This is the ideology of optimists living in prosperous peaceful times. In halcyon days no one wants to be the realist:
“When things are good people don’t want to endure the pessimist. Those that don’t want to face pessimism will try to refute it as amoral, uneconomical, unscientific, and something that needs to be combatted.”
Schmitt argues that one can only deny reality for so long. Eventually situations will arise in which one concrete group of people will feel the need to fight another concrete group of people in order to protect their way of life, their existence. The only way to secure your continued existence is to fight for it. The high point of politics is the moment when the enemy in concrete reality is recognized as the enemy.
Liberalism Is the Denial of Politics
As Schmitt closes out The Concept of the Political he lays out clearly his case that liberalism as a philosophy is in fact a denial of the political.
“The question is whether a specific political idea can be derived from the pure and consequential concept of individual liberalism. This is to be denied.”
Inherent in individualism is a negation of the political in favor of personal choice. There is a distrust of all conceivable political forces that would attempt to limit the ability of the individual to exercise personal choice. Individualism cannot produce an idea of the people, and thus cannot produce an idea of the state. How do you get from the individual to the state? You don’t.
There is a liberal critique of the political as oppressive and limiting of individual liberty, but there really is no liberal politics itself. There is a collection of liberal policies and ideas in the areas of economics, education, church, trade and others against anything that would limit individual freedom, but from this you cannot argue for a idea of the liberal state. The division of powers is just a power struggle acting as a substitute for the state. Like the everlasting discussion of parliamentary democracy which is undergirded by they marketplace of ideas (See: Carl Schmitt for the Masses, pt. 2: The Problem of “Legitimacy” to learn more about Schmitt’s critique of the marketplace of ideas), this concept of the division of powers simply substitutes a continuous power struggle for a true political theory of the state.
In a sense, liberalism is a theory of the struggle against the state by individuals and their private economic interests. To preserve individual liberty, it provides mechanisms for hindering the power of the state but no theory of the state and its role in fostering the life of a unified people. Liberalism cannot justify the sacrifice of life by the state. Because it does not offer a theory of the state, in a liberal system only individual concerns can justify a personal sacrifice of life. Because there is no theory of “the friend” there is no “people” which could justify the sacrifice of life. To make such an ask would be an unjustified imposition of one’s personal freedom. Instead, universal ideals are substituted for the idea of the people. We are called to fight for “freedom,” or “democracy,” or “justice.” All the while liberalism attempts to annihilate the political. The liberal state is in effect, an oxymoron, a contradiction.
Once you understand that liberalism is not a political theory of the state, but a system designed to keep the state out of the lives of private citizens so they can pursue their economic interests uninhibited by the state, a lot of what has happened in liberalism’s trajectory makes sense. The liberal state was never designed to protect the interests of the people from predation by bourgeoisie business interests. In fact, this idea of battle and war waged for the existential survival of the people was transmuted into the idea of economic competition. Rather than waging war with goal of securing the future of the people, there is instead perpetual economic competition combined with perpetual parliamentary discussion.
The state is subsumed into society. It becomes a mix of ideological and humanitarian concerns for the welfare of humanity on the one hand, and an economic-technical system of production and logistics on the other. The energy that is normally bound up with the will, the desire, to repel the enemy is channeled into a social idea or a social program (the war against poverty, for example). Or this energy is directed into economic calculation. The liberal “state” (if we can even talk about such a thing) dissolves “the people” into a collection of business concerns and consumers that operates through the use of propaganda, mass manipulation and social control to suppress the natural desire of “the people” from forming among the citizenry. Liberalism wishes to prevent the friend-enemy distinction from arising. As a result, liberalism drives people towards atomization and isolation. The personal becomes sovereign. Neither business nor government should be seen as restricting personal autonomy, even for the good of society.
This idea of human “progress” grew out of its humanitarian-moral, intellectual and spiritual roots in the 18th century to become in the 19th century, after the defeat of Napoleon, something that was entirely economic-industrial-technological. Economy, trade, industry, technological perfection and the idea of human freedom all became allies against older forms of society and social organization. Industry, the economy, and technology were joined with parliamentarianism in a fight against the idea of the people, the state, politics, war and dictatorship. The basic argument was that humanity was transcending the need for war. No longer should there be small people groups who would engage in war for the sake of booty and plunder. Since we lived in a global reality, war no longer served a purpose. It was bad for business. “Society” begins to replace the idea of “the state.” The social way is to focus on productivity, consumption, equality, justice, freedom, fellowship, brotherliness and justice. The old way of the political is that of conquering powers, thievery through force and crimes against humanity.
When seen through this light, if we look at the three major global powers, both China and Russia seem to have an idea of the people, and thus of the state and make their decisions based on the political: does this help “us” as a people survive and prosper against “them.” On the other hand, America/the West, makes its calculations through this liberal-social lens. It seems to assume that in a global world, everyone shares this outlook. But they don’t.
Schmitt argues that there is a problem with economic power in that it is deceptive. It seems to offer freedom through infinite market choices. But in fact it brings domination against a defenseless population. Because there is no state looking out for the interests of the people, the people are defenseless against business interests. In fact, the entire liberal system exists to support business interests over and against the interests of the people. Liberalism is actually exploitative and repressive by design. It is conceived by the bourgeoise for the benefit of the bourgeoise. They are able to do this through the ongoing propaganda of personal consumptive choice.
“No matter how large the financial bribe may be, there is no money equivalent for political freedom and political independence.”
If you have not made the connection thus far, what Schmitt is offering is a critique of liberal market economics from the right. We usually hear these critiques come from the radical left, from Marxists. Schmitt argues that liberal parliamentary ideas are in fact a mask, a deception, allowing you to be exploited and dominated by business interests.
A political system based on liberal economics is not “unwarlike.” “Unwarlike” is a liberal term and it does not mean a cessation of violent conflict. Economic liberalism has as its end an imperium based on pure economic power extended worldwide that will allow it to manage unmolested all raw materials, all currency, all modes of production and do so in such a way that there is no withdrawal from the system. No people will be allowed to absent itself. Economic sanctions are its primary weapon and part of its tyranny. War is condemned, but economic punishment becomes its instrument of combat. The adversary is not a real “enemy of the people” but rather anyone who dares to disturb this economic status quo. In a global economic reality, such as person becomes an outlaw from humanity itself. Written when this work was, in the first half of the 20th century, Schmitt seems eerily prescient about the constant programs of economic sanctions against non-compliant nations, as well as increasing use of economic control of punishment against non-compliant citizens through such instruments as the freezing of bank accounts. This is the way that the bourgeoise wage war: through economic control.
As an enemy of humanity, such a person can be dealt with in the most extreme and oppressive manner. Anyone who dares to resist the global liberal system ceases to be human. They are the “untermensch.” Do you wonder at the bizarre calls for the use of nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine conflict? It has its roots in this dynamic. You can use nuclear weapons on Russians because they threaten the liberal global economic empire. As such they have placed themselves outside the bound of humanity. You need not have qualms about nuking those who are not as human as those in the liberal west.
Schmitt goes on to argue, though, that this liberal reality, because it is a denial of politics, because it is a denial of the fundamental dangerousness of man, cannot last. We live in a dangerous world. New forms of the political will emerge. People will discover a shared sense of “us” over and against “them.” They will feel that their existential way of life is threatened and worth defending. They will embrace anew the friend-enemy distinction and “the Political” will once again emerge.
Although Schmitt never come right out and says it, there is always the implication that the only way to protect the people from the predations of liberal economic interests is through the power of a real state formed out of the friend-enemy distinction presided over by a dictator. Because liberal parliamentarianism is an expression of the same set of ideas that sustains free market liberalism, you need another instrument to reign in the economic power of the business interests. That power is a dictator. Monarchy is no longer a possibility, because the cultural milieu that sustained it no longer exists. Our only real option against the liberal parliamentarian system that exists to further the global aspirations of the liberal economic powers is some form of dictatorial state which serves the existential interests of a unitary people.