Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Concept of the Political

Carl Schmitt, 1932
Translation George Schwab. The University of Chicago Press, Expanded Edition.

Main Thesis: “The concept of the state presupposes the category of the political” (19). “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (26). OR: The political is defined by the friend-enemy distinction, which is neither metaphorical nor allegorical, but, rather, a fundamental antithesis, like that of good and evil, that invariably divides concrete people in two by creating the possibility of war. Though the political distinction doesn’t invariably lead to war, the enemy is the Other who always presents the possibility of conflict. The state is the political entity, which is to say, the state is the sovereign entity that has the power to declare an enemy. The friend-enemy distinction can never be escaped and constitutes the political as such.

Schmitt begins by interrogating traditional definitions of the state, which usually make reference to a geographically isolated group of people. The footnote suggests - and this seems logical - that Schmitt has in mind here the relatively modern nation states, and not the Greek polis or the feudal states. The political, he claims, is a word we tend not to define clearly in itself. Typically, we use it for polemical purposes, as part of some sort of binary (the political and economy, the political and morality, etc). While such usage may clarify the matter at hand, it does little to explain what the political is in and of itself. Indeed, if we do push a little farther in that direction, the closest we come is to the idea that the political is something that pertains to the state, why the state is something political. Needless to say, Schmitt finds this a useless tautology. (Is a ‘useless tautology’ a tautology?) Similarly, most juridic literature eschews defining the political, conceiving it as an adjective that functions within the stable framework of a state.

The instant that the state and society begin to commingle, so that previously neutral regions of culture, such as religion, become affairs of the state, and the affairs of the state become integrated into culture, the naive equation of politics to the state becomes hopelessly useless and deceptive. Schmitt is thinking particularly here of the ‘total ‘(i.e. Totalitarian) state (22).

Here Schmitt in the Expanded Edition inserts a helpful note. His analysis, it turns out, takes as its backdrop a progression from the absolute state of the 18th century, to the noninterventionist (bourgeois) state of the 19th, to the total state of the 20th. Political theory for him in the 19th century is a gradual process of collapsing the state into culture, which had originally been held distinct. This book, I think, ought to be read as Schmitt’s polemic against the classical liberalism of the preceding era, specifically with its privileging of the bourgeois/private sphere. The desire to be a ‘private citizen,’ to shield oneself from political decisions and the reality that the political consists necessarily of the friend-enemy distinction, which is to say, the possibility of war against a concrete set of individuals, is for him deplorable naivete.

At its base, the political depends on the friend-enemy distinction. As it can’t be reduced any further or traced back to other distinctions, it holds the same status as other couple, such as good-evil, beautiful-ugly. That is to say, the enemy doesn’t need to be defined in any of these other categories as ugly or evil or so on, though he frequently is, of course. The category of the enemy is autonomous. He has his own ontological status. He is, “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible” (27).

The possibility or necessity of conflict with an enemy can never be decided by a neutral, third-party observer, or by some external norm. Only the participants can decide if the enemy intends to negate his way of life and, whether or not, as a consequence, the enemy must be attacked.

Schmitt goes on to stress the concrete, existential meaning of the friend-enemy distinction. It is not an allegory or a metaphor, he’s disinterested in moral or normative evaluations of the concept, and refuses to engage with the utopian hope that such a distinction might disappear. He’s interested in the pragmatic, and this pragmatic truth is that the enemy is only ever public. The enemy is hostis, not inimicus. (I have a sense that this is an important distinction when reading Schmitt scholarship). Thus, in Latin, “love your enemy” is “diligite inimicos vestros,” not “diligite hostes vestos” (29). Loving your enemies only makes sense in a private sphere, when talking about a relatively circumscribed notion of the enemy. The Bible, Schmitt claims, never suggested that we should love our political enemies.

“The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping” (29). The state, then, is the entity that decides on the friend-enemy distinction. Party politics are political insofar as they weaken the unity and identification with the state.

Inherent in the notion of the enemy is the possibility of combat. “War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy” (33). That is not to say, Schmitt argues, that the political can be reduced to war, or the existence of an enemy demands his annihilation. No particular policy necessarily follows from the friend-enemy distinction; neither pacifism, nor imperialism, nor militarism. War is not “the continuation of politics by other means,” but war does always presuppose that the decision has been made about who counts as the enemy.

Enemies don’t have to be eternal; alliances may shift, bringing together different combinations of tensions. A world without the possibility of war would be a world without the friend-enemy distinction and, hence, a world without the political. That’s not to say that there might not be other tensions, but only the friend-enemy antithesis has the meaning and power that requires men to kill and be killed.

Other antitheses - religious, moral, economic, ethical, and so on - may become political if it’s a sufficiently strong distinction that allows the grouping of humans according to the friend-enemy distinction. Thus, religious persecution is no longer simply religious; it’s political. All other antitheses are always subordinate to the friend-enemy distinction of politics. The political distinction, by its nature, is always the most extreme distinction. If a political entity exists at all, it is always the “decisive entity.” It is “sovereign in the sense that the decision about the critical situation, even if it is the exception, must always necessarily reside there” (38).

Schmitt concedes that the theory of the omnipotence of the state is transparently a secularization of theological concepts about the sovereignty of God, but goes on to argue that none of that matters - genealogy, in effect, has no use for critique. The question is always this: is there a group capable of deciding who is the enemy and, by extension, if we are to go to war with him? If so, that is the political entity, and all other distinctions are subordinate to it. Pluralism or federalism, in effect, is a way of eliding the reality of the sovereignty of the political entity. This political entity is, typically, the state. The state, then, is the one with the power to declare war.

Moreover, the state has the capability to declare an internal enemy, and every state, in addition to naming an external enemy must declare an internal enemy during times of crisis in order to survive. Think of this as the capacity of the state to charge someone with treason or, in cases of civil war, to combat internal dissidents. Families can also declare enemies, but in a narrower sense, not that of hostis. Such internal feuds, though, like that of warring clans, must be subordinate to the political conflict in times of war.

War can only ever be justified by the claim that it is being fought against an enemy. As Schmitt argues, “To demand seriously of human beings that they kill others and be prepared to die themselves so that trade and industry may flourish for the survivors or that the purchasing power of grandchildren may grow is sinister and crazy. It is manifest fraud to condemn war as homicide and then demand of men that they wage war, kill and be killed, so there will never again be war. War, the readiness of combatants to die, the physical killing of human beings who belong on the side of the enemy - all this has no normative meaning, but an existential meaning only, particularly in a real combat situation with a real enemy” (49).

Any treaty that claims to make war illegal always implicitly contains exceptions regarding the eventuality of being attacked. These exceptions are what give the treaty meaning. It’s impossible for private citizens to ever disown the state’s declaration of the friend-enemy distinction. To claim that one has no enemies does not dissolve the distinction; rather, it simply places the private citizen outside of the state, as an enemy.

It would be “ludicrous,” Schmitt thinks, to believe that a defenseless people somehow has only friends. If a people lacks the strength or will to defend itself, it cannot count on its enemies disappearing or somehow being touched. Nor can a people hope to bring about a utopia by evading the political decision. Politics will never vanish; “only a weak people will disappear” (53). (A disturbing paragraph).

The political entity always presupposes other political entities. Humanity can’t have a political enemy, because it includes the totality of all men. To declare a group an “enemy of humanity,” then, is a rhetorical move, designed to declare the enemy a universal outlaw and to deprive him the possibility of being a human.

Schmitt is also skeptical of the League of Nations, thinking that it, in practice, simply transfer the right to declare war from a state to an alliance. He also argues that all political theory presupposes an anthropology that designates man as evil and dangerous. Because the political always starts form the possibility of the enemy - i.e., the possibility of war with a dangerous Other - it would be nonsensical to believe that any theory of the political could start from an anthropological optimism. In this, Schmitt sees a connection to theology. A man, he thinks, ceases to be a theologian the instant he stops thinking of man in need of redemption.

Concepts such as justice and freedom, Schmitt argues, are mainly forms of propaganda, used to legitimate one’s position vis a vis the enemy. The canny observer of politics will, however, always be able to recognize the true friend-enemy distinction beneath any such rhetoric, and, in turn, realize that when combatants reproach him for cynicism for saying as much, that those combatants are merely employing their rhetoric and reproaches as one of the tools of the political.

The end of a people is always presaged by the unwillingness or inability to recognize the enemy. Thus, the aristocrats in the French revolution, right up until the end, propounded a sentimental view of the peasant as “by nature good.”

Schmitt basically ends with a critique of liberalism - which wants to depoliticize the political - by reemphasizing his major point: “State and politics cannot be exterminated” (78). He claims to be living in a time when liberal rhetoric, that terms the enemy a “disturber of the peace,” has come to dominate. We no longer want to name the enemy as such. Nonetheless, as always, groupings - economic and otherwise - continually emerge that have the possibility of becoming friend-enemy groupings. There will always be an enemy and nothing can escape the logic of the political.

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