On Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

On Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

Schmitt’s essay leads the reader through a definitional process of establishing the relationship between the state, domestic politics, and international relations while analyzing the liberal project.  My intention is to review the major points and speculate the applicability of his views to present state governance.

The political represents those actions which the state undertakes vis-à-vis its friend or enemy.  The inner, domestic sphere is where politics occur; i.e., between various groups and organizations.  Politics equals society, which may prescribe, but not necessarily so, the political- “the state encompasses and relativizes all [domestic] antithesis” (30).  The state’s friend-enemy distinction determines political action.  Schmitt explains that the public enemy is not an abstraction, but a reality that juxtaposes one state against another (28).  Therefore, “the political is the most intense and extreme antagonism…” (29).

The polemical discourse, as Schmitt designates it, within a state; that is, domestic politics, can become political as a coalition exerts a significant counterforce to the state.  Indeed, Schmitt admits that the political germinates such polemical activities and in “everyday language, even where the awareness of the extreme case [war] has been lost” (30).  Polemical adversaries with the state can reach the friend-enemy distinction, which can precipitate civil war in extremis.  This can lead to the state’s demise or a substitution of a new political model (39).  Schmitt recognizes this juncture when “politics = party politics” (32).  To summarize, civil war is not political and engenders private enemies.  Inter-state war is political between public enemies.  These notions derive their substance “precisely because they refer to the real possibility…” of war (33).  Furthermore, the political is the ‘mode of behavior which is determined while distinguishing correctly the real friend and real enemy’ (37).

Pluralistic societies, Schmitt argues on behalf of Cole and Laski, reject the state’s monopoly power by claiming it must be responsive to the needs of multitudinous social entities and associations including individual claims (41).  Liberalism “has not radically denied the state…but has attempted only to tie the political to the ethical and to subjugate it to economics” (61).  Antithetical associations (religious, economic, social, etc) may challenge the political nature of the state, but they must consequently define the political (44).  Perhaps one could regard contemporary America’s domestic antithetical activities, which, acting with a vigilant eye toward state power, become the targets of media control, propaganda, and repression as the state defends its control of the political.  This may also encourage the state to identify a domestic enemy- “every state provides, therefore, some kind of formula for the declaration of an internal enemy” (46).  Why?  Schmitt answers that “if a part of the population declares that it no longer recognizes enemies, then, depending on the circumstance, it joins their side and aids them” (51).

Schmitt denounces economic wars as “sinister and crazy” (48).  Moreover, he characterizes a war of ideals as unjust; fighting a real enemy in the face of an existential threat is justification for war (49).  This idea permeates his criticism of the League of Nations, which he believes enables war (56).  The League of Nations employs the notion of humanity as a “useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism” (54).  The ‘new wars’ represent sanctions, state coalitions, punitive expeditions, treaty protection, and international police to ensure peace and prevent war (56,79) as they remove jus belli from designated states (57).

Schmitt invokes Hegel to identify another facet of liberal theory- “…what is at first only an economically motivated class antagonism turns into a class struggle of hostile groups” (62).  The devolution of politics to such a level prohibits individualistic liberalism from creating the political in a decisive manner; it merely criticizes (70).  Liberal politics struggles against state power while rearticulating that power internally as an “ethical-humanitarian” or “economic-technical” paradigm (70).  Liberal society, replacing the state, forges a social program to repel others and to construe economic and consumer activity as a departure point of declaring friends and enemies (72).  As mentioned earlier, Schmitt declares, “at the intellectual pole, government and power turn into propaganda and mass manipulation, and at the economic pole, control” (72).

The significance of Schmitt’s essay does not lie in his reaction to contemporaneous historical events, but in its relevance to the world today.  The League of Nations has been rearticulated as the United Nations, its Western ethnocentrism identifies the collective friend-enemy relationship to a certain extent toward other “member states”.  The human rights culture, invoking humanity, asserts its will via UN institutional organs.  It declares friends and enemies, strives for adjudication where policy is tardy and advocates preemptive action to protect humanity.  Schmitt states: “If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against non-pacifists, in a war against war, that would prove that pacifism truly possesses political energy because it is sufficiently strong to group men according to friend and enemy” (36).  In addition, Western liberal democracies (especially the USA) reflect a domestic arena of antithetical politics competing for economic sectors while being subjected to the state’s control apparatus in order for it to act politically.  We may test Schmitt’s sagacity in lieu of these phenomena, but that is beyond the scope of this paper.

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