Book Review: Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political

SODOM &GOMORRAH: Carl Schmitt presents a consistent critique of liberalism. Authors on the right such as Leo Strauss and Hermann Rauschning have contended that Schmitt was neither right wing nor consistent, but this author feels he was both. For one, Rauschning’s sensibilities were likely to be offended by Schmitt’s emphasis on the universal conflict; he was likely to see there the seed of fascism that was responsible for Schmitt’s membership in the party. He likely saw a man who joined the party, then proceeded to praise the struggle of the age. There was no need to dig any further. Strauss, on the other hand, saw past Schmitt’s alleged fascism and deserves credit for ironing out some of Schmitt’s issues, but still fundamentally misunderstood his position.

Though Schmitt left us a few works, we will look first to The Concept of the Political. This work is rather infamous in academic circles for being the book that promoted one of Schmitt’s core ideas: politics is about friends vs. enemies. It is infamous rather than famous because academics are offended by such a suggestion. With it vanishes all opportunities for world peace, international cooperation, and any kind of world that does not exist in a state of perpetual fear of war.

Chapter One

We begin in chapter one of the 1932 edition. This review foregos the use of the 1927 edition since we will discuss the changes between the two when we review Heinrich Meier’s Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue at a later date. No doubt, however, that the reading of that and other works has colored this review. The first sentence of the book, “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.” [1] is very important for our purposes. Under Schmitt’s paradigm, the state exists only so long as the political is a (implicitly or explicitly) recognized concept. Likewise, concepts about the political influence the form that the state will take. Schmitt rejects the claim that the state is synonymous with politics whenever the state becomes involved with society. Whenever the possibility of a political dispute arises within the state, the state itself can no longer be considered the political unit. When this happens, the “neutral” domains of religion, economics, science, and culture (by neutral he means the non-political) become active in a political struggle. They carry with them the friend/enemy distinction and with it the possibility of violent conflict. “[t]he total state which no longer knows anything absolutely nonpolitical, the state which must do away with the depoliticalizations of the nineteenth century and which in particular puts an end to the principle that the apolitical economy is independent of the state and that the state is apart from the economy” is the state of a post-Enlightenment world. [2] Citing a work on Hegel, Schmitt points to the possibility that the non-interventionist state of the 19th century inevitably becomes a totalizing state of absolute control.

Chapter Two

Because of these confusions and developments, which shift the domain of the political to one sphere then back onto everything human society comes into contact with, we find ourselves in need of a stable definition. Thus, Schmitt writes, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” [3] The political enemy doesn’t have to be a grotesque monster or a moral opposite (though as we shall see, Schmitt’s enemy is both), it just has to be something that sufficiently threatens a group’s way of life.

Chapter Three

He argues that the grouping of friends and enemies will always exist, and does exist in our liberal world. Schmitt then seemingly sidetracks to a discussion about personal and public enemies as the Bible treats them. He writes that most modern languages don’t have words that distinguish between the two but that Greek and Latin did. Thus the passages “Love your enemies” in Matthew 5.44 and Luke 6.27 apply only to the personal, private enemy but that the political opponent does not have to be loved. [4] One may accuse Schmitt of praising militarism. He does not. As he writes later, the military battle itself is not important. [5] What counts is the possibility of conflict. A world without that possibility is a world without politics, which contains nothing of real value or interest, simply entertainment. There is of course the effect that trying to stop war would have. Schmitt writes: “Nothing can escape this logical conclusion of the political. If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against nonpacifists, 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. [...] The war is then considered to constitute the absolute last war of humanity. Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but also utterly destroyed.” [6] With Schmitt, there is a distinction between the enemy who must simply be defeated and the foe who must be annihilated.

Chapter Four

In chapter four, Schmitt continues to demonstrate that the division between friends and enemies is inescapable. Schmitt uses the formula to diagnose the true political nature of situations and in doing so he reveals more of his true colors. Writing about Bismarck’s assault on Socialism and Catholicism and how this assault failed because the two forces held more sway over people’s minds, Schmitt states that the Reich was “not absolutely sovereign and powerful.” [7] Other forces held the title of sovereignty and the political. In his explanation, he reveals his theological base by saying, “[t]he juridic formulas of the omnipotence of the state are, in fact, only superficial secularizations of theological formulas of the omnipotence of God. Pluralism, for Schmitt, is a negation of this omnipotence. When left to reach its logical conclusion, pluralism transforms the state into a realm on the same level as groups, associations, and “nonpolitical” spheres. This at once is the work of a negation of politics, but because politics cannot be negated it is a universalization of the political. Every group begins to possess the potential to group people according to friends and enemies.

Chapter Five

In this chapter, Schmitt argues that the genuine political sphere possesses the right to declare war. Differing very little from the arguments of the prior chapters, Schmitt uses this chapter to emphasize how the political is fundamentally different than other spheres. This contradicts his statement in chapter one [8] that friend vs. enemy in politics equates to moral vs. immoral in ethics and beautiful vs. ugly in art. This contradiction is not an accident. Schmitt writes in defense of the political, for he equates the political with the theological. Politics is an issue of faith; all political statements are either orthodox or heretical. Schmitt’s base is not rational. [9] It is something outside the scope of human comprehension and thought.

Chapter Six

Chapter six consists of Schmitt’s destruction of the “world state” concept. He uses the inevitability of the friend/enemy distinction to target the liberal international order. A League of Nations or any political group claiming to represent humanity must, according to the logic of politics, dehuamnize and annihilate the enemy. “To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of behing human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.” [10] “Humanity” is not a political concept for Schmitt. When it becomes one, it distorts the real political groupings. The world state as it’s conceived, which is to say a universal government that has successfully abolished war and conflict, cannot be anything more than a clearing house of commerce. It, as a result, strips us of all meaning. “For what would they be free?” [11] Schmitt asks of the inhabitants of this new world state.

Chapter Seven

Here we come to the heart of Schmitt’s argument. In chapter seven, he asks us to test political theories by their anthropology. The question of human nature is the basis of politics. The consistent political theories are those that assume human nature is bad or at least potentially dangerous. [12] Radicalism, which is to say intellectual shifts away from orthodox beliefs, is the product of affirming that human nature is good. The more benevolent you believe humans to be, the more radical your politics. Schmitt roots these views in theology. He argues that theology is only real theology when the theologian considers human beings to be sinful by nature. [13] Schmitt elaborates by saying, “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. In a good world among good people, only peace, security, and harmony prevail. Priests and theologians are here just as superfluous as politicians and statesmen.” [14] This “fundamental theological dogma” has the same effect as the friend/enemy distinction. One may posit that these two are related, though in order to identify Schmitt’s enemy and its connection with this theological dogma we will need to review Political Theology at a later date. We may only content ourselves by noting that Schmitt ends chapter seven by resting politics on the truth in Genesis 3.15. To affirm the scripture is to affirm Schmitt’s politics; to deny the friend/enemy distinction is to deny Genesis 3.15, which for Schmitt is a mere step away from denying the rest of the Word.

Chapter Eight

Chapter eight begins by briefly examining the nature of liberalism. Schmitt argues that it attaches itself to different traditions in order to gain power, arguing that Catholicism and even democracy are not liberal but in fact anti-liberal systems that liberalism just seeks to coalesce with. There is here no consistent liberal position. Liberalism, insofar as it is an individualism, will promote a constant distrust of authority. [15] Followed to its conclusion, there is always a negation of the state, of politics, of church, but no positive theory. Individualism is incapable of requiring a sacrifice for a higher ideal. All that is left is pure materialism and trade. What remains of the state is a small government dedicated to securing the conditions of this materialism. [16] The book wraps up with an exposition on how the progressive view of liberalism triumphing over feudalism and slavery has led to the creation of new political realities, so that the League of Nations (who, at the time, stood for peace and cooperation between countries) reserved the right to sever food supplies to civilian populations until target states liberalize. All of this is done by representing humanity while dehumanizing the opponent. There is, of course, no escape from the political.

[1] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 19
[2] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 25
[3] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 26
[4] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 29
[5] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 34
[6] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 36
[7] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 42
[8] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 26
[9] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 49
[10] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 54
[11] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 57
[12] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 61
[13] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 64
[14] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 65
[15] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 70
[16] Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. (Chicago, IL: The University of the Chicago Press, 2007), 71