Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political
Note: The following short synthesis of Schmitt’s classic essay The Concept of the Political stems, in part, from a recent discussion with the Bay Area Nationalist Book Club.
However it is posed, the question of the political is always about the most important issue facing every people.
The political, though, is not to be confused with “politics” or “party-politics,” which speaks to individual or special interest in parliamentary gas houses.
“Politics” is tied to rationalism, materialism, economism, and the rule of Mammon, all of which undermine authority, tradition, and the imperatives of the “political.”
The political addresses the state in its highest manifestation as the agent of its inner peace and outer security.
Only after liberal society reformed the state — to enable private individuals to maneuver for positions of power and influence, once particular interests superseded the polity’s collective interest — did politics and the political begin to diverge. (In the Unites States, the first liberal state, politics was a business from the very beginning).
The political for Schmitt is thus not about what is conventionally thought of as politics, but rather about those situations, where the state (“the political status of an organized people in an enclosed territorial unit”) is separate from and above society, especially in situations when it is threatened with destruction by a superpersonal movement or entity and must therefore act to defend itself and the community it is dedicated to defending.
The polar categories defining the political are, as such, those of the friend–enemy distinction — a distinction implying the possibility of physical killing between rival states. This distinction is based on antithetical categories distinct to the political — distinct in the way that the categories of good and evil are specific to morality, the beautiful and the ugly to aesthetics, the profitable or unprofitable to economics, etc.
Who is the enemy? For Schmitt, it is the superpersonal other, the stranger, the existential outsider, whose intense hostility and readiness for combat threatens the state and the relations of friendship internal to it.
The enemy is thus designated not on the basis of personal feelings or moral judgments (inimicus), but only in face of an intensely hostile power (hostis), which menaces the state’s existence.
An enemy, in this sense, exists wherever one fighting-collectivity poses an existential threat to another collectivity.
In order to identify the enemy, it is necessary to experience it as a live-threat — in a way no rational analysis, no discursive logic, no objective judgment, no normative standard can possibly anticipate — for this experience is of a people, which knowingly senses whenever its existence is endangered.
The enemy here is defined in terms of criteria, not content or substance — which means it takes the form of something that is always specific and concrete and very intense — not being, then, just something symbolic or metaphorical.
“What always matters is only the possibility of conflict.”
Usually the enemy is the alien “other,” whose threat comes from the exterior.
But the enemy can also emerge from internal differences, such as when domestic social, religious, sectional, etc., differences become so antagonistic that they weaken the unity of the state and the common identity of the citizenry, polarizing them into friends and enemies — i.e., into a state of civil war, as internal politics become primary.
Another, rarer example of an enemy situated in the interior (an example distinct to the United States,) is found whenever foreign culture elements take control of the state at its citizens’ expense (becoming what Yockey called “an inner enemy”).
Friends, by contrast, share a commitment to a way of life that binds them together, that gives them a sense of solidarity, a sense transcending matters of economics or morality, something that resembles a shared, homogenous identity reaching beyond the imperatives of private life — even if these “friends” do not know one another.
Friendship — the condition of amity between those making up a large socially or communally cohesive association — is always prior to enmity. For it is impossible to have a life-threatening “them” without first having a life-affirming “us.”
Indeed, it is only in face of the death and destruction posed by an enemy that “we” become fully conscious of who we are and learn what is truly “rational” for us.
This friendship implies that the “particular” trumps the “universal” and that a compromised convergence of interest, based on qualities shared with the enemy, is inconceivable.
The political is ultimately, then, a question of life or death — a question that presupposes the existence of an enemy — an enemy comprehended independent of other antitheses (e.g., the moral antitheses of good v. evil) and with conceptually autonomous categories of thought.
In presupposing the political, the state in the Schmittian sense orients to external threats rather than to internal structures of government or social-economic activity (the realms of party politics). The state anchors itself, instead, in its willingness to defend — with arms, if necessary — its distinct existence.
This gives the state the “right,” in exerting its jus belli authority, to call on its individual members to kill and to risk being killed.
Such an authority makes the state “superior” to all other associations, for it alone compels its members to kill and risk being killed.
Weak peoples afraid of the “trials and risks” that come with the political inevitably disappear from history
It is this determination, implying life or death, that specifically constitutes what Schmitt sees as the essence of the political.
Whoever, moreover, makes this determination, deciding whether an enemy is to be fought or not, possesses the decisive, authoritative political power: Sovereign power.
When the imminent threat of war subsides, so too does the political.
This doesn’t mean that war in itself is the “aim, purpose, or content” of the political, only that the “mode of behavior” — the individual responsibility — the sovereign exercise of authority — that perceives the danger and decides to resist it — constitutes the political.
To be political in Schmitt’s sense requires, then, not just a prior commitment to domestic relations of friendship and the social solidarity it engenders, but also to a particular form of life in which group identity is valued, in the last instance, above physical existence.
The political, which “neither favors nor opposes war,” is thus not necessarily a function solely of war (the highest expression of the friend-enemy polarity) nor can it be said that it is per se a bellicose nihilism. Rather it is more like something determined by the possibility of armed enmity — even in cases where the parties belligérantes legitimate their belligerency in the name of freedom, justice, or some other abstraction.
War is simply an “ever present possibility,” which Schmitt recognized and designated as the core of the political sphere.
But if war for Schmitt is, above all, a reaction to an external threat, not a sought-after aggression, what does this imply existentially? (On the surface, at least, it suggests a rejection of l’esprit de conquête and the will to power, which one comrade thought was a liberal vestige in Schmitt’s thought and I thought was a Catholic moral one. In any case, Schmitt never actually came to terms with Nietzsche.)
Liberalism cannot distinguish between friend and enemy because its individualist, universalist, and pluralist ideology (“conceived in liberty and dedicated to the [abstract] proposition that all men are created equal”) denies that such a designation is conceivable in a world understood in market or moralist terms, where there are only competitors and moral entities, with whom one negotiates or reasons on the basis of universal rights and interests.
Compromise, not conflict, is accordingly the principal aim of the liberal state. Hence, its propensity for exchange, negotiation, and business.
But however it may try, liberalism cannot elude the “political.”
In cases where it is forced to designate an enemy, it is conceived as being outside “humanity” and thus something not simply to be defeated, but ruthlessly annihilated — for, by definition, the liberal’s enemy is non-human.
Because it sees the state as essentially an instrument of society and economy, dedicated to the greatest happiness (material well-being) of the greatest number, liberalism lacks a political theory — having, in effect, only a critique of the political.
Indeed, liberal individualism and universalism negate the very possibility of the political, at least in principle. For nothing in its view should compel an individual to die for the sake of the state, which it understands in economic and ethical, instead of political terms.
Such a compulsion, it holds, would not only violate the individual’s freedom, it would make his nation/state association primary — whereas liberalism, in its humanism and rationalism, irrationally and inhumanely claims that only individualistic matters of ethics and economics are primary.
The liberal state, as such, is ethically committed to the rights and interests of individuals seen as self-contained units, whose sum is humanity — and economically, committed to untrammeled production and trade.
In practice, this has meant that the old ordered estates, along with the “prerogatives” of tradition, were forced to bow to the wishes of formless, manipulable masses, as quantity trumped quality and money overthrew the divine right of kings — a right, incidentally, that subsequently passed to the money men, this ethnic minority whose rule has proven to be more devastating than that of any former tyrant.
It has also meant that the usurer could evoke property rights to dispossess farmers of their land; that the personal interests represented by politicians takes priority over the nation’s Destiny; and that the brotherhood of man entails the greatest, most violent, and vigilant of wars to stifle expressions of political polarity.
The political, though, cannot be done away with or evaded — it is immune to depoliticizing procedure — it is the essence of sovereignty.
In cases of war, the state, as the instrument of the political, is the ultimate authority — above the law — and as long as a state of emergency lasts.
Legal systems are based, in fact, not on legal reason, but on an authority that speaks to an existential/ontological situation needing no justification other than its own existence.
“The protego ergo oblige [I protect therefore I oblige] is the cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am] of the state.”
The state, as such, is the highest form of human association, defending the life of its citizens and expecting that they, in turn, prepare to die for it, if necessary.
Protection and obedience, in healthy bondage to one another, are in this way mutually entwined.
Ultimately, the political is an existential matter of the highest degree.
In the face of death, one is forced to take sides and thus to take responsibility for one’s life. The enemy, in this strife, invariably highlights the true significance of friendship.
At the same time, the enemy defines what it means to be human, for only when faced with death do we confront life as a whole.
The political, then, entails Destiny, for it keeps men in historicity and it takes them beyond their private selves, into the realm of great events.
In the liberal’s envisioned one-world state, in a situation where there is only “humanity” and thus no friend-enemy distinctions (except with extra-terrestrials), there would be no political, only competition between individuals, whose highest concern would be self-enrichment, comfort, and entertainment.
Without the political and the state upon which it rests (i.e., without an existential commitment to a shared identity), there would be, as a consequence, no polarity, no opposition, no transcendent reference, and no way to counter the entertainment of modern nihilism.
The first victim of liberal depoliticization is thus always “meaning.”
If Europeans, then, are ever to regain control of their Destiny, it will only come through a political assertion of the identity that distinguishes them from the world’s other peoples.
All else is simply “politics.”