3 Eylül 2010 Cuma

Carl Schmitt's Concept of Political



Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) is a very controversial and important German political scientist and legal philosopher who is known with his masterpieces “The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” and “The Concept of the Political”. Although Schmitt has been criticized severely during his life time for his links to Nazi party in Germany during 1930’s and early 1940’s, he has also always been accepted as an important scholar and his ideas are worth of analysis. In this assignment I am going to analyze Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political book and discuss some key points in his theory.
First of all, before passing to the close reading of the text we can talk about the historical background of Germany at the time when he wrote this work. The Concept of the Political was published in 1932, at a time when Weimar Republic was suffering from the lack legitimacy due to the enormous economic problems, hyperinflation and huge political polarization in the country. Communists, socialists and social democrats were at the one side and nationalists, national socialists were at the other side were opposing to the democratic government and severely decreasing its legitimacy with their opposition propaganda. Schmitt wrote The Concept of the Political in this polarized context and tried to refute democratic principles by defining political as something superior to all other political tools, institutions. Now, let us have a close look on Schmitt’s arguments.
The entire book especially the early parts are written in a way to differentiate political from all other political institutions, units even from the state and to give it an abstract but superior meaning. Even Schmitt’s very choice of the word “political” instead of politics is significant here in my opinion. Schmitt begins article by refuting other definitions of political. In Schmitt’s idea many people erroneously equates state with politics (Schmitt, p. 22). In democratic states, Schmitt argues that society and state penetrate each other and thus, state affairs become social issues in addition to purely social matter that transform into state affairs. We can claim that Schmitt’s idea of the political and the state affairs is much higher than basic social matters. Schmitt asserts that the non-interventionist state of the 19th century led to the emergence of 20th century total states. Total states are the ones who are enslaved by the dominance of social matters and do not deal with the real political. But then what is the real political?
Schmitt believes that similar to the good-evil distinction in morality or beautiful-ugly in aesthetics or in profitable-non profitable in economics, the political is based on the dichotomy of friend and enemy (foe). “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (Schmitt, p. 26). For Schmitt, political is a matter of life and death, a vicious war between hostile groups, association or dissociation of groups at utmost degree of intensity. In addition, political is the negation of the other side’s presence. “Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence” (Schmitt, p. 27). According to Schmitt, political itself is not a subject matter but rather every subject can become political if it is able to group and mobilize people against other people. In other words, for him politics is fighting for or against some groups and the purpose does not matter. So, in political grouping, the enemy can be beautiful, profitable and good but it may not be enough for this group to be identified as enemy. Also, we can claim that political is not obliged to be based on the ideology of classes, but in addition to class cleavages, ethnic, religious, sectarian, linguistic differences even a hobby group can become political if it is able to differentiate its enemies and friends and also, creates an actively participant mass group. The necessity, the primary condition of being political is to create a fighting collectivity of people against a similar collectivity in Schmitt’s own words.[1] For Schmitt, this enmity is something physical that is based on killing each other. He sees all human beings as combatants and war as “the existential negation of the enemy” (Schmitt, p. 33). So, Schmitt claims unlike what Clausewitz said[2], war is the concrete form of the politics itself.
As far as Carl Schmitt is concerned, this formulation is the real definition of the political, and its essence has never changed starting from the barbaric times. He claims that especially in international politics "nations continue to group themselves according to the friend and enemy antithesis, that distinction still remains actual today, and that this is an ever present possibility for every people existing in the political sphere” (Schmitt, p. 28). For Schmitt, 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” (Schmitt, p. 29). The enmities between Muslims and Christians, Europeans and Turks are examples of international political groupings in Schmitt’s view. Schmitt further argues that all political concepts possess polemical meanings and they cease to exist as a political force when they lose their characteristic of spreading antagonism.
Schmitt is also harshly critical of democracy and liberalism. He thinks that liberalism in fact tries to “transform the enemy from the viewpoint of economics into a competitor and from the intellectual point into a debating adversary” (Schmitt, p. 28). Schmitt, as a necessity of his anti-democratic, anti-liberal tyrannical formulation of the political, blames liberalism and democracy for depoliticization. In his view, in a liberal democratic state all social forces -that do not have the quality of being political- affect state affairs and government decisions thus, weaken the state. In other words, in liberal state, the sovereignty of state is harmed by other actors which are not political. In addition, the equation of party politics with politics “is possible whenever antagonisms among domestic political parties succeed in weakening the all-embracing political unit; the state” (Schmitt, p. 32). For Schmitt, a consolidated democracy is a “completely pacified world” in which there would be no politics. He believes that without friend-foe categorization, without people ready to kill each other there would not be any meaningful political events, groups. He even questions whether “such a world without politics is desirable as an ideal situation” (Schmitt, p. 35). Schmitt ironically gives the example of a pacifist group which may turn into a political unit, if it achieves to start “a war against war” (Schmitt, p. 36). For Schmitt, if an entity claims to be a political actor, it has to be a decisive entity. If it is not, it cannot be a political actor. Schmitt continues to criticize pluralist theory and thinks that in this pluralist model state “simply transforms itself into an association which competes with other associations; it becomes a society among some other societies which exist within or outside the state” (Schmitt, p. 44).
Now, I want to discuss some concepts in Schmitt’s theory. First of all, Schmitt’s conception of political is totally abstract and very pessimistic. This tyrannical formulation orientates Schmitt to construct his pessimist and violent theory. Politics in all ideologies is defined as a mean to find solutions to social problems and exalted by philosophers. Although politics is defined by famous Soviet revolutionary Lenin in a pessimist way as “who could do what do whom”, even Lenin thought that socialist revolution would change the nature of politics. Marx also talked about the enormous problems, inequalities of bourgeois politics in the capitalist system but he also mentioned that that would change in the socialist period. In liberal doctrine too, politics is something positive that is related to and shaped by people. In both liberalism and Marxism, we see that political or politics is related to people and should be shaped according to people’s desires or class positions. However, in Schmitt’s idea, politics is something above people and social groups. Schmitt’s attitude towards political is like defending “art for art” principle. Schmitt considers politics something above people and all other things, which should be dealt by the state. Since the political is a matter of life and death, it should be only dealt on the state level and other social actors should not shape the decision in Schmitt’s idea. Moreover, Schmitt thinks that power struggles and political conflicts can only occur in the form of war. Probably, because of his distrust in democracy due to the failure of Weimar Republic, Schmitt does not believe in the success of democracy. In democracy, we know that in addition to free and contested elections, there are many political and social actors (church, syndicates, other civil societal organizations, ethnic-religious minorities, religious brotherhoods, social classes etc.) that shape the decision-making process without leading necessarily to a war. Although many of these social actors’ interests differ and in the bargaining process conflicts occur between them, democracy does not end up with civil war. Democracy is the regime of consensus as much as conflict. In a consolidated democracy, since people know that they have chance to get what they want through legal means especially if they do not constitute a minority group, no conflicts occur in the form of civil war.. This is also related to the democratic culture and democracy as being “the only game in the town” in developed countries.
Finally, in my opinion, Schmitt’s definition of political is very ambiguous and does not offer us concrete things. Accepting political as something violent would not explain the cooperation between states and harmony between different political actors and social classes in today’s democracies. Schmitt can be said to be a part of realist school but even in realist school material gains determine countries’ and social actors’ aggression. However, Schmitt fails to offer us a valid conceptual ground for people coming together and mobilizing around something. That is why Schmitt’s ideas did not seem very plausible and convincing to me.

Ozan Örmeci


[1] “Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy” (Schmitt, p. 37).
[2] “War is the continuation of politics by other means”.


2 yorum:

Özgür Yalçın dedi ki...

Dear Örmeci,

In the final part of your essay, I do not agree your opinions about Schmitt as even if his some definitions are ambiguous, he provides us a strong base so as to understand the lacks of liberal democracy and parliamentary regimes. So, in my opinion, final part of your article is unilateral and not deeply.

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