The Relevance of Carl Schmitt by Alain de Benoist

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Translation of de Benoist's article surveying the relevance of Schmitt's thought. Taken from Sezession 42, July 2011. Apologies for all errors.

The slew of Schmitt studies resembles a flood breaking through all dams and disgorging itself over the entire landscape. Barely sixty books had been devoted to him by the time of his death in 1985, though now we are already at 430. In addition, the number of translations continues to grow throughout the world. At present his collected works are being published in Peking and over the last three years colloquia on his thought have taken place in Los Angeles, Belo Horizonte, Beira Interior, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Florence and Krakow. There has been, without exaggeration, a renaissance of the work of Carl Schmitt. But what are the implications?

Firstly, reference must be made to the aspect of relevance. More precisely, Schmitt’s thinking offers an analytical and interpretive framework, the value of which is shown over again in light of certain events and pressing trends within global affairs. In this regard, three themes above all engage the attention of the observer: the development of terrorism, the enactment of exception-legislation in order to tackle this phenomenon, and finally, the evolution of war and its attendant transformation of international law.

In his Theory of the Partisan , Schmitt analyses the form of irregular combatants, who set themselves against the legality of powers of authority through new forms of warfare, and whom Schmitt viewed as contextually legitimate. The Partisan war, sometimes dubbed “small war” has not stopped developing since the 19th century uprisings, particularly those in Spain and Germany, against Napoleon’s troops. The age of decolonialisation brought with it a multiplication of guerrilla wars. Today, asymmetric warfare has become the norm. The primary actors of current conflicts are no longer states alone but paramilitaries and sub-state entities whose members wear no uniform. And just as states have always denounced partisans as terrorists, today it is the terrorist who carries on the tradition of the partisan war.

The difference between the old and the new partisans is tightly bound with globalisation. Terrorism too has deterritorialised itself. Schmitt attributes a telluric character to the partisan, which is no longer compelling for the terrorist, who often enough no longer operates within the borders of a single state. In contrast, “planetary terrorism” shifts from one country to the next; the entire world becomes their field of battle. This said, certain characteristics that Schmitt cites in relation to the partisan also pertain for the terrorist: irregularity, heightened intensity of political engagement, a distinct sense of legitimacy, which stands athwart a legality perceived as institutionalised injustice or disorder.

Schmitt writes: “With today’s partisans the antipodes of regular/ irregular and legal/ illegal blur and intersect.” He further calls to attention that “in the vicious cycle of terror and counter-terror… the fight against the partisan is often merely a mirror image of partisan warfare itself.” In the confrontation with irregularity the state must also make recourse to irregular methods of combat. They can thus counteract their own laws by grasping at special measures, such as those that came into force after the attacks of 11th September 2001 (Patriot Act, the establishment of prison camps in Guantanamo etc).

The fundamental roll that the “exception” plays in Schmitt’s thought is now well known. The exception is for him the political correlate to the miracle in theology: a violent event that transgresses natural law. Here Schmitt criticises the liberal constitutional theorists and followers of legal positivism, for whom the political life in a country as a mere matter to be conceived through constitutionally described norms and regulations, without seeing that preconceived norms are not applicable in the exceptional situation as its nature is unforeseeable. The exception can be anticipated just as little as the necessary methods for bringing it under control. Only a sovereign authority is capable of this: “Sovereign is he who decides upon the exception.” Vice versa this means that the knowledge of who decides is the same as knowing where sovereignty is to be found.

In contrast to what some writers assert, this does not make Carl Schmitt the father of those special measures which, in the western world, circumscribe civil liberties and erect a surveillance state under the pretence of “the war on terror”. Actually the emergency situation must by definition be the exception; and today this is less and less the case.

The evolution of war and international law is another topic worthy of consideration. Through “humanitarian war”, to which we are now witnesses, war has transformed into a police action that violates state sovereignty. As Schmitt described it, all traditional differences between home and front, combatant and civilian, regular and irregular troops, police and army, internal and foreign policy have bit by bit been dissolved. In an age in which “hot peace” has replaced “cold war”, the final boundaries between war and peace disappear: when the weapons fall silent war is continued with propaganda and re-education. One even loses the eyes to see that the goal of war is peace.
Schmitt’s works, in particular Turn to the Discriminatory Concept of War reveal that “humanitarian wars”, which are discriminatory wars, mean in no small way a return to the idea of a “just war” in the sense of medieval theology.

In order to govern the relationships between states, the old international law ( jus publicum europaeum ), which put an end to the “war of belief” after the Peace of Westphalia, conceived of war as conflict in which each participant was granted legitimacy: justus hostis instead of justa causa. This allowed war to play out in a particular framework which was derived from the significance of jus in bello. The discriminatory war has resurrected the just war of the middle ages by doing away with these achievements. The enemy is no longer an opponent who under other circumstance could just as well be an ally. He is made an absolute enemy. Demonised, criminalised, proclaimed a representation of evil, he is the enemy of humanity, who must not merely be defeated but eradicated. Consequentially every means – economic sanctions, bombing of the civilian population etc. – may be deployed against him, because peace negotiations with him are out of the question: surrender must be unconditional.

Schmitt shows that the ideological and “humanitarian” wars of modernity - which morally disqualify the enemy instead of acknowledging him as an opponent whose reasons are also recognised – have adopted the course of the religious war. They manifest the same merciless and total character.

In his endeavour to develop a new theory of international law grounded in “concrete ordering”, Schmitt did not fail to recognise that the ius publicum europaeum could not be revived. The old Eurocentric order, which was dependent on pure state foundations, had disappeared. As such Schmitt argued for a “Verräumlichung” (spacialisation) of political confrontation, in the spirit of the ancient principle of cujus regio, ejus religio. From this grew his theory of “Großraum”, which was heavily criticised by SS ideologues (in particular Werner Best and Reinhard Höhn). Schmitt emphasised that that Europe must organise itself as a “Großraum” with the German Reich as the natural geopolitical centre and also equip itself with a counter Monroe Doctrine (which had allowed the USA to prohibit every foreign military presence in North and South America since 1823). Here Schmitt took a stand for a “pluriversum”, a multi-polar world, against a “universum”; a world unified through the domination of a single super power. This is also an extremely pertinent alternative.

His views culminated in the 1950 book Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum, in which Schmitt dealt with the new order of the world that would follow from the disintegration of the System established at Yalta. In 1945 this system had dissolved and replaced the previous Eurocentric order that developed from the discovery of America.

Certain writers believe though that further relevant observations are to be found in Schmitt’s work. For a number of “left Schmittians” - such as Danilo Zolo, Chantal Mouffe, Gopal Balakrishnan among others – the greatest value in Schmitt consists in having demonstrated that the concept of “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms. Ill-disposed to liberal parliamentary democracy, to which he (like Donoso Cortes) attributes the “eternal discussion”, Schmitt attacked liberalism and democracy in a manner possibly reminiscent of Rousseau – in particular his criticism of representation. Fundamentally oligarchic in nature, representation negates the sovereignty of the people. Against this Schmitt adhered to a type of plebiscitary democracy; that is, a direct and participatory democracy. In a democratic, he wrote that the decisions of the rulers must express the will of the governed. This accord is the hallmark of democracy. The ballot (or acclamation) is nothing more than a means of confirming this. Thus equality (identity) not freedom is the principle of democracy: citizens can have various abilities, but insofar as they are citizens they are politically equal.

Others in turn (and not without reason) are of the opinion that the opposition between land and sea that Schmitt established also allows the inner structure of postmodernity – which Zygmunt Bauman defined as fluid modernity – to be understood. In a small book titled Land and Sea, Schmitt developed a dialectic of telluric and maritime whose derivations are far reaching. The political implies a border and thus stands on the side of the earth. The sea knows no boundaries, merely currents and counter-currents. Furthermore it stands on the side of commerce and economy. Telluric and maritime logic surface again and again in the centuries-long confrontation between sea-powers (formerly Great Britain, now the USA) and land powers (Europe).

Finally, it is necessary to emphasise that the decision between friend and enemy, the leitmotif of Schmittian thought, cannot merely be reduced to a potential threat. It is grounded in the concrete political existence of a people. “People” implies a substantive identity, for which the members of political society are ready to fight and die when necessary. Citizenship and political community must coincide. The origin of the constitution does not lie in the social contract, but in the will of an existing people as well as the political society, as a given power to appear and determine the concrete form of their collective existence.

Despite the criticism to which he is nonetheless still subject, all these briefly mentioned reasons justifiably raise Schmitt, in the minds of great thinkers of all camps (“the last great classic” – Bernard Willms), to rank alongside Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau.

Niccolo and Donkey
Bob Dylan Roof

Thanks for the translation, Ferdinand.

Benoist's overview is good. Another issue central to Schmitt's thought is the distinction between legality and legitimacy and the conflation of the two in liberal democracy. An interesting paper covering the subject can be found here .