February 24, 2009


The Friend-Enemy Distinction: Carl Schmitt, anti-Semitism, and liberal democracy.: a review of Carl Schmitt and the Jews: The "Jewish Question," the Holocaust, and German Legal Theory by Raphael Gross (Stephen H. Webb, February 6, 2009, Books & Culture)

Schmitt is the preeminent critic of political liberalism, which makes him a hero to some and an admonitory instance of the inevitable consequences of conservatism to others.

Schmitt developed some of his best ideas during the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Germany's experiment with liberal democracy that ended in disaster. From its beginning, the republic was assaulted by both left- and right-wing extremists. To this day, scholars debate whether Schmitt was a friendly critic of Weimar or one of its most dangerous enemies. Schmitt was certainly sympathetic to authoritarian rule, and he thought that all liberal democracies were hindered by inherent contradictions, but he always claimed that he was trying to support Weimar by drawing attention to its constitutional weaknesses. Some of Schmitt's contemporaries were prescient enough to worry that any rejection of the principles of the republic ran the risk of opening the door to a dictatorship, but being a critic of Weimar did not, alone, put anyone on the side of Hitler. Nonetheless, one of the staples of liberal apologetics, often relying on Schmitt's case, is the claim that conservatism is merely a more moderate form of fascism.

Schmitt's conservatism was deeply rooted in his Catholic upbringing, which made him an outsider to the German liberal élite. He was heavily influenced by the Catholic counter-revolutionaries who reacted in horror to the way the French Revolution liberated the masses only by overthrowing the authority of the church. Surprisingly, he was also influenced by Protestant theologians who portrayed faith as an act that transcends rational reflection. From this unlikely pair of sources—French Catholic reactionaries and Protestant existential theologians—he revived the concept of sovereignty and developed a political model known as "decisionism." Every political system, he argued, needs a source of authority that lies outside its own rules and regulations. Even the best constitution cannot prepare in advance for every possible challenge. When a constitution is pushed to the limit, someone has to be in the position to suspend it for its own preservation.

In Schmitt's account, liberal democracies, especially of the parliamentarian kind, try to deny the importance of sovereignty by subjecting every decision to discussion and debate. Liberalism pits egalitarianism against sovereignty and rational consensus against finality of political decisions. As Schmitt once scoffed, when confronted with Christ or Barabbas, "the liberal answers with a motion to adjourn the meeting or set up an investigative committee." Nonetheless, even democracies inevitably face states of emergency that require the political equivalent of a leap of faith. (Think, in the American context, of Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court decision that resolved the 2000 presidential election.)

The political crises that rocked the Weimar Republic sent many Germans on the hunt for a scapegoat. Jews were targeted in part because they were so closely identified with Weimar, which facilitated their assimilation by abolishing official discrimination. Like many German intellectuals, Schmitt thought Jews would always be shaped by their experience of statelessness, and he supposed that this experience led them to put their hope in the egalitarian quest for rational consensus rather than the need for every nation to define itself through political decisions. He thus attributed Weimar's constitutional weaknesses to the Jews, although it should be emphasized, as Gross repeatedly points out, that Schmitt, for the most part, reserved his anti-Semitic speculations for private diaries and letters and remained friends with many Jewish colleagues, much to the chagrin of the more dedicated Nazis.

Liberal universalism not only obscures the need for sovereignty. It also denies the significance of what Schmitt called the friend-enemy distinction. Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt. 26:11), meaning that we will never exhaust the importance of generosity, but for Schmitt, it is enemies that are always pervasive, which is why we can never do without political order. This is the most important and controversial aspect of Schmitt's thought. For Schmitt, all political concepts are essentially theological insofar as they require assumptions about human nature, and no theological belief has more political significance than original sin. The doctrine of original sin, translated into a political idiom, grounds social order in the recognition that people are dangerous. Simply put, we have politics because we have enemies. It follows that there is no worse corruption of politics than applying the injunction "love thy enemies," which Schmitt thought should be limited to the interpersonal realm, to relations between nation-states. The whole point of national sovereignty is to decide when conflict rises to the level of enmity and then to settle that enmity without regard to personal gains and losses.

For Schmitt, political liberalism begins with the denial of the friend-enemy distinction, just as theological liberalism begins with the denial of original sin. Political liberalism is mired in the false promise that universal peace can be obtained without confronting enemies, just as theological liberalism thinks that salvation, not sin, comes from within. Although Schmitt never fully understood American democracy, with its divided powers and strong executive branch, his critique of liberalism is as relevant as ever. Is democracy a fantasy of secular intellectuals who think words without power can translate the will of the people into collective action? Does democracy inevitably erode the sense of authority that is necessary for its own political success? Is liberalism another name for the modern tendency to forget the theological substance of politics?

The case for that suicidal love-thy-enemy multi-culturalism is made as well as it can be in John Gray's Two Faces of Liberalism.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2009 8:35 AM
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