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Carl Schmitt, Liberalism, and Post-Modern Conservatism

The practice of politics is always a form of violence, whether literal or figurative, as different groups of friends and enemies attempt to overcome one another and seize control of the state.”

In today’s climate of political partisanship, many are debating what constitutes legitimate political disagreement and rational discourse about politics. Liberals and their defendants are increasingly pressed by post-modernist movements from the left. And, as we shall see, they are also pushed by those on the right, who do not hold to traditional liberal values about the importance of free speech and inquiry. Most liberal thinkers blame their opponents for these tendencies.

It is important to evaluate whether this is true or not, or whether recent trends demonstrate a more fundamental problem within liberalism itself. Here the work of Carl Schmitt can be exceptionally helpful. In this article, drawn from material from my forthcoming book Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to Human Rights Law, I discuss how Schmitt can help us understand why and how right-wing, quasi-authoritarians invoking identity have been able to seize power in liberal states.

Schmitt was a Nazi theorist who was exceptionally critical of social difference, had a lifelong distrust of Marxism and other trends in egalitarian thought, and expressed consistent anti-Semitic and pro-German sentiments. Yet his work has enjoyed an explosion of interest with everyone from political moderates like Jurgen Habermas to more radical thinkers such as Agamben and Zizek, who have offered commentary on his work. Indeed, some thinkers like Agamben have even formulated their entire theoretical project in relation to Schmitt. This demonstrates the need to have a more comprehensive understanding of his work to see why it remains intriguing to so many left-wing theorists, who seem like they should be naturally repelled by it. 

The reason why Schmitt’s thought remains attractive is complex. Part of its popularity can be explained by his dramatic and powerful stylistic gifts. Outside of Nietzsche, few German thinkers have established so many provocative and imagistic statements.  Another reason for the attraction is Schmitt’s ongoing use of foil for thinkers. 

But I think the core of his appeal lies in Schmitt’s very powerful criticisms of liberalism and liberal democracy.  More than any other thinker, Schmitt challenges the liberal claim to respect difference through the establishment of a tolerant legal regime that enables individuals to live as they please. Given the recent nationalist crackdowns on difference in many purportedly liberal countries, in many ways, his work appears more salient than ever before. But we need to reinterpret this in a new way—as the emergence of what I call post-modern conservatism. 

Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism

Schmitt was born in 1888 into a conservative Catholic family in the German Empire.  While he abandoned his personal religious convictions in the 1920’s, the existential and theological contours of his prior faith always color his work.  Schmitt graduated from Strasbourg in 1916 with a thesis on the relationship between the individual and the state, and he later held a number of university appointments in law throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.  During this time period, he produced most of the seminal works for which he remains known, including Political Theology, The Concept of the Political, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, and his dense magnum opus Constitutional Theory. 

These writings were deeply inspired by the shaky legal and political dynamics of the Weimar Republic, which infamously struggled to contain radical and anti-democratic political parties within a liberal democratic framework.  When the Nazi Party took power in 1933, Schmitt served in a number of appointments, until the SS eventually forced him to resign due to his alleged “Catholicism” and Hegelianism.  After the war, Schmitt lived until 1985 and continued to publish important works including The Nomos of the Earth and The Theory of the Partisan.

Summarizing Schmitt’s long and critical observations on liberalism and liberal democracy would be impossible in a short piece, so, instead, I am largely drawing on his most famous texts: Political Theology and The Concept of the Political.  Much of his later work remains insightful-particularly his work on international spatial orders in The Nomos of the Earth. But I will relegate considerations on those topics to a later article.

Schmitt’s philosophical outlook can be nicely understood as power is never innocent because power is always determinative and decisionist.  One of the things he disdained about liberal democracy was its belief that a given legal order could be established which left people free to live their lives as they wished without state interference or control.  This belief can still be seen in the work of seminal liberal theorists such as John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, who remain committed to the idea of a “political” rather than “metaphysical” liberalism, which can be legally and politically endorsed by individuals from a wide variety of philosophical perspectives. Such arguments made belief in “liberal pluralism” and multiculturalism possible.

In practice, this means that the fundamental concept of the political is the friend/enemy distinction.”

To Schmitt, these liberal pretensions were nonsensical for two reasons. Firstly, Schmitt thought that liberalism’s claim to truly respect difference was a sham.  This reason is fundamentally related to Schmitt’s more general account of how law and politics operate in both liberal and illiberal regimes. For Schmitt, ideologically, all politics is based on incompatible secularized theological concepts. In practice, this means that the fundamental concept of the political is the friend/enemy distinction. Political friends are those who conform to our own political theologies—and who wish to see a state and a legal order which conforms to our own outlook. Political enemies are those who hold to a different political theology, which is incompatible with our own. The practice of politics is always a form of violence, whether literal or figurative, as different groups of friends and enemies attempt to overcome one another and seize control of the state. 

Liberal democracies attempt to quiet politics through the operation of parliamentary democracy. They believe that by giving different groups of friends and enemies space in which to engage peacefully, as political parties in the legislature, the friend/enemy distinction on which politics is predicated can ultimately be overcome. But for Schmitt, this is ultimately an illusion since the daily to and fro of normal parliamentary politics shows us very little about where the real power in political societies ultimately resides.  For Schmitt, there is always one sovereign body that rises above the morass of everyday politics, including in a liberal democracy. This sovereign is the person or body which “decides the exception.” That is, they are capable of suspending the normal operation of politics as organized by law and cracking down on dissent to reaffirm a given order based on a given political theology. In other words, the Sovereign decides the exception to maintain the existential consistency and homogeneity of the body politic through the repressive power of the state.

“Every general norm demands a normal, everyday frame of life to which it can be properly applied and which is subjected to its regulations.  The norm requires a homogeneous medium.  The effective normal situation is not a mere ‘superficial presupposition’ that a jurist must ignore, that situation belongs precisely to its immanent validity.  There exists no norm that is applicable to chaos.  For a legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist, and he is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists.”

This gloomy picture of liberal democracy and politics, in general, has a tremendously leveling effect. Schmitt is effectively saying that all politics is about groups of friends and enemies who organize themselves along fundamentally incompatible theological lines. The attempt to avoid this is an attempt to simply avoid politics.  The extraordinary consequence of Schmitt’s line of reasoning is to conclude that there is little which distinguishes a liberal democratic regime from a more authoritarian one.

Indeed, the chief distinction is that authoritarian regimes are simply more honest about what they are doing. Liberal democrats, with their idealized conceptions of rights and respect for difference, will always be faced with two choices when truly confronted with the stark face of the “Other” who holds to a very different political theology. They may either attempt to hold consistently to their beliefs in difference, in which case the Other might well overcome them and establish an illiberal regime.  Or they can deploy sovereign authority to decide that the Other is a dramatic exception to the “normal” rule of respect for difference.

The second reason why Schmitt felt liberal democracies were fundamentally unable to manage difference in the way they claimed is related to his more broad understanding. Since all “political” concepts and doctrines are fundamentally based on secularized theological concepts the differences between them are irreconcilable.

Liberalism from Hobbes onwards was based on a theological belief that the individual was the center of the world, and that political power is exercised to enable individuals in pursuing their material interests in this world. This political theology is fundamentally at odds with the outlook of groups such as Catholics, Communists, and of course the Nazis, who understood the world in very different terms.

For Schmitt, this posed fundamental problems for the liberal claim to respect difference. To invoke Rawls as a foil, Schmitt would claim that liberals reveal their true respect for difference and the Other when they say that differences in opinion and political theology can be tolerated where they are “reasonable.” What this means in practice is that acts and ideological concepts which deviate too far from liberal political theology will most often be forbidden by the state. Where the liberal state fails to crack down on these differences, it runs the existential risk of being overthrown by those who hold to different political theologies. 

Introduction to Post-Modern Conservatism

Many, including myself, would interpret Schmitt’s arguments as being too totalizing and too bleak.  There is little room in his thinking for degrees of tolerance and acceptance. Here his theological background perhaps influences Schmitt too much. Just as God is a figure whose rule is always absolute, so too does the mortal Sovereign always attempt to establish an ontologically complete body politic.

This may be so in some instances.  But Schmitt fell into the trap common to some intellectuals.  He tended to venerate power even while being reflective on how it was exercised. For him, the moment where the Sovereign decided the exception demonstrates that power can almost always re-establish the homogeneity of the body politic.  By contrast, following Laclau and Mouffe, I think it is more productive to see the body politic as always fundamentally incomplete and in tension.

The exercise of Sovereign power, including during exceptional moments, is seen by Schmitt as a sign of the state’s strength. I instead see it as a sign of its fundamental weakness. In moments where the theological pretensions break down-to put it in psychoanalytic terms when there is broad recognition that the Big Other does not exist-it is necessary for hegemonic groups to turn to state power to enforce by violence what is no longer sustainable through ideology.  It is in these moments of disordering that the potential for real change becomes a possibility.

We can see the pushback against tolerance and liberal cosmopolitanism with the nationalist movements which have taken hold in the United States, Hungary, Britain, and Poland. “

But there remains much that is extremely valuable in Schmitt’s work.  His observation that liberal democracies are never capable of demonstrating the full degree of tolerance they purport to believe in is very well taken, especially in a modern context. We can see the pushback against tolerance and liberal cosmopolitanism with the nationalist movements which have taken hold in the United States, Hungary, Britain, and Poland.  Under the pressure of post-modern culture, and powered by resentment produced by economic inequalities, right-wing populists have cracked down on difference under the auspices of preserving a liberal way of life against hordes of odd looking refugees and migrants who often hold to theologies which are not our own. 

This has led to the emergence of what I have elsewhere called post-modern conservatism.

Post-modern conservatives, who regard neo-liberal culture as decadent and plagued with ever greater social fragmentation, are especially prone to wanting to use the state to crack down on difference. More worryingly still they reject “objective” epistemic, aesthetic, and meta-ethical standards for assessing behavior. This is given added impetus since many of these same standards are promulgated by liberal “elites” who are seen as being allied with progressive and foreign groups responsible for the growing fragmentation of society and its values.

They argue that these liberal elites foster “fake news” which needs to be combated by “alternative facts.” But rather than mobilize a new set of objective epistemic, aesthetic, and meta-ethical standards to replace the progressive liberal’s and buttress these “alternative facts,”  post-modern conservatives appeal to traditionally powerful identities and their values as a locus for understanding. They use these identities to push for the retrenchment of already powerful identities at the expense of marginalized peoples and movements, and they have done so by attempting to seize state power across North America and Europe.

The emergence of post-modern conservatism indicates that the desire to use the state and its power to create a total identity has not gone away. Indeed, recent times have shown us that this temptation is not just a relic of the 20th century but a very live issue given new form by post-modern culture. Trump and his affiliates are modern sovereigns using militant liberalism and conservatism, without bothering to justify the contradiction, to crack down on difference. These actions suggest that Schmitt and his ideas will remain eerily relevant for a long period of time.

Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at