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Who Was Carl Schmitt?

(Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin)

As just another political theology—albeit an especially vulgar one—liberalism would, paradoxically, be put into contexts where it abandoned a commitment to rights for the sake of protecting itself.”

Author’s Note: This piece is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Liberalism and Liberal Rights: A Critical Legal Argument for Palgrave MacMillan. It has been adapted as a preview.


Carl Schmitt is a complex figure. Although he was an undeniably evil man who supported a monstrously wicked regime, he writes so candidly and seductively it can feel impossible to resist the gravity of his insights. Born and raised a Roman Catholic, Schmitt later abandoned his faith but never ceased embodying a sharp and vindictive distaste for liberalism and its many hypocrisies and failings. These were expressed in a series of remarkable books—many very short—that state his case polemically and with the sort of force that only comes from genuine style. This does not mean he is correct of course, but it does make his arguments all the harder to dismiss since one cannot retreat into tirades about obfuscation and an unwillingness to follow a principle where it leads—even if it leads into darkness. He is also an increasingly important figure as by far the most intelligent and clear-eyed political thinker to have ever emerged on the far-right. With the advent of post-modern conservatism as a powerful and xenophobic movement, his thinking deserves serious attention from critics. As I have already discussed this association more here, in this piece I am going to focus more on analyzing Schmitt’s thought in itself to provide a more thorough critique.

Who Was Carl Schmitt?

Carl Schmitt was born in Germany in 1888 into a petite bourgeois family. While Schmitt himself later repudiated the Catholicism in which he was raised, the conception of human beings as sinful and fallen creatures never dissipated—nor did his tendency to elevate politics to theological levels. He volunteered for the German Army during the First World War, before teaching at various universities during the Weimar period. This was a time of immense political upheaval in the young German democracy, and Schmitt was exposed to the real possibility that liberalism would be defeated and destroyed by either Marxist-Socialists or their fascist competitors. Not coincidentally, this was a time when the young Schmitt—still in his 30’s—wrote his greatest and most polemical works: including Political Theology in 1922, the article “The Concept of the Political” in 1927, followed by a book of the same name in 1932. Of course, the Nazis did succeed in overthrowing liberalism in Germany: a fact which, depending on whom you listen to, Schmitt either welcomed or at least rapidly came to terms with. He swiftly joined the new regime, becoming known as the “Crown Jurist” of the Third Reich before he was ingloriously fired in 1936 for not being anti-Semitic enough. That’s not to say Schmitt didn’t give it the old college try, as his virulent comments on Judaism in 1938’s The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes proved. After the Second World War, he refused to apologize and continued to produce works critical of the emerging liberal international order. He died at the age of 96 in 1985, shortly before the end of the Cold War. For a commentator who witnessed almost the entirety of the dark 20th century, one wonders what he might have thought of the triumphalism which marked the post 1989 period. 

Schmitt’s fundamental outlook is well-expressed in Political Theology when he declared that all modern political concepts are ultimately theological in nature. As he put it vividly in the book:

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries.”

His premiere reference point for this is, of course, Hobbes’ Leviathan, the mortal God who is to take the place of the immortal deity we can never truly know. The point, however, is no just exegetical. Schmitt is here making a subtle critique of liberalism, whose secularist ambitions were always to seek to evade theology through the mediation of parliamentary conversation and economic growth. Its goal in this was to also transcend the conflicts associated with theology,  which raised issues about which humans could only fight. This is because they could not be settled through an appeal to the “facts,” which for liberals since Hobbes—in Schmitt’s reading—indicated that human beings were self-interested and rational beings. Schmitt cuts through such vanity and insists that politics is always an existential contest of collective self-definition; in the words of Paul Tillich, politics is a struggle over what is of, “highest concern.” To a certain extent, we always have a choice about which principles to commit ourselves to, which cannot be settled through appeal to forms of rationalization. This might appear a recipe for chaos and disorder, which Schmitt is well aware of. But the danger is ultimately moderated by the fact that—for the mass of beings—sovereign power will settle the existential question of our collective political theology.  It will do this through defining who belongs and who does not, based on the selection of political theologies. 

This is where Schmitt’s famous work on the concept of the political comes in. In the book of the same title, Schmitt insists that any concept of politics as a practice presupposes a concept of the political based on a foundational distinction between friend and enemy. It is foundational because Schmitt has no faith that mere talk (so valued by vulgar liberals) can actually resolve our theological differences. Political friends must, therefore, align to prepare for conflict with their enemies, the ultimate expression of which is war. Should a given group assume sufficient power to establish a sovereign political community, it is capable of enacting a regular legal order, which effectively neutralizes real politics domestically. 

This is, of course, precisely what modern day commentators on Schmitt have picked up: for instance Giorgio Agamben in his Homo Sacer series where he argues that through the War on Terror, the United States abandoned its commitment to upholding liberal principles to relish in the exercise of exceptional punishment against its enemies.

However, the importance of the friend-enemy distinction persists at the international level. There also persists the possibility that instability will start to upend the domestic legal order, as of course it did in Weimar Germany. In that case, Schmitt claims that sovereign power can “decide the exception” by suspending the normal legal order and taking whatever actions it needs to in order to defeat potential enemies. Drawing from Kierkegaard’s famous injunction that the exception in effect determines the existential dimensions of the norm, Schmitt argues that the exception is a “miracle” of sorts. The normal legal order is suspended by intervention by the very power that stabilizes it: in order to wipe out those who might pose a threat to the homogeneity of the political community—much as God decimated Jericho at the behest of the marching Israelite army. 

Schmitt on Liberalism, Democracy, and Dictatorship

This, of course, means that Schmitt had little respect for liberal rights. From a juridical standpoint, Schmitt interprets liberal rights as protections against sovereign power which either pre-exist the political community (in the case of Locke) or come into existence as a foundation of law for figures like Kant and Mill. To Schmitt, this is nonsensical since it implies that sovereign power would willingly subject itself to constraints formulated as abstract natural rights or, worse, which came into existence with power through some hypothetical contractarian process of legitimization. Schmitt argued that—when push came to shove—liberal rights were very much fungible and readily sacrificed in instances where the political community and its theology faced an existential threat. As just another political theology—albeit an especially vulgar one—liberalism would, paradoxically, be put into contexts where it abandoned a commitment to rights for the sake of protecting itself. This meant that liberalism was no better than any other political theology despite its pretentious and hypocritical protestations to the contrary. Indeed, the only time when liberalism could be consistent in a crisis was by allowing itself to fall by refusing to clamp down on internal “enemies,” who used the rights granted to them to agitate for overthrowing the system. This is, of course, precisely what modern day commentators on Schmitt have picked up: for instance Giorgio Agamben in his Homo Sacer series where he argues that through the War on Terror, the United States abandoned its commitment to upholding liberal principles to relish in the exercise of exceptional punishment against its enemies. Perhaps another instance concerns cases when large numbers of refugees and migrants are labelled as unwanted and are placed in camps to await deportation. 

It also meant that the idea of a liberal democracy was a sham, both during periods of normalcy and the exception. This is because Schmitt follows Aristotle and Rousseau in arguing that democracy is axiomatically committed to the fundamental equality of all individuals, who must ultimately give laws to themselves. As he put it in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy: 

“Every actual democracy rests on the principle that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.”

The purest form of democracy, according to Schmitt, is as Rousseau described it in The Social Contract, but he also gives it something of a nationalist twist. It is one where the will of the volk is fundamentally united and homogeneous. Strangely, this means that democracy is not incompatible with the principle of a leader, whether the Duce or the Führer. If the leader truly embodied the general will of the political community, this meant that he was fundamentally a democratic figure. By contrast, liberalism can never be about allowing the people to express its wishes since individuals possess fundamental rights against the general will. Liberalism is committed to a small, anti-democratic state that upholds private property and insulates the interests of the some against the demos. By contrast, a powerful leader speaking for the general will would never allow something as paltry as a set of rights scribbled on scraps of paper to get in the way of a glorious existential mission. Liberalism also insists on its universality, attempting to establish as new “nomos” across the earth. By contrast, dictatorial democracy is exclusive; all are equal who belong, but none have any say if they are excluded. All animals are equal, but most are not even worthy of being called animals. 


Schmitt’s critiques of liberalism are more emblematic of the long 20th century than any other defender of the total state and totalitarian regimes While Soviet communism wound up in hellish totalitarianism, it never abandoned a hypocritical utopianism in its aspirations to bring all the world under heel. By contrast Schmitt’s fascism (I will not dignify it by calling it “democracy” any longer) is deliberately and proudly exclusionary. The world is divided into the weak and the powerful, and the latter will always feast on the former. Political communities unite us with our friends and can provide a sense of normalcy but only through the radical ostracization of all others as enemies in potentia or de facto. They should possess no rights or privileges and be kept out if they are foreigners or liquidated if enemies. The bitter truth of all of this is that it does resemble nothing so much as the Miltonian injunction that it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. If the world needs to be reduced to a state of eternal war in order to ensure sovereign power is located in those who think and believe as I do, then so be it. Such a demonic philosophy has a kind of Luciferian appeal to it. It is paradoxically built on a vision of reality as a place of chaos which requires absolute power to bring order to a species ultimately not worth much. Schmitt’s theory deserves its place in the sewage of history.

Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof

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