A Forgotten Thinker On Nation-States vs. Empire
German legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985[!]) has enjoyed a widespread following among European academics and among that part of the European Right that is most resistant to Americanization. In the U.S. it is a different matter. Outside of the editors and readers of Telos magazine, which has heavily featured his work, Schmitt’s American groupies are becoming harder and harder to find.
My intellectual biography of this thinker, which Greenwood Press published in 1990, has sold rather badly. An earlier, much denser biography, by Joseph W. Bendersky, put out by Princeton in 1983, obtained a broader market. In the eighties, academically well-connected commentators, including George Schwab, Ellen Kennedy, Gary Ulmen, and Bendersky, built up for Schmitt a scholarly reputation on these shores by trying to relate his thought to then-contemporary political issues. This caused so much concern among American global democrats that The New Republic (August 22, 1988) published a grim tirade by Stephen Holmes against the Schmittian legacy. An echo could be found in the New York Review of Books (May 15, 1997), in a screed by another neoconservative, Mark Lila. Though the Schmitt scholars sent in responses, the New York Review would not publish any of them. Apparently the political conversation in Midtown Manhattan is not broad enough to include non-globalists.
Schmitt is properly criticized for having joined the Nazi Party in May 1933. But he clearly did so for opportunistic reasons. Attempts to draw a straight line between his association with the Party and his writings of the twenties and early thirties, when he was closely associated with the Catholic Center Party, a predecessor of the Christian Democrats, ignore certain inconvenient facts. In 1931 and 1932, Schmitt urged Weimar president Paul von Hindenburg to suppress the Nazi Party and to jail its leaders. He sharply opposed those in the Center Party who thought the Nazis could be tamed if they were forced to form a coalition government. While an authoritarian of the Right, who later had kind words about the caretaker regime of Franco, he never quite made himself into a plausible Nazi. From 1935 on, the SS kept Schmitt under continuing surveillance.
There are two ideas raised in Schmitt’s corpus that deserve attention in our elite-decreed multicultural society. In The Concept of the Political (a tract that first appeared in 1927 and was then published in English in 1976 by Rutgers University) Schmitt explains that the friend/enemy distinction is a necessary feature of all political communities. Indeed what defines the “political” as opposed to other human activities is the intensity of feeling toward friends and enemies, or toward one’s own and those perceived as hostile outsiders.
This feeling does not cease to exist in the absence of nation-states. Schmitt argued that friend/enemy distinctions had characterized ancient communities and would likely persist in the more and more ideological environment in which nation-states had grown weaker. The European state system, beginning with the end of the Thirty Years War, had in fact provided the immense service of taming the “political.”
The subsequent assaults on that system of nation-states, with their specific and limited geopolitical interests, made the Western world a more feverishly political one, a point that Schmitt develops in his postwar magnum opus Nomos der Erde (now being translated for Telos Press by Gary Ulmen). From the French Revolution on, wars were being increasingly fought over moral doctrines – most recently over claims to be representing “human rights.” Such a tendency has replicated the mistakes of the Age of Religious Wars. It turned armed force from a means to achieve limited territorial goals, when diplomatic resources fail, to a crusade for universal goodness against a demonized enemy.
A related idea treated by Schmitt is the tendency toward a universal state (a â€œNew World Orderâ€?). Such a tendency seemed closely linked to Anglo-American hegemony, a theme that Schmitt took up in his commentaries during and after the Second World War.
German historians in the early twentieth century had typically drawn comparisons between, on the one side, Germany and Sparta and, on the other, England (and later the U.S.) and Athens – between what they saw as disciplined land powers and mercantile, expansive naval ones. The Anglo-American powers, which relied on naval might, had less of a sense of territorial limits than landed states. Sea-based powers had evolved into empires, from the Athenians onward.
But while Schmitt falls back, at least indirectly, on this already belabored comparison, he also brings up the more telling point: Americans aspire to a world state because they make universal claims for their way of life. They view “liberal democracy” as something they are morally bound to export. They are pushed by ideology, as well as by the nature of their power, toward a universal friend/enemy distinction.
Although in the forties and fifties Schmitt hoped that the devastated nation-state system would be replaced by a new “political pluralism,” the creation of spheres of control by regional powers, he also doubted this would work. The post-World War II period brought with it polarization between the Communist bloc and the anti-Communists, led by the U.S. Schmitt clearly feared and detested the Communists. But he also distrusted the American side for personal and analytic reasons. From September 1945 until May 1947, Schmitt had been a prisoner of the American occupational forces in Germany. Though released on the grounds that he played no significant role as a Nazi ideologue, he was traumatized by the experience. Throughout the internment he had been asked to give evidence of his belief in liberal democracy. Unlike the Soviets, in whose zone of occupation he had resided for a while, the Americans seemed to be ideologically driven and not merely vengeful conquerors.
Schmitt came to dread American globalism more deeply than its Soviet form, which he thought to be primitive military despotism allied with Western intellectual faddishness. In the end, he welcomed the “bipolarity” of the Cold War, seeing in Soviet power a means of limiting American “human rights” crusades.
A learned critic of American expansionists, Schmitt did perceive the by-now inescapably ideological character of American politics.
In the post-Cold War era, despite the irritation he arouses among American imperialists, his commentaries seem fresher and more relevant than ever before.Â Â Â Â