John E. McCormick
The collapse of the USSR has rendered obsolete post-WWII geopolitical categories. In attempting to discern an “emerging reality,” Samuel Huntington has prefigured a “new phase” in the “evolution of conflict.” He warns that a “clash of civilizations” looms on the horizon -a dash in which the West will be confronted by a “Confucian-Islamic” alliance. Central to this conflict will be theological differences, technological factors and the uncertain status of the former USSR and its satellites. Already in 1929 Carl Schmitt outlined a similar analysis of the clash of cultures in “The Age of Neutralizations and Depolificizations” — a lecture delivered at the Sixth Annual Conference of the International Association for Cultural Cooperation, held in Barcelona, Spain, October 16-20, 1939. Schmitt’s lecture might even be an indirect source of Huntington’s thesis, since there may be a dear line from Schmitt, via Hans Morgenthau, to Huntington’s political “realism.”
Schmitt’s lecture is startlingly similar to Huntington’s article in several respects. Like Huntington, Schmitt sees the dawning of a new “phase” of political conflict, quasi-theological in character, concerned with technology and having Russia as a particular focus. Since this lecture can also be considered an elaboration of Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political” — originally a lecture delivered in Berlin in 1927 — it is crucial to an understanding of Schmitt’s work during the Weimar Republic. Its “political” objective can be found in the opening statement: “We in Central Europe live under the eyes of the Russians.” Whereas Huntington is ambivalent as to whether Russia will be “with or against us,” Schmitt is adamant. The Soviet Union is the main enemy of Europe and must be recognized as such. The grounds for this “political” position is technology, which is the central issue of the 20th century: the Russians’ “vitality is strong enough to seize our knowledge and technology as weapons.” More urgently Schmitt adds: “The anti-religion of technicity has been put into practice on Russian soil and . . . there a state arose which is more intensely statist than was any state of the absolute princes . . . . ”
The Europeans’ exhaustion alter the “Great War” of 1914 had fostered a disposition to the status quo similar to that following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The Russians had understood this and were seeking to take advantage of the historical moment. Schmitt intimates that the political goals of the Russian dominated Soviet Union could shatter the veneer of neutrality in a Europe hostage to the League of Nations. In order better to understand the emergent confrontation Schmitt foresees developing between the Soviet Union and Central Europe in his 1929 lecture, it is necessary to examine three factors interrelated in his opening remarks: history, technology and the political.
According to Schmitt, the dynamics of modern Western history since the 16th century has been the search for a neutral sphere — one tree of conflict, allowing the poossibility of mutual agreement and peace. What precipitated this state of affairs was that the dominant theme or, as Schmitt calls it, the “central sphere” of the 16th century, i.e., theology, had resulted in religious civil wars threatening Europe’s cultural unity. Thus this conflictual sphere was abandoned in the 17th century for the “neutral” sphere of metaphysics, which then itself became conflictual and was superseded in the 18th century by humanitarian ethics and morality. The 19th century was dominated by economics.
The European spirit could not remain in any one of these spheres forever because the repressed human inclination to conflict inevitably destroyed the presumed neutrality: “In the dialectic of such a development one creates a new sphere of struggle precisely through the shifting of the central sphere. In the new sphere, at first considered neutral, the anti-theses of men and interests untold with a new intensity . . . . Europeans always have wandered from a conflictual to a neutral sphere, and always the newly-won neutral sphere has become immediately another arena of struggle, once again necessitating the search for a new neutral sphere.”
While Schmitt articulates this dynamics, he rejects any association with “vulgar” deterministic accounts of historical change that till the pages of 19th century philosophies of history. He also refuses to reduce each epoch to the central sphere, since he specifically recognizes a plurality of elements in each, while simultaneously dodging the kind of criticism leveled at Hegel for his often crudely ethnocentric statements in his philosophy of history: “I speak not of human culture as a whole, not of the rhythm of world history, and am able to speak neither about the Chinese nor the East Indians or the Egyptians.”
Schmitt does not conceal his admiration tot the intellectual elite of the 17th century — “the heroic age of occidental rationalism.” By the same token, he does not conceal his disgust for the 18th century intellectual elite, whose work he characterizes as “a vulgarization on a grand scale.” For example, he calls Pufendorf an “epigone” of Suarez and considers Rousseau’s social contract merely a “vulgarization” of Pufendorf. All are mere imitators oi the true intellectual innovators of the 17th century, such as Hobbes and Spinoza. Although Schmitt’s stated aim is to avoid reductionism in describing the relation between forms of consciousness and the central spheres, some of his more insightful examples come dangerously dose to just that: “The Lisbon earthquake could occasion a whole flood of moralizing literature, whereas today a similar event would pass almost unnoticed; it is also true that an economic catastrophe, such as a sharp monetary devaluation or a crash, occasions widespread and acute interest both practical and theoretical.”
Most interesting is Schmitt’s analysis of the 19th century and the affinities of his analyses with those of Western Marxism. While the 19th century is characterized by “an apparently hybrid and impossible combination of aesthetic-romantic and economic-technical tendencies,” echoing Marx and Lukacs, Schmitt, the reputed anti-Marxist, shows how these tendencies are interrelated. Romanticism is “only the intermediary stage of the aesthetic between the moralism of the 18th and the economism of the 19th century, only a transition which precipitated the aestheticization of all intellectual spheres. It did so very easily and successfully. The way from the metaphysical and moral spheres is through the aesthetic sphere, which is the surest and most comfortable way to the general economization of intellectual lite and to a state of mind which finds the core categories of human existence in production and consumption.”
Freed from the constraints of religion and dogma, 18th century subjective morality gave way in the 19th century to an aesthetic appreciation of objects. As Schmitt observed in Political Romanticism (1919), the romantic searches for objects and situations as mere “occasions” for the expression of subjective feelings. Marx and Lukacs considered this phenomenon an expression of the commodity form, which they saw as the fundamental unit of capitalist society. The commodity’s use-value is determined by the qualitatively specific modes of labor that produce it, which invites an aesthetic concern with the concrete attributes of things — an arbitrarily subjective ascription of content to particular objects. Along with Marx and Lukacs, Schmitt recognizes that this aetheticization is not antithetical to a simultaneous “economization,” but is rather its “typical accompanying phenomenon.”
For Marx and Lukacs, the other moment of the commodity is exchange value, which reflects the general or abstract labor that characterizes industrial society as a whole. This aspect of modern society is responsible for the interchangeability of commodities, the reduction of qualitatively different entities to quantitative equivalents, a rationality abstracted from material particularity and the apparently resulting “valuelessness” of modernity. Schmitt recognizes this tormal aspect of modern society when he remarks elsewhere that capitalism is utterly indifferent to the production of “a silk blouse or poison gas.” While he obviously disagreed with the Marxian claim that modernity is driven by the compulsion to surplus value, the affinity between Marx and Schmitt is useful in demonstrating how Schmitt’s account of modernity is tree of some of the shortcomings of two of his contemporaries — Max Weber and Martin Heidegger. While both offten characterized modernity in terms of its abstract, “valueless,” formal and quantitative aspects in their respective theories of “rationalization” or “framing,” Schmitt sides with the tradition of Critical Theory in claiming modernity also produces its own peculiar “concrete” and “qualitative” torres.
Weber and Heidegger tend to view the concrete and qualitative as either remnants of the premodern past or something that must be willed into the modern present. Despite certain similarities between Schmitt, Weber and Heidegger, the former is more sensitive to the particular dualisms of modern thought: objective and subjective, form and content, abstract and concrete. Of course, much of the controversy surrounding Schmitt’s work concerns his relation to the “concrete” aspect of modernity. Although in his 1929 lecture Schmit explicitly criticizes Marxism for being outdated, appropriate only to the 19th century economic “central sphere,” he at least acknowledges that Marx already recognized “that the economic epochs of mankind are determined by specific technical means.”
One of the most misunderstood aspects of Schmitt’s thought is his attitude toward technology. In an often misleading work, Reactionary Modernism, Jeffrey Herf repeatedly refers to Schmitt as one who embraced, positively valued and aestheticized modern technology. His thesis comparing the pro-technology stance of radical conservative intellectuals during the Weimar Republic with their reactionary counterparts in other European nations is forced on Schmitt in cookie-cutter fashion. Obviously Herf has not read Schmitt’s 1929 lecture in relation to two other works explicitly criticizing technology — Theodor Daubler’s “Nordlicht” (1916) and Romischer Katholizismus und politische Form (1923). An intense passage toward the end of his 1929 lecture is often cited as evidence of Schmitt’s “pro-technology” stance: “A result of human understanding and specialized knowledge, such as a discipline and in particular modern technology, also cannot simply be presented as dead and soulless any more than can the religion of technicity be confused with technology itself. The spirit of technicity, which has led to the mass belief in an anti-religious activism, is still spirit; perhaps an evil and demonic spirit, but not one which can be dismissed and attributed to technology. It is perhaps something gruesome, but not itself technical and mechanical. It is the belief in an activistic metaphysics — the belief in unlimited power and the domination of man over nature, even over human nature; the belief in the unlimited ‘receding of natural boundaries,’ in the unlimited possibilities for change and prosperity. Such a belief can be called fantastic and satanic, but not simply dead, spiritless, or mechanized soullessness.” Herf claims that Schmitt’s distinction between “technicity” (Technizitat) and “technology” (Technik) seeks to rehabilitate the latter. But this passage ought to be unpacked more carefully in light of the lecture as a whole.
At the outset Schmitt claims that “the anti-religion of technicity” has found its home “on Russian soil.” This is his definition of technicity: a religion that is yet anti-religious; it is concerned solely with an activistic “metaphysics” in the material world; it is practiced through the “unlimited” and “unbounded” domination of nature, including human nature. It may be responsible for “the splendid array of contemporary technology,” but unlike the latter it is not simply “technical” or “mechanical.” Is Schmitt exalting technology at the expense of technicity as Heft claims? No, since he considers technology to be “dead and soulless.” Rather, he wants to inspire a generation of intellectuals too long under the spell of a cultural and technological pessimism propagated by the likes of Weber, Spengler, Troeltsch and Rathenau. He warns his listeners that the technicity behind technology may not be benign, but it is also not “lifeless, ” “soulless,” “dead,” or “spiritless” as the romantic tradition had led them to believe.
As Heidegger would argue later, the “essence” of technology is “nothing technological.” His notion of “enframing (Gestell)” is thus similar to Schmitt’s concept of technicity in that an entity considered almost alive is the driving force behind the emergence and continuation of the essentially lifeless machines of modern technology. In Nordlicht and Romischer Katholizismus, Schmitt likens the spirit of technology to “the Antichrist.” Although by 1929 he had long abandoned formal Catholicism, he still employs theological terms in his negative appraisal of technicity as “evil,” “demonic,” “mechanistic,” etc. In so doing, he wants to make his audience aware of the “terrifying” spirit that has moved in next door: “The remark about the Russians was intended to remind us of this.”
Why this emphasis on an intellectual elite in relation to technology? Because Schmitt attributes the dynamics of modernity — from one “central sphere” of neutrality to another — to the conscious activity of European intellectuals. Over the centuries these “clerics,” as Schmitt calls them, have guided Europe from theology to technology because “the absolute and neutral ground has been found in technology since apparently there is nothing more neutral.” But Schmitt cautions: ” . . . this is only a tentative characterization of the whole situation,” since there are at least two problems with technology as a neutral ground.
The first lies with the “great masses” of the West, for whom technology could never be neutral. Its very success and efficiency, and the almost supernatural way it transforms nature, infused it with theological meaning which ultimately became a religion of technicity. Thus the theology abandoned in the 16th century returns in a different form with the “central sphere” of the 20th century. Intensifying the problem, according to Schmitt, is that unlike the clerics “the great masses of the industrialized countries” were never fully secularized: “They skipped all intermediary stages typical of the thinking of intellectual vanguards and turned the belief in miracles and an afterlife — a religion without intermediary stages — into a religion of technical miracles, human achievements and the domination of nature. A magical religiosity became an equally magical technicity.” Schmitt implies that controversies and conflicts not unlike those of the 16th century are possible in the 20th century with the return of’ theology under the guise of technicity, be it religious or anti-religious.
The second problem with technology,as a neutral sphere lies not with the masses but with the intellectuals or, more precisely, with the lack of clerics engaged in an age of technology. According to Schmitt, there can be no intellectual elite in a society dominated by the technical sphere. The clerics thought they had good reason to push society in a technical direction because of its reputed neutrality. The fact that technical problems “have something retreshingly factual about them,” that the technical aspect of things appeals in the same way to everyone makes technology appear to be “a sphere of peace, understanding and reconciliation.” But the clerics encouraged their own extinction because the universality of technology requires no intellectual vanguard to guide its use. The early centuries of modernity opened new possibilities for the “active elite” no longer bound by traditional sanctions. They were able to interpret the central spheres for the masses and thus control them. But since technology lacks any content, nothing truly important can be derived from it — “neither a concept of cultural progress, nor a type of cleric or intellectual leader, nor a specific political system.” Given that technology is so devoid of content, everyone will see in it something different and employ it in different ways, which is why it will give rise to conflicts: “every strong politics will make use of it.”
Two ramifications of the distinction between technicity and technology are significant: one for the Soviet Union and one for European intellectuals. As Heidegger observes, the purely instrumental attitude that accompanies technology fosters anxiety regarding its mastery: “So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it.” Schmitt finds a similar anxiety in attitude among industrialized Western masses in general and the Russians in particular. Possessed by the spirit of technicity, they seek mastery of it for its own sake. Bewitched by an “activistic metaphysics,” they hope to “control these frightful weapons” of technology and to “wield this monstrous power.”
This anxiety manifests itself in the opposite way for the intellectual elite, resigned to the tact that technology cannot be mastered. Schmitt attributes the intellectual malaise of his generation to the doubt of would-be clerics concerning its use. Thus he starkly contrasts the Russians’ attitude towards technicity with the European intellectuals’ neutrality — intellectuals who have abdicated their rightful position of leadership. “A European century which bewailed the ‘maladie du siecle’ and awaited the domination of Caliban or ‘After us the Savage God’ was succeeded by a German generation which complained about a soulless age of technology in which the soul is helpless and powerless.” Schmitt’s message is that the age of neutralization which fostered this pessimism “has reached its end.” Apparently anointing himself a cleric of post-neutralization Europe, he wants to provide a “political” derstanding of technicity. However, it is important to recognize here that his attitude toward technology is neither positive nor negative but neutral. He never glorifies or aetheticizes the tools, machines or weapons associated with technology, as Herf and others claim. In fact, in most of his writings just the opposite is the case. The “politics” of technicity is a different matter.
Schmitt’s opening identification of the Soviet Union as the enemy is now clear. The distinction between technicity and technology clarifies why he considers the Russians dangerous. He speaks of their “prowess in rationalism and its opposite.” Significantly, he never mentions communism but, following Donoso Cortes, claims that the Russians have “realized the union of Socialism and Slavism.” This meant that the Soviet Union embodied not only economic rationality but “the myth of the nation.” Were the Russians solely motivated by Socialism, the Soviet Union would be nothing more than a formal, mechanical, lifeless technological state. But Schmitt emphasizes the expressly vital, spiritual, willlful and even satanic quality of the technicistic Soviet state. He remarks on its “prowess” in “rationalism and its opposite.”
Schmitt is appalled that the European intellectuals of his generation have not recognized the Soviet Union as a very dangerous anti-Western spirit. Their sell-absorption and resignation in the face of a supposedly soulless, lifeless and mechanical technology is hindering their ability to behave “politically” when confronted by a new enemy. This “amounts to nothing more than a romantic lament.” Like the romantics, whom Schmitt thoroughly reviled, these intellectuals were ascribing subjective aesthetic value to a particular object, even ira negative aesthetic one. This is ludicrous, since that object, as they themselves admit, has no inherent objective content. These intellectuals remain preoccupied with it, and this prevents them from recognizing the technicity accompanying technology.
In the dramatic closing paragraph of Schmitt’s 1929 lecture, he accuses his listeners of succumbing to that same mood which afflicted German intellectuals: “Whoever knows no other enemy than death and recognizes in his enemy nothing more than an empty mechanism is nearer to death than lite.” Such thinking was “nothing more than a renunciation of the struggle.” Thus he calls for a “conscious self-assessment” in order to come to terms with historical realities — something the Russians have already done. They have seen through the superficial neutrality of the day. They recognize “the core of modem European history” and have “drawn the ultimate conclusions” from it: the age of neutralizations is over, conflict has returned. Europe fusses over the status quo, missing the historical moment “and thereby renounc[ing] its claim to dominate.” As a result, according to Schmitt, it necessarily invites domination.
Appropriating Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis, Schmitt identities the Russians as the new “ascetics” willing to forego the “comfort” of the present for control of the future. They will dominate their own nature for the sake of dominating external nature and the nature in others. He challenges European intellectuals to foresake the “comfort” of their organic/mechanical, life/death dichotomies and their self-indulgent obsession with the status quo and to define the West in opposition to the satanic force in the East. If they choose to sit idly by and view Russia as a lifeless “nothingness,” they will succumb to the identical fate of all previous ruling orders who refused to see in burgeoning, self-abnegating movements their own future rulers. Like those who intially ridiculed and denounced the early Christians or the radical Protestants, only to be swept away in the wave of their eventual triumph, European intellectuals face the prospect of being held under the sway of the “inner-worldly activism” looming on the horizon?
That an essay so explicitly directed at a Central European audience was presented in Barcelona might at first seem strange. Not only strange; it was historically ironic. After all, Spain was the site of what may have been the last truly great friend-enemy encounter involving the West before the 20th century — the confrontation between Christendom and Islam in 1492. Schmitt, the cleric of the next great confrontation between East and West, was of course mistaken about the battle lines in the cataclysmic conflict that would eventually begin in 1939, although he turned out to have been correct after 1945. But there are at least some superficial similarities between 1492 and that conflict which would begin a decade after Schmitt’s 1929 lecture. Moslems were not the only enemy named by Christian Spain in 1492 and the Soviet Union was certainly not Germany’s exclusive or even initial enemy in WWII. Schmitt seemingly is unconcerned here with the tact that in confrontations of apocalyptic scale those who decide “politically” may identity not only an external but an internal enemy, which can be dealt with by means of expulsion or even extermination. Admonitions to recognize new friends and enemies on a continental or global scale, whether originating in Barcelona, Spain or Cambridge, Massachusetts, may be politically necessary, but in certain circumstances they also may be reckless and irresponsible.
[Telos, Summer 93, Issue 96]