Political Theology

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schmitt defines the essence of sovereignty as the decision over what is an exception and decide the measures taken to eliminate such an exception. The state of exception is both the monopolistic domain of the sovereign and reveals the sovereign itself. But sovereignty, too, then, is also he who defines what’s “the normal.” As Schmitt writes, “for a legal system to make sense, a normal situation must exist, and he is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists” (13). The preservation of the normal is precisely the rationale for which the exception is instituted. As such, sovereignty is an inherent theory of the state: “The state suspends the law in the exception on the basis of its right of self-preservation, as one would say” (12). Our coupling of law and order (“Law and Order” soundtrack: bom pom pom pom puuuum) are completely unbundled by Schmitt (12).

Decision is the key conceptual/practical hinge for his political theory. Since “the political” for Schmitt is exercised on the basis of a friend/enemy distinction (both between and within states), sovereign power has to be monopolized by a single actor that is simultaneously “outside” the legal system, but still part of it (7). The Forward cites Schmitt other book on political theology: “today one can no longer define politics in terms of the State,” as I would argue Weber did, “on the contrary what we can still call the State today must inversely be defined and understood from the political” (xv). Otherwise, the friend/enemy “political” is mired as a Hobbesian war of all against all. “But sovereignty (and thus the state itself) resides in deciding this controversy, tat is, in determining definitively what constitutes public order and security, in determining when they are disturbed, and so on” (9). The exception is almost an escape hatch to reset the conditions in which the political can proceed without putting the state itself under threat.

In distinction from the liberal view, Schmitt explicitly argues against the state’s role being the eliminator of conflict and the political, but rather the means through which order and security are not the cost of these antagonistic relations. He writes: “Today nothing is more modern than the onslaught against the political,” finding socialists, anarchists, and liberals all guilty on this point. Sarcastically parroting them, he continues, “There must no longer be political problems, only organizational-technical and economic-sociological ones” (65). Another reason Schmitt argues against the liberal view is that he says liberal normativism (namely constitutions) cannot foresee the contingent events that necessitate the suspension of the law in the interest of preserving the state itself. The most a constitution can provide is a delineation of who decides (7).

However, an important point to note is that Schmitt claims at the end of the book that the exception is not dictatorial because it still has some legitimate basis. He gives legitimacy a democratic spin (51). He credits Donoso Cortés with basically saying that people are so vile that they cannot be expected, much less collectively as in the liberal frame, to be afforded such democratic privileges. Bourgeois liberalism, Donoso Cortés said, was simply a bunch of people talking their ears off, never coming to the critical moment of decision. Schmitt cuts the book off at a point in which he would logically provide an alternative, but doesn’t.

And it is the legitimacy question that seems to be what his later book the Nomos of the Earth is trying to answer: What makes a sovereign legitimate? He answers the question by pointing to the bracketing of war by states and the related centrality of land-appropriation in creating a secure spatial order, a nomos. A stable (though not conflict-less) nomos is seen by Schmitt as both an internal (to Europe, to states) and an external order (between states and continents). Quoting from Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, the translator notes, “Every norm presupposes a normal situation, and no norm can be valid in an entirely abnormal situation. As long as a state is a political entity, this requirement for internal peace compels it in critical situations to decide also upon the domestic enemy (p. 46).”

Schmitt credits the emergence of statehood as what accomplished the singular achievements of both the securalization of theological concepts into political ones (Political Theology) as well as the bracketing of war (Nomos of the Earth) and the distinction between (just) enemies and criminals or rebellion. Without the constitution of just enemies, war would remain a military relation of annihilation.

This entry was posted in Carl Schmitt, Illegality, Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, Law, Power, Sovereignty, Spatiality, Territory, The State. Bookmark the permalink.