Why Carl Schmitt is a Reassuring Philosopher in Dark Times6 min read

The following two tabs change content below.
Stephen Mallet

Stephen Mallet

Intelligent scepticism is never an overrated characteristic within modernity. I'm a Politics and International Relations student at Royal Holloway and a freelance writer. I take an interest in a variety of topics, mostly concerning political philosophy and contemporary political affairs. An advocate of critical thinking who prizes analysing the normal and justifying the non-existent.

Political movements can often appear set on disempowering and attacking minority identities. It can be easy to believe that the intent of others is to harm; to belittle and defame, especially those who exhume a form of difference to themselves. Rarely is the defamation of others the intent of a political movement, it is often a subsequent by-product. For many, it seems presently incomprehensible why the ‘bigots and racists’ dominate political events, and importantly their outcomes. Contemporarily, many young liberal voters are astounded at the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump in the US; often was the statement ushered ‘2017 will be better’, or ‘it can’t get any worse than this’. It is understandable why certain contemporary political events can seem shocking and deeply worrying; the media unfortunately at times, perpetuate the severity of the situation, by continuously highlighting the uncertainty that recent events have caused and blame the supporters of the movement as being the enemies of the sane and rational. In periods of political turmoil and dark times there is one surprising cure for modernity; Carl Schmitt.

Carl Schmitt was a German political philosopher who has been significantly influential to both left and right-wing political thinking, his magnum opus ‘The Concept of the Political’ was published in 1932 and has continued to be one of the most significant books describing power relations and the role that identity plays in politics. Schmitt’s ideas have continued to be controversial, largely due to his close personal ties with Nazism; however, despite his morally contentious past, Schmitt’s work has continued to offer reassuring insights into the otherwise politically incomprehensible.

For Schmitt, what was political ultimately relied on a clear distinction, more often known as the friend/enemy distinction. This distinction for Schmitt was often arbitrary as it rarely had clearly defined parameters, but what mattered, is that people believed in it. Otherness, difference, the stranger in the corner, those who have a different identity will present a form of competition, rather than an alliance. So, who is an enemy? Is anyone with a different political identity incapable of being your friend? Not so says Schmitt, you can, of course, be friends with those who are different to you; however, if a competition for power arose between contrasting political identities you would inevitably vote for your identity, a conservative would not vote for a socialist. According to Schmitt, when a conflict of interest between political opponents arises, the friend/enemy distinction is evident, as the enemy, the other, will be sacrificed for the political empowerment of the most favourable group.

During Schmitt’s life, he saw the development and subsequent rise of the German Nazi party to a position of political dominance. For Schmitt, the preceding Liberal governments of Germany had suffered from a similar problem which he found to plague liberalism; a lack of community. If a government can barely offer for Schmitt, a basic sense of commonality and togetherness how can it really stand up against a unified and aggravated opposition? In a period of economic uncertainty or social instability, an emotive and unified opposition will quickly become a viable alternative. Schmitt joined the Nazi party not out of a hatred for otherness, but because of a belief that preceding Liberal governments had created an absence of a political identity, and therefore, inevitably another political identity would succeed power.

The German Nazi party developed a historic reputation for abhorrent acts of violence and political abuse; however, Schmitt identified that the actions of fascist movements show recurring trends. As politics for Schmitt was a matter concerning the distribution and interrelation of power among different identities, it didn’t matter how well a government could proclaim to have run the country, these were administration matters, not politics. A government can profess to be as ‘efficient’ as it wants, but when a unified enemy comes to take political power, efficiency ratings make no difference. A fascist movement firstly relies heavily on the friend/enemy distinction, a need to be divisive between ‘us and them’, to form a cohesive political identity with the power to choose who can belong to that identity. Secondly, fascist movements often have unjustified but fervently ostracised enemies; in the case of the Nazi party, that was those of Jewish descent. The Nazi movement didn’t have to have a real reason to dislike Jews but to consolidate a political identity grounded in the perceived diminishment of the German state, it was a necessity. Fascists movements rely on condemning a minority as the cause of the state’s problems and it doesn’t really matter whether there is any truth to that or not. Thirdly, such political movements rely on a mentality of striking first, that the identity that they are trying to defend will die if something isn’t done soon; for Schmitt, therefore, fascist movements could be as dangerous for some as they were empowering for others.

In November 2016 Donal Trump was sworn into the US Presidential Office, which came as a shock to many people in the US and overseas. Donald Trump had seen like such an unlikely candidate to be President, from the start he had been mocked by mainstream media outlets as even a possible consideration for the position. The election of Trump led many American liberal media outlets to run stories questioning how people could rationally vote for a man like Trump? Or be so ignorant as to ignore all his abhorrent actions whilst campaigning? Schmitt could have reassuringly told them that it doesn’t matter, as followers of Trump are invested in the protection of a political identity, mainly American individualism, social faux pas were the least of their concern. It can be seen throughout Trump’s election campaign how Schmittian concepts of power and identity can be equally applied. In this instance, it was not Jews who became the enemy but migrants and more specifically followers of the Muslim faith. Trump’s rhetoric relied heavily on expressing that this was the last chance for American individualism to thrive and survive; a strike first mentality. Political events like the election of Donald Trump are not sporadic or incomprehensible, they are in fact painfully understandable; Schmitt can reassure us of that, and therefore help us in developing effective responses to turbulent periods of political history.

The election of Donald Trump is but a small event in a long line of movements centred around political identity and certainly won’t be the last. It is an important role of the politically engaged to understand these events rather than indiscriminately condemning those who supported it. Fervent condemnation will likely only lead to further social polarisation. In a concerning manner, Schmitt can be a reassuring philosopher because he can educate us to some dark truths of political engagement and power. What Schmitt claims isn’t necessarily always right, but it does engage us with a different dimension of politics. The election of Donald Trump comes as less of an immediate surprise and shock when we look back at the work of one complicated German philosopher. Schmitt doesn’t necessarily offer an answer of how to respond to such events, but he can offer a form of stoic emotional compensation; in which we look past the immediate questions of confusion and rage, but instead, towards the questions of social reconciliation and political mediation.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



Stephen Mallet

Stephen Mallet

Intelligent scepticism is never an overrated characteristic within modernity. I'm a Politics and International Relations student at Royal Holloway and a freelance writer. I take an interest in a variety of topics, mostly concerning political philosophy and contemporary political affairs. An advocate of critical thinking who prizes analysing the normal and justifying the non-existent.

%d bloggers like this: