Carl Schmitt’s “Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty”
University of Chicago Press, 1985. Translated by George Schwab. 70 pages. $13.
The great fatal error of the philosophy of this era of the revolt of third estate has been the mechanical and absurd separation of philosophy, in the sense of all knowledge not capable of being positively proven, into various constituent disciplines and categories, as if such a thing were possible. Most catastrophically, theology, the discipline of practical metaphysics and man’s relation with the transcendent, and politics, the definition of which I will return to, have been separated whereas in fact they could not be closer intimates. Carl Schmitt’s book Political Theology, although very slim, manages to illustrate in a way satisfactory to even the grossest rationalist this intimacy and connexion which underlies all theology and all politics.
As the title suggests, the book is divided into four sections which are only moderately related to each other. The first section, “Definition of Sovereignty,” attempts to lay out the concept of sovereignty, whose exercise is what the state chiefly concerns itself with in Schmitt’s conception. Taking a definition from Jean Bodin, sovereignty, Schmitt writes, is the “indivisible” (8) ability to “decide the exception” (5). Laws cannot in fact be enforced the same way at all times, despite the aspirations of some, and therefore must experience exceptionality. The fact that sovereignty is constituted in the decision of the exception is crucial. Obviously there can often be exceptions that are previously decided upon. If a gendarme is sent out into the streets with orders to suppress public meetings, in contravention with “normal” law, then whoever is ultimately responsible for sending out the gendarme is the sovereign, regardless of his personal position: “from a practical or theoretical perspective, it really does not matter whether an abstract scheme advanced to define sovereignty… is acceptable… what is argued about is the concrete application, and that means who decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest…” (6). Schmitt takes it for granted that “situations of conflict” will always blossom and, in later chapters, takes to task all those who claim otherwise, although admitting that it is not a matter of positive knowledge whether or not it is so, writing, “whether the extreme exception can be banished from the world is not a juristic question” (7).
All this is vital to the functionality of legal orders qua orders. “For a legal order to make sense,” writes Schmitt, “a normal situation must exist, and he is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists” (13)— that is to say, it not merely the case that the sovereign decides that a state of exception exists, but that normality exists as well. There could be no such thing as a legal order if the concept of an exception was not implied in it. In order for a legal order to exist, a sovereign must guarantee it.
In attempt to refute those who believe that politics can be made safe, sanitized and mechanistic, Schmitt presents a picture of law that claims that “all law is ‘situational law’” (13). That is to say, all laws are contingent on the continuing sufferance of them by he who is sovereign, that is, who can suspend the laws. The reader may object that in the modern state, nothing is less theoretically clear than who has the power to suspend laws, and yet nothing is more clear when such a situation is in evidence. Schmitt goes so far as to say that this power of sovereignty is the very character of the state, that is, “the monopoly to decide” (ibid.) when an exception is occurring. Schmitt points out that even a condition of a budget not having been passed, yet state funds continuing to be provided, constitutes a condition of exception— and he quotes liberal jurists who believe that there is no state of exception to prove it. That is what is most clever in Schmitt, this use of opposing arguments to expose the unwitting accomplishment of his own aims. Gerhard Anschütz, best known for his extensive work in Weimar-Republic-era jurisprudence, admits that in such a circumstance of a lack of a budget law, “there is not only a gap in the law… but moreover in the law as a whole, which can in no way be filled juristic conceptual operations. Here is where public law stops” (15).
The second chapter of the book is entitled “The Problem of Sovereignty.” Here Schmitt briefly details some of the difficulties entailed in attempting to define a political system without the concept of sovereignty, which is of course a popular activity among revolutionary jurists of all stripes. Generally, these cases come in two types: one who claims that sovereignty does not exist or resides in an abstract concept— which largely amounts to the same thing— and one who believes that sovereignty ought to be suppressed to make room for the mechanistic workings of law as such. Schmitt lumps these both together with the word “scientific” (33). Their mistake is similar in that they do not recognize the formula auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem— that is, they believe that laws arise from some kind of absolute truth or “natural law” merely put into practice by the mechanisms of the state, and not created thereby. Were that true, we would not expect to see much variety among the laws of men, and yet we know that they vary widely, and although they vary widely, there is nonetheless a certain convergence. I would considered the question unanswered, but at any rate I do not think that is the point that Schmitt is making, but rather that the factuality of law is not influenced by its supposed alignment with any underlying natural law. Insofar as an authority can manifest a law, that is just as far as the law goes. On this point Schmitt seems relatively uncontroversial, but the way in which he puts it makes the reader realize that to accept the idea of law as separate or independent from authority is incorrect. Law exists because of and at the sufferance of an authority, who can decide, at any time, to suspend the law and decide where an exception exists.
In the third chapter, “Political Theology,” Schmitt moves on the main part of his argument. His criticism of the opposing views of law becomes more acute, now framing the dispute in terms of theology. “All significant concepts,” he writes, “of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts… they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent lawgiver” (36). Europe since the Reformation has been a center of a number of theological disputes. Previously they were settled by the sword, then by state power, and by Schmitt’s time, with the defeat of the Central Powers, they are not settled at all. By not settling the questions, we of course argue that the theological-political considerations they address are irrelevant. Such questions can only be irrelevant in a completely relativistic world: “democracy is the expression of a political relativism and a scientific orientation that are liberated from miracles and dogmas and based on human understandings and critical doubt” (42).
Most critically, Schmitt points out that each theological concept has a direct translation within the realm of political theory. So “miracles” becomes states of exception. Because states of exception are unavoidable, no matter how many contingencies might be planned for, therefore a political-theological system which insists on being “liberated from miracles” is necessarily going to fall flat on its face the instant that an exception arises. But such a system is demanded by a theology that places the merely mechanistic workings of “nature” as its highest principle; a belief in miracles is needed to make the psychical space necessary to accommodate the idea of the exception, its mere factuality notwithstanding. A code of law cannot be like a computer program. The world has an infinite number of permutations and some of them are necessarily going to be not just unforeseen but unlike anything that was foreseen. Before the revolt of the third estate, we see that God is analogous with the monarch: “‘One sole architect’ must construct a house and a town; the best constitutions are those that are the work of a sole wise legislator… and finally, a sole God governs the world” (47). This conception puts deity or the monarch in the rôle of “world architect,” who “is simultaneously the creator and the legislator, which means the legitimizing authority” (48). During the nineteenth century, Schmitt notes that “conceptions of transcendence will no longer be credible to most educated people, who will settle for either a more or less clear immanence-pantheism or a positivist indifference towards any metaphysics” (50). Immanence-pantheism has the expression of unduly, in Schmitt’s estimation, assigning an objective valuation to the functionality of the state, as in Hegelianism; I have already treated where Schmitt believes positivism leads, viz., to democracy. Schmitt interestingly notes that this total immanence is not, from the point of view of theology qua politics, fundamentally different from atheism and indeed often leads there. If God is everywhere, then God is nowhere. “The German left-Hegelians were most conscious of this tendency. They were no less vehement than Proudhon in proclaiming that mankind had to substituted for God” (50-51).
Finally, Schmitt moves on to an outline of a “decisionist” approach to the problems he has created in the previous chapters in the final one, “On the Counterrevolutionary Philosophy of the State.” “Decisionism” is the school with which Schmitt identifies himself. In Schmitt’s conception, the only political good is that decisions are made, and that there is no appeal to them— the content of the decision itself is of little consequence. Without some kind of authority to make such decisions, not just about states of exception but about every area of law, legal order tends to break down. He draws his main points from Juan Donoso Cortés, descendent of the famous conquistador of the same name and nineteenth-century Spanish Catholic reactionary philosopher. Spanish philosophy, of course, is one of the great blind spots in the educations of virtually all Anglophones and any insight into it is extraordinarily valuable for the counterrevolutionary, because Spain was so lightly touched by the forces of dissolution that it was able its monarchy, albeit in a feeble state, in 1975 AD, which is such an extraordinary event of recent history that it deserves greater examination, but it is outside the scope of this article. Donoso Cortés argued that “legitimacy,” that nebulous but all-important feature of monarchies, had effectively passed from the world in 1848. Because it was still, as Schmitt quotes Donoso Cortés in saying, “not in our interest that a question be decided in one way or another but that it be decided without delay and without appeal” (56), this now necessitated a state of dictatorship. The condition of the dictatorship as benevolent, enlightened, or otherwise appears to be completely irrelevant to Schmitt, in light whereof Schmitt’s wholehearted endorsement of the Third Reich becomes clear.
In Schmitt’s view, Donoso Cortés’s political theology is based on one not of absolute depravity, which would be Calvinist, but on mere “contempt for man [which] knew no limits” (58). “No Russian anarchist,” Schmitt writes, “in asserting that ‘man is good’ expressed a greater degree of elementary conviction than the Spanish Catholic who said: Since God has not said to it to him, whence does he know that he is good?” (ibid.). Of the orders of men, Donoso Cortés, and, one assumes, Schmitt himself, hold in highest contempt “una clasa discutidora,” the bürger and his ceaseless, pointless chattering (59). That point, at least, will be familiar to every reader of any counterrevolutionary political philosopher who ever lived, but Schmitt manages to throw some interesting light on it. Taking the liberal July Monarchy as a case study, Schmitt analyzes how liberalism, in its simultaneous insistence on popular sovereignty and limited government, creates a contradiction that inevitably collapses into either anarchy or dictatorship: “liberal constitutionalism attempted to paralyze the king through parliament while keeping him on the throne, an inconsistency committed by deism when it excluded God from the world but held onto his existence” (59). What’s worse, “it abolished the aristocracy of blood and family but permitted the impudent rule of the moneyed aristocracy” (60). This bears more than a passing resemblance to Evola’s complaint that the bourgeois constitutional order preserved the forms of the old forms of government while losing every internality that made those forms so durable, by losing the original senses of ideas like “aristocracy,” which in Evola’s view has to do with divine descent, not with anything as picayune and contingent as “tradition” in the ordinary sense.
Schmitt does object to Donoso Cortés in at least one way, and that is the latter’s tendency to construe “atheist-anarchist socialism” as having “a diabolical structure” (63), which “provide[s] only for an exchange of rôles on the part of God and the devil” (64). Proudhon and the rest, Schmitt claims, are in fact on a much more radical grounding, with any concept of metaphysics replaced by positivism, which is a kind of negative metaphysics. Yet of course metaphysical questions like that of man’s nature— sc., whether man is inherently good or inherently evil— still permeate any political discourse. Political theory is not separable in any way from the theological. The conception of man’s nature and the origin of law is the fundament of all politics, and to make any political statement is to implicitly take a stand in these affairs.