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Carl Schmitt and the De-Constitution of Europe, Part 5

Today concludes the series of five blog entries aimed at understanding the current political crisis in the European Union through a Schmittian lens. (For the previous posts, see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.) In this post, Michael Marder asks what it would take for the EU to overcome the crisis. The answer, he argues, is nothing less than the EU constituting itself anew, by way of contesting the meaning of the European political subjectivity.

Toward a New Self-Constitution of Europe?

What remains, within the framework the European Union, is the constitution in a relative sense, dissolved “into a multitude of individual, formally equivalent constitutional laws.”[1] We face an expression without anything to express, devoid if not of meaning then of a connection to the sources of meaningfulness. The relegation of constitutional unity to the background and its substitution with constitutional details suits well that institutional arrangement where unity does not actually exist, that is, one where it is not bound to the texture of political existence. The multitude of EU laws is groundless in a different sense from the groundlessness of the absolute concept of the constitution, which is rooted in actual existence and, therefore, self-grounded: “Every existing political unity has its value and its ‘right to existence’ not in the rightness or usefulness of norms, but rather in its existence.”[2] Assuming that this necessary precondition for constitutionality has not been set in place, the main challenge Europe is facing, one that is more fundamental than solving the financial and political crises it is embroiled in, is to attain its political existence, to constitute itself.

We ought to remember that, for Schmitt, self-constitution as a coming-into-existence is the process of sovereign subject-formation. Not only the substance but also the essence of the constitution are to be de-objectified—while decisions on the form of collective life constitute the substance of the constitution, political existence itself accounts for its essence.[3] An entire philosophical (indeed onto-theological) genealogy dwells between these lines: from the medieval idea of God as an immediate unity of essence and existence, through Hegel’s notion of Spirit, which is both substance and subject, to contemporary existentialism that, mutatis mutandis, transposes these qualities onto the finitude, or the facticity, of human life. In Martin Heidegger’s view, this genealogy (and, with it, the history of metaphysics) reaches a closure in the technological age of anti-metaphysical metaphysics. Schmitt’s political theses concerning the dangers of depoliticization and neutralization and his critique of liberal democracy, a regime befitting the technological age, echo Heidegger’s conclusions. And yet, the crisis of sovereignty in Europe, where that idea was born, indicates that what awaits us is not a soft descent into political nothingness but a harsh contestation—perhaps the harshest ever—of the meaning of the political.

The question at stake in the coming years will be not “What is the best form for the EU constitution?” but rather “Who is its self-constituting subject?” As Balibar writes, “It proves very difficult and embarrassing to ‘define’ the European people as the symbolic, legal, and material basis for the European constituency.”[4] The difficulty and the embarrassment Balibar invokes have to do with an external attempt at defining the collective subject without affording it a chance for a self-definition, a self-constitution that is the groundless ground of its symbolic, legal, and material bases. For various reasons, the recovery of this groundless ground does not, in Schmitt’s political philosophy, take the shape of a metaphysical search for origins. The work of self-constitution begins in the middle, with the already given political existence, in the course of all-absorbing struggles, wherein the political subject is forged. Its daily formation is nothing other than the creation of a constitutional habitus. And it could well be that what we are now experiencing in Europe is, precisely, the emergence of such a habitus.


1. Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory, trans. Jeffrey Seitzer (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008), p. 67.

2. Ibid., p. 76.

3. Ibid., p. 78.

4. Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004), p. 122.

1 comment to Carl Schmitt and the De-Constitution of Europe, Part 5

  • Paul Rosenbaum

    I don’t know more about Carl Schmitt than what I learned from Wikepedia. So, I understand that I’m not qualified to comment on the relevance of his writings in regard to the crisis in the EU. My response is, therefore ill-informed and personal, but I am disturbed that an unrepentant Nazi, an anti-semite, an avid supporter of Hitler is presented as the intellectual guide to a solution of the European problem. My sense is that the crisis of the 1930’s was seen by Schmitt as a justification for the shelving of democratic government and its replacement by Nazi dictatorship. I see some of the same right-wing sentiments behind the violent protests, particularly in Greece. It is, therefore, worrisome that you present those actions as laying the groundwork for the establishment of a real European political union, especially when here in the US right wing ideologues have used his ideas to justify torture and the unitary executive theory.