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Carl Schmitt and the Metaphysics of Decisionism

This paper was presented at the 2011 Telos Conference, “Rituals of Exchange and States of Exception: Continuity and Crisis in Politics and Economics.”

When we consider the metaphysical foundations of our world, we must make a basic choice between a universal conception of metaphysics and a relativist one. This choice commits us to either of two possibilities for world order. With a universalist conception, world order will evolve through a gradual establishment of one universal metaphysical structure that will establish its universality everywhere. With the relativist conception, world order can only consist of a set of agreements and rituals that can be established between a number of separate spaces, each of which is organized according to its own metaphysical structure. The choice for one or the other of these perspectives is consequently a fundamental one that will have far-reaching consequences for our conception of politics in a global context.

In arguing for the conceptual priority of the decision before the norm, Carl Schmitt adheres to a kind of metaphysics in which being emanates from exception. He arrives at this position by understanding the exception as a specific situation that puts the existing order in question, forcing it to reaffirm itself. “The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can at best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like” (Political Theology 6). This state of exception threatens not just the lives of the public but also the understanding of order that prevails within a particular sovereign space. “Public order and security manifest themselves very differently in reality, depending on whether a militaristic bureaucracy, a self-governing body controlled by the spirit of commercialism, or a radical party organization decides when there is order and when it is threatened or disturbed” (Political Theology 9–10). These differences between the various forms of order that Schmitt describes pertain to both the ultimate goals supported by the order and the methods and procedures that govern human relations within the order. Schmitt remains here agnostic about the preferred form of order that should prevail. Indeed he insists that this decision about the proper character of the order can never be a rational and objective one, but is in a fundamental sense arbitrary and contingent because there can be no overarching norm that could encompass this decision. “Because a general norm, as represented by an ordinary legal prescription, can never encompass a total exception, the decision that a real exception exists cannot therefore be entirely derived from this norm” (Political Theology 6). The decision on the state of exception is defining and foundational for Schmitt because the norm itself has no way to justify itself independently.

There is ultimately a metaphysical element to every norm that underlies its truth. This transcendent element is more than just a theological holdover from an earlier era, and the structure of transcendence does not resemble a kind of Aristotelian hierarchy that goes from the specific cases at the bottom up to the most general category at the top. Schmitt criticizes this kind of structure in the work of Hans Kelsen, in which “[t]o obtain in unadulterated purity a system of ascriptions to norms and a last uniform basic norm, all sociological elements have been left out of the juristic concept” (Political Theology 18). For Schmitt, Kelsen has been able to create a pure system of ascriptions from specific case to general norm by leaving out the sociological element in order to create a law that exists entirely within one homogeneous plane. In this way, Kelsen ignores the basic disjunction between law and source of law that drives Schmitt’s own analysis. Consequently, for Kelsen, “[t]he state is nothing else than the legal order itself, which is conceived as a unity, to be sure. . . . The state is thus neither the creator nor the source of the legal order” (Political Theology 18–19). The effacing of the distinction between law and source of law is an instance of the elimination of the distinction between world and metaphysical basis. Without a fundamental disjunction between the two, Kelsen is left with the hierarchical metaphysical structure of specific case to general norm: “According to Kelsen, all perceptions to the contrary are personifications and hypostatizations, duplications of the uniform and identical legal order in different subjects. The state, meaning the legal order, is a system of ascriptions to a last point of ascription and to a last basic norm. The hierarchical order that is legally valid in the state rests on the premise that authorizations and competences emanate from the uniform central point to the lowest point” (Political Theology 19).

As opposed to this structure of ascriptions from general to specific, Schmitt’s political theology is based on the idea that the foundation of any order lies beyond this order as a kind of revelation or miracle that cannot be accounted for from within the order itself. As opposed to a legal positivism that sees law as its own justification and seeks to eliminate the notion of sovereignty in favor of a merging of law with the state, Schmitt insists that the basis of law must lie in state sovereignty as something that must be distinguished from the law and in which the completely specific case is not the bottom rung of a hierarchy, but is in fact the originating revelation from which the entire order then emanates.

Because Schmitt thereby insists on a metaphysical basis for law in the exception, he rejects a fundamentalist position on this metaphysics and pursues a kind of negative theology in which there is, on the one hand, no way for us to determine the true goals of human existence or the true structure of its organization but we, on the other hand, still have to continue with our lives according to some framework that would mediate our relations with others. Schmitt ends up with his decisionism as the solution to the quandary of how to justify and therefore found a particular order in the absence of any objective way to determine its validity. The decision on the state of exception is a decision about the metaphysical structure of human life that can only be definitively made in those situations in which our highest principles are at stake.

Thus, for Schmitt, it is in the nature of the exception that it is not the material survival of people (that is, their “bare life”) that is put into question, but rather the form of order according to which legal and social relations are organized. The decision about whether a state of exception exists is a metaphysical one insofar as the decision must establish the fundamental aims and structures that are to govern human existence in order to then decide when these aims and structures are being threatened. If a sufficient unity among the people can be created so that the decision can be made by the sovereign in an unequivocal way, then the decision can take hold and establish the metaphysical basis for existence.

Though the state of exception is generally linked to acts of war, this link to a way of life means that it is not always violent acts that would trigger a state of exception. Any development that threatens a particular way of life could be cause for declaring a state of exception. The very existence of Jews in German society constituted a state of exception for Hitler because of his conviction that they constituted a basic threat to German national unity. The spread of an individualist attitude establishes a state of exception for theocracies such as Iran in which the subordination of individual goals to collective goals is central to their order. For the United States, the threat of communism constituted a state of exception due to the curtailment of individual rights that it implied. Similarly, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is as much a threat due to its ideological threat to the idea of freedom of religion as the physical threat of terrorism.

In addition, if the establishment of the decision involves the creation of a unity of perspective, this unity can come about in a number of ways. On the one hand, it can come about through war or civil war, for example with the Nazis, in which one view about the metaphysical structure that underlies the world establishes itself by literally killing or driving away those people who would hold an opposing view. On the other hand, the unity could also be arrived at through the gradual conversion of everyone to one particular view, for example in the case of the Christianization of the Roman Empire. In both cases, though, the state of exception consists of the situation in which there is more than one perspective on the metaphysical structure of an underlying reality in a specific territorial space. The state of exception is resolved once a unity of perspective is achieved through the coalescence of sovereignty in a decision.

If we follow Schmitt’s understanding of the exception as the basis of metaphysics, we arrive at a world in which a political decision founds an order of being. This order forms the basis of the agreements and procedures that then govern the legal and social world within a specific time and place. At the same time, however, the derivation of order from the contingency of the decision means that every order is idiosyncratic and cannot be understood as coextensive with a neighboring order. To the extent that more than one sovereign state exists, there cannot be a single unified legal order across the two states to the extent that each state has its own structure for order, each emanating from a separate fundamental decision.

At the same time, this decision is not based on force. Schmitt defines state sovereignty “not as the monopoly to coerce or to rule, but as the monopoly to decide” (Political Theology 13). The decision is not a violent but a representational act because the sovereign only decides and does not have the means to carry it out. The decision would need to have the authority that would sway others to carry it out, and such authority would only be possible in a situation where all agree with the decision.

Because the sovereign decision cannot take effect unless it is accepted by enough of the populace so that these people can implement the decision as the basis for order, the decision must function as part of an aesthetic reception process. The decision is consequently not just a political moment but a mythic one as well. Rather than depending on pure violence, the ability of a sovereign to decide the state of exception derives from the decision’s ability to sum up the mythic consciousness of the moment and integrate it into a political structure. If an aesthetic structure can only attain mythic status to the extent that its metaphysical conception of the world can become defining for normal experience, then the sovereign decision is the moment in which an otherwise purely aesthetic structure gains mythic form. Prior to the decision, the aesthetic structure is merely one of many different ways of conceiving the transcendent structure for experience. It is only the decision that establishes one aesthetic alternative as a defining myth for political order.

Since the decision depends upon both a reception process and the sovereign action, its success at once depends upon and establishes the legitimacy of a particular mythic structure. As a consequence, the decision itself has a representational structure that establishes a metaphysical order in a moment that combines both an ideal and a material aspect. The decision defines its own past and future at the moment in which it takes effect. Prior to the decision, there are competing metaphysical options, none of which has attained theological or mythic authority. The decision is the moment in which such mythic authority is established, elevating a merely aesthetic construct to the status of myth. In Politische Theologie II (72–73), Schmitt describes the Council of Nicaea as a political theological decision in which the Nicene Creed became established doctrine and the Arian position was then defined as heresy. Though this definitive moment was prepared by the history of theological debates leading up to it, the decision was necessary to resolve the conflict and establish a political theological order that would both define the past and establish institutional structures for the future. Such decision points do not arise from a previous order but are the foundation of order. As such they combine an aesthetic judgment about first principles with a political institutionalization of these principles. Both the aesthetic judgment and the political determination define each other simultaneously in the moment of decision, as the first provides the metaphysical idea while the second provides the material manifestation that turns the idea into a structure for consciousness.

This representational process provides the limit to the relativism and arbitrariness of the sovereign decision, grounding metaphysics in a political event that merges order and orientation, land appropriation and aesthetic judgment. As a result, Schmitt’s metaphysics is based on a kind of revelation in the political event in which a new metaphysical basis of truth is a constant threat and possibility that accompanies our existence at every moment.

Works Cited

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005.

Schmitt, Carl. Politische Theologie II: Die Legende von der Erledigung jeder Politischen Theologie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1970.

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