TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Carl Schmitt and the Political Sphere

Michael Marder’s essay “From the Concept of the Political to the Event of Politics” appears in Telos 147 (Summer 2009), a special issue on “Carl Schmitt and the Event” for which he is the guest editor. Jesse Gelburd-Meyers follows up with some questions.

Jesse Gelburd-Meyers: In a world in which liberal doctrine informs the partitioning off of every segment of society so as to minimize the reach of the political sphere and give an ever privileged role to the economic realm, it is essential that we keep a proper perspective as to just how elusive the political truly is. If there is no autonomous political “sphere,” then what does a constitution constitute? What legitimates the sovereign’s decision to declare an entity an enemy if his sovereignty itself is not made by previously created rules that demarcate who can legally make such decisions? Isn’t it inevitable that a nation that is not ruled by the mere force of man, and which peacefully transfers the reins of power from regime to regime, will have some rules that, at the very least, establish the preconditions for the political event by declaring the type of sovereign who is permitted to make such decisions?

Michael Marder: You are right to point out that the act of constituting a particular political regime is one of the political acts par excellence. The very content of collective existence, including particular laws intended to regulate it, takes shape in the form that comes about as a result of this initial decision. Yet, it would be wrong to assume that what such an act constitutes is the political sphere itself. A regime is nothing but the tangible expression of a constitutional decision (opting in favor of a liberal democracy or a monarchical autocracy, for example). Schmitt casts this decision in onto-existential terms ultimately traceable back to the expression of the political will in a given situation, where the decision is made. We might, perhaps, accuse him of the kind of residual metaphysical disposition that locates sovereignty in an undivided political will. Nevertheless, the important point, for me, is that political decisions on the exception are self-legitimated (or, in other words, are groundless) and that, instead of relying on prior procedural guidelines, they draw sustenance from their own being. Any set of guidelines will make sense only within the already established constitutional web of meaning and, thus, will not solve the puzzle of pouvoir constituant. The problem of beginnings is a political problem (Hannah Arendt wholeheartedly agrees with that) and it cannot be safely tucked into a set of formal guidelines. To do so is to verge on infinite regress in political thought.

Two things tend to be forgotten when it comes to sovereign decisions in Schmitt. First, the sovereign does not make just any decision, but decides on the exception. Schmitt was a jurist and never entertained an idea of nations “ruled by the mere force of man.” By no means does he argue against rule-bound politics, where the routine is strictly regulated by a pre-established set of rules, norms, or laws. We run into trouble only when we insist that such regulation, which tends to become heavily bureaucratized, should encompass all situations, including the exceptional ones. This is where the sovereign steps in: making a decision on the exception. Jacques Rancière, though certainly not an avowed Schmittian, will locate this sovereign intervention in those agents who are excluded from politics as usual and are not even counted in the political process. Only their exceptional demand to be counted will merit the designation of politics, according to Rancière, whose thought intersects, at this critical juncture, with Schmitt’s idea of sovereignty as the decision on the exception. Giorgio Agamben, another contemporary theorist clearly influenced by Schmitt, will object, however, that nowadays the state of exception has become permanent, assumed the guise of a norm. As a result, the scope of sovereign decision-making is expanded exponentially, swallowing up the very possibility of “rule-bound politics.” Historically, this is perhaps a valid point, but it does not invalidate the theoretical distinction highlighted by Schmitt.

The second element of Schmitt’s thought that is usually omitted is that the sovereign decision on the exception arises from nothingness when it is viewed from the normative standpoint. The sovereign will is not a whim; it is groundless from the standpoint of the norm alone. On the contrary, it has a rich grounding at the level of collective existence itself, which, of course, cannot be encompassed, let alone constrained, by any norm. I would warn that, as a parallel to the confusion of existential suppleness and normative nullity, we ought to avoid conflating the decision on the form political arrangements will take and the decisions on what might be designated as the “political content” (e.g., declarations as to which entity might be considered as an enemy). Both are sovereign acts, to be sure, but while the first constitutes the political entity (which, again, is not synonymous with the political “sphere”), the second reconstitutes or reaffirms the first in the concreteness of political existence.

Gelburd-Meyers: Schmitt states that the demarcation between friends and enemies must be made by people who are present at the moment of the event. However, since a populace is always marred by myriad beliefs as to how such demarcations should be made, it is clear that the political event can only pragmatically be made at the level of the sovereign. With such an important decision in the hands of so few people, and without predetermined standards to guide them in their decision making, how can we hope to avoid war that occurs due to the ruler’s irrational emotional response or suicidal personal manifesto?

Marder: Let us try not to project our own assumptions and presuppositions onto the meaning of sovereignty. We know, based on the first sentence in Political Theology, that the sovereign is a “who,” or “somebody,” wer. This seemingly negligible insight already means a lot, especially if we consider that sovereignty cannot be located in something, a “what,” be it the constitution, the state, the law, or any other “objective” entity. Yet, this does not exhaust, by any means, the question of political subjectivity, the concrete existential content of the sovereign “who.” The existential nature of sovereignty does not—necessarily—imply that it is also quantitatively limited to one person or very few people. The challenge is to rethink something like “popular sovereignty” based on Schmitt’s political theory, so that it would not be an empty term, but would come to possess a certain “thickness” or existential relevance. And there is still a great deal of work to be accomplished in this field.

As for the desire to avoid war, it is understandable, even though it, once again, smuggles a number of unsubstantiated assumptions into the theory. As Joe Bendersky’s brilliant review of the Schmitt diaries in Telos 147 demonstrated, Schmitt was, on the personal level, deeply and negatively affected by war; he was anything but a warmonger. But, theoretically, he recognized that often one pays a much higher price for avoiding war than for directly engaging with the challenge of the enemy. On Strauss’s reading, this exorbitant price includes not only the loss of the political unit as such, but also of what makes us human in the first place. It is solely based on a shaky liberal foundation that one will associate the decision to go to war with sheer irrationality. A sovereign decision is neither rational nor irrational; the only yardstick for it is the sense of existential necessity, to which it responds.

Gelburd-Meyers: You note that the political exists without its own sphere because it is always an expropriation of other, more “concrete” spheres of society. Yet it would appear that with the constant mutations that all spheres undergo, such as when the sphere of the family turns into an economic or activist sphere, and with those who constitute spheres always only being a part of that sphere for a part of their time, that the notion of “sphere” itself is abstract. If such is the case, and if all spheres are merely abstract concepts that do not exist with a concrete set of people and that constantly oscillate into and out of existence, then would not the status of the political be no different than any other, previously considered concrete, sphere?

Marder: I do not think that the spheres of human activity are “merely abstract concepts,” at least based on the Schmittian criteria of what constitutes them. A sphere becomes concrete and determinate thanks to a particular oppositional pair: good and evil in the case of the ethical, beautiful and ugly in the case of aesthetics, and so forth. Of course, it is possible to argue that, having bestowed on oppositionality the dignity of a determinative criterion, Schmitt thereby privileges the political—itself understood as the sheer intensity of opposition—and turns it into the potential common ground, if not the condition of possibility, for all other spheres. Be this as it may, the uniqueness of the political “non-sphere” is that it is a quantitative distillation of antagonism, which is devoid of the qualitative and “substantial” core characteristic of all other domains of human activity.

The second distinction pertains to the total claim of the political on its subjects. It is true that we participate in various spheres “only a part of our time,” but when the boiling point of politicization is reached, being a part-time political activist is not a viable option for Schmitt. Rather, our entire existence gets entangled with the friend-enemy opposition constitutive of the political, our whole being is put in question in a way that is inconceivable from the standpoint of any other sphere of human activity. This is not to say that we actually behave as political agents everywhere, all the time, but that, in the instances of politicization, we are unable to entertain any concerns other than the ones that have to do with political oppositionality. There are good reasons for drawing a parallel between Schmitt’s notion of the political and Heidegger’s approach to death here, because both lay a total claim on our existence by putting us in question and because they force the mundane concerns to recede to the background of our lives.

Gelburd-Meyers: Schmitt has recognized the distinction between the political and the economic, locating the latter in the negation of the former. He clearly bemoans liberalism’s attempt to eradicate the political and replace it with a world ruled by economics. But why is the political—with its inexorable connection to war and enmity—worth preserving? Why should we not, in our formulation of a new world order, at least try to curtail the inevitably disastrous effects of the political, even if doing so does give power to such an alienating force as economics?

Marder: The Schmittian defense of politics against the liberal and economist onslaught is too multifaceted and nuanced to be summarized here. I will only venture three programmatic, slogan-like ideas that should clarify not only why we should not but also why we cannot dispense with the political or “curtail its effects”:

(1) Behind the curtain of the economic “administration of things,” with its pretense of neutrality, there are concrete political actors who have made extra-economic decisions. The effects of the political are merely occluded but not restricted when power seems to have dissipated in the economic realm. The peacefulness of economic cooperation is an outdated myth that goes back at least to Adam Smith and refuses to recognize the logic of the “war economy,” the drudgery of exploitation, and class warfare. In the climate of the current economic crisis, when the greatest and most unjust redistribution of wealth in human history is taking place, it is all too clear why decisions concerning the economy are deeply political.

(2) De-politicization is not the absolute negation of the political but a disingenuous attempt to pursue politics by other means.

(3) The political is human destiny. And destiny is not a matter of choice.

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