TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Carl Schmitt in the Twenty-First Century

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Michael Millerman looks at Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen’s “Uses and Abuses of Carl Schmitt” from Telos 122 (Winter 2002).

Like Spinoza, many liberal thinkers have defined the liberty they promote in terms of the necessity of submitting to the law that guarantees it. This is a unique kind of rule of law, a rule of the “‘politically correct,’ universalist, managerial-liberal” (9) law of contemporary liberals. Both internationally and domestically, this law requires the muscular imposition of questionable political, moral, and economic principles, by means of an insidious and often nauseating bureaucratic, technocratic, mediacratic apparatus, onto largely unwilling publics. Crucially, the freedom championed by such liberals and allegedly secured by their law does not include the freedom to refuse their domination root and branch.

Modern liberalism’s illiberalism, freedom as constraint and necessity, is its characteristic feature. As Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen write, “Despite all the [liberal] rhetoric about openness through ‘undistorted communication’ and interminable dialogue, participation in [their] discussions and deliberations is conditional on the prior acceptance of unchallengeable rules concerning a formal rationality and mode of discourse which automatically exclude all but those intellectuals and professionals fully initiated into the predominant jargon” (5). In this world of ersatz liberal openness, “whenever otherness appears, it must either be persuaded back into full sameness or else summarily liquidated as evil” (5).


Since Fukuyama was proven wrong in his prognosis concerning the end of history—the claim that liberal democracy is the regime type toward which history progresses and that, having been attained, puts an end to the historical process—liberalism’s illiberalism has become the one of the key macro-political questions in domestic and foreign affairs around the world. Domestically, the relegation to the private sphere of belief systems that by their own character resist privatization has exposed the liberal project to be not the overcomer of the political and polemical relevance of such belief systems, but one among them; not an arbiter of conflict, but party to the conflict of ultimately irreconcilable principles. Internationally, the imperative “liberalize!” has generally not welcomed “no, thank you” as an acceptable answer.

Historically, if liberalism moved from the foreground to the background at the end of the twentieth century—from one among a number of competing ideologies (liberalism, communism, fascism) to the default mode of “last man standing,” after the defeat of fascism and the fall of communism—then by the start of twenty-first century, if not in the United States then certainly elsewhere in the world, it became clear that this coup d’état was illegitimate, that history had not ended.[1] On the right in Europe, this recognition gave rise to the call for systematic opposition to liberalism by all those forces that were unwilling to be sold the lie that their liberty consisted in the slavish exchange of tradition, heritage, legacy, morality, decency, and justice for economic liberalization, gay pride parades, so-called humanitarianism, Madonna, and the rest of the new American Idols (8, 22–24).[2] But it did not result only in the project of a European new right.[3] As Piccone and Ulmen establish, in America, although it hardly affected the right, it resulted in a split on the left between managerial liberals and more critical, emancipationist leftists.

Now that liberalism is again at war, as it was in the twentieth century, only now in the guise of managerial rather than classical liberalism, it behooves liberals to understand their new enemies, to acknowledge them as such, and perhaps even to learn from them. For the authors, however, modern liberals err instead in being spooked by and spooking others with the boogeyman of the old enemies, fascism and Nazism, who are not only long gone, but who also never really posed a threat in America. They also err in failing to see and to respect the new enemy. It might benefit these liberals to discover that their opponents on the right, drawing on Schmitt, despise them for their displacement of political enmity into purportedly apolitical domains and discourses, for their masquerading behind the language of values what amounts to little more than the all-too-political defense of their interests (32), and for their make-believe and ill-conceived “anti-Fascism,” to be discussed further below. As the authors show, liberals must also come to terms with the critique from the Left, the critique of political correctness, of progressive universalism, of accommodation to the status quo (6, 9–12).

In short, the jig is up and everybody knows it but the liberals, who damn themselves to an ugly future by hiding their heads in the sand (i.e., by woefully misunderstanding their adversaries), while damning all others to servitude through the banal violence of their means; their “humanitarian” discourses, for instance, which aim to colonize the space of real political difference through the imperialism of the homogeneous Man; more or less rational, more or less economic, more or less Christian (4–7).


Hardly anyone understood the malevolent logic of liberalism in the twentieth century better than Carl Schmitt. What is more, hardly anyone will have as much of an impact on the analysis of and response to this logic in the first half of the twenty-first century than he will. The anti-liberal Right in Europe and elsewhere has made, is making, and will continue to make use of his ideas—of political theology, of the concept of the political, of the friend and enemy distinction, and of the Grossraum or big space in geopolitical theory, to name but a few. The Russian political scientist and geopolitician Alexander Dugin has said, for instance, that no other analyst is read as widely in the Russian Duma as Schmitt.[4] Likewise, the liberal-sympathetic left, Chantal Mouffe and others, have not shied away from learning from Schmitt and incorporating into their elaboration of a left-program the most profound of his insights into liberalism and its inadequacies. Indeed, Telos took a leading interest in Schmitt in the 1980s, owing to insight that “the Left in general and Marxism in particular had no political theory” (12). Left and Right, that is, are both learning from Schmitt and “coopting,” like Hegelians, his “moment of truth” (5).

. . . anti-Fascism has become the eschatological core of an otherwise vacuous Left ideology now reconfigured as the legitimating arm of the managerial state. (17)

Liberals, however, are being left behind in this process. Although it is entirely understandable, from a strategic point of view, that those American liberals who have heard of him go out of their way to discredit not only Schmitt but any non-liberal or anti-liberal thinker as “fascists” and “Nazis,” thereby implicitly betraying the fact that they recognize they do have enemies—those who resist the status quo—it is absolutely necessary today for such liberals to turn to the serious consideration of Schmitt’s writings and to do away with what are at any rate irrelevant smears against him and caricatures of his thought. The irrelevance and incorrectness of the anti-Schmittians’ smears is summarized by Piccone and Ulmen when they write that “[the] anti-Schmittians’ notion of ‘fascism’ has little to do with Italian fascism or German Nazism, but is a convenient label to discredit all thinkers and movements considered to be ‘anti-liberal'” (27)—by which is meant “critics of managerial liberalism” (27). That is, for those who employ them against Schmitt and others, “fascist” and “Nazi” are not descriptive terms, but smoke bombs in a political war of ideas. However, these smoke bombs blow up in their holders’ faces and blind them to the real problems of today’s liberalism, to the correct analysis of historical phenomena like Nazism and fascism, and to the non-fascist, non-Nazi, non-Communist criticisms of the liberalism of today.

No amount of declamations against the supposedly ever-present threat of fascism, however, can protect modern liberalism and its allies from its many weaknesses. As Piccone and Ulmen write,

Charging the windmills of fascism and Nazism, which no one in his right mind today would defend, and mystifying Schmitt’s ideas, which very few seem to understand, may help the anti-Schmittians reinforce a sense of moral superiority and contribute to the careers of otherwise mediocre scribes. But it does not help understand or resolve the contradictions of an age of collective decadence and luxurious nihilism. (32)

Nor does it help to resolve the contradictions of the ideology of that age—liberalism.

To its credit, Piccone and Ulmen’s “Uses and Abuses of Carl Schmitt” begins the important task of clearing away the thicket in American scholarship that obscures from view, in part intentionally and in part for reasons the authors describe (1–9), the true importance of Schmitt’s contributions to a political theory that can and must be opposed to status quo managerial liberalism and to the contradictions of our age.


1. Alexander Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory (Arktos, 2012)

2. Under the reign of managerial liberalism, “legitimate political projects concerned with defending traditions and organic social relations . . . were uncritically associated with brutally repressive modernizing ideologies, such as fascism and Nazism” and “were systematically discredited as obstructions to progress and collective emancipation” (8).

3. See Telos no. 98–99 (Winter 1993–Spring 1994), special double-issue on the European New Right.

4. Dugin said this to an IR class at Moscow State University. See his Russian language lectures at Also, note that Piccone and Ulmen focus their remarks on the debates concerning Schmitt in America, where, it is argued, “the conflict of interpretations is not between Left and Right—or between conservatives and managerial liberals—but exclusively between what remains of the Left after the debacle of the New Left in the 1970s and the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1980s.” They are right to warn against the uncritical imposition of a twentieth-century European framework onto twenty-first-century American political reality. But to deny that Schmitt’s ideas will lead to a resurgence of the historically particular phenomena of fascism and Nazism is not to deny that they may be reinterpreted today, in and outside America, for the development of new horizons, beyond liberalism.

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