TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Decided by the Other: Existential Vulnerability and Political Identity

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, Simas Čelutka looks at Alexandre Lefebvre’s “The Political Given: Decisionism in Schmitt’s Concept of the Political” from Telos 132 (Fall 2005).

Today’s world is witnessing a noticeable intensification of hostilities and confrontations on many fronts of international relations. A revisionist and neo-imperialist Russia, annexing Crimea and staging a cynical proxy war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, is challenging the very foundations of the post–Cold War international order. The Syrian “quagmire,” which began in 2011, created a space for the emergence and gradual establishment of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), now widely recognized as the paramount terrorist organization threatening the security architecture in the Middle East as well as Europe. Terrorist attacks in France, Egypt, Mali, Tunisia, Lebanon, and other countries have been widely and justifiably interpreted as warnings signaling that Europe (or the West in general) is unable to cope with its new enemies. The chaos and uncertainty that ensued after the flood of refugees and migrants into Europe only exacerbated the perception of weakness and unwillingness on the part of the Western leaders to tackle these challenges seriously. In this alarming context, political philosophy once again gains significance as an existential occupation. This is the reason why a re-evaluation of the controversial oeuvre of Carl Schmitt, the thinker who articulated some of the most acute criticisms of modern liberalism, is so timely.

In his article “The Political Given: Decisionism in Schmitt’s Concept of the Political,” Alexandre Lefebvre offers several helpful insights regarding the very core of Schmitt’s political theory. Schmitt is usually seen as a proponent of an active, warlike, and even war-seeking political stance. His famous “criterion” of the political, a distinction between friend and enemy, appears to emphasize the indispensability of enmity and physical violence for an authentically political relationship. Despite Schmitt’s caveat that his definition of the political “neither favors war nor militarism, neither imperialism nor pacifism,”[1] he is often interpreted, partly because of his career as a Nazi jurist in 1933–1936, as a war-loving thinker who locates the existential depth of human life precisely in the physicality of violent conflict. This interpretation is to a certain extent true, especially if we take into account Schmitt’s general ruminations on human existence such as this one: ” . . . it is a fact that the entire life of a human being is a struggle and every human being symbolically a combatant.”[2] Despite these proclamations, a thorough analysis of Schmitt’s texts reveals that his viewpoint is much subtler, as Lefebvre’s essay makes clear.

The main argument of the essay is that Schmitt formulates a defensive, instead of an offensive, understanding of political decisionism. On Lefebvre’s account, Schmitt is “a theorist of the victim,” rather than the aggressor (p. 95). In real politics, it is more often the others (the enemies), not us (friends), who decide on the parameters of our political identity. As Lefebvre explicates:

One’s political existence is given and imperiled—given by being imperiled—by the enemy. . . . The “our” of the demos is donated by the enemy; this “our” of citizenship, an “our” that includes substantive equality and rights, is given through the act of receiving the other’s threat and in deciding that other as our political enemy. This is the doubled decisionism: political being is given through a process of judging the political field and simultaneously having this field pre-judged for “us” by the enemy. (p. 97)

It is the wound inflicted on our political body that initiates our self-definition. Existential vulnerability, or “an ever present possibility of physical killing,” is what establishes a political unity among an otherwise vastly diverse, unrelated people.

Some of the recent political events corroborate Lefebvre’s argument excellently, for instance, the events in Ukraine, especially the Maidan revolution and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass region. The revolution was sparked by students gathering in the main square in Kiev to protest the refusal of the then-president Viktor Yanukovych to sign an Association treaty with the European Union. The protests gradually drew in wide sectors of Ukrainian society because the Yanukovych regime decided to suppress the protests violently, beating, torturing, and killing many protesters. Tens of thousands who joined the initially small group of students on the Maidan confessed that they decided to involve themselves after they saw what the police and the special forces did to those innocent protesters. In other words, it was precisely violence against their children, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens that established strong ties of political friendship among Ukrainians coming from extremely diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional backgrounds, holding different and sometimes radically opposed political-historical views.

That is not to say that Ukrainians had no identity before the Maidan revolution. However, it is precisely the violence unleashed by the Yanukovych regime and later by an external enemy (“brotherly” Russia) that cemented their mutual bonds into a self-consciously political association and friend-enemy differentiation. Importantly, it is not only the mere threat of physical violence that consolidated the Ukrainians, but even more so the rejection of a way of life in which violence could be used to suppress the will of the people. “What is at risk here appears not be ‘life’ itself, but lifestyle, a way of life under siege and not necessarily brute annihilation” (p. 95). It is as if suddenly (“miraculously”), the whole mode of being imposed on society—including violence, tyranny, corruption, graft, lawlessness, incompetence, lack of accountability—was rejected by the Ukrainian people in favor of a European, liberal democratic way of life. Violence is certainly not something normatively desirable (in fact, quite the opposite is the case), however it is precisely the imminent and “ever present” danger of the illegitimate violence that acts as the source of a process of political self-definition. Questions raised during an authentic, spine-chilling encounter with violence—”Why are you attacking me? Who are you? Whom do you represent? Why me? Who am I? Who are these people next to me? Are they my (political) friends? Why are they my friends? What do we share?”—instigate a formation of political consciousness, subsequently morphing into a greater or lesser unity of a people. Without such a unity, the Maidan revolution would not have become possible.

Lefebvre pays attention to the latter point in his perceptive critique of Chantal Mouffe’s appropriation of Schmitt’s political philosophy. Whereas Schmitt envisaged the internal political life of a polity to be based on homogeneity, which differentiated the polity from other, similarly homogeneous polities (external enemies), Mouffe intends to supplant external, inter-state antagonisms with an internal, intra-state, agonistic conflicts between various groups. In Lefebvre’s words:

Most obviously, Mouffe is under the constant strain of pacifying Schmitt’s terms: she wants to move from “antagonism” to “agonism,” from “homogeneity” to “commonality.” Underwriting these semantics is an effort to envisage a demos compatible with pluralism. In casting a hegemonic (us/them) political articulation as immanent to the demos, she renders “citizenship” a non-exclusionary ground; citizenship provides the field in which constitutive exclusions and pluralistic formations are played out. Unlike in Schmitt where the citizen partakes of a homogeneous political association that establishes rights and equality, Mouffe’s citizenship is a field that structurally inheres and promotes immanent political difference while preserving universal equality. (pp. 86–87)

Mouffe’s “updated” version of agonistic pluralism would be, in Schmitt’s view, insufficiently political, given that its basic mode of power dynamics would still be discussion, at best a peaceful transition of power from one politically active group to another. An authentically political internal pluralism would present itself as a civil war or a revolution with an intent to overthrow an internal political enemy (which was the case in the Maidan revolution). Despite the stressed contrast with “orthodox” liberalism, Mouffe’s type of dynamic agonism is equally vulnerable to Schmitt’s critique formulated in this passage: “The equation politics = party politics is possible whenever antagonisms among domestic political parties succeed in weakening the all-embracing political unit, the state. The intensification of internal antagonisms has the effect of weakening the common identity vis-à-vis another state.”[3] Lefebvre is right to insist that Mouffe removes “an ever present possibility of combat” from her concept of agonistic pluralism. Mouffe’s categories are inadequate to explain the events of the Maidan square in their entirety. It was not just discursive pluralism; it was also (and decisively) real, threatening, palpable enmity.

The November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris amount to a disturbing wake-up call to all Europeans, still largely sleeping in a convenient, hedonistic, and economically prosperous postwar slumber. In the context of recent waves of terrorist attacks, Schmitt’s elegant formulation is now more poignant than ever: “In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.”[4] Our soft skins have forgotten about the “ever present possibility of physical killing.” Having altogether displaced the political in their lives or reduced it to a duality of economics and ethics, Europeans were shockingly and brutally reminded of violent, exceptional grounds of their normal existence. Once again, the attacks prompted politicians and intellectuals to discuss the contents of “our way of life.” Until recently, it was possible to lightheartedly present oneself as a “world citizen” or a “European” without any existential angst or confusion, not to mention critical precision or depth. Orthodox liberal dogmas, such as tolerance and universal human rights, are now being tested violently: are we sure what the contents of these principles are? Are we willing to sacrifice for them? Are we ready to sacrifice for anything at all? What exactly are we defending and how are we ready to defend? ISIS fanatics are threatening and genuinely wounding the very essence of our common identity. I place Putin’s Russia in the same company. But will we use this possibility to rethink the foundations of our identity, and, relevantly, act on such a rethinking? Are we going to “tolerate” ISIS recruiters who preach anti-Western values in our midst? Or is it simply “another, equally valid opinion”? Even for hardline relativists, it is challenging to maintain their relativism when facing a gun. Suddenly, this does not represent merely “an alternative way of seeing things.” Suddenly, relativists disagree with their attackers very, very much, and become convinced that they are right, whereas the attackers must be wrong. But if we are right, are we willing to sacrifice for our rightness? This is a question that many Europeans now face in all earnestness.


1. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, exp. ed., trans. George Schwab (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 33.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 32.

4. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 15.

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