TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Political Friendship and the Tension between Liberalism and Democracy

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 Andrew Norris’s “Carl Schmitt on Friends, Enemies and the Political” from Telos 112 (Summer 1998).

In his essay “Carl Schmitt on Friends, Enemies and the Political,” Andrew Norris inquires into the question that I have been interested in for quite some time: political friendship in Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy. Schmitt’s interpreters usually focus on the issue of enmity in his concept of the political, not least because Schmitt himself elaborates on the existential significance of political enmity much more extensively. From a conceptual point of view, however, political friendship should be viewed as at least equally relevant a part of Schmitt’s account of the political. The specific criterion of the political is famously the distinction “between friend and enemy,” not simply an indefatigable presence of political enmity. Norris should be lauded for his attempt to foreground a crucial, though still insufficiently explored, notion of a political (public) friend in Schmitt’s Concept of the Political.

Here it is worth quoting Norris at some length:

Schmitt’s theoretical position requires a prior substantive commitment to relations of “friendship” and social solidarity. His account of political authority, in particular, rests on an almost Hegelian understanding of the individual’s relation to the community and one’s own mortality. The friend/enemy criterion defines a particular form of life, one in which group identity is valued above physical existence. To properly understand Schmitt’s work it must be considered not as a rejection of an established moral order but as a response to a culture of nihilism in which meaning—rather than value—is ebbing away. (71)

The relations of political friendship are variously described as solidarity and homogeneity, amounting to what Schmitt calls distinct “forms of life.” External collective enemies are crucial for self-understanding and self-identification among political friends. Nonetheless, Norris pointedly asserts that “[s]ince the enemy is defined as a threat to those relations of ‘friendship’ internal to the state, it follows that the latter are not entirely a function of the external relation to the enemy” (74). In other words: “The relation of friend is not defined by the emergence of the enemy, but it is brought into view in its true significance” (78). Prior collective self-identification is necessary for a genuinely political response to an external threat from a hostile collectivity.

What is the substance of such self-identification? As elaborated in Constitutional Theory, Schmitt in all likelihood has in mind national homogeneity, since the nation “denotes, specifically, the people as a unity capable of political action, with the consciousness of its political distinctiveness and with the will to political existence, while the people not existing as a nation is somehow only something that belongs together ethnically or culturally, but it is not necessarily a bonding of men existing politically.”[1] Schmitt’s account of democracy is built on the concepts of similarity and identity—without “the comprehensive identity of the homogeneous people,” genuine political consciousness and its institutional embodiment becomes impossible. Even more tellingly, Schmitt distinguishes between general human equality and democratic, substantial equality. The former is based on a bare fact that we are all humans. In Schmitt’s view, the concept of humanity is too abstract and detached from concrete reality to be capable of becoming a basis for political distinctions and differentiations. “No specially formed institutions can be constituted on its basis,” as Schmitt emphasizes. [2]

By contrast, the democratic concept of equality is genuinely political, since it involves substantive distinctions between various associations of people. Political equality necessarily entails a corresponding inequality outside the particular unity of a particular people—members of a concrete political unit are equal among themselves, internally, however in other, alien political units—externally—they would be unavoidably regarded as unequal: “Political democracy, therefore, cannot rest on the inability to distinguish among persons, but rather only on the quality of belonging to a particular people.”[3] As envisaged by Schmitt, diverse elements may be relevant for the formation of political self-identity and unity: language, historical destiny, traditions, remembrances, common political goals, and hopes. “What is definitive is the commonality of historical life, conscious willing of this commonality, great events and goals.”[4] Unsurprisingly, Norris equates Schmitt’s concept of substantial national homogeneity or identity with political friendship, as it transcends the private life of an individual and unifies common heritage and future aspirations into one political will (77n31).

At the same time, Schmitt’s strict distinction between private and public distances his account of friendship from the one elaborated by Aristotle:

Just as Schmitt argues that the public enemy is conceptually distinct from the private enemy, whom one hates, so is his public friend distinct from the private friend, whom one loves. This, however, does not mean that Schmitt’s political friendship is the same phenomenon described by Aristotle in books eight and nine of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s philia emphasizes objective qualities of character and lacks the connotations of intimacy carried by “friendship.” In contrast, Schmitt’s political friendship implies as little about the character of the “friend” as it does about one’s feelings for him. Indeed, in stark contrast to both the Aristotelian and the popular concepts of friendship, it is not necessary that those people who share a relation of political friendship even know one another. What is essential is that there be a shared commitment to their way of life. (81)

As we have already seen, Schmitt attempts to specify the possible contents of this “shared commitment to a way of life” by mentioning common language, heritage, traditions, goals, and hopes. Despite that, Norris is correct in arguing that Schmitt—in contrast to Hannah Arendt, whom Norris mentions in his essay—dismisses public deliberation and argumentative justification as necessary political tools in creating a viable democratic regime. As in his decisionism in Political Theology, Schmitt is concerned with the fact of formation of political unity, not the content of such unity. Shared language, traditions, or goals are in a way still too abstract:

The homogeneity that defines the group may well have its origins in a shared religion or a shared set of moral values. But politically this content is irrelevant. This would seem to squash most public debate and deliberation. Moral, economic, and even religious matters are things about which one can argue. But shared identity, if there is one, appears to be nothing more than a fact. Indeed, it is not even that because this identity is so formalized, so thoroughly drained of content, that is nothing more than a shared commitment. Like the sovereign decision, it is neither a fact nor a norm. (83–84)

As is common in such cases, Norris faults Schmitt for not inserting sufficient theoretical constraints and leaving too much space for a formation of Nazi political consciousness. Who would deny that Nazis formed a political unity on the basis of shared language, common traditions, goals, and hopes?

The best Schmitt can offer in the context of democratic theory is acclamation (“yes” or “no”), not deliberation. His dismissal of public discussion stems, of course, from his separation of liberalism and democracy in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. In Schmitt’s estimation, discussion and openness are characteristic of liberalism, whereas democracy is defined by the aforementioned concepts of identity, homogeneity and similarity. Liberalism aims to restrict the will of the people through the institutionalization of certain liberal principles, including discussion (parliament), checks and balances (liberal constitution, separate branches of government), judicial review (courts), openness and critique (freedom of speech and expression embodied in the equal access to media channels).

Schmittian distinctions—general human equality vs. democratic equality, liberalism vs. democracy—are highly pertinent in the present context of the ongoing refugee crisis spanning across Europe. A heated debate between Western and Central Eastern Europe illuminates the tension inherent in the concept—and, as we witness, in the reality—of liberal democracy. Left-leaning politicians base their arguments on the concept of general human equality: since we are all humans, everyone on this Earth has an equal right to come to European countries, live there, and have the same rights as citizens in the recipient states. Representatives of such countries as Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic ground their reluctance to accept all arriving refugees on the concept of sovereignty and substantive democratic equality. It means that Hungarians or Slovaks have developed their own distinct political consciousness and self-identity, which—they believe—would be disturbed by the influx of people with a totally different set of values and traditions. The Syrian or Eritrean refugees/migrants do not share “the commonality of historical life” with Central Europeans, and the latter are unsure whether they will be “consciously willing of this commonality.” Chancellor Merkel’s actions may also be explicated through Schmittian lens: having first announced a liberal agenda of accepting all Syrian refugees, very soon she had to face the pressures of sovereignty in the context of the gruesome Cologne sex attacks (maintaining the security of citizens and administrative capabilities of the state) and democratic equality (local protests and falling approval ratings). Aggressive hybrid interventions by an external enemy certainly have not helped.[5]

The Schmittian lesson for Angela Merkel and European ruling elites could be formulated in this way: citizens of European states are still making distinctions. They refuse to be described simply and minimally as human beings, they differentiate among themselves substantially, otherwise it is not clear why there are separate nations such as Czechs, Germans, Afghans, and Syrians. And though the question of an imminent threat of terrorism also looms in the horizon, the Other need not always be regarded as an enemy—he/she may be a nonviolent reminder of one’s own political identity, which is different from other political identities. It is a reminder that raises the following question: why is there a Germany in Europe, not Sudan, France, not Egypt, the Czech Repubic, not Lebanon? Is it just a historical accident, or is there something that binds together Germany, France, and the Czech Republic into a distinct European destiny? What is the meaning of the European project? Schmitt’s answers are inconclusive, but at least he helps us acknowledge the scope and significance of one of the most pressing tensions in today’s Europe—that between liberalism and democracy.


1. Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory, trans. Jeffrey Seitzer (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008), p. 127.

2. Ibid., p. 257.

3. Ibid., p. 258.

4. Ibid., p. 262.

5. Melanie Amann et al., “The Hybrid War: Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Germany,” Spiegel Online, February 5, 2016.

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