TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Reading Schmitt contra Schmitt

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, Flaminia Incecchi looks at Benjamin Arditi’s “On the Political: Schmitt contra Schmitt” from Telos 142 (Spring 2008).

In “On the Political: Schmitt contra Schmitt,” Benjamin Arditi is occupied with the task of revitalizing Carl Schmitt, to open or retrace various interpretative paths that allow us to use Schmitt in trajectories that he did not envisage or did not pursue. Arditi takes his reader by the hand into an exploration of a series of issues arising from Schmitt’s theory: disputes regarding the bellicose nature of the political, the identification of politics in the political, the charge of formalism, and the normative dimension of order.

Arditi’s article has seducing aspects. First, the piece is devoted to a discussion of the relationship between the political and war. Essentially, Arditi wants to show that Schmitt’s account of the political is not as bellicose and war-exalting as it might seem at first glance. This attempt proves fruitful and pushes an interpretation of Schmitt that can be extended to comprehend phenomena such as the Cold War, if by war we mean something akin to a Hobbesian reading, where war is not limited to battle, but to the threat of conflict or “as a disposition to fight” (9). Once the meaning of war is expanded, the Schmittian interpretative lenses appear to be much more versatile, as they can be worn to analyze phenomena such as the Cold War (9).

Moreover, in Arditi’s view, this reading of Schmitt is removed from a state-centered locus and can be used to comprehend domestic political opposition without the threat of civil war. Arditi draws our attention to a peculiar phenomenon inherent to the friend-enemy distinction: “divisions generate communities of friends that did not exist prior to the designation of adversaries and the willingness to confront them” (12). Therefore, the phenomenon we witness in the demarcation of the enemy, is considerably revealing of “our own” nature, which might appear only when we are confronted with an adversary. As Theodor Daubler, a poet and friend of Schmitt, writes: “the enemy embodies our own question.”[1] In this passage we find echoes of Sartre’s No Exit, where “we can recognize ourselves only in the presence of an Other.”[2] This shows how the enemy might not be the daunting specter we might have thought: enemies “are not a pure and simple moment of negativity, they function as a constitutive outside by endangering our identity and nonetheless making up one of its conditions of possibility” (13).

The implications of these reflections are remarkable. They shed light on phenomena that occur today and characterize our political present. We have witnessed groups of starkly different identities join in a fight against a common enemy that threatens them in equal measure. In that instance, the sole fil rouge creating friendship is precisely a common enemy, which creates an interesting dynamic in the prioritization of enmity. Supposed enemies fight alongside against a common enemy, leaving aside their own enmity to prioritize the annihilation of something more threatening.

Second, Arditi tries to “undo the statal corset [Schmitt] would have liked to wrap around the political” (28). Arditi paves the way for this reading of Schmitt from the first section, where he discusses what meaning we should ascribe to “war.” Taking an allegorical stance on war then allows Arditi to make the argument for the removal or defocus of states in Schmitt’s theory. In other words, it permits a reading that is not entirely state-centered. This is a virtue of the article, a difficult task that Arditi performs intelligently. This reading is foreshadowed in the title of the article, as “Schmitt contra Schmitt” shows a desire to read Schmitt “in spite of himself.” Although Schmitt’s thought is highly state-centered, his ideas can precede the state or apply in a post-statal environment. Arditi highlights this: “Hobbes conceives organized groups as sovereign states, but Schmitt’s thought of the political is not restricted to these agents because for him the friend-enemy constellations precede the state and define the human condition, Schmitt has to conceive groups of friends and enemies as pre-statal realities” (27). The consequence of this premise is the idea that intra-statal groupings like political parties can exist without turning their difference into radical opposition that is destined for civil war. Therefore, if we can use these interpretative lenses for intra-statal groupings, there is nothing preventing us from wearing them to look at political oppositions involving global actors or those below the government. Arditi concludes this argument by claiming that this Schmitt contra Schmitt view of the political, modified by a non-telluric approach to friend-enemy distinction, gives access to “a new way of thinking politics that is not restricted to the sovereign state and which is unencumbered by a strong notion of totality” (27). This puts Schmitt in league with the post-foundationalist minds of our time, thus allowing modern readers and theorists to make use of Schmitt’s positing, as well as his critiques of the liberal order, a path that is well frequented by our contemporaries on different ends of the political spectrum. Arditi is well aware of Schmitt’s resistance to a system where the state is abandoned as primary decisional locus and demonstrates such awareness in various passages in the article. Nevertheless, Arditi’s reading dispels eventual worries regarding the usage of Schmitt’s thoughts applied to scenarios beyond and below the state quite well. I wish to refer readers to the following passage: “On balance, the advantages of Schmitt’s de-territorailized view of the political offset the difficulties it may have. It also provides us with an opening to catch a glimpse of something that goes further than a family resemblance between his thought and the post-foundationalist assertion of the structurality of the political structure, even if he ultimately pulls back from acknowledging the full consequence of this” (28).

Overall, Arditi’s views do a service to Schmitt and his modern aficionados. Arditi dispels some of the harshest critiques that Schmitt’s thought has received in the debate, like that of being a militarist keen on using war to solve political issues. Moreover, throughout the article, he spends a considerable amount of time on the notion of friendship, highlighting the peculiar phenomenon of ad hoc friendships that arise out of enmity for a common enemy. Furthermore, Arditi correctly avoids a conceptual trapdoor present for modern readers of Schmitt, which is the danger of a usage of Schmitt that rids his thought of existential ideas that are not simply theoretical postulations, by which I mean friend, enemy, and war. Arditi’s Schmitt is not bland like Mouffe’s; he is very much himself, with the voice of a contemporary.


1. Neil Levi, “Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic,” New German Critique 101 (Summer 2007): 27–43; here, p. 27.

2. Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy (London: Vintage, 2013), p. 21.

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