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Reclaiming the Lifeworld: Toward an Ontology of Political Will

This text was presented in January at the 2010 Telos Conference, “From Lifeworld to Biopolitics: Empire in the Age of Obama.”

Carl Schmitt has been often accused of uncritically utilizing metaphysical concepts, such as “the will,” in his political philosophy. In this talk, I will begin to reconstruct the onto-phenomenological foundations of the Schmittian conception of the political will, arguing that it is not a pre-fabricated or transcendental entity, but a historical instant of what Edmund Husserl called “constitutive subjectivity.” The argument entails two crucial theoretical steps. First, I will draw a parallel between Husserl’s account of the crisis of European sciences and Schmitt’s version of the crisis of the political. In each case, the crisis reveals multiple disconnects between the institutional, bureaucratized reality, on the one hand, and the suppressed lifeworld (political or otherwise) that underpins this reality, on the other. Second, I will explore the Schmittian analogue to the Husserlian subject who inhabits this lifeworld. I hope to demonstrate that, for Schmitt, the will is not a numinous, interiorized entity but power in its lived, historical actuality, in other words, political facticity. To reclaim the political lifeworld in 2010, then, we need to tease out the living political will buried beneath the institutionalized, bureaucratized edifice of contemporary politics.

The formal analogy between Schmitt’s political philosophy and Husserl’s phenomenology comprises three channels of inquiry concerned with the problem of modernity and with the possibilities of its resolution. First, the oppressive layers of bureaucratized and neutralized institutions, including the law and the state, are an extension of what in his book The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology Husserl terms “sedimentation” (Sedimentierung). Husserlian sedimentation involves a forgetting of the concrete foundations of abstract knowledge in lived human experience, along with the founding impulse itself, thanks to the preponderance of abstractions founded, instituted, or established on that which has been forgotten.[1] We could argue that the experience of the political at the founding level of Lebenswelt, the life-world, has been suppressed by the founded institutionalization of politics that, paradoxically, presupposes and extirpates this lived, embodied, existential basis. For Husserl, the crisis erupts, precisely, when founded abstractions tend toward an excessive separation from their phenomenological foundations and when what we know about the world assumes the character of familiarity or obviousness. On the political side of things, the crisis evidences a divergence between the institutional arrangement, such as the state, and its existential premises—collective decisions on the form of political existence, formations of the community of friends against enemy groupings, etc.—and it is these “groundless,” existentially self-legitimating political foundations that fall prey to neutralization. As a consequence, we witness the objectivization of the political in modernity, its divestment of any subjective underpinnings uncritically dismissed as archaic despotism. The objective legal order comes unglued from the subjective orientation, thereby, shuttering the unity of nomos and ushering the age of political nihilism. Now, Obama’s election promises revolved, exactly, around the hope of doing away with the objectivization of political life and its corollaries: disenchantment, voter apathy, and nihilism. A year into his presidency, these sentiments are, probably, more intense than they were before. The screws of objectivization have been tightened, precisely, in the name of expanding popular participation in US politics.

A particularly pernicious aspect of institutionalization is extreme formalization, or the persistence of that which had taken root in the political life-world long after the disappearance of its existential raison d’être. The difficulty in dealing with formalization is due to its inevitability and, therefore, the unfeasibility of its wholesale eradication.[2] If there is a “solution” to the problem of modernity, it does not dictate a rejection of abstract thought, which as Adorno and Derrida have taught us, is the pharmakon (remedy and poison) of freedom, nor does it succumb to the anarchist temptation to abolish all formal political structures. The stress Schmitt places on the exception should, likewise, alert us to the fact that it is an exception to the rule, which is not rescinded but, rather, preserved and strengthened thanks to a revalorization of its ultimate telos embedded in the political life-world. In lieu of prescribing an easy way to overcome the problem of modernity, Husserlian reduction and Heideggerian de-formalization impose the exigency of a patient, if not Sisyphean, theoretical and practical work of removing layers of sedimentation that are bound to re-grow, given that their accumulation constitutes the movement of history.

This, then, is the other dimension of the crisis: the survival of an empty organization or legal form betraying—in the double sense of expressing and becoming unfaithful to—the decision that gave rise to it. Schmitt writes, “the issuance of a constitution can exhaust, absorb, or consume [erschöpfen, absorbieren oder konsumieren] the constitution-making power” (CT 125),[3] immediately adding, however, that this exhaustion neither invalidates nor renders irrelevant the political will. Because constitution-making power is vital for political life, its absorption and exhaustion in the constitution only deepens the crisis and demands a new decision on the political form. One sign of the crisis of formalization is the dissolution of a unified constitution into a set of particular laws (CT 69): an early warning that the will, from which the unity of the constitution stemmed, is no longer expressed in its own objectification. The statute stays behind as an empty shell, an abstraction no longer linked to concrete existence, a sediment disengaged from political being. Once again, we may note that Obama’s extreme legalism, which Russell Berman and I referred to in our Introduction to the special issue of Telos on “Schmitt and the Event,” falls on the side of formalization suffocating the political life-world.

Second, like Husserl, who harnesses philosophy to the task of reactivating the forgotten origins of knowing, learning to see the enigmatic core of the familiar, “accomplishing for oneself that which has originally given rise to what one is now aware of as ‘ready-made'”[4], Schmitt is committed to an archaeological reactivation of the “living sources” of politics buried deep beneath the ossified institutional structures. It is crucial to realize that, given Schmitt’s polemical and highly situational usage of political concepts, his accentuation of the elemental experience of the political is also contextually and historically ensconced as a reaction to the crisis of modernity threatening with a complete depoliticization, neutralization, and formalization of human existence. Piercing through the layers of ready-made institutional reality, political reduction has in view the same goal as Husserl’s phenomenological reduction, namely, reviving politics as a lived experience and as a concrete, de-formalized phenomenon (in a qualified sense that precludes something like the pure self-evidence and the absolute visibility of the political). The advantage of this phenomenological elaboration on Schmitt’s project is that it avoids imputing to his methodology a mishmash of heterogeneous “modes of unmasking, historicization, ideational reconstruction and decontestation”[5] and, thus, endorses theoretical coherence without compromising on historical sensitivity.

The third step in this politico-phenomenological process is to ask who or what exactly remains after reduction has bracketed or put aside various abstractions and “obvious” descriptions of the political. Here, too, a reference to Husserl will prove useful. According to Volume I of Ideas, what survives the operations of reduction is that which is purely immanent to consciousness, “intentionality,” or directedness of consciousness toward something. As intentional, consciousness is, in each instance, conscious of something (perceiving of the perceived, desiring of the desired, thinking of the thought), in double sense of the genitive; consciousness both bestows meaning on phenomena and is co-produced with whatever it is conscious of. Reduction gives us access to a whole region of being, which, while it is a part of the world, construes this world as meaningful. Transposed from Husserl’s phenomenology onto Schmitt’s political philosophy, constitutive subjectivity can equip us with a model for understanding the collective and individual subject of the political and the permutations of the irreducible pouvior constituant subtending the constitutional forms emanating from it. While the irreducibility of the subjective element has been often associated with the old metaphysical notion of the will that seems to have percolated into Schmitt’s theory, the reductive-phenomenological take on the issue makes recourse to metaphysical explanations less plausible. But what, exactly, allows us to make a case for a post-metaphysical, existential-ontological interpretation of constitutive political subjectivity in Schmitt’s political philosophy?

The most conspicuous, and perhaps the most controversial, example of constitutive subjectivity in politics is the sovereign will. A political philosophy that seeks, at any cost, to avoid the trappings of modern positivism is likely to appeal to this notion, despite running the risk of inheriting the old metaphysical quandaries associated with it. Schmitt, nevertheless, is careful enough to skirt the positivist Scylla and the metaphysical Charybdis by resorting to the will—the paradigm case of pure psychic inwardness—so as to ingeniously destroy the master distinction of traditional metaphysics between interiority and exteriority. The “word ‘will’,” he maintains, “denotes an actually existing power as the origin of a command. The will is existentially present [vorhanden]; its power or authority lies in its being [seine Macht oder Autorität liegt in seinem Sein]” (CT 64). This definition, furnished early on in Constitutional Theory, does not mean that a purely interior, psychic entity, which exists a priori, only subsequently actualizes itself either as Hegel’s Geist that passes through world-history, or as Nietzsche’s will-to-power. Nor is political will coterminous with the psychic will of the immediate person, even when this person alone is responsible for deciding on the constitutional form of political life. Schmitt’s “will” is, merely, power in its very actuality, an always already exteriorized expression of political existence, while power is an appellation for the effectivity of the will, which is not a withdrawn, noumenal cause[6] but an active intervention in a given state of affairs (actually existing power as the command’s origin). The political will must have an existential substratum—not to be confused with the modern sense of body politic—wherein it resides not as something “misplaced” but as a matter of fact inseparable from its being: ” . . . only something existing in concrete terms can properly be sovereign. A merely valid norm cannot be sovereign” (CT 63). And it is this onto-existential dimension that requires further analysis and elaboration.

Closer to us, the idea of Obama’s election campaign was that the new political will was virtual—that it arouse out of new modes of Internet participation in political life. The failure of this model does not necessarily depend on the will’s “non-concrete,” virtual existence, but on the fact that its power never lay in its own being but was artificially conjured up for the elections. An existentially present political will does not wake up every four years only to be safely put to sleep as soon as the ballots are counted!

With the assertion that the power of the will resides in its being (in seinem Sein), Schmitt brackets, parenthesizes, or reduces a long history of legitimizations that depended either on a direct theologico-metaphysical anchoring of authority (in the divine right of kings, for instance), or on a more circuitous secularization of previous religious concepts (the sacred sovereignty of the people as a modified version of God’s supreme authority). If the power of the will is grounded in its being, then it is self-grounded in such a way that its ontic manifestations, known as monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic regimes—as well as the three degenerate forms Aristotle attributes to them in The Politics—fail to account fully for political reality and bespeak their ontological basis in the decision on the form of political existence. Underneath mythological covers, the sovereign will is existentially self-justifying and self-validating, in other words, “the word ‘will’ denotes the essentially existential character of this ground of validity [wesentlich Existenzielle dieses Geltungsgrundes]. The constitution-making power is political will, more specifically, concrete political being [konkretes politisches Sein]” (CT 125). As in the earlier citation from Constitutional Theory, the will is practically identical to the existential nature of political being, that is, the being of political beings, as opposed to a set of basic laws or state structures. Moreover, it is not something in being, a spiritual “thing” misplaced into political space, to paraphrase Heidegger, much less an identifiable regime with its statutory, institutional accoutrements, or representatives. It is, rather, political being as such. The semantic equivalence of being, will, and power—each term interchangeable with the other two—is indicative of Schmitt’s ultimate innovation in political philosophy, his discovery of the field of onto-existential politics.

Despite the binding of the will to concrete, embodied existence, however, constitution-making power is not restricted to its monarchic or autocratic variety given that every “systematic unity and order” arises out of “a preestablished unified will” (CT 65). Having reduced (de-constituted) the liberal-democratic state and the Rechtsstaat constitution to the founding decision on the form of political life, Schmitt not only peers behind various forms of constitution, but also reconstructs ontic political reality on the newly discovered ontological basis. It remains to be explained what Schmitt means by “a preestablished unified will.”[7] In citing this entity, does he revert back to metaphysical foundationalism that thrives on explaining concrete reality by means of a priori transcendental causation (the Idea, the thing-in-itself, the will, that orchestrate everything in the world from which they are absent)? Does the insistence on the unity of constitution-making power throw us back onto the old, tried and tested terrain of metaphysics?

The “pre-establishment” of the will does not happen in a transcendental realm outside of history but is, itself, a political fabrication, which, in democracies, necessitates an extreme homogenization of citizenry. The metaphysical concept of the general will obfuscates a very practical question as to “who has control over the means with which the will of the people is to be constructed: military and political force, propaganda, control of public opinion through the press, party organizations, assemblies, public education, and schools” (CPD 29). Leftist political thinkers, including the French philosopher Louis Althusser, refer to these institutions as “Ideological State Apparatuses” responsible for the orderly production of docile subjects in the image of the master Subject of ideology, a secularized figure of God. For our purposes, it is enough to highlight the historico-ideological construction of the will of the people, which is forged through a series of fraudulent identifications. In the process of setting up the collective will severed from the organicty of Gemeinschaft and from a purely political consolidation in the face of an enemy threat, the voting majority, on the one hand, gets identified with the people in general and, hence, also, the will of the “outvoted minority” is absorbed into that of the majority (CDP 25). The will of the parliament, on the other hand, is translated into the will of the homogenized people (LL 24) and, thus, into the metaphysical construct of volonté générale. That is to say: the unity of the will in democracy, be it direct or representative, is not a simple unity distinguishing all metaphysical concepts, but a oneness that overlays and suppresses difference and heterogeneity. Political reduction exposes the sedimented layering of identifications only to point out that at the bottom of the ideological construction we do not detect a forgotten atomic unity of the will but stumble upon the smoldering cinders of a conflict resolved through the imposition of the political will of the victorious party on the vanquished.

Surely, the consensual drive in the formation of a constitution is conceivable but solely under exceptional circumstances: “When a constitution is at issue, a compromise will only be possible when the will to political unity and state consciousness strongly and decisively outweighs all religious and class-based oppositions, so that these religious and social differences are rendered relative” (CT 83). The constitutional compromise is especially pertinent to the formation of federations that come about as a consequence of an agreement, approximating most closely the social contract scheme. Still, the contractual model cannot hope for equality among those who have reached such a compromise, because the assessment and interpretation of the adherence to and the violations of the terms of the contract are still a prerogative of sovereign decision-making: “Who decides whether there is a valid contract, whether the grounds to dispute it are persuasive, whether the right to withdraw is provided, etc.?” (CT 120). Thus formulated, the question of constitutive political subjectivity comes back to haunt that which has been constituted, demanding a constant re-constitution of political forms in every “application” of rules and in each act of overseeing and judging procedural “correctness.”

However potent it may be, the criticism of “the will of the people” does not solve the problem of the sovereign will in other political regimes. Another rejoinder to the allegation that, in Schmitt, the will reeks of old metaphysics has to do with the notions of unity and indivisibility of sovereignty in general. The core consideration here is whether the will, as well as the subject of sovereignty, is a ready-made “entity,” or whether, in a phenomenological manner, it comes into being with that which is willed. According to Nietzsche’s insights in On the Genealogy of Morality and, especially, in The Will to Power, there is really no doer or subject behind the deed. The agent is a later, a posteriori, and, to a large extent, fictitious interpellation into the action.[8] Neither Schmitt, nor Husserl reaches this seemingly scandalous conclusion, yet it is my hypothesis that political will and the sovereign qua sovereign come about as a result of the decision on the exception; that is to say, they do not preexist the moment of the decision but are decided into existence in this very moment. The production of the sovereign and of the will by the decision is a self-production, in that, in the absence of any transcendental supports, the sovereign is decided into existence by herself, by the act of sovereignty, which, from the standpoint of the existing legal-political order, is null and groundless. The unity of the will is the upshot of the unity of action (whether deciding on the exception or giving a particular constitutional form to political being) so that, in each case, the action constitutes the will not as an abstract or undetermined spiritual entity, but as a specific willing to. . . . But since action is temporally finite, the will must also exhibit this quality. Its existential finitude requires a constant re-activation, a re-binding of its ties to what is willed, if the process of sedimentation and the crisis, whereby the willed separates from the willing, is to be managed, if not outright overcome.


1. Refer to Paragraph 9, “Galileo’s Mathematization of Nature,” in Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970), pp. 23-59, and especially Section H, “The Life-World as a Forgotten Fundament of Science,” pp. 48-53.

2. If there is a “solution” to the problem of modernity, it does not dictate a rejection of abstract thought, which as Adorno and Derrida have taught us, is the pharmakon (remedy and poison) of freedom, nor does it succumb to the anarchist temptation to abolish all formal political structures. The stress Schmitt places on the exception should, likewise, alert us to the fact that it is an exception to the rule, which is not rescinded but, rather, preserved and strengthened thanks to a revalorization of its telos embedded in the political life-world. In lieu of prescribing an easy way to overcome the problem of modernity, Husserlian reduction and Heideggerian de-formalization impose the exigency of a patient, if not Sisyphean, theoretical and practical work of removing layers of sedimentation that are bound to re-grow, given that their accumulation constitutes the movement of history.

3. Carl Schmitt’s works are abbreviated here as follows: CPD: The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. E. Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986); CT: Constitutional Theory, trans. J. Seitzer (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008); LL: Legality and Legitimacy, trans. J. Seitzer (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004).

4. James Dodd, Crisis and Reflection (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2004), p. 134.

5. Jan Müller, “Carl Schmitt’s Method: Between Ideology, Demonology, and Myth,” Journal of Political Ideologies 4 (1999): 61-85.

6. Schmitt deems Romantic occasionalism to be a negation of “the concept of causa, in other words, the force of a calculable causality, and thus also every binding norm” (PR 17). If this is the case, then the political will in Schmitt, too, is “Romantic” since it finds itself at home in such a negation.

7. Likewise, the “constitution is valid by virtue of the existing political will of that which establishes it. Every type of legal norm, even constitutional law, presupposes that such a will already exists” (CT 76).

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), esp. “The Will to Power as Knowledge,” pp. 262ff.

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