The Political Totalization of Carl Schmitt: Deciding on “the Absolutely Unpolitical”

While “the political” is among the most studied aspects of Carl Schmitt’s thought, little attention has been paid to the notion of “the unpolitical,” which, I argue, plays a crucial role in understanding the totalizing status of the political. This essay, first, illuminates the symptomology of Schmitt’s political totalization; it shows how, despite its claim to autonomy, the political emerges as the total: an infinite potential that consumes human life as a whole. Second, this essay argues that the institution of political totality essentially relies upon the elimination of its radical outside—the “absolutely unpolitical.” Throughout his writings Schmitt presents the unpolitical as a merely “fictitious” reality. Meanwhile, what remains obscured is an originary event, the decision on the absolutely unpolitical, which institutes a pre-political field and thus grounds any subsequent political decision.

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Telos 175 (Summer 2016): Political Theory, Political Theology

Critical theory inherited the mission of philosophy to know the world and to pursue the good life. Careful examination should shed light on the cosmos and our place within it and contribute to a beneficial ordering of human concerns, when wisdom informs governance. Yet that aspiration to know the world encountered the limits of intelligibility, beyond which reason could not proceed. Meanwhile, the efforts to remake the world in the spirit of reason elicited processes of rationalization, as deleterious to the world around us, the natural environment, as to the world within us, the ongoing cultural crisis of modernity and its social corollaries. That is Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment at the foundation of the critical theoretical tradition that continues to provide a framework with which to articulate a critique of the contemporary in its many heterogeneous facets: the disruption of all forms of solidarity, the pressures on family structures, the erosion of educational opportunities, the growing gap between rich and poor. Add to this the ominous shifts in the international order, including the breakdown of state structures from North Africa through the Middle East, the strains on the European Union, and the return of a repressive semi-dictatorship in Russia, while—at this point in the presidential election season—the United States seems to be tumbling dangerously toward Weimar conditions.

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Reading Schmitt contra Schmitt

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.

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Sklar: Capitalism-Socialism Mix

This is the third in a series of posts that introduce the thought of historian Martin J. Sklar, as a prelude to a print symposium on his life and work in a future issue of Telos. For a fuller introduction, refer to the head note to the first TELOSscope post. Whereas the first two posts showcased the historian’s engagement with philosophy, this post highlights one of his important contributions to political economy. Sklar profoundly reinterprets the idea of a “mixed economy,” on the basis of the new concepts of “capitalist investment component” (CIC) and “socialist investment component” (SIC). In so doing, he also clarifies the meanings of capitalism and socialism as political-economic systems. Like conventional “mixed economy” theorists, Sklar came to believe that there would be a long historical period during which advanced societies would combine features of capitalism and features of socialism, with the later gaining gradual ascendancy. His understanding of which features belong to which system, however, upends conventional theories of government = socialism, “private” sector = capitalism.

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Comparative Understandings of the Human Political Actor: An Entryway into the Critique of Totalizing, Modernist Monopolies over Ethics and Politics

Consider the Aristotelian maxim that humankind “is by nature a political animal,” whose capacity for speech, unique “among the animals[,] . . . serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust.” If one accepts this dictum (and, crucial to this article’s line of thinking, by no means must one necessarily adhere to Aristotle’s rationalist model of “man,” nor any other universalist account of humanness), then the ceaseless question remains: what specific sort(s) of speaking, morally reasoning animal might the human be read as constituting, from within the interpretive mindset of a particular historical and civilizational milieu? Of course, this question presupposes, in a manner that may well be at odds with the anthropological premises of a universalist modern political doctrine like human rights, that, rather than exhibiting a fixed, unitary essence, the human acts as a signifier; as such, this human signifier might potentially refer to myriad worldviews, and sources and assemblages of contextualizing meaning, across which the understanding of humanness can be differently constructed and construed.

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Saving Mediation: The Topicality of Max Horkheimer’s Post-liberal Concept of the Political

If we want to gain a deeper understanding of the specific relationship between the ethical and the political in current times, we have to talk about the mediating agencies that enable this relationship. And if what the announcement for the Telos Conference 2016 in New York states were really true, namely, that at “the theoretical level, political reality has come to be seen as divorced from ethical life,” we need to ask: what has happened to these mediating agencies? That is exactly what the German philosopher Max Horkheimer was doing with his racket theory. He never explicitly referenced the “ethical” as a philosophical category. Yet he was able to show that in post-liberal societies, the social instances that made the relationship between the political and the ethical possible in the first place, are being destroyed—or they are at least tending towards a loss of their reflexive function. For Horkheimer this is at the core of what he called the racket society: that ultimately, every reference to universality and to society, or in German to the Allgemeinheit, is lost.

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