TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 142 (Spring 2008): Culture and Politics in Carl Schmitt

In the 1987 Telos special issue devoted to Carl Schmitt, G. L. Ulmen and Paul Piccone asked “Why Schmitt? Why Now?”—attempting to respond to the outrage sparked by this journal’s serious engagement with a thinker associated with Nazi Germany. In the intervening two decades, the censorious resistance to Schmitt has not subsided, but the urgency of his ideas has dramatically increased. With the replacement of the Cold War by the War on Terror and the ICBM with the suicide bomber, game-theory calculations and the realism of missile counts have given way to efforts to understand the enemy. [1] Culture precedes politics, life precedes law, theology precedes order. Ergo Schmitt.

Cultural issues lie at the heart of Schmitt’s concept of the political. This centrality of culture has been difficult to recognize, though, because culture always lies in a space that is essentially inaccessible to political calculations, discussable only in terms of such ideas as the decision or the state of exception. The trajectory of Schmitt’s work therefore consists of a series of incomplete attempts to understand the foundations of the decision and of the political in a mythic-theological-cultural dimension. He analyzes the theological foundations of current political forms in Political Theology and Roman Catholicism and Political Form. He examines extraparliamentary movements as the shapers of politics: Nazis in Staat, Bewegung, Volk and Communists in Theory of the Partisan. He looks to traditional bases of law in The Three Forms of Juristic Thought and posits a kind of mythic relation to the land as the basis of order in The Nomos of the Earth. [2] Although he never achieved a conclusive account of the cultural basis of law and political order, he recognized the inadequacy of considering a political order as a self-sufficient system. The intensity of his engagement with this problem and the variety of solutions that he offers generated a conceptual toolbox for understanding the cultural and theological structures that drive politics today.

This issue of Telos addresses the relation between culture and politics in Schmitt’s work from differing perspectives. Benjamin Arditi begins by presenting Schmitt as a “post-foundational” thinker of political and cultural identity. Schmitt defines the political as an “intensity” of some previously existing antagonism. Culture, be it in the form of conventions or institutions, permeates the political, and Arditi, building on Leo Strauss’s critique, uncovers a hidden substantive morality in Schmitt’s defense of the state that belies his formalism. Similarly, an individual’s willingness to take risks for a particular system depends on cultural representations that make sacrifices credible. Michael Marder describes this link between representation and the political by examining Schmitt’s idea of the complexio oppositorum: A culture that is internally heterogeneous can still remain coherent by retaining opposing figures without trying to impose a synthesis. Rather than concepts and abstract ideas, figures and rhetoric are the primary constituents of political form. Marder links this cultural model to a vision of multiculturalism that maintains cultural difference within a political entity in a way reminiscent of the federal populism that Piccone described in the 1990s. Yet Schmitt’s differential concept of the enemy gets muddled when Marder designates liberal universalism as the ultimate enemy of cultural diversity. While Marder locates plurality within a political entity, Schmitt clearly focuses on difference between states and only to the extent that each individual state is internally homogeneous.

David Pan explores politics as representation—rather than as violence—by identifying the ethical context and popular support for decisions. The state of exception involves competing conceptions of culture, among which the sovereign must decide, and the validity of this decision depends upon the ability of the national community to act as a viable political entity. The decision establishes values by creating a unique and substantive form that translates the popular will—which preexists the decision and therefore constrains the sovereign—into an institutional framework. Therefore, a cultural and partially aesthetic representational aspect precedes the foundational moment of politics.

Far from subordinating aesthetics to politics, Schmitt develops a dialectical model in which, first, art’s lacunae are identified as the place of the political and, second, art plays a political role by influencing political thinking through its specifically aesthetic mode of representation. Though Johannes Türk does not attempt to elaborate this connection between Schmitt’s aesthetics and his political theory, his innovative reading of Hamlet oder Hekuba points out how Schmitt’s concept of representation includes a nuanced theory of the specific difference between art and politics, on the one hand, and their points of conversion, on the other.

Both Hans Sluga and Christian Emden demonstrate Hannah Arendt’s borrowings from Schmitt. For Emden, Schmitt’s analysis of the state of exception and the underlying importance of sovereignty for stability provide an accurate depiction of how Weimar constitutionalism failed to resist extraparliamentary movements because it could not make an effective appeal to substantive values, relying instead only on proceduralism. He claims that Arendt adopts this critique of liberalism in her Origins of Totalitarianism and follows Schmitt by seeking a prepolitical foundation for legal order. Her focus on political action in The Human Condition turns out to be a version of Schmitt’s insistence on the importance of concrete life in Political Theology and The Concept of the Political. Similarly, Sluga argues that in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt accepts Schmitt’s conclusion in Staat, Bewegung, Volk that the political movement has become the new model of political organization in the twentieth century. For Arendt, the main danger to the political involves the so-called “social realm,” the infiltration into the political sphere of economic considerations and of methods of control taken from the realm of work. [3] This cultural-pessimistic critique of political decline resembles Schmitt’s own concerns with the impact of technological modernity and his concomitant defense of the political, without, however, a corresponding sense for the cultural foundations of the political and thus also of the regenerative element that culture provides.

Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky shows how Foucault, like Schmitt, develops a theory of state power that links the internal order of a state to the character of its external relations. Yet instead of pursuing the similarities, she attempts to differentiate Foucault from Schmitt. However, she may not be able to “save” Foucault from proximity to Schmitt. In fact, her essay effectively demonstrates the extent to which Foucault’s theories merge very well with Schmitt’s concepts of sovereignty. Where there are significant discrepancies, for instance in Foucault’s notion of a decline of sovereignty or in his diminishment of representation in favor of mechanisms of biopower, Schmitt’s theories offer a useful corrective to Foucault’s overly mechanistic account, which discounts the influence of individuals and representation in politics. On this last point, Deuber-Mankowsky’s critique of Schmitt’s formalism as a “victory over formless matter” that eradicates the concrete underestimates Schmitt’s idea of substantive form, so well described by Marder. Moreover, the focus on concrete practices also links Schmitt and Foucault, leading in both to some of their most notorious misjudgments: Schmitt’s support for extraparliamentary movements, such as the Nazis, and Foucault’s support for the Iranian revolution, not out of any particular ideological commitment to its goals, but as an irresponsible endorsement of any situation in which “people rebel,” regardless of content. Presumably a lynch mob would qualify as well.

Theo de Wit focuses on a Schmittian element in Alain Finkielkraut’s critique of a humanist ideology that, eager to outlaw inhuman behavior, introduces the enemy of humanity as an absolute enemy condemned to eradication. [4] Where Schmitt criticized the supporters of the League of Nations, Finkielkraut directs his critique at what he terms a “radical politics” of the Left that establishes racism and xenophobia as the new absolute enemy. As de Wit argues, Finkielkraut’s critique of the idea of humanity develops out of his commitment to a notion of the transcendence of the human individual, which he sets against “the seduction of immanence.”

These themes of the absolute enemy and the idea of transcendence are also central in Paul Gottfried’s review of books by Massimo Maraviglia and Alain de Benoist. Extending the Schmittian suspicion of liberal humanism that Finkielkraut foregrounds, Benoist criticizes U.S. foreign policy for pursuing the kind of demonization of enemies that Schmitt excoriated in his critique of humanism. Though Gottfried points out that the excesses of the United States cannot be compared to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, he nevertheless agrees that contemporary neo-Wilsonianism derives from certain aspects of the political and religious culture of the United States. This hypothesis of the cultural foundation of foreign policy is the same Schmittian insight that drives Benoist’s thinking and which is partly explained by Maraviglia as the consequence of Schmitt’s Catholicism. As both Gottfried and Maraviglia affirm, far from a theorist of pure power, Schmitt developed a critique of a purely immanent, mechanistic understanding of history on the basis of the Christian idea of the katexon: “a transcendent force sent from outside of history but also one who penetrated human events.”

The political events of the last two decades have demonstrated the failings of both an abstract universalism and a narrow-minded realism. The Schmittian thesis of a cultural basis of politics presents a compelling alternative. Gorbachev’s decision that the West was no longer an enemy was a sovereign termination of a state of exception. Ending the discourse of enemy—which Putin is apparently trying to resurrect—ended the Soviet Union. Ethnopolitics returned. The 1990s confusion in NATO also followed a Schmittian dynamic as the dissolution of an enemy led to an identity crisis among friends, until a new enemy volunteered. September 11 proved that the dream of the end of history had ignored how political conflicts are grounded in cultural differences, not rational calculations. Most recently, the conflicts in Iraq have been a painful reminder of the Schmittian idea that a political entity requires a degree of homogeneity—shared values—grounded in a popular will. Schmitt’s theories, developed in a similar situation of violently warring factions within Weimar Germany, seem to be especially suited to deciphering the situation in Iraq as a state of exception involving a conflict between multiple political-theological frameworks, all vying to establish sovereignty by defining the “real” enemy. The proposals to impose a trisection of Iraq on the basis of ethnic and religious segregation unwittingly echo the Schmittian ideal of homogeneous communities. What is clear, however, from Schmitt’s cultural-political perspective is that the decision over a liberal democratic (and presumably Iraqi nationalist), a Sunni, a Shiite, or a fragmented situation of sovereignty will not be decided by military force alone but through developments of popular will to power, when specific cultural commitments become so important that enough Iraqis decide to risk their lives defending them.


1. Michael M. Phillips, “In Counterinsurgency Class, Soldiers Think Like Taliban,” The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2007.

2. Mika Ojakangas has a good summary of this development in his “Philosophies of ‘Concrete’ Life: From Carl Schmitt to Jean-Luc Nancy,” Telos 132 (Fall 2005): 25–45.

3. Cf. James Barry, “The Growth of the Social Realm in Arendt’s Post-Mortem of the Modern Nation-State,” Telos 138 (Spring 2007): 97–120.

4. Cf. Dan Edelstein, “Hostis Humani Generis: Devils, Natural Right, and Terror in the French Revolution,” Telos 141 (Winter 2007): 57–81.

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