Carl Schmitt allows us to see not only the tradition of criticizing current systems of value, which takes us from Nietzsche to Weber, but also the ironic elements in Kant’s first appendix in a new light. Under the heading of political romanticism, Schmitt attacks the supposed heroism of true political action as reinforcing the underlying condition of the ‘iron cage’. Likewise, the gesture of aestheticism, which as we have seen is important to Nietzsche’s critical reboot of responsibility, only reinforces a purely subjective and individual focus which in turn allows the objective devaluation of human life to go on as planned, according to Schmitt.

The problem lies with the very idea of two opposite poles of modernity: economic-technical thought on the one hand, and subjectivism and romanticism on the other hand. Schmitt’s goal is to move beyond this duality by way of his specific concept of the political[1]. It is designed to counteract the domination of an objective order, which is completely indifferent to life and produces “a silk blouse and poison gas” “with the same earnestness and precision”[2]. A philosophy of merely subjective ideals cannot counteract this development, but instead facilitates and co-produces it.

Let us briefly consider what this means. On the genealogical road we have thus far traveled, we have encountered a series of central distinctions that involve a notion of authentic and inauthentic politics. In Rousseau, the general will is opposed to the will of all; in Kant, the political moralist is opposed to the moral politician. Nietzsche problematizes the moral foundations of both of the preceding philosophies, but participates in the same kind of distinction by way of the ‘old’, ressentiment-driven notion of responsibility he rejects and the affirmative, aesthetic notion of responsibility that he advances[3]. In Weber, the real politician with Beruf to politics is opposed to both the political official and the naive child or airhead. All of these distinctions are normatively charged and their forcefulness relies precisely on the reality of the second term and the as yet unrealized or extremely rare nature of the first term.

Weber’s case shows this especially clearly, even though he is far from a systematic moral philosopher: his appeal to heroism reads like a sign of despair, a sign that authentic politics is almost impossible under present conditions. It is at most an ideal to be realized.

We have seen how in Rousseau and Kant the ideal is ‘given’ and in that sense straightforward, though decidedly less so in the latter than in the former. Kant already begins to withdraw from the idea that morality needs to monopolize politics, but still posits a moral horizon against which the moral politician must test himself. Nietzsche breaks up the givenness of morality entirely. In so doing, he makes ‘value stances’ strictly personal: they are, like Fichte’s Setzung, strictly subjective acts. That is what makes Weber’s stance so powerless when he turns to politics. Without his clearly delineated values, he is left in the objective world of the iron cage. The ideal of the authentic politician seems to have become ethereal and perhaps, following Nietzsche, more aesthetic than moral in the traditional sense of the term. In the context of discussing the tyranny of values, which we have discussed previously, Schmitt relates to Weber, his teacher, in explicit terms:

[T]he individual avoids the absolute value-freedom of scientific positivism and opposes it with his free, that is subjective world-view. The purely subjective freedom of value-determination leads, however, to an eternal struggle of values and world-views (…) The old gods rise from their graves and fight their old battles once again, but now disenchanted and now, as should be added, with new means of struggle which are no longer mere weapons but terrifying means of annihilation and extermination – dreadful products of value-free science and the industrialism and technology that it serves. (…) That the old gods have become disenchanted and become merely accepted values makes the conflict specter-like and the antagonists hopelessly polemical. This is the nightmare Max Weber’s depiction presents to us. (Schmitt 2011, 35)

The supposedly separate realms of the subjective and the objective are thus in truth entangled in two ways: merely subjective philosophy facilitates and co-produces objective devaluation of human life, and objective technology comes to the aid of the resuscitated warring gods, now understood as subjective ideals.

The way out of this Gordian knot is to formulate “a collective standpoint that will not participate in a subject/object dualism but will itself be the identical subject-object that transcends it philosophically and politically [;] an intersubjective standpoint (…)”[4].

This standpoint is provided, as briefly stipulated above, by the notion of the political. Schmitt’s intended non-participation in subject/object dualism can be invoked as an explanation for the opening of On the Concept of the Political [Zur Begriff des Politischen]. Partially in direct reference to Weber, the political is freed from its reliance on the ‘prior’ concept of the state[5]. Schmitt in fact reverses this relationship in his opening sentence: “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political”[6]. The political is thus not a property of an objectively existing political entity – nor is it, more obviously, an individual inclination.

The intersubjectivity of the political comes to the fore in concrete struggles of the political group, a “fighting totality of men”[7], with its enemies, unaided at this historical point in time by ahistorical values that can be used to adjudicate this conflict. There is only the conflict itself[8]. In that sense, Schmitt’s notion of the political is an analysis of “the order of human things”[9]. That in turn means that “the possibility of dying for what one [is]” constitutes the “final determining quality of the human”[10].

It is clear that for Schmitt, this possibility of politics and being truly human is under threat. His attacks on liberalism and the idea of a law without gaps (in Weber’s terms), as well as his emphasis on depoliticization, are all motivated by his perceived need to respond to that threat, while the political itself necessarily remains in play as a possibility. Schmitt, after all, insists that human nature is and remains “problematic” and defined by the drive to conflict[11]. The political is nothing other than this ‘dangerousness’ at the root of what it means to be human[12]. But is that not a repetition of what we saw in Rousseau: a ‘political’ notion of human nature that is used to ground politics? Is there still room for the political in such an account? This is a tricky question that we will attempt to answer in the next post.

[1] McCormick 2005, 31-32; 48-51

[2] McCormick 2005, 43

[3] This is not in itself a political distinction, but that is part of the Schmittian point that follows.

[4] McCormick 2005, 58

[5] Schmitt 2007a, 19-22, esp. note 2

[6] ibid, 19

[7] Strauss 2007, 112

[8] cf. Wolin 1990

[9] Schmitt 2007a, 96; Strauss 2007, 99

[10] Strong 2007, xvii

[11] Schmitt 2007a, 61; Viriasova 2016, 88; Mouffe 1999, 2

[12] cf. Strauss 2007, 112


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