First posted February 19, 2019
NB: This is an important commentary. Carl Schmitt’s elevation of animosity to a metaphysical dimension is much admired by intellectuals across the political spectrum, and commands influence (sometimes unacknowledged) left to right. An example of Schmitt’s ‘the political‘ as applied to the historiography of communal politics in colonial India may be read in my comments on this debate on the Muslim League in the 1940’s. Schmitt was avowedly anti-liberal, and my argument that Lenin was (practically rather than doctrinally) the first successful Schmittian of the twentieth century may be read here. The ease with which sundry academicians deploy ‘the political‘, as a theoretical axiom indicates the wide influence of authoritarian concepts in the liberal arts.
It is my contention – which I will argue later – that Schmitt’s infection of democratic theory with the celebration of ‘decisionism’ is a prime feature of authoritarian politics in the contemporary world. This includes all varieties of what we call communalism in India. The idea is to exempt political activity from all standards of decency and civil conduct. ‘The political‘ could well be rendered ‘the tyrannical’. Those who claim its protections are the spokesmen of violence and deceit masquerading as expediency. DS
In recent years there has been a resurgent interest in the writings of the Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt. In particular he sought to provide a legal foundation for the Nazi regime, and was known as the ‘crown-jurist of the Third Reich’. While we distil the relevance of his work for political theory, we must consider the various ways in which Nazism shaped his views, and acknowledge how his views in turn were constitutive to Nazism… his most well-known work is The Concept of the Political. In it he seeks to determine an‘essence’ of the political. Schmitt argued that the political is the primordial sphere upon which all other domains are based..
The reason that it influenced all other spheres was its capacity to distinguish between friends and enemies, or, in other words, that all spheres become ‘political’ once they have to face the problem of distinguishing between friend and foe. Since the political realm is the one most essential to identity-formation.. all other spheres must ultimately fall within its sphere. In a broader sense –and this is where the authoritarian element of his argument is most apparent – the central function of the State, and thereby of the democratic process, is that of identifying existential threats. Schmitt believed not only that strongmen leaders could thrive on the rhetorical figment of the enemy, but that the very essence of the political rests on the powers required to detect such a foe. He called this a ‘state of exception’.
When President Trump declared a national emergency for ‘virtual invasion purposes’, he gave new meaning to the Latin maxim ‘necessitas legem non habet’ (necessity has no law). There is only one sense in which Trump was speaking truthfully when he declared a national emergency to combat a ‘foreign invasion of our Southern border’. Many other Presidents before him have issued emergency decrees. President Obama signed one to fight the Swine Flu epidemic. So did President Carter during the Iran Hostage Crisis. And President Bush was reacting to a very ‘real’ crisis when he issued a national emergency following 9/11.
Yet when Trump declared the border crisis a national emergency, even he seemed aware that he was putting the cart in front of the horse. In order to run for President, he created a solution to a non-existing problem; a wall to keep ‘rapists’ from entering the United States. To do so he wanted a wall. And now as President, he required funding in order to build the wall, which meant that he must manufacture a national emergency in order to transcend the rule of law.
In that sense, Trump is fulfilling a campaign promise, not by constructing a border wall, so much as by constructing a border crisis: the rhetorical legitimization of extra-legal measures in order to enact the politics of an illegitimate Presidency. This power to determine between what constitutes a ‘real’ or an ‘imagined’ threat echoes the Napoleonic decree of 1811, in which only the Emperor could determine which cities were ‘legally’ at siege, and hence worth defending. So it matters little at this point whether or not there is a ‘real’ crisis at the border. The xenophobic phantasmagoria of ‘gang-monsters’ ‘invaders’ or ‘hordes’, allows Trump to circumvent the political process altogether and commit the United States to the slaying of a giant windmill.
But there is more at stake here than just a fool’s errand. In the interim, a domestic and partisan battle will ensue, equally destructive and factitious in nature. This form of politics, in which there is no tangible threat, but the paranoid illusion of existential foes constitutes not just a state of emergency, but also a state of exception; in other words, the true goal of the state of emergency is not to build a wall, but to render the ‘building of the wall’ into a perpetual state of political antagonism and reactionary infighting. In order to make sense of this we can look to the German legal theorist, and later legal ideologue of the Nazi regime, Carl Schmitt.
Schmitt and the ‘essence of the political’
In recent years there has been a resurgent interest in the writings of the Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt. In particular he sought to provide a legal foundation for the Nazi regime, and was known as the ‘crown-jurist of the Third Reich’. While we distill the relevance of his work for political theory, we must consider the various ways in which Nazism shaped his views, and acknowledge how his views in turn were constitutive to Nazism… read more: