Man is a fallen creature. While our ultimate end goal– our telos– is to do good, to restore the image of God that resides in us, and to reconstitute the Garden of Eden, our status as fallen creatures makes doing the opposite our immediate tendency. Even St. Paul in his letter to the Romans laments “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The anthropological fact of man’s fall is the undergirding of the early to mid 20th century jurist Carl Schmitt’s understanding of the world.
The next important idea of Schmitt’s to understand is his concept of “the political” which is the distinction between friend and enemy. He calls this distinction “the most intense and extreme antagonism.” The friend-enemy distinction cannot be reduced to good and evil, beautiful and ugly, or profitable and unprofitable. The friend-enemy distinction can appear as a struggle between one of these listed antitheses, but the point Schmitt emphasizes is that from the intensities of any one of these antitheses the political, and hence the possibility for war, emerges. But the issue of enemies and friends is not a personal matter. Your unruly neighbors do not constitute your enemy and your best friend could very well be your political enemy. Rather, as Schmitt writes, “The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship.”
We cannot define electoral struggles between political parties as political in this Schmittian sense unless this internal strife becomes more intensive than that amongst foreign nations, as was the case in the 1860 US election or the 1936 Spanish election. While in our world today the centralized nation-state is the most common political unit, the political unit which decides the enemy and has the capacity to wage war is not limited to the modern state. “The political entity,” Schmitt writes, “is by its very nature the decisive entity, regardless of the sources from which it derives its last psychic motives.” A Marxist labor union that has the potential to engage in violent class struggle, a religious community able to call crusades and jihads, or even a pacifist movement that forbids its members from fighting (exercising the negative right to war) all qualify as political units.
While emphasizing the reality and the role that the political plays, Schmitt characterizes certain political traditions as an attempt to negate the political. In their revolt against human nature, however, they fail dramatically. Specifically he has in mind 19th century liberal-parlimentarism where economic industrialism combined with freedom, progress, and reason are employed to fight the old reactionary forces of the political to bring about a depoliticized and neutral state. We can see this tradition carried on in the 20th century by thinkers such as the economist and political theorist Ludwig von Mises who writes:
The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.
The problem here, however, is that shifting the nominal bounds of the friend-enemy distinction doesn’t solve anything. The destructive religious wars of the early 17th century saw states remove religious considerations from their foreign policy, but instead of bringing about secular peace, wars were fought in the name of nationalism instead. The problem of war will not be solved by shifting the friend enemy distinction from religious superstition to economics or ideology. The Napoleonic wars and the two world wars were just as, if not more, destructive than the 30 years war.
The confusion arises in thinking the source of the political is merely the antithesis, such as the Catholic-Protestant divide, rather than as the foil where the political manifests. Due to this failure, it is believed that destroying the particular dichotomy as a relevant factor and replacing it with a neutral ground (progress, capitalism, Marxism, etc) will eliminate the political. Schmitt is unconvinced and reminds us that every attempt of neutralization throughout history has failed, as new intensities always emerge extreme enough to create friend-enemy distinctions.
A parallel and contradictory tendency Schmitt notes is a deep irony in those who try to opportunistically use the battle cry of “humanity” for their political purposes. If you actually had the ability to represent humanity, in that humanity is unified with no inner distinctions that can reach the level of the political (and the possibility of war), then you will already be at the stage of depoliticization described in the paragraph above, for then there will be no possible enemy. Thus those who claim “humanity” to justify coercing an enemy are using humanity in an opportunistic way to cover whatever actual distinction is rising to the level of the political.
To achieve true depoliticization or neutralization would require a completely pacified globe where the possibility of war and the friend-enemy grouping totally disappear, where “there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.” In this world, the modern state would not exist, since the state presupposes the concept of the political and the potentiality of war. Instead, it would be a globe overseen by technical administrators overseeing the affairs of a depoliticized humanity based around a unifying concept (such as economics) where the antagonisms never reach the dangerous threshold of intensity. Even if theoretically possible, we have to ask, “upon whom will fall the frightening power implied in a world-embracing economic and technical organization.”
The point that Schmitt is making is that liberalism, Marxism, and any other ideology which believes it can bring about a global “end of history” through politically uniting humanity and removing any possible causes for internal conflicts is a fool’s-errand. Attempting to abolish the political will not achieve its goal, but it will only obfuscate our thinking about what politics is and lead us down a dangerous path.
Since it is impossible to avoid the possibility of war, attempting to abolish war will not actually end war, as the treaties after World War I attempted to do. Rather, it would gain its own political nature and justify a “war on war.” More dangerous are those who attempt to claim the ethnos of “humanity” since those who oppose them must therefore be opposing humanity and can’t be considered human at all. They will be an unjust enemy, rather than a just enemy, which will justify the most destructive wars of annihilation for there is no respect or even recognition of this enemy as human. This bleeds into Schmitt’s thinking on international relations where the best goal is not to abolish war, but to recognize that war is possible and valid, and to create international norms surrounding war in order to “bracket” it to limit the destructive nature of conflict.
The ultimate danger of those who claim to be on the side of humanity or to be able to bring about neutralization through technology, economics, morality, or any other medium is not only that it is impossible, but that the obfuscation of the political justifies total wars of annihilation. Only with a recognition of the political, the validation of war as a valid means of foreign policy, and a mutual respect among political units who engage in war can we hope to limit war. Only by affirming the existence of our enemies can we save humanity.
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