Carl Schmitt – an unpleasant theorist

Politics and justice. An anti-liberal theme with variations
POLITICAL THEORY / Political is not a talk club for the philosopher Carl Schmitt. Rather, it is the action that shows us who we are and who is the enemy.


Carl Schmitt was a German philosopher and lawyer who worked from the early 20 century and had a great influence on contemporary intellectuals. However, he became a Nazi and defended the Nazi regime in the first few years after the takeover of 1933. In 1936, he fell into disgrace with the Nazis, but the connection always stuck with him, so he was ignored for a long time, or if he was referred to, it was always with reservations.

In recent decades, however, his interest in his thinking has recaptured thanks to his basic criticism and analysis of liberal democracy, even though Schmitt himself had only contempt for it. We have a notion that it is the state that governs politics, but Schmitt believes modern states rather appear as a kind of mediation body between a variety of different interests. We see this problem in the parliamentary system. Initially, this was intended for representatives to discuss ideas and then come up with the best solution for the state, regardless of parties and special interests. This is not how it works: Representatives are fighting for the interests of their party, and if any of them diverge from this, the party whip emerges.


According to liberalist theory, society can include anyone, and everyone has an equal right to fight for their interests. According to Schmitt, this is an expression of a view of life – it does not express any will of the people, as we expect from democracy. Democracy requires a people who share a set of basic interests, and consequently this people will be in opposition to those who do not share them. The latter will constitute the enemies of the people. Political action consists in maintaining its own existence to consolidate the people and keep the enemies at a distance. War – or the threat of war – will therefore be the normal state, not the exception.

Schmitt therefore sees no fundamental difference between democracy and dictatorship. As long as one cannot practice direct democracy, one assumes that the will of the people can be expressed through delegates. But if possible, it is also possible that the will of the people can be expressed through only one representative. Schmitt refers to Rousseau's notion of public will: It does not have to coincide with the majority's opinion.

Schmitt exemplifies revolutionary movements, in which a group designates itself as stewards and defenders of the interests of the people. It makes no sense to ask for the legality of such actions. A revolution re-embraces the old rules of the game and inserts its own instead. For Schmitt, this is a political act in its purest form: Here it is the state that takes control. The opposition to a democracy is not a dictatorship, but the perpetual discussion where all politics fades in the balance between special interests.

This collection of texts by Schmitt is published in parallel with a corresponding book with texts by Hannah Arendt. [See leader page 2.] She represents the opposite of Schmitt: The plurality of interests that make him the room for political implode is for Arendt precisely the guarantee against totalitarian politics, whether it comes from the right or the left.

The state of emergency

Towards the end of his thorough preface, Slagstad highlights how Schmitt's theories of the state of emergency – when the rule of law must give way to the state of power – have been renewed news after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, and terrorist attacks in several places in Europe. The Bush administration launched its global war on terror, announcing: "Anyone who is not with us is against us." According to Schmitt, it is in such an exceptional state that the constituent political power appears with its division into friend and foe. Only a leader with wide powers can make such moves, and Slagstad draws the line against President Donald Trump.

Steve Bannon, who helped Trump up for election victory, is a supporter of Schmitt and announced a double fight against enemies: from outside (the Islamists) and from within (the Washington elite and the media). Bannon saw Trump as a perfect tool in this fight, but said in an interview in 2017 that he was not at all sure if Trump understood this himself. "Trump may not have read a single line by Carl Schmitt, but he does represent a radicalized Schmitt, in that the decision monopoly has also become a 'monopoly of truth': the sovereign decides what is true – and what is fact," Slagstad writes .

Schmitt's texts are disturbing, but also enlightening, since he dissects ideas about the political system that we have taken for granted for a long time.

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