Understanding Schmitt’s Friend-Enemy Distinction

Carl Schmitt later in life

Carl Schmitt, a 20th century jurist and political philosopher, has been making a comeback among those involved in the New Right. Some are embracing his thought while others are pushing back, saying that his association with the Nazis is disqualifying and that his thought is actually dangerous to traditionalism. Especially controversial is his idea of the friend-enemy distinction, with some arguing that this view of the nature of the political is not only wrong, but contrary to Christian and classical views.

In this post, I aim to explain the friend-enemy distinction. This post is not going to be a judgement on the distinction nor will my own views be the focus here. I simply wish to represent Schmitt’s argument as best as possible so that you, the reader, are able to understand it better and come to your own conclusion, since there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the distinction.

Carl Schmitt fully proposed the idea of the friend-enemy distinction in his 1927 work The Concept of the Political, which was then updated in 1932. I will be using the Chicago Press edition, translated by George Schwab.

In Concept, Schmitt immediately begins by stating that he is concerned with the “nature of the political” and shortly after speaks about the State, saying that, “In its literal sense and in its historical appearance the state is a specific entity of a people.” Schwab notes here that Schmitt is speaking of the “modern national sovereign state and not the political entities of the medieval or ancient periods.” This is important to grasp because it means that much of what Schmitt talks about is not necessarily meant to be applied to earlier times in history. Schmitt then transitions to the definition of the political, saying that it is “generally juxtaposed to ‘state’ or at least is brought into relation with it. The state thus appears as something political, and the political as something pertaining to the state—obviously an unsatisfactory circle.” What he means here is that most people have simply understood the political to mean anything having to do with the State, and the State as an inherently political entity. You may even think this way. Schmitt, however, does not. He says “The equation state = politics becomes erroneous and deceptive at exactly the moment when state and society penetrate each other. What had been up to that point affairs of state become thereby social matters, and vice versa, what had been purely social matters become affairs of state—as must necessarily occur in a democratically organized unit. Heretofore ostensibly neutral domains—religion, culture, education, the economy—then cease to be neutral in the sense that they do not pertain to state and to politics.”

This issue, he says, results in the total state, that is, the state which embraces every domain that was once (or never?) neutral. In the total state, everything is political. Therefore, if anything can be at least potentially political, then saying that state=political or that political=state would be incorrect. Schmitt indicates that it was really in the 20th century that the total state emerges, and that it is actually democracy which brings about the total state, because democracy “must do away with all the typical distinctions and depoliticization characteristics of the liberal nineteenth century.” He then quotes a certain Jacob Buckhardt, who defined democracy: “Democracy, i.e., a doctrine nourished by a thousand springs, and varying greatly with the social status of its adherents. Only in one respect was it consistent, namely, in the insatiability of its demand for state control of the individual. Thus it blurs the boundaries between state and society and looks to the state for the things that society will most likely refuse to do” and “The state’s form thus becomes increasingly questionable and its radius of power ever broader.”

With this, Schmitt concludes that “The political must rest on its own ultimate distinctions, to which all action with a specifically political meaning can be traced.” To illustrate his point he says, “Let us assume that in the realm of morality the final distinctions are between good and evil, in aesthetics beautiful and ugly, in economics profitable and unprofitable. The question is whether there is also a special distinction which can serve as a simple criterion of the political and of what it consists.”

The distinction that Schmitt posits is “between friend and enemy.”

He explicitly states that “This provides a definition in the sense of a criterion and not as an exhaustive definition or one indicate of substantial content.”

Interestingly, and contrary to what some may think, Schmitt explains, “The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.” That last point is most important. What distinguishes the enemy is that there is the possibility of conflict. Schmitt, here, does not mean some symbolic conflict either. He is not speaking metaphorically or with hyperbole. He means literal, actual conflict; war, armed conflict, physical combat, whatever you wish to call it. Because of this, “The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. 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.” In other words, Schmitt is not speaking of a private enemy, someone you disagree with, someone you have difficulties with, or even someone you compete with or have confrontations with on a personal/private basis. Rather, he means a public enemy, an enemy of the nation and of the state. In fact, “the enemy in the political sense need not be hated personally.”

Some may respond that Christ commands we love our enemy. Schmitt does not disagree that Christ commands this. Rather, Schmitt points out that Christ speaks of the private and personal enemy, not the political enemy. He also points out that despite Christ’s command to love your enemy, “Never in the thousand-year struggle between Christians and Moslems did it occur to Christians to surrender rather than defend Europe out of love towards the Saracens or Turks.” The command of Christ to love our enemies “does not mean that one should love and support the enemies of one’s own people.” To add another example of my own, the idea of loving your enemy does not in any way mean that the early Christian must love the Roman Empire and government, or, even further, that the Christian must love Satan and his legions, the ultimate collective enemy of the Christian. Does not Christ also say “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Clearly this does not mean we must personally hate each individual who is a part of “the world” but we must hate the world as a collective force which stands in opposition to Christ and the Church.

With that understood, the main point one needs to understand is that, for Schmitt, real and physical combat is the determining factor in the concept of the enemy. “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy. It is the most extreme consequence of enmity. It does not have to be common, normal, something ideal, or desirable. But it must nevertheless remain a real possibility for as long as the concept of the enemy remains valid.” Those who reduce the friend-enemy distinction to mere disagreement and competition are embracing a liberal conception of battle which is detached from the real meaning. The friend-enemy distinction is real, physical combat and war, not just a debate with a political or economic opponent, and not even a heated election.

Many seem to believe—erroneously—that Schmitt advocates for constant warfare, or that he does not have any conception of politics outside war with the enemy. This could not be further from the truth. In actuality, Schmitt says “It is by no means as though the political signifies nothing but devastating war and every political deed a military action, by no means as though every nation would be uninterruptedly faced with the friend-enemy alternative vis-à-vis every other nation. And, after all, could not the politically reasonable course reside in avoiding war?” As we see very clearly here, Schmitt does not advocate for constant warfare with the enemy, or that States are always at odds with other countries where the friend-enemy distinction is concerned. In fact, he points out that sometimes, peace is the desirable option! “The definition of the political suggested here neither favors war nor militarism, neither imperialism nor pacifism. Nor is it an attempt to idealize the victorious war or the successful revolution as a ‘social ideal,’ since neither war nor revolution is something social or something ideal.” This is very revealing, and a point that you scarcely hear when anyone is talking about Schmitt (especially online). He explicitly states that war is NOT ideal and that his distinction in no way glorifies war or revolution. Yet we are led to believe by some that the friend-enemy distinction is a bloodthirsty, warmongering, war touting idea. Again, with striking clarity, Schmitt proclaims that “War is neither the aim nor the purpose nor the even the very content of politics.”

Additionally, some people seem to believe that Schmitt thinks there must always be an enemy, that the State must by necessity be at odds with someone. This is, again, a total myth. “The criterion of the friend-and-enemy distinction in no way implies…that a state of neutrality is not possible or could not be politically reasonable.” Furthermore, Schmitt says that, “A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated, a completely pacified globe, would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.” This situation, he says, may or may not be desirable. He is unconcerned with whether one finds this to be the ideal world or not. He merely believes that the friend-enemy distinction is the defining antithesis of the political.

Who can make the friend-enemy distinction? Well, that is a bit more complicated. The ability to distinguish an enemy, and to be capable of compelling others to go to war against the enemy, is the nature of the political to Schmitt. Most people, then, would assume that the power to distinguish the enemy falls exclusively in the realm of State power. However, Schmitt posits a very different position. He says that, “Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.” Additionally, “A religious community which wages wars against members of other religious communities or engages in others wars is already more than a religious community; it is a political entity. It is a political entity when it possesses, even if only negatively, the capacity of promoting the decisive step, when it is in the position of forbidding its members to participate in wars, i.e., of decisively denying the enemy quality of a certain adversary.” Moreover, on the topic of religion, he says that “religious convictions can easily determine the politics of an allegedly neutral state. What matters is only the possibility of conflict.”

Despite many different spheres being capable of identifying enemies and grouping people into the class of friend or enemy, only the State is truly capable of making the final decision to wage war and demand its members to fight and die against the enemy. It is after this point that Schmitt states that the ultimate goal of the State is “assuring total peace within the state and its territory.” Thus, the State is also capable of identifying internal enemies, i.e. those who are a threat to domestic peace a security. Criminals are an excellent example of such people. The state identifies the law-abiding citizen as the “friend” and the criminal as the “enemy” and wages a very physical war against these criminals, which may, and often does, result in the death of members of either party, state or criminal. In many ways the modern militarization of the police is a very real reminder of this reality.

Now, one may challenge Schmitt’s point about the State as the only entity capable of declaring and waging war, and say that the Church actually did this when it proclaimed a crusade and went to war with the Turks. Here’s what Schmitt says about religious entities on this matter: “A religious community, a church, can exhort a member to die for his belief and become a martyr, but only for the salvation of his own soul, not for the religious community in its quality as an earthly power; otherwise it assume a political dimension. Its holy wars and crusades are actions which presuppose an enemy decision, just as do other wars.”

In a crusade-like situation, the Church becomes a political entity and may even be synonymous with or intertwined with the state in such a way that it, too, possesses the power to declare war and compel its members to fight. Schmitt does not rule out the possibility of a religion possessing state power. There are clear instances where a state can do this. Sharia Law is a great example, as is any state where a religious leader is simultaneously a political leader. All Schmitt means to say is that when an entity is capable of distinguishing friend and enemy it becomes political, and it may even become so political that is assumes some level of sovereignty and power that is parallel to that of the state. The state may even be indistinguishable from a religious community (see the papal states or Afghanistan under Taliban rule).

Coming back to the friend-enemy distinction, Schmitt emphasizes that “Were [the friend-enemy] distinction to vanish then political life would vanish altogether.” He argues that, “For as long as a people exists in the political sphere, this people must, even if only in the most extreme case—and whether this point has been reached has to be decided by it—determine by itself the distinction of friend and enemy. Therein resides the essence of its political existence. When it no longer possesses the capacity or the will to make this distinction, it ceases to exist politically.” Anyone who believes they can simply avoid the distinction, or even refuse to make it, will not bring about peace as they intend. Rather, they will simply be overpowered and dominated by another group that is willing to make the distinction and subsequently go to war. Refusal to distinguish is a political failure. It is such a failure that “everywhere in political history, in foreign as well as domestic politics, the incapacity or the unwillingness to make this distinction is a symptom of the political end.”

Therefore, for Schmitt, the most basic and fundamental purpose of the political is the capability of distinguishing between friend and enemy and then whether to declare war or not. If war is declared, the State then has the power to force its people to die fighting the enemy. If a State fails at any of these tasks or is simply incapable of making the distinction, declaring war, or compelling its people to die in war, then it is in serious peril. Remember: the State need not always declare an enemy, nor does it need to always be at war. It only needs to be capable of identifying an enemy if one really exists and then being capable of potentially going to war, even if this is the most extreme circumstance and worst-case-scenario.

With that, I will bring this post to a close. My purpose here was to explain Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction, not to argue in its favor or address arguments commonly made against it. I will likely be treating Schmitt’s analysis of liberalism and his response to objections to the distinction in a separate article. Additionally, I will be writing about my own thoughts on the distinction as well as some arguments against it that I have encountered online.

Carl Schmitt is an author who has fascinated me as of late, and I have already read four of his books, those being Concept of the Political, Political Theology, Political Theology II, and The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes. I plan to continue writing about Schmitt’s political philosophy, likely after I finish Dictatorship. He is a brilliant thinker and has a lot to offer to the Right both in his theories and in his critiques of liberalism. I look forward to publishing additional articles and essays on him in the future.

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