“Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”Carl Schmitt
Political Theology was first published in 1922 during the early years of the Weimar Republic. This work deals with questions of sovereignty, the state of exception, liberalism, secularization, the purpose of the State, and the development of political thought in relation to theology. It is one of his more well-known works, though it has received less attention than Concept of the Political at least in contemporary Right-wing discourse. Most people on the Right have some idea of the friend-enemy distinction but are less familiar with the concepts Schmitt develops in Political Theology. One thing that amazes me about this work is that it is a mere 61 pages in the Chicago Press edition. Schmitt has the incredible ability of writing in a concise and yet dense manner. Every paragraph is filled with information, and there is very little fluff. This is something I really appreciate about him, though it also makes it difficult to summarize his work because inevitably important content is left out.
Here, though, I will attempt to summarize his arguments in Political Theology and give them a decent analysis. I am using the Chicago Press edition, translated by George Schwab.
Schmitt begins Political Theology with his hard-hitting definition of sovereignty. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.” And what is the exception? He characterizes it as “a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like.” This state of exception is not codified in the existing legal order. It is extra-legal. Moreover, it is outside any constitution, and in the state of exception the sovereign has unlimited power. There is no one higher than the sovereign and no one to check the sovereign in this state. Moreover, the sovereign is the one who has the ability to decide when there is a state of exception. Only the sovereign is capable of declaring when there is a case of extreme peril or some existential threat to the state.
Before moving on to the next point, I want you to try and think of who in your current government is the sovereign by this definition. Who has the power to decide and declare a state of exception and act without limits in that situation? The President? The Governor? The Prime Minister? A judge? If you are struggling to identify an official or figure who has this power, fear not, for this is exactly what Schmitt says we should expect in liberal democracy.
“All tendencies of modern constitutional development point toward eliminating the sovereign in this sense.” In other words, one of the foremost goals of modern constitutions is to actively eliminate the sovereign, to remove the possibility of a figure who can decide the state of exception and act without legal limits. Schmitt explains that his conception of sovereignty is not really a novel one, and that people like Jean Bodin had already recognized this conception of sovereignty. The question that Bodin always asked was, “To what extent is the sovereign bound to laws, and to what extent is he responsible to the estates?” Bodin concluded that while the sovereign does have some responsibilities to the estates due to natural law, these commitments cease in the emergency situation. Another important point that Bodin makes is that it would be absurd if the prince (the sovereign) had to consult some senate or legislative body prior to acting in the state of emergency. To Bodin this means the state has been divided and different persons can rule simultaneously—the people and the prince rule at different times. This is a total contradiction in his eyes.
Schmitt understands that sometimes the state will have controversies between different parties. There will be antagonisms (he says that it is in these antagonisms that we find Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes). However, “sovereignty (and thus the state itself) resides in deciding this controversy, that is, in determining definitively what constitutes public order and security, in determining when they are disturbed, and so on.” The state of exception can only be understood as a very real, very physical, very practical event. To illustrate what a state of exception is and would look like, imagine, say, the threat of a civil war. Say there is some competent, organized political group which is either preparing to rebel or actively rebelling. It may not even be actively attempting to overthrow the government. It may just be causing political violence and chaos or killing political opponents. The sovereign is the person (or persons) who is able to identify this threat and address it without limits. The sovereign would be able to declare that this group is a threat and then take every measure to combat the threat and save the State, even actions that normally would be illegal or unconstitutional. The sovereign would be able to act in an unlimited manner and with haste, and no one would be able to stop the sovereign or hinder those actions in a legal manner. To Schmitt, what characterizes the exception best is this unlimited authority. The biggest question then is, “Who is supposed to have unlimited power?”
There is another side to the coin here. If the sovereign decides the exception, both when there is an exception and what to do during the exception, then doesn’t the sovereign also decide when things are normal? In other words, because the sovereign is able to declare when things are not normal, that means the sovereign is also able to decide when things are normal. “For a legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist, and he is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists.” The sovereign, or the sovereignty of the state, is therefore not found in the power to rule, but in “the monopoly to decide.”
Schmitt then goes on to attack the rationalist Kantians who fail to understand this exception and the monopoly of the sovereign to decide when the exception exists. The rationalists believe that the legal order can set up contingencies and “suspend itself.” The idea that the legal order can just “suspend itself” and that the emergency, that which is out of the law, can be decided by the legal order, is completely incoherent. But this is a hallmark of liberal constitutionalism. Think back to just moments ago when you tried to imagine who in your State is sovereign. If you failed to come to some certain conclusion, this is because liberal constitutionalism wants to eliminate the sovereign, but also to “regulate the exception as precisely as possible.” Our current political-legal order attempts to “spell out in detail the case in which law suspends itself.”
Another issue that Schmitt focuses on is the idea that science is concerned with the norm (here of course we speak of the science of law and politics). Schmitt disagrees. As you may guess, he believes it is the exception, the abnormal, which is more important than the rule. “The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception.” In other words, rules are defined by exceptions. Exceptions can be imagined as bounds inside which a rule exists. Law says murder is illegal. But there are exceptions. Not all killing is murder or illegal. And murder itself can be thought of as a sort of exception to the norm of lawfulness. You can do what you want, until you can’t, and this “can’t” defines what you can do. Exceptions help to elucidate the general rule and the norm. By knowing the exceptions, we come to know the norm. Constant discussions of norms without understanding exceptions are ultimately unfruitful. This is why sovereignty being defined by the exception is so powerful. Through this definition of sovereignty as unlimited power to decide and act on exception, we come to an understanding of a rule.
The second chapter is entitled “The Problem of Sovereignty as the Problem of the Legal Form and of the Decision.” In it, Schmitt begins by going over a short history of the concept of sovereignty, and summarizes the old definition as being, “Sovereignty is the highest, legally independent, underived power.” What does this mean? On its face, we can understand it to be saying that sovereignty is power with no source, power above all other powers, and relying on no law or institution or legal foundation. It is an extremely broad definition though and can be applied to many different situations. “It is infinitely pliable, and therefore in practice, depending on the situation, either extremely useful or completely useless.” It also relies on power, which “proves nothing in law.” He illustrates this point by referencing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said that “Force is a physical power; the pistol that the robber holds is also a symbol of power.” What does he mean here? Who is the robber but a person committing an illegal act, someone going against the sovereign. Yet, when the robber holds that pistol and successfully robs, the robber is in that moment a higher power than the law because the robber has exerted force over the law, dominating it and bringing it under his own power. “The connection of actual power with the legally highest power is the fundamental problem of the concept of sovereignty.”
Some, like Hans Kelsen and Hugo Krabbe, have tried to solve the problem of the concept of sovereignty and advance the liberal solution of effectively repressing sovereignty. Krabbe, for instance, believed that the law, not the state, is sovereign. Sound familiar? If you are American or English, or any other Westerner, you have heard and likely believe in the so-called “rule of law.” What can this mean other than that the law rules, the law is sovereign. This is also, strangely enough, where theology enters the equation. Schmitt says, “The modern idea of the state, according to Krabbe, replaces personal force (of the king, of the authorities) with spiritual power.” He then goes on to quote Krabbe, who says, “We no longer live under the authority of persons, be they natural or artificial (legal) persons, but under the rule of laws, (spiritual) forces. This is the essence of the idea of the modern idea of the state.” Krabbe continues, saying, “These forces rule in the strictest sense of the word. Precisely because these forces emanate from the spiritual nature of man, they can be obeyed voluntarily.”
(Keep this idea of persons in your mind, especially the change that Krabbe describes and its relation to theology. It is vital and discussed further later on in the book.)
The growth of decentralization (Americans would understand this to be federalism) and self-government have only helped the idea of it being the laws which have power. In this conception, the state is just a law-making body. We conceive of the state as making laws or rewriting laws, not really in enforcing those laws. It is because of this that “The state is confined exclusively to producing laws.” This stems mostly from the Enlightenment emphasis on the legislative power. When you read Locke, when you read Rousseau, when you read the Federalist Papers, they are all very clear that the power to legislate—to make laws—is the most important power and the one that the state is most concerned with. This is why the architects of the American Constitution focused so heavily on the legislative branch as compared to the executive and especially the judicial. They sincerely believed the legislative to be the most powerful, rightly so in their mind, but also the most dangerous. Schmitt, naturally, recognized this tendency.
After finishing a discussion of association theory, which I have opted to omit for the sake of brevity, he points out the following about Locke, which closely relates to what I just observed. He says, “The law gives authority, said Locke, and he consciously used the word law antithetically to commissio, which means the personal command of the monarch. But he did not recognize that the law does not designate to whom it gives authority. It cannot be just anybody who can execute and realize every desired legal prescription.” In the United States today the law often describes who is responsible for the discharging of the law. But when it does, there is still someone who has the power to oversee those who have been given authority to act. If you have to be “given” authority by anyone and can have it revoked at any time by some legal procedure, you are not the sovereign. As for what Locke says about authority and law, remember in Chapter I when Krabbe said we no longer live under the authority of persons but of law. This is precisely what Locke means by saying that law gives authority and used the word law and not just the command of a monarch, a person.
Schmitt then differentiates between two different types of juristic scientific thought, and one of those types is the “decisionist” type (a term Schmitt coins) led by Thomas Hobbes, a major figure in Schmitt’s thought. Here we get into some more theology. Schmitt mentions Hobbes’ response to the idea of the separation of powers between the spiritual and temporal realm. Hobbes says that it is not possible to have one abstract power be superior or inferior to another. “For Subjection, Command, Right and Power are accidents not of Power but of Persons.” In other words, the ability to subject others, command others, have rights, and hold power are not abstract concepts floating out in space, but are attributes of very real people who have the very real and present ability to carry out or possess those things. Hobbes is, then, both a decisionist inasmuch as he believed authoritas, non veritas facit legem (authority, not truth, makes law) and a personalist inasmuch as he believed it is persons who hold authority. Schmitt, being a disciple of Hobbes, can largely be described in the same way. Both believe in “the concrete decision, one that emanates from a particular authority.” This is directly opposed to the Lockean concept of law and authority which was taken up again by Krabbe.
The third chapter begins with the incredibly powerful claim that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure…” The State has replaced God, and the study of law and the state is now analogous to systematic theology. Also very important is the analogy between miracles and the exception in jurisprudence. Schmitt says this particular analogy is key to understanding modern developments of state theory. This is because the modern world has rejected the miracle. It has rejected the exception. “The idea of the modern constitutional state triumphed together with deism, a theology and metaphysics that banished the miracle from the world. This theology and metaphysics rejected not only the transgression of the laws of nature through an exception brought about by direct intervention, as is found in the idea of a miracle, but also in the sovereign’s direct intervention in a valid legal order.” It is for precisely this reason that democracy has been so thoroughly embraced. “Democracy is the expression of a political relativism and a scientific orientation that are liberated from miracles and dogmas and based on human understanding and critical thought.”
One fascinating line quickly following this observation is that “There always exists the same inexplicable identity: lawgiver, executive power, police, pardoner, welfare institution. Thus, to an observer who takes the trouble to look at the total picture of contemporary jurisprudence, there appears a huge cloak-and-dagger drama, in which the state acts in many disguises but always as the same invisible person.” This is very important. Today, the State as a whole is the same Person Hobbes spoke about. It is less about a single individual and more about the State assuming a Personic nature.
After this, Schmitt delves into some heady concepts which, again, I will have to summarize by simply stating the conclusions he reaches. Essentially, every epoch has a distinct metaphysical outlook which determines the epoch’s concept of sovereignty. One epoch may have a metaphysics that lends itself towards monarchy, while another has a metaphysics that causes the consciousness of the society to find democracy to be the self-evident, dominant theory. One example Schmitt gives is of the 17th century absolute monarchies and how they mirror the God of Cartesian thought. For instance, Descartes wrote to Mersenne, “It is God who established these laws in nature just as a king establishes laws in his kingdom.” Then, during the Enlightenment and the development of deism, the sovereign (the king) was cast aside and, as Schmitt says, the machine was assumed to just run by itself. Then, Rousseau introduced the idea of the General Will, which postulated that the people are sovereign (though some, like my friend Drake, point out that such a concept actually originates with St. Bellarmine). With these developments, the personalism and the decisionism of Hobbes was forgotten. No longer does an absolute sovereign person intervene and provide unity against the competing interests within the state and nation. Now, the people are an organic unity, and the theistic and deistic God alike are no longer relevant where political metaphysics is concerned. With that being said, Schmitt notes that in America, for a time, the voice of the people was considered the voice of God, so some sort of theistic/deistic metaphysics remained in the beginning of the Republic though that has since disappeared. However, despite the movement of politics away from this God-informed metaphysics, the existence of God was still largely accepted.
It did not take long, though, for attacks on the very existence of God to take shape and be advanced with success. As we know, in the 19th century a number of thinkers completely rejected the existence of God and advanced a purely material view of the world. The German left-Hegelians are the most important here, especially Marx and Engels. Schmitt foresaw the consequences of these still relatively fresh developments at the time and believed that “Conceptions of transcendence will no longer be credible to most educated people, who will settle for either a more or less clear immanence-pantheism or a positivist indifference towards any metaphysics.” This has certainly proven to be true in our day.
It is in the 19th century development of the state, Schmitt says, that there are two characteristic moments: “the elimination of all theistic and transcendental conceptions and the formation of a new concept of legitimacy.” This concept of legitimacy would totally abandon royalism. It would no longer rely on kings, and as Donoso Cortés observed, “legitimacy no longer exists in the traditional sense” because traditional legitimacy was predicated upon royalty and kings. Cortés’ solution and alternative? Dictatorship.
The importance of this conclusion cannot be downplayed when it comes to Schmitt’s political thought. Schmitt wrote a book in 1921 entitled On Dictatorship where he fleshed out in great detail his thoughts on the idea of dictatorship, the Weimar Constitution, the state of emergency (aka the state of exception), and how the state of emergency would come to dominate political life in modern times. He believed it was necessary for every government to include in its constitution some dictatorial elements, and he even posited that “If the constitution of a state is democratic, then every exceptional negation of democratic principles, every exercise of state power independent of the approval of the majority, can be called dictatorship.” He also believed that when a state of exception/state of emergency was declared, it was not meant to preserve the existing legal order, but rather to establish a new one, to create a new Constitution. Dictatorship is a highly technical work and is very thorough, but ultimately it was written to make the idea of a dictatorship more palatable and to point out why dictatorship basically unavoidable and actually good and necessary. The conclusion of Cortés and the work of Schmitt on dictatorship will come into play later.
In the fourth chapter, Schmitt discusses the counterrevolutionary political philosophers, primarily Bonald, de Maistre, and Donoso Cortés. Very early in this chapter he makes a reference which I am absolutely obligated to share, that being of St. John Henry Newman. Newman asserted that there was no medium between atheism and catholicity. It is either/or, the decisiveness of which sounds to Schmitt more “like dictatorship than everlasting conversation.”
There are three main topics of discussion in this chapter. The first is how politics relates to a conception of man as either inherently good or inherently evil. The second is a discussion on liberalism and illiberalism. The third is dictatorship.
To the first of these, Schmitt says that “Every political idea in one way or another takes a position on the ‘nature’ of man and presupposes that he is either ‘by nature good’ or ‘by nature evil.’ This issue can only be clouded by pedagogic or economic explanations, but not evaded.” In the Enlightenment man was considered ignorant but capable of being “enlightened” by education and formation by the law, and therefore by the legislator. Then, during the 19th century and the rise of Marxism, we see an ideology which views man as formed entirely by economic and material factors but ultimately good, especially in the eyes of the atheistic anarchists. On the other hand, Bonald and Cortés held that man was not by nature good. Cortés was especially concerned with Original Sin, though Schmitt correctly points out that Cortés had a far more radical belief concerning Original Sin than the council of Trent. “The dogma of Original Sin promulgated by the Council of Trent is not radical in any simple way. In contrast to the Lutheran understanding, the dogma asserts not absolute worthlessness but only distortion, opacity, or injury, and leaves open the possibility of the natural good.” Cortés view of man as being thoroughly evil was, to Schmitt, “more horrible than anything that had ever been alleged by an absolutist philosophy of the state in justifying authoritarian rule.” Cortés was not alone though. “De Maistre too was capable of being shocked by the wickedness of man.” I cannot even begin to imagine how shocked de Maistre and Cortés would be today if they saw the state of Western Civilization. If anything, they would be proven correct. Schmitt was certainly a little amused by the hatred Cortés had for mankind. Of course, the implications of this view of humanity are predictable. If the masses are stupid and evil, then it is not much of a stretch to say that they are not capable of ruling.
Ultimately though, Schmitt sees a single decisive battle that existed at his time: “the bloody decisive battle that has flared up today between Catholicism and atheist socialism.” This is where liberalism comes in. According to Cortés, liberalism seeks not to decide this battle, but to prolong it and “begin a discussion.” To dialogue about the battle. This next part I found especially poignant and as relevant today as it was then. Cortés called the bourgeoisie the “discussing class” and proclaimed that “A class that shifts all political activity onto the plane of conversation in the press and in parliament is no match for social conflict.” Does this sound like anybody to you? To me it sounds like the conservatives of the past 70 years and probably even further back. Conservatives have contented themselves with writing in journals, founding magazines and websites, hosting radio shows, and compromising in Congress rather than taking decisive action to address the social conflicts that are taking place in society. Naturally, those social conflicts have worsened, and conservatives have lost time and time again on that front. These social conflicts can largely be put under the broader term of the Culture War.
Describing this class as it was in the 19th century, Schmitt says, “Although the liberal bourgeoisie wanted a god, its god could not become active; it wanted a monarch, but he had to be powerless; it demanded freedom and equality but limited voting rights to the propertied classes in order to ensure the influence of education and property on legislation, as if education and property entitled that class to repress the poor and uneducated; it abolished the aristocracy of blood and family but permitted the impudent rule of the moneyed aristocracy, the most ignorant and the most ordinary form of an aristocracy; it wanted neither the sovereignty of the king nor that of the people. What did it actually want?” The situation was so obvious that two enemies, Marx and Cortés, both saw the exact same inconsistencies (though they obviously had different conclusions). Because of the inconsistencies of the liberal bourgeoisie, they shifted between left and right and tried to take advantage of both sides. In other words, they wanted a compromise, the best (or to some the worst) of both worlds. Probably one of my favorite lines comes when Schmitt cites Cortés as believing that Liberalism only existed “in that short interim period in which it was possible to answer the question ‘Christ or Barabbas?’ with a proposal to adjourn or appoint a commission of investigation.” I let out an audible laugh after reading this, mostly because it so perfectly describes liberal politics. This does give a valuable insight into Cortés’ thought, though. If the decision is between Christ and Barabbas, if it is between Catholicism and atheist socialism, then there is no time for a committee or for adjournment. There is no time for debate or discussion. The decision must be made, the state of exception declared. But avoiding the decision, the state of exception, is precisely the goal of liberalism. Remember what Schmitt pointed out early on, that “one of the foremost goals of modern constitutions is to actively eliminate the sovereign, to remove the possibility of a sovereign who can decide the state of exception and act without legal limits.”
“The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.” Schmitt and Cortés hit the nail on the head here. I have sat in university classes before where liberalism was, more or less, described exactly this way, except it was meant to be a strength rather than a weakness. To the liberal, there is nothing worse than the bloody battle, than victory or defeat in a great conflict. Politics is not meant to decide much, especially not who is the enemy (and then taking action against the enemy, harkening back to Concept of the Political). To liberalism, politics is meant to keep the peace and to keep two opposing sides from battling. It is meant to find compromise and to ensure that no political disagreement ends in anything but a pleasant and happy solution. This may be a stretch but consider the issue of abortion and the recent decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. This court decision did not decide the issue. It merely pushed the issue to another group to decide, namely the states.
Meanwhile, “American financiers, industrial technicians, Marxists socialists, and anarcho-syndicalist revolutionaries unite in demanding that the biased rule of politics over unbiased economic management be done away with. There must no longer be political problems, only organizational-technical and economic-sociological problems.” They have largely succeeded. The World Economic Forum and the Great Reset are basically the end of this programme. The ultimate goal is the managerial State, the nanny state, where there is no politics, just money management and management of people through a Human Resources State. Schmitt even in his time observed that “The modern state seems to have actually become what Max Weber envisioned: a huge industrial plant.” We live in the wake of this today, though I believe political and ideological issues have once again made their way back in the form of the Culture War. We are no longer just debating trade policy and how big or small the social welfare system is. Even if it is mostly just rhetoric, we are now debating truly political issues like Critical Race Theory, Gender Ideology, and even the merits of liberalism itself (at least, this last thing is being discussed on the dissident Right). We may be moving out of the phase of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism that was primarily concerned with the economy, and into an era which once again fights over ideas. This would have been welcomed by Evola, who hoped for the return of ideological politics.
Oh, and as a random aside, Schmitt saw the calls for a return of matriarchy and the longhouse far before Bronze Age Pervert. “Anarchists today see in the patriarchal family and in the monogamy the actual state of sin,” (for they believed God and theology to be the only sin), “and… they preach the return of matriarchy, the supposedly paradisiacal original state…”
So, what is the opposite of liberalism? What is the alternative to atheistic socialism and the discussion state? What does Cortés see as the next step? Simple. The logical conclusion of Cortés’ thought is political dictatorship. “Donoso Cortés was convinced that the moment of the last battle had arrived; in the face of radical evil the only solution is dictatorship…” Authority, absolute authority and decision, is the alternative to anarchy, and thus an antithesis is formed. “De Maistre said that every government is necessarily absolute, and an anarchist says the same; but with the aid of his axiom of the good man and the corrupt government, the latter draws the opposite practical conclusion, namely, that all governments must be opposed for the reason that every government is a dictatorship. Every claim of a decision must be evil for the anarchist, because the right emerges by itself if the immanence of life is not disturbed by such claims.”
It is clear which path—authority or anarchism, dictatorship or anarchy—Schmitt preferred in his lifetime, especially during the interwar period. As I mentioned earlier, Schmitt wrote in favor of dictatorship and believed it a necessary part of any constitution. While Schmitt did not actually want the total dissolution of the Weimar Republic, he recognized that circumstances were growing increasingly volatile, and that the German nation was dealing with existential threats. Schmitt saw communism, anarchism, and the degeneracy of German society to be the “radical evil” that demanded the actions which he had laid the groundwork for justifying.
In Schmitt’s time, anarchism and communism were very real political threats. Understand that it was on November 6th, 1932, just 5 months before the Reichstag Fire and just two months before Hitler was appointed Chancellor, that the Communist party saw its highest ever share of seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis actually failed to form a coalition in 1932 and even lost seats in that election. It was not at all certain that they would achieve power at this point. The social and economic situation in Weimar Germany during the interwar period was in crisis, too. It was a terribly depressed and debauched time with widespread and organized political violence. Civil war was not out of the question in the very late years of the Republic. The communists and Nazis were both becoming more and more violent, and political assassinations were happening more and more frequently.
It is easy to see why a Right-winger like Schmitt—who was favorable towards dictatorship, believed firmly in the state of exception being both necessary and good, and believed the identification and then elimination of the enemy to be the primary function of the political—would back Hitler and the Nazi Party’s seizure of power and then, finally, the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler unrestricted emergency powers. The Enabling Act was supposedly a temporary one. But as we know now from reading Political Theology, the state of exception and the Sovereign, the true sovereign, cannot be limited. Once Hitler became the sovereign and was capable of deciding the exception, there was no turning back, no taking away his power through legal means because he was above the law; he was the law. All he had to do was continue the state of emergency indefinitely, which Schmitt predicted would be the case in On Dictatorship. Schmitt saw in Hitler the return of the sovereign, the person who could declare the state of exception and address political conflicts verging on civil war with unrestricted power. I believe this is at least a significant reason why he joined the NSDAP and supported the Hitler, who was, in his eyes, all that could prevent what he and Hobbes feared most: bellum omnium contra omnes.
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