Carl Schmitt (1888-1985)

This student of Max Weber was a legal and politcal theorist of Weimar and Nazi Germany. This chap was a paid up, active Nazi – though his friends have tried to exonerate him of these charges.

Schmitt’s political theory was founded on the idea of exception (Ausnahmezustand) from where he launched an attack on liberalism. According to Schmitt unforeseen and sudden situations in the political render unstable any system build on pre-planned responses and fixed legal codes. The political rests on a fundamental contingency and basic conflict hence it cannot adopt apriori rules of procedure. Liberalism disregards this inherent contingency and does not account for exception in its constual of rules.

The direction all this leads, and the reason why Schmitt has been taken so seriously by political theory, is to the theorisation of the crisis and state of emergency as not exceptional moments in political life opposed to some stable normalcy, but themselves the predominant form of the life of modern nations. Thus emergency powers and so on have increasingly become the normal operation of the state. In respect to Sovereignty, it is “precisely the exception that makes relevant the subject of sovereignty, that is, the whole question of sovereignty”. In fact it is exception, tied to war, tied to the political that is the fundamental category of Schmitts work, yet it is never defined as such, as it allways has the character of being beyond the law, it is thus referred to as danger, or ‘extreme peril’ in fact, perhaps anything that confronts, undermines and destroys the rule. But it differs slightly from emergency which provokes the necessity of immediate responses to unforseen events, because ‘emergency’ still relates to an idea of normalacy (and to state attempts to return to the normal) that is essentially what the later work of Schmitt deigns to undermine.

The classical treatment of tates of emergency and of exception confer upon the sovereign or supreme leader to suspend certain aspects of the legal order, but he has no power to reverse or fundamentally changed that order, hence emergency has a duration after which normality is returned to (see Ogen Gross 1835-1839) – this follows the model of the Roman dictator as read by Machiavelli and Rousseau, as well as being found in the work of Locke wherein the ‘perogative power’ can act against the law at the discretion of the public good. In the work Political Theology, this earlier paradigm, accepted for instance in The Dictatorship, is dramatically revised: the exception becomes the rule and the normalcy becomes and empty and meaningless point of reference. This destruction of normality retains one principle element, that is the authority of the sovereign power (though this Schmitt tries to give a transcedental/theological authority). Schmitt seeks to legitimate the increase of the sovereign power, to not only temporalily suspend the constitution for the public good, but to actively revise or fundamentally change the rules of constitutional authority – the sovereign both defines what is the exception and defines what is the adequate response to it. In this case, law which was itself the normal basis of sovereign authority, is also subverted by the total power of the absolutist state, the destruction of the normal and the rightful response of the sovereign to govern totally, thus evinces completely the right of any kind of redress against his over-arching power.

Mouffe and Schmitt

We have not looked at it closely, but it seems that Chantal Mouffe takes the worst elements from Schmitt, i.e. not so much the crisis of sovereignty, but the basis of that in some kind of ever present Hobbesian social conflict, if we can't have class we can only think of social contradicitons as being everyone inherently being at one anothers throats. This idea of exception in Schmidt should be used against his results, i.e. against the idea of a separated sovereign authority, but Professor Mouffe wants to use it to re-establish lost sovereign authority.

This can be put clearer into focus by Mouffe's comments on the 'challenge' Schmitt poses to liberal democracy. By stating that Schmitt is an adversary who must be dealt with, Mouffe places herself fully in the liberal camp; "the strategy is definitely not to read Schmitt to attack liberal democracy, but to ask how it could be improved. To think both with and against Schmitt- this is the thrust of our common endeavour" (p. 6) Mouffe's apologetics, her thinking 'with' Schmitt is a wholescale appropriation of the characteristic conflict ridden and atomistic ontology of politics along with the insistence on the enduring specificity of the political and its status as constituted democratic power through representation. Her thinking against Schmitt lies in the belief that Liberal Democracy can overcome its drive to the state of exception and that the organised body of the people need not find its ultimate resolution in the total state. Specifically, this theoretical move posits 'agonism' over 'antagonism'. Agonism represents the plural constituted consensus driven by conflict over goals but shared belief in the efficacy of the system....'conflictual pluralism'. So what Mouffe would like to make us believe is that her interest in Schmitt is to 'rethink liberal democracy with a view to strengthening its institutions', which we will grant her in adversity, the more insiduous and astonishing element of her rapprochment with one of the most prominent supporters of Nazi Germany, is her appropriation of its view of human nature and the political as inherently and essentially areas of conflict. For all her critiques of essentialism, this is little more than the classic liberal justification for the state, the same ontology that provokes the facist demands for the total state. Rather than escape this formulation of the political, Mouffe asiduously affirms it. No critic of Schmitt, she is continuously arriving at his house through the back door.


Keywords: Exception, Friend/Enemy distinction, Sovereignty, Political Theology, Agamben, Decisionism, Total State, Legitimacy, Constituent Power

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (Political theology)

Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the state theory of Thomas Hobbes
Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy
Carl Schmitt, The Dictatorship
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the concept of sovereignty
Carl Schmitt, The concept of the political

Ogen Gross, The normless and Exceptionless exception – Cardozo Law Review [Vol.21:1825]
The challenge of Carl Schmitt - (ed) Chantal Mouffe - Verso May 1999

The State of Emergency - Giorgio Agamben

Schmitt and the Movement - Giorgio Agamben

Schmitt and post-structuralism: a response (SPIVAK)

Excerpt from From Walter Benjamin to Carl Schmitt, via Thomas Hobbes by Horst Bredekamp

The end of democracy and representation - A. Pandolfi


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