January 13, 2005

Carl Schmitt: taxonomy of the state

During the holiday season I watched a number of American law and order shows and films on free-to air-television. I was struck by their different (conservative?) understanding of state, civil society and family to that of liberalism. Most of the shows assumed thatthe state is bad (a Leviathan); that civil society is lawless and riddled with crime; and the family (or personal relationships)is the place of love, romance and goodness.

I exaggerate. A lot of crime also takes place in the institution of the family in these shows. However, in this conservative discourse the family is treated both in mythic terms and as the cornerstone of America. (Oh, as an aside the Constitution appears to be a Platonic document).

Now, rest assured, I'm not going to do an Adorno and engage in a critique of the trashy products of the culture industry and celebrate high culture by standing in the academy. It is the politics in these shows that I am interested in; the way that the dualistic liberal understanding of civil society (as good) and state (as bad) is undermined.

I have to admit that the effect of the conservatism of these shows was to create a nostalgic mood. I found myself becoming nostalgic for liberalism. Why? Because it retained some understanding of the opposition between state and society--a relationship of opposition---however crude that understanding of bad state and good society has been. Liberalism retained the idea that more power to the government meant less power to the people.

Sure, liberalism did not have much of a dialectical understanding. It has failed to grasp the way the dualism of state and civil society is an interaction of opposites; the way that this conflict has lead to changes in the character of both the state and society; and the changing historical relationship between state and civil society.

Is not the duality of state and society transformed by parliament. Does not the emergence of parliament as abody of power initially represent the way society sized the state's own legislative power for itself?

What I came back to in liberalism was the way it worked with an opposition between state and society to hold onto the idea that a free life involves living in a community that governs itself. It was heritage that we should hang onto and build on.

How do we do that?

One way is Foucault's governmentality approach.

This combines a microphysics of power with a macropolitical question of the state to look at power relations concentrated in the form of the state in terms of the practice of government. The neo-liberal state itself is a tactic of government that makes possible what is within the competence of the state and what is not.However, Foucualt does not adddress the nature of the state.

Another way is to think historically about the state/society relationship is by exploring the way this historical relationship is involves the nature of the state changing. A core failure of constitutional liberalism has been its inability to grasp the historical development of the diverse institutions of the state.

So we can address this issue by turning to Carl Schmitt's taxonomy of the state as outlined in his Four Articles 1931-1938. Oddly enough I've been reading this text in conjunction with watching the products of the culture industry. In the first article, 'On the Way to the Total State' Schmitt usefully classifies 'the state' into 5 categories based on their sphere of activity.

Thus we have:

*the judicial state, in which the main political activities are to adjudicate in keeping with concrete situations;

*the legislative state, which makes provisions by law for the perpetuation of a certain order based on pre-established norms;

*the administrative state, which is concerned with the objective management of public undertakings by the enactment of purely technical instructions;

*the governing state, which is the venue for the personal and an authoritarian will and commandment of a head of state;

*the state of exception, as an alternative to the judicial and legislative states, in which the effective normative system is challenged and replaced by the temporary replacement by a government of decree and emergency order backed by the authority of the court martial of summary justice.

As I'm reading Schmitt's Four Articles I could not but help notice the emergence of Schmitt into Australian political discourse based on a reading of Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. So what are these liberals saying about this figure that many find dangerous?

John Quiggin takes the opportunity to repost his earlier review of The Reckless Mind. In the section on Schmitt he states that:

"Lilla is equally good on another Nazi thinker, Carl Schmitt, who remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world, but is hugely influential in some European circles, both on the right and on the post-Marxist left. Schmitt's ideas themselves do not seem all that interesting - a melange of 'realist' international theory and authoritarian critiques of liberalism, with an underlay of religious irrationalism. What is more interesting is how such ideas have remained influential, and have spread from the right to the academic left, despite their obviously poisonous consequences. Lilla shows how the European New Left found Schmitt's critique of liberalism appealing, paving the way for the subsequent capitulation of postmodernism."

Has John read Schmitt I wonder? If not, how can he make that judgement?

Rafe Champion is content to summarize Lilla's account of what Rafe calls an 'alarming body of thought'. Why alarming? Rafe says:

"Schmitt is fundamentally a conflict theorist, with a Hobbesian view of society as a war of all against all, sans the potentially liberal vision of a sovereign role to keep the conflicts under control in a potentially benevolent or at least peaceful order. Enmity is the mainspring of action and identity, 'show me your enemy and you define yourself'. It appears that Schmitt's view is entirely 'essentialist', that is, it is based on an assumption that is held so strongly that it is not open to correction by evidence or argument."

Rafe has not read much Schmitt on the changing nature of the sovereign either as he misses the historical dialectics. Essentialism is used as a weapon.

What is useful about Schmitt's taxonomy of the state is the way he makes use of it. In the article 'Neutrality According to International Law and National Totality' Schmitt reworks the state of exception in terms of totality of state and nation.The total state is:

"...not a separate, distinctive state form. Rather it is a moment in the effective development of every type of state, marked by the moblization of all energies in a certain direction."(p.39)

This a moment is marked by the need to eliminate the executive and legislature distinction in favour of the executive and to restrict individual rights to confront and overcome a dangerous situation.

Is not this moment of totality what we are currently living through with the national security state in a situation of a war on terrorism?

This is why we read Schmitt. Far from being poisonous or dangerous he has good ideas and insights about political life.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 13, 2005 12:45 PM | TrackBack

"This is why we read Schmitt. Far from being poisonous or dangerous he has good ideas and insights about political life. "

So why did he support the Nazis? Were some of his ideas good and others poisonous and dangerous? Or was he acting in contradiction of his own thought? Or, did the Nazis have good ideas and insights about political life?

"is not this moment of totality what we are currently living through with the national security state in a situation of a war on terrorism?"

Given this analogy, I can see why Bush, Ashcroft and Gonzales migh like Schmitt. But why should opponents of these developments regard him as anything other than poisonous and dangerous?

Posted by: John Quiggin on January 13, 2005 03:20 PM

For the Nazi question the answer would be that we read Schmitt's texts and winnow and sift his ideas re good and bad in the light of our concrete situation.

Is that not what intellectual autonomy is about?

Schmitt was a Nazi, sure. But I do not judge your texts in terms of whether you are a social democrat. I read your texts for the usefulness of your insights and ideas into making sense and explaining the changes in our social democratic mode of life. Similarly with Schmitt.

Unless you are saying that we should not read his texts because he was a Nazi. You are not saying that, are you? You are not saying that we should be publicly chastised for trying to take seriously, study and critically understand the New Right as a relevant political entity, are you?

For the second question---'why should opponents of these developments regard him as anything other than poisonous and dangerous'?-- the answer is simple.

Schmitt's way of doing philosophy and law was through an analysis of concrete situations he lived through. His analyses of political life (Weimer liberalism) are often quite illuminating of that historical situation, bring a sophisticated grasp of political, legal and philosophical concepts to bear on that situation, and throw light on emerging trends in and between nation states.

Those philosophical concepts may be of use to us today to help us understand the political conservatism of the New Right.

On a more personal note Schmitt takes us outside the horizons of current public policy/political debates structured around free traders and libertarians who are in favour of freedoms on the one hand; and people who believe in the centralisation of power and the general restriction of freedoms on the other hand.

May I suggest that you read Schmitt's text before you pass judgement. What would be the argument that we should dismiss Schmitt's texts without reading hum. It sould like dumping the academic tradition of basing one's judgements on sustained arguments to me.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 13, 2005 04:00 PM

Well, it seems pretty clear to me that the ideas for which he is most commonly cited today (with respect to the state of exception) are bad now and were worse, in terms of their consequences, when he put them forward. What are the good ideas?

The fact that Schmitt, like other Nazis, was outside the horizons of current public debate does not strike me as a recommendation for extending those horizons.

Posted by: John Quiggin on January 13, 2005 08:08 PM

Your prejudices are showing. Am I seeing the Australian Left-liberal establishment's concern about the threat of a "new fascism," become a call for the exclusion from public discussion of ideas considered particularly repulsive, before they could be critically evaluated.

If so, then I consider that process as dangerous.

As I said above my touchstone is the concepts/categories that enable us to make sense of the concrete situations that I am living through. An example.

You say all of Schmitt's concepts are of no use. Really? That is closure.

What about the other good ideas, such as the critique of the assumptions of legal formalism and constitutional liberalism that the rule of law and legal procedures can adequately secure a political system's legitimacy.

We do go about reading Schmitt differently apart from me reading his texts and you reading the secondary literature. You are hostile to, or critical of, the category of 'the state of exception', in which extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. You think of Hitler and reject Schmitt, as the Nazi. I also think classical republican Rome, Republican Washington and Australia in wartime.

For us today the category, 'state of exception' means emergency measures are required to preserve a liberal constitutional order in times of crisis. What is required is an all-powerful sovereign who must rescue our constitutional order from its constitutional mechanisms.

What is bad about that idea? We have had states of exception in Australia. Do you not agree?

I think Bush and the way he has defined the emergency facing America, and the need to safeguard America in terms of the war of terror, is a good example of what Schmitt means by the state of exception.

In this case the state of exception means granting the president all necessary measures to restore public security and order with the aid of armed forces, as well as by provisionally suspending the citizen?s constitutional rights: government by executive decree in times of political crisis trump parliamentary statutes and procedures.

So I use the category of the state exception (with its roots in Roman jurisprudence and political theory) to try and make sense of the way Bush is hollowing out the republic through the national security state fighting the war on terror.

The state of exception, with its long political lineage, is outside the horizons of Australian liberalism. But it makes sense of what Bush is up to, what the Australian Govt has signed up to, and is working within. You can hear it's resonances in Ruddock's language yesterday, when he justified the imprisonment and treatment of Mamdouh Habib with his legal formalism. Surely you heard the resonances of the state of exception there?

So I ask: does your absolute rejection of Schmitt imply a left vigilante practice that indulges in the well-tested McCarthyite practices of conducting inquisitions aimed at no one in particular and, therefore, potentially everyone, to create a climate of ideological intimidation?

Surely not?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 13, 2005 10:47 PM

"Is not this moment of totality what we are currently living through with the national security state in a situation of a war on terrorism?"

I'm not sure what you're trying to say. I believe that some of the Bush people do think like Schmitt, but to me that's evidence against them. However, one peculiarity of the Bush GWOT is the refusal to ask much sacrifice from anyone except members of the military, while talking a lot of menaingless trash about terror.

I personally think that the threat of Islamic terror is being vastly exaggerated for nefarious political purposes, but again, when I start talking that way I put myself outside the American mainstream.

So anyway, to me Schmitt IS relevant to the present situation, but only in a bad way (i.e., as a disgraceful antecedent.)

Posted by: John Emerson on January 17, 2005 02:21 PM

I concur with what you say.

As for Schmitt, he is more than a bad antecedent. He understood the dynamic of war, statism and political conflict and he devised categories to deal with these situations.

We do have the option to winnow, sift and use those categories to understand the interplay of war and the growth of State power for different political purposes.

There is a shift in the nature of the state taking place under the conservatives in Canberra and Washington. It is one captured by the phrase re the US---from republic to empire. The rise of America as an expansive global hegemon means that the classical liberal idea of limited government goes right out the window. You cannot think of the American or Australian state in those terms any more.

We need new categories.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 18, 2005 09:16 AM

Carl Schmitt is certainly relevant to understanding what is happening here in the states today, but not in the way most people present it. Unlike liberals, Schmitt was aware that there is a danger of tyranny from civil society, from a takeover of the state by elements within civil society, who would then use the power of the state to oppress everybody else, both within and without.

The Bush regime is a group of well-connected insiders who are working together to advance the narrow, particularistic interests of those who elected them, primarily the oil industry, Wall Street and so-called "evangelical" whites in the rural south, midwest and west. Bush swings wildly from apocalyptic biblical language to that of liberalism in seeking to justify the actions of his administration, but the real causes can be determined by examining the interests of the coalition that elected him.

As far as the administration using Schmitt as some sort of guide to establish dominion, that is nonsense. They are not that smart. Yes, they understand cracker psychology quite well, but it must be remembered that they thought that the Iraqi people would tolerate a long occupation. Again, they thought that an Arab nation would long tolerate the american troops on Iraqi soil. These are not politically or philosophically sophisticated people. Sie verstehen den entscheidenden Unterschied zwischen Freund und Feind gar nicht.

As far as the hegemony of the US goes, you need have no fear of it, for it will be an ephemeral thing, as neither democrats nor republicans have any conception of the true interests of the state. We are busy shipping our national wealth--our industrial facilities, jobs and know-how--off to Asia as quickly as possible. The future belongs to the Communist Party of China, who have consistently demonstrated a true understanding of their own national interest.

Posted by: Scott Koon on March 10, 2005 07:14 AM

Yes I agree. The old Hegelian civil society/state divide, as an interaction of opposites with the parliament (Congress) as a 'bridge' over the divide, no longer holds up like it used to.

Are we walking down the pathway to what Schmitt called a total state? One that eliminates the distinction between executive and legislature in favour of the former; utilizes all resources in the one direction of a war on teror; restricts individual rights, procedures and institutions;

As for your remarks on the US as a hegemon I reckon that what is tipping the balance is the in favour of expansionism is the messianic strand of American's uniqueness and mission to the world. It is a heady brew when mixed with nationalism and patriotism.

Does it not mean that interstate conflict becomes replaced by police work to keep order and ensure security?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on March 24, 2005 11:52 AM

As I see it with regard to state/civil society dichotomy (and the revision of Hegel that led to the omission of the family from the triad is part of the problem for Schmitt).

We see here an example of Schmitt's two-facedness: while Schmitt did think it was in the process of being superseded by history, he did not like the modern alternative, and so sought, as much as possible, to preserve the traditional relationship between the state and civil society in German political theory. In fact, I see this as the central idea of all of Schmitt's work, from the teens until his death. Though it may be an oversimplification to say he is simply an etatist, he is for the state, and against the encroachment of civil society into its domain.

On the subject of the movement toward the total state, would that be the qualitative, or the quantitative total state? Though Schmitt expresses himself in such absolutes, I think of the total state as a sort of theoretical endpoint that he believes we are headed toward, rather than an actual possibility. In some measure, the idea of the quantitative total state is a blunt instrument he uses to attack liberalism. As a criticism of "the economic state," there's some truth in the idea that the US is a quantitative total state;insofar as it exists as a means to further the interests of property owners, though this is not primarily what Schmitt would have understood as being wrong with the quantitative total state.

As for the qualitative total state, we have seen, in fact, the breakdown of the liberal "checks and balances" Schmitt so often criticized. This does not mean, however, that we have made the turn toward the qualitative total state. The erosion of the power of Congress has happened because it is in line with their electoral goals. The minute the normal pattern of divided partisan control resumes, Congress will reassert itself. Congress is more Mayhewian than Schmittian.

I fail to see this total mobilization of all resources in the war on terror that you reference and Bush claims. Bush would like folks to believe that such a mobilization exists, because it disguises how weak his hand is. In point of fact, he does not even have the political capital necessary to pass a tax increase to pay for his war on terror. Have we headed a little toward the quantitative total state? It is arguable, but I don’t think so. There are many, many reasons why this is so: Bush cannot undo our long tradition of political freedom in the short time he has left to him, we lack the ethno-national homogeneity needed for this type of political unity, but mainly because Bush's own form of legitimacy is based on a pluralistic coalition of big business, blue-collar males belabored by false consciousness and insecurity about their own status in an economy that increasingly has no place for them, and religious true believers who care more about the death of a brain-dead woman in Florida than hundreds of non brain-dead children in Iraq. Though Bush uses language that is evocative of the quantitative total state, the actual policies of his administration are better understood by the model of the qualitative total state.

Finally, it may well be that "interstate conflict becomes replaced by police work to keep order and ensure security," but it would be more accurate to say that "interstate conflict will be disguised by the language of police work", of "keeping order and ensuring security." The conflict is there, primordially, and cannot be done away with. One part of Schmitt's understanding of the development of international politics was revealed to be valuable to us today when even Bush, who inveighed against humanitarian intervention and nation-building in the 2000 campaign, was ultimately forced to resort to the language of international humanitarianism in Iraq when all his other lies failed him. Defining the enemy as a "Verbrecher" does lead to an especially brutal and dehumanizing form of conflict, as may be seen every time our troops kill civilians at a checkpoint, or vice versa.

Posted by: Scott Koon on March 31, 2005 02:38 PM

good points.
You write:

" Though it may be an oversimplification to say he [Schmitt] is simply an etatist, he is for the state, and against the encroachment of civil society into its domain."

Maybe. Probably. But he did argue that the classic 19th century liberal distinction between state and civil society was undermined by developments in the 20th century. That is where we start from--the emergence of the total state.

You also write:

"The minute the normal pattern of divided partisan control resumes, Congress will reassert itself."

I'm not so sure. We do have the historical trajectory of executive dominance over Parliament /Congress that has meant the declining power of Parliament vis-a-vis the executive.

On the difference between qualitative and quantitative total state you make I will do more reading of Schmitt's Four Articles 1931-1938. I'm not sure about this category, or how it differs from Hobbes' Leviathan.

Re your point that it is more likely that:

"interstate conflict will be disguised by the language of police work", of "keeping order and ensuring security."

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on April 27, 2005 03:06 PM
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