June 12, 2006
How does Carl Schmitt's theory of the partisan inform us about what is happening today in the war on terror? It would appear that the conventional, classical concepts of war and peace, which are based on the contained European war of the nineteenth century, with the implication of relative and containable enmity, does not make sense of what is happening in the Middle East. The war on terror is quite different. If this is a different conception of war to the standard one of war between nation states, then what kind of war is it? There is a week long symposium on Schmitt's theory of the partisan going over at Long Sunday, and this post is a contribution to it.
If we interpret the theory of the 'partisan' as a development of Schmitt's theory of the political, can we use the political category of the partisan to make sense of the Islamic resistance to the attempt by the US to establish its hegemony in the Middle East; or the Palestinian resistance to Israel's attempt to expand its borders through settlements in the Occupied Territories. Can Schmitt's work help us deconstruct the standard use of 'terrorist' to describe all these diverse forms of insurgencies? If so how does the theory of the partisan change the way we understand the political as a friend/enemy antithesis (understood in an existential, concrete sense)?
Schmitt's text starts in an interesting place, with the homegrown Spanish resistance to the French occupation of Spain by Napolean at the beginning of the 19th century. The Spanish Guerrilla War of 1808 was the first in which the partisan as guerrillero's dared to wage irregular war against the first regular modern army. The partisan's 'real space of combat is in the rear of the enemy's front line, where he harasses the transportation and supplies, but also because he is more or less protected and concealed by the local people in the occupied zone. ' Hence the historical link to the Vietnamese resistance to the US occupation of Vietnam in the 20th century, which legitimated the partisan in the name of national defense. He says that the theory of the partisan leads into the concept of the political, in the question concerning the real enemy and a new nomos of the
This history gives us the contrast between two sorts of partisans: namely, 'the defensive-autochthonous defender of home and the aggressive international revolutionary activist' (Lenin). Schmitt says that it was Stalin who successfully linked the strong potential for national and local resistance---the essentially defensive, telluric power of patriotic self-defense against a foreign conqueror---with the aggressive nature of the international communist world-revolution. The connection of these two heterogeneous forces dominates partisan struggle around the world today.
Schmitt argues that, as a result 'new spaces of/for war emerged in the process, and new concepts of warfare were developed along with a new doctrine of war and politics.' The irregular fighters as partisan challenges the classic distinctions of the statist foundation of warfare: those between war and peace, combatants and non-combatants, enemy and criminal presupposed when war is understood to be conducted between states by regular armies of states, between standard-bearers of a jus belli who respect each other at war as enemies and do not treat one another as criminals. On this statist understanding a peace treaty becomes possible and even remains the normal, mutually accepted end of war.
The modern partisan has turned away from the conventional enmity of the contained war and given himself up to an other---the real---enmity that rises through terror and counter-terror, up to annihilation. However, it took a long time before the new concepts of warfare and politics were developed, and a large section of Schmitt's article is devoted to tracing this development. The key figure in terms of developing a partisan theory of the formula of war as the continuation of politics by other means is Mao Tse-tung, not Lenin.
Schmitt says that Mao gives us a conceptual formation that is as simple as it is effective:
War finds its meaning in enmity. Because it is the continuation of politics, politics too always involves an element of enmity, at least potentially; and if peace contains within itself the possibility of war.....peace too contains a moment of potential enmity. [The core of] Mao’s political theory...lies in partisanship, whose essential characteristic today is real enmity. Lenin’s bolshevik theory recognizes and acclaims the partisan. But in comparison to the concrete telluric reality of the Chinese partisan, Lenin has something abstract and intellectual [abstrak-intellektuelles] in his definition of the enemy.
Schmitt says that this geneology of partisan opens up four different aspects: the aspect of space, then the shattering of social structures, further the interconnectedness with the world-political context, and finally the technical-industrial aspect It is these aspects that provide the link to the contemporary Middle East and help disclose the war that the US is fighting.
In a partisan battle a complexly structured new space of action emerges because the partisan does not fight on an open field of battle nor on the same plane of open frontal war. Schmitt says 'Rather, he forces his enemy into another space. From underground, he disturbs the conventional and regular game on the open stage. On the basis of his irregularity, he alters dimensions not only of tactical, but of strategic operations of the regular army.'
The shattering of social structures is illustrated by the French in Indochina from 1946 to 1956 when their colonial regime in this region fell apart. Schmitt says that this 'instance may suffice to remind us that the partisan, suppressed by the military mind of the nineteenth century, quite suddenly moved into the center of a new kind of warfare whose sense and purpose was the destruction of the existing social order.'
The third aspect, the interconnectedness with world-political fronts and contexts, arises Schmitt saysbecause the partisan is always dependent in some way, as an irregular fighter, on a regular power, on an interested third party:
The powerful third party delivers not only weapons and munitions, money, material assistance, and medicines of every description, he offers also the sort of political recognition of which the irregularly fighting partisan is in need, in order to avoid falling like the thief and the pirate into the unpolitical, which means here the criminal sphere.
In the longer view of things the irregular must legitimize itself through the regular, and for this only two possibilities stand open: recognition by an existing regular, or establishment of a new regularity by its own force.
The partisan too participates in the fourth aspect, which is the development of modern technology and its science as both the partisan and his opponents both keep step with the rapid development of modern technology and its form of science. The partisan adapts to the new technical-industrial environment, learning how to make use of the new means, and so develop a new, form of the partisan---the industrial partisan.
It is these four aspects that can be used to understand what is happening in the Middle East.