Now to Heidegger’s friend and colleague Carl Schmitt, who had also attacked liberalism incessantly before the Nazi period, enthusiastically served the Nazi state, and then brooded after the defeat and spent decades developing and promulgating anti-libertarian thinking across the political spectrum.

Carl Schmitt was a German legal theorist whose book, The Concept of the Political, came to have an enormous influence on both the anti-liberal “left” and the anti-liberal “right.” Schmitt posited that “the specific political distinction … can be reduced to that between friend and enemy.”1 

Carl Schmitt photo

Carl Schmitt

Photo by quapan

The most important part of Schmitt’s attack on classical liberalism was his insistence that liberals were wrong about social harmony, wrong that exchange was a moral alternative to conquest, wrong that debate could replace combat, wrong that toleration could replace animosity, and wrong that a peaceful world was even possible.

For Schmitt, conflict was definitive of the political as such, and the political was essential to the human being. His influence on the political thought of the last century has been subtle, but his core idea came to permeate the thinking of both the left and the right. Schmitt’s thorough and uncompromising rejection of classical liberalism has inspired both “left wing” and “right wing” attacks on toleration, the market economy, limited government, and peace.

Schmitt’s influence has been significant on both anti-liberal poles of political thought, on both “left” and “right.” The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek recognized that both flavors of anti-liberal political thought embrace Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction and, as a “leftist,” distinguishes the right’s focus on external enemies from the left’s “unconditional primacy of the inherent antagonism as constitutive of the political”:

it is deeply symptomatic that, instead of class struggle, the radical Right speaks of class (or sexual) warfare. The clearest indication of this Schmittian disavowal of the political is the primacy of external politics (relations between sovereign states) over internal politics (inner social antagonisms) on which he insists: is not the relationship to an external Other as the enemy a way of disavowing the internal struggle which traverses the social body? In contrast to Schmitt, a leftist position should insist on the unconditional primacy of the inherent antagonism as constitutive of the political.2

For such thinkers, whether of the left or the right, conflict – “inherent antagonism” – is constitutive of human life together.

The Left and Right Adoptions of Carl Schmitt

In recent years, a “Carl Schmitt industry” of publications has emerged on the far left; the influential Marxist Telos journal and academic circle embraced Schmitt’s theoretical foundation of politics for their anti-liberal program3 and his ideas play a central role in the influential, bitter, and violent attack on liberalism and peace, promoted as “the new Communist Manifesto,” by Italian leftist writer Antonio Negri (who served prison time for his involvement in an array of murders in Italy) and the American literary theorist Michael Hardt.

Negri and Hardt’s book Empire, a virtually unreadable screed published by Harvard University Press just before the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, prefigured those attacks with its call for attacks on “global capital,” its definition of “the enemy” as “a specific regime of global relations that we call Empire,”4 its chilling remarks about radical Islamist fundamentalism as just another form of postmodernism, and its calls for “the potential of the multitude to sabotage and destroy with its own productive force the parasitical order of postmodern command.”5 (We can set aside the fact that hardly a sentence in the book is clear and understandable, for that is a standard feature of such works; George Orwell pointed out in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English language” that “when there is a gap between one’s real and ones’ declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” 6)

For Schmitt, “an enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.”Schmitt’s ideas and conceptions of politics are also entwined with neo-conservative thought, largely through the influence of Leo Strauss, who himself had a major influence on Schmitt, and Strauss’s influential American followers, such as former White House adviser William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and an architect of the Iraq War,7 and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who calls for “national greatness conservatism.”8 In its less militant form, such conservatism amounts to a call for building huge monuments to national greatness.9 In its more warlike form it calls openly for war, as the neoconservatives were a primary driving force behind the invasion of Iraq. It would be, they thought, a truly heroic act of national greatness.

For Schmitt, “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.”10 Indeed, “only in real combat is revealed the most extreme consequence of the political grouping of friend and enemy. From this most extreme possibility, human life derives its specifically political tension.”11

Carl Schmitt,’s Rejection of Liberty

Liberal ideas, as articulated by such German-speaking liberals as Franz Oppenheimer and Joseph Schumpeter, were rejected root and branch. As Heinrich Meier has pointed out, in the second edition of the book – brought out in 1933 after Hitler had taken power – Schmitt was heavily influenced by Leo Strauss’s comments and letters to make the book even more thoroughly anti-liberal.12 (There is a certain irony in a Jewish intellectual’s helpful and penetrating criticisms convincing and encouraging a German intellectual to become an avid Nazi and the “foremost Nazi jurist”13 of the Third Reich.) For Schmitt, free trade was not the peaceful alternative to war, but merely a cover for a more brutal form of exploitation: “The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism.”

For Schmitt, free trade was not the peaceful alternative to war, but merely a cover for a more brutal form of exploitation: “The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism.”14 Liberal conceptions of universal human rights are rejected because it would mean rejecting his distinction of friend and enemy:

Humanity is not a political concept, and no political entity or society, and no status, correspond to it. The eighteenth-century humanitarian concept of humanity was a polemical denial of the then-existing aristocratic-feudal system and the privileges accompanying it. Humanity according to natural law and liberal-individualistic doctrines is a universal, i.e., all-embracing,

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