By: Dan Corjescu
Although it is somewhat banal to say, it should never be forgotten how the First World War traumatized the political and cultural life of Europe, especially in the German speaking world. Heidegger’s, Jasper’s, Freud’s, Junger’s, Hesse’s (not to mention Hitler’s) inter-war works are unthinkable without this bloody caesura in European history. In a profound sense, the inter-war period in Germany (but not only) could be viewed as a psychic expression of what we would call today: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
One of the more notable of these dark intellectual manifestations was Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political.
In this work of both clarity and brilliance, the young Schmitt, a notable legal scholar and political theorist of the first rank, declared the essence of politics to be based on what he called “the friend-enemy distinction”.
This was a distinction which postulated that any true political grouping would be one that was able to define who was its existential enemy, the enemy that threatened its very existence and thereby its accustomed way of being.
For Schmitt, the decisive political grouping so defined did not, necessarily, have to be organized by a state. It could well be another group or groups which had such normative, genuine power and, if so, the state would become “an annex” to them.
More fundamentally, Schmitt believed, as did Hobbes before him, that whoever protects you is owed obedience. This, in my opinion, reveals the mafia-like qualities of such an arrangement.
However, Schmitt did not share this sentiment. For him, the nature of politics was a deadly serious affair giving life an aspect of nobleness, a reason to live and to die for. The sacrifice of life and the authorization to shed blood and kill other human beings is the very essence of the political, and although he never says so directly, much of “manly” life as well.
It is here that we see that this is very much a traumatized soldier’s book, a book which tellingly was dedicated to his friend, August Schaetz, who fell at Moncelul in 1917. Would it then be so far-fetched to see this book as an attempt to give meaning to such a personal loss and more widely to make sense of Germany’s military defeat and post-war humiliation embodied by the Treaty of Versailles?
There is much that is disturbing to the modern reader of this short book. His definition of the enemy as the “stranger” the “other” who is “in a specially intense way existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible” especially stands out in our world where much time, effort, and energy is spent to diffuse any possible enmity that may arise from cultural, political differences.
Yet Carl Schmitt is closer to us than we are usually likely to admit.
Samuel Huntington, one of the most influential American political theorists of the last half century, famously served up a version of Schmittian politics in his The Clash of Civilizations.
In this work, Huntington wrote that after the cold war the defining distinction among nation states was not their politics per se but their cultures. Put in another way, culture, or way of life/religion/habits/history/shared beliefs became the existential criteria for future cooperation and conflict. He especially focused on what he perceived to be the triple threat of Chinese civilization, Arab Civilization, and what he discerned to be the “Hispanization” of the United States. All this however would have been eerily familiar to readers of Schmitt. US political hegemony, its very basis was being challenged by the “other”, threatening in the extreme case its future continuance as a coherent political entity. Like Schmitt, Huntington called upon America to have the political courage and social fortitude to meet these potentially mortal threats or else as Schmitt would have put it the US will either be “absorbed into another political system” or, in the final analysis, “only a weak people will disappear”. Profoundly skeptical in tone, as was Schmitt, Huntington was not placing any secure bets on America’s political survival.
Yet how true were either of these two visions as compared to Immanuel Kant’s much older political vision in his Perpetual Peace?
In this work, Kant foresees the development of man’s rational natural faculties over time, as a species, working through harrowing bouts of historical trial and error to solve the “final” problem of collective peace. The solution Kant believed was to be had in a not too distant future where states had individually organized themselves into republics that represented their people’s collective will and afforded them a good deal of political and social rights as autonomous, rational beings. Additionally, Kant envisaged the possibility of a leading republican state around which other republican states would be able to coalesce and establish a federation dedicated to peace and prosperity as well as collective security. As has been often noted, such an Enlightenment vision overlaps well with comparable current institutions as NATO and the EU, as well as numerous other interstate and inter-regional organizations.
For Kant, then, political friendships of a sort were possible between political groupings/states. They were based on a commonly shared belief in the ultimate political value of human beings as rational, autonomous agents worthy of deciding their own fates both privately and publicly. Once such political values are widely shared there can be no existential threat and thus no politics either in the Schmittian or Huntingtonian sense. Neither of these pessimistic thinkers thought that the Kantian solution was either viable or practicable. At best, they either thought that it was a cynical ideological ploy (Schmitt) or an example of unrealistically dangerous ideological hubris (Huntington).
Yet the world continues to be a politically friendlier place than it ever was. For some concrete evidence of this read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, or his The Better Angels of Our Nature or Hans Rosling’s Factfulness or even Yuval Harari’s wonderfully entertaining best seller Homo Deus. What you will find in all these books is that there is, quantitatively and qualitatively such a thing as Progress, something which both our political skeptics would be loathe to bring undo intellectual attention to. Furthermore, as Harari might argue, the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, War, Plague, and even Death are, for the first time in human history, in relative retreat. (Compare the likely outcome of the Corona virus epidemic to that of the Spanish Flu a hundred years earlier).
If such horrors as War and Famine can be reasonably contained should we not expect the goal of political friendship to be far easier fruit to pluck?
It was after all Abraham Lincoln who when asked what was the best way to defeat your enemy disarmingly said “Make him a friend”.
The diffusion of existential political angst continues apace. Political enmity between nations is not what it was in Schmitt’s feverish inter-war years or even Huntington’s period of overwrought fears for the durability of a uni-polar world. Friendship between nations is eagerly sought after and cultivated. It is here where alongside Aristotle’s famous tripartite explanation of personal friendship (utility, pleasure, and the good) we could add Kantian political virtue. That virtue which makes friends between nations those who first befriend their own citizens as equals and partners within a rational community of competing yet concerned individuals for the social and political goods necessary for a good life which includes but is not limited to: international peace, domestic tranquility, continuing progress, and substantive freedoms.
Dan Corjescu teaches Political Philosophy and Globalization at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany
Image: The Christmas Truce of 1914 – British and German soldiers fraternising at Ploegsteert, Belgium, on Christmas Day 1914. Photo via wikimedia, PA magazine illustration.
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