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Carl Schmitt Is Not Your Friend

Samuel Mace

The so-called friend/enemy distinction is in vogue. Once limited to graduate seminars, the phrase, derived from the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, is increasingly used as an explanation for political turmoil, not just in authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, but also liberal democracies such as the United States. From academics to journalists, talk of the ‘enemy’ and other Schmittian concepts has been gaining more and more ground.

As is often the case, popularization of the term has led to it being applied incorrectly. Originally intended to describe conflicts affecting physical survival, it is now deployed to explain away negotiable differences in politics or clashes of identity. But are clashes of identity and policy really a matter of life and death? Without realizing it, those who adopt Schmittian jargon on the right are making the same mistake as progressives who regard dissent from their views as a threat to “safety”and therefore beyond compromise.

Partisan and ideological polarization are real—and possibly rising. Yet it is a misnomer to describe electoral rivals or bureaucratic challenges as ‘enemies’ in the Schmittian sense. That term is appropriate to matters of literal life and death. Much as we disagree, most of us are far from being willing to kill each other—or fearing physical violence as a result of our disagreements. As such, we are opponents, struggling over how best to constitute our particular political order.

The conflation of serious but peaceful disagreement with Schmittian enmity is perhaps most clear in a recent essay by Nina Power on liberal intolerance. Power mislabels the liberal regime’s desire for greater tolerance between groups holding different identities or opinions, with a proclamation that dissenting groups pose a physical threat requiring violent suppression. She claims:

Schmitt famously argued that politics depends upon a distinction between friend and enemy. Liberalism nevertheless operates in a permanent state of denial about this distinction, imagining it can ultimately resolve all conflicts through assimilation and progress. And yet it assiduously polices the political boundary, labeling as an enemy any friend who crosses the line.

By mistaking heated debate with a threat to physical safety we not only misconstrue the nature of our current political dynamics but, paradoxically, build up tensions in the political arena to the point where violence becomes more likely. Exaggerating already existing differences makes a political bridge between competing ideologies and identities even harder to build. In this environment, it can feel as if politics is all or nothing. But labelling it as such commits us to the mistake of imagining that uncivil disagreement is akin to a physically dangerous threat.

The fault here lies with Schmitt’s readers rather than author himself. Schmitt was very clear on the relationship between the perception of an enemy and violence. Rather than merely probing the boundaries of tolerance, Schmitt’s ideology demands action, cohesion, and unity, binding citizens together against external enemies once internal enemies have been extirpated.

For Schmitt, liberalism and the institutions which underpin it were not only vulnerable to genuine enemies whom naive liberals were unwilling to recognize. They were fundamentally unfit to govern. Deploying the friend/enemy dichotomy without recognizing that implication is not unlike unpinning the pin from a grenade, thinking it is a toy.

In order to really understand Schmitt’s hypothesis, we also need to understand his context. The Germany of his day wasn’t merely polarized. It had been traumatized by defeat in a world war, recurring political instability at home, Communist revolution beyond its borders, and a consistently weak Parliament. It would be foolish to associate our conditions with his—a region and era when politics was really a matter of life and death. Even before the Third Reich, street fighting and political murder were not uncommon sights in interwar Germany.

Although he was initially a supporter of non-Nazi right, Schmitt eventually opted to throw in his lot with Hitler. As Reinhard Mehring’s biography demonstrates, though, Schmitt is far more than an opportunist with a history of antisemitism (although he was that). Living as he did in a time of profound turmoil, it is hardly surprising Schmitt’s view of politics is fatalistic, violent, and manichean.

This view is also deterministic in its implications for groups. As Schmitt used it, the friend/enemy distinction was not a personalised, individual preference. Instead, it presupposed that individuals already belonged to groups who defined themselves as mortal threats to one another.. Rather than recognising individual actors, Schmitt believed politics was made up of concrete blocks organising themselves against others and finding safety in numbers. Inevitably, this definition necessitates that the state, designed to protect and group together citizens, is built upon homogeneity.

This is a very different understanding of political community to liberal democracies that presume that presume citizens will have a broad, though not unlimited, range of civic, religious, or other affiliations. On this view, the task of politics is to ameliorate differences within a pluralistic institutional framework.

For Schmitt, the management of difference isn’t politics at all. Instead, the goal is to promote the maximum degree of popular consensus, with little or no protection for minorities. Even before he joined the NSDAP, Schmitt argued that this task called for a charismatic leader who could unify his supporters in a coherent will, rather than dividing them among electoral parties or legislative factions.

If critics of liberal institutions want to make such a case, they should be as consistent and honest about it as Schmitt was. Otherwise, caution should be applied when invoking the friend/enemy distinction. Its founding father, while not a committed Nazi, can also not be called a run of the mill conservative. Schmitt’s radicalism lies in a conflictual picture of politics that can only be managed via decisive action and homogenous group identity. This is a dangerous message, potentially leading to a political program unleashed from legal restraint and unable to break its own momentum of enmity.

The good news is that many of the writers who adopt Schmitt’s arguments don’t really want to go as far as he did. Instead, their application of the friend/enemy distinction has become a fashionable shorthand for increased political tension.

But the distinction is much more than that. It is foundational to an anti-liberal politics in which threats of group violence—and reprisal—are inescapable. The distinction should not be selectively applied to a particular group, adopted in online feuds, or used to designate the problem Karl Popper called the paradox of tolerance—whether some movements and ideas are so dangerous that they threaten the existence of a free society. Ironically, the neutralization of Schmitt’s own ideas provides reason to think liberal societies are more stable and flexible than he believed. For if Schmitt were correct, and politics really were a fight to the death, though, we would witness a politics far more ugly, and dangerous than the one we currently have.

Sam Mace earned a doctorate in political theory from the University of Leeds. He has contributed to The Critic, The Telegraph, and The Wisdom of Crowds. His substack is called Theory Matters.


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