What Is The Role Of The State?

From the 2019 book, The Oxford Handbook of Carl Schmitt:

* Oakeshott concedes that authority is seldom durable, no matter the form of political organization achieved. Anarchy always lurks “just below the surface,” and once authority is questioned or denied, civil war becomes a real possibility (1990, 190). Because of a feared “disintegration of the association and the self- alienation of its components,” there “have always been people . . . who have wanted the state to be an integrated community set
on a common course and pursuing a common purpose” (188). Carl Schmitt is one of those people in whom the threat of resurgent disorder occasions the desire for a more substantial source of authority. For him, authority is the source, not the result, of law, because in the end, law cannot protect itself or the association it governs. The consequences of World War I certainly heightened Schmitt’s fears. Germany— with restricted sovereignty, relieved of chunks of its territory, deprived of an effective military, occupied (the Rhineland, and then the Ruhr), denied membership in the promised land of the League of Nations (until 1926), stripped of its merchant fleet, under foreign economic supervision (reparations), and fighting border wars in the east as well as insurrectionary battles not “just below the surface” but on the streets of its major cities— was faced with basic questions of political order and survival. To assume that the “self- authenticating property of respublica”— especially in liberal form, with its postulated autonomy of the individual equipped with prepolitical rights and consumer desires— would be sufficient to hold a political association together was a luxury, Schmitt felt, that Germany could ill afford. A more substantial source of authority (of legitimacy, to use Schmitt’s language) was needed, and during the 1920s and early 1930s Schmitt increasingly found that source to be “the people,” a collected political body (not simply a collection of bodies) with felt obligations to “the nation.” The authority of respublica was to be located not in law but in the popular constituent power that animated the law.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation was quite different. The United States had become the globe’s preeminent power. Domestically, however, the country had been traumatized. If the war’s aftermath had inspired Schmitt’s most brilliant dissections of liberal individualism and (moral and economic) deceit, in the United States the opposite occurred. The governmentally organized surveillance, violence, and vigilantism during
Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous second term (1917– 1921) sparked an American liberal rights revolution.2 At the conclusion of his fine study on World War I and the making of modern American citizenship, Christopher Capozzola muses about the relative merits of obligation and rights. “These days,” he writes, “some Americans wish for obligations, hoping to renew among Americans a sense of commitment toward our fellow citizens. Ninety years, they tell us, have put rights, and not obligations, at the center of our political life. Individualism has corroded our common culture and our civic associations; we even bowl alone” (Capozzola 2008, 213). The complaint resonates with us, he admits.

“From such a perspective, the sense of voluntarism and obligation in the political culture of early twentieth- century America must astound” (213). But, he insists, the humiliation, persecution, imprisonment, and murder of German Americans and other immigrants; the stepped- up terror waged against African Americans; the flare- up of antisemitism; the violation of religious conscience; and the violent destruction of the radical labor movement
and the Socialist Party tell a different story. “Those who seek something beyond the rights revolution must understand the political culture that existed before rights talk, when obligation still held sway. In a divided and unequal society, civil society could be an arena for negotiating political obligation; it could also be a weapon wielded against the weak” (214). Capozzola’s is a necessary reminder and warning, not least because his example is not taken from one of the usual totalitarian suspects. The coupling of civil society and the state can be brutal, even in liberal democracies. But, alas, rights themselves are no magic shield. Beyond their negative, fragmentary consequences, ones that turn citizens into consumers and politics into slogans about the oikos (“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”— “It’s the economy, stupid!”), rights frequently not only fail to protect individuals and groups (African Americans, Japanese Americans, Muslim Americans), but can also become weapons (the right to private property, for instance) wielded against the weak.3 Most alarming, however, at least to Schmitt, is the sense that a reliance on rights (civil, human, or other) threatens to enfeeble popular political will, thereby replacing political decision with legal, bureaucratic procedure. And indeed, in
the world in which we now live, “human rights” trump self- determination (Moyn 2010).

Reading Carl Schmitt becomes an exercise in contemplating contradictions: the public versus the private, duties versus rights, collective equality versus individual liberty.

* Italian political theorist Norberto Bobbio firmly insisted that modern democracy is necessarily formal and procedural. “I have stated on other occasions,” he wrote in the mid- 1980s, “and I will never tire of repeating
it, that it is impossible to ever understand anything about democracy until it is realized that a democratic system nowadays signifies first and foremost a set of procedural rules, among which majority rule is the main, but not the only one” (Bobbio 1987, 63). Perhaps “nowadays” is the key word in that proclamation, because Bobbio is keenly aware of the history of an antagonism between the ideal of democracy based on a “social” or “substantial”
notion of equality and liberalism as a political movement that emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century in opposition to both the monarchical principle and popular sovereignty. Individual liberty, formal equality before the law, and constitutional government (understood primarily as the separation of powers and guarantee
of select subjective rights) were advanced to combat the absolutist “tyrant” as well as the “tyranny of the mob.”

* The battle between liberalism and democracy is the battle between the hegemony of liberty over equality, on the one hand, and equality over liberty, on the other. According to Bobbio, “liberty and equality are antithetical values, in the sense that neither can be fully realized except at the expense of the other: a liberal laissez- faire society is inevitably inegalitarian, and an egalitarian society is inevitably illiberal” (1990, 32). To fuse
the two political ideologies, one needs to tweak definitions, primarily by weakening the meaning of equality. “There is only one form of equality— equality in the right to liberty—which is not only compatible with liberalism but equally demanded by its view of freedom” (33). Thus, “nowadays” democracy must restrict its desire for equality to the aforementioned liberal ideals of equality before the law and equal rights. A problem that this hybrid creature called liberal democracy cannot examine is the fact that just because one has a right to equality does not mean that one necessarily has the material means to enjoy its concrete exercise. Liberalism habitually brushes this inconvenient detail aside and thereby wins its battle with democracy, for whereas liberal ideals seemingly need no alteration, older, “substantial” definitions of democracy are discredited or simply disappear. Modern liberal- democracy in its “juridical- institutional” sense is “procedural,” in that it emphasizes a “body of rules,” Bobbio maintains; it is a formal “government by the people.” What liberal democracy supplants is an “ethical” vision that promotes “substantial” equality not only of opportunity but also of achievement and therefore exerts itself to be a “government for the people” (31– 32; emphasis added).

This latter, older version, Bobbio says, is to be rejected, for “today non- democratic liberal states would be inconceivable, as would non- liberal democratic states” (38). Like “nowadays” above, “today” here accepts the liberal definition of equality and thus the liberal modification— or mollification— of democracy as an irreversible (and of course desirable) fait accompli. Based on this victory, then, Bobbio can decry Carl Schmitt’s
“withering critiques of democracy” (1987, 122), even though by the late 1920s, especially in his Constitutional Theory (a text Bobbio often cites), Schmitt saw himself as a classic democrat at war with liberalism’s enervating assault on all things political.

* Private pleasures wholly replace political participation, for modernity no longer permits direct, public citizenship. Based on property rights and grown to a size that is unmanageable by communally deliberative methods, the modern state, [Benjamin] Constant says, has happily hit upon the idea of representative government, which removes from the citizen the burdensome necessity of political knowledge and intimate participation. Popular sovereignty, no matter how stridently proclaimed, is at best illusory. “Lost in the multitude,” Constant writes, “the individual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises. Never does his will impress itself upon the whole; nothing confirms in his eyes his own cooperation” (1988, 311). Accordingly, the pleasure afforded the ancients by their exercise of political rights is no longer attainable. Rather, our pleasure is taken privately. Whereas “the aim of the ancients was the sharing of social power among the citizens of the same fatherland,” the “aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures; and they call liberty the guarantee accorded by institutions to these pleasures” (312). It is almost as if he were singing us lullabies: “The sole aim of the modern nations is repose, and with repose comfort, and, as a source of comfort, industry” (54). The
citizen becomes the bourgeois; the political actor the passive consumer. Hush little baby, don’t you cry. Or rather, and much more to the point, the interests of the political subserve those of the economy. With disarming honesty, Constant exults: “The effects of commerce extend even further: not only does it emancipate individuals, but, by creating credit, it places authority itself in a position of dependence. . . . Power threatens; wealth rewards: one eludes power by deceiving it; to obtain the favours of wealth one must serve it: the latter is
therefore bound to win” (325). Constant leaves us in no doubt whose interests the representatives of representative government represent.

For Carl Schmitt, Benjamin Constant’s lineaments of modernity produce a consumptive portrait of a pale humanity engaged only in passive pleasures, eschewing public responsibility. Throughout his work and often with a fine and elegant pathos, Schmitt knew how to eviscerate this liberal ethos of wealth and property buffed with the patina
of self- assured morality. To say, as does the consistent liberal, that all vice lies on the side of the state and all virtue with civil society is to elide the necessary efficacy of the public— that is to say— of the political altogether.

* For Schmitt, Constant’s views are not unique but rather stand as exemplary of a common eighteenth- and nineteenth-century view. Freedom, progress, and reason in alliance with the economy, industry, and technology are prized and pitted against the evils of feudalism, reaction, force, state, war, and politics. What emerges from this confrontation is the triumph of parliamentarianism (liberalism) over dictatorship (of the monarch or the people; Schmitt 2007a, 75). The result, in other words, is the desired victory of civil society as the repository of all that is good over the state and the sinister machinations of politics.

* The political is a stage upon which actors display the making of decisions and their explicit and implicit consequences. The audience is comprised of spectators or perhaps participant- spectators, depending on the form of political organization prevalent in a given state. Economic activity occurs in the lobby where buying and selling goes on. If actual political decisions are made by the various transactions occurring in the lobby rather than the actions portrayed on the stage, then the audience is deceived as the actors hide the fact that they are mere marionettes manipulated from afar.

* “Democracy requires . . . first homogeneity and second— if the need arises— elimination or eradication of heterogeneity. . . . A democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (Schmitt 1985, 9). The contemporary reader, who claims definitive knowledge of the moral lessons of twentieth- century history and is convinced of the unshakable
quality of learned norms that are said to be innate human rights, will be chilled by the notion of homogeneity and the seeming brutality of the language of exclusion contained in these two sentences.

* In Schmitt’s world, for “a people” to exist, it must pick the national distinction around which to rally, if for no other reason than that the national distinction is (or has become) the territorial distinction and thus the physically defensible distinction. In a world of nation- states, the nation- state is supreme. To raise another distinction above all others— one’s Christianity, one’s class, one’s “local” territory— would be to incite civil war, which would make the collective vulnerable to forces and pressures coming from the outside. The democratic community, in Schmitt’s view, is forever defined by this threat.

* Basic rights— now commonly called human rights— are generally thought of as prepolitical, and fear of state power and the desire structurally to limit its extent motivates all liberal constitutions. Again, Constant can be our guide. “No authority on earth is unlimited,” he admonishes us, “neither that of the people, nor that of the men who declare themselves their representatives, nor that of the kings, by whatever title they reign, nor, finally, that of the law. . . . The individuals possess individual rights independently of all social and political authority, and any authority which violates these rights becomes illegitimate”… In the liberal world so depicted, the single most important political imperative is to place limits on the political.

* The liberal state, then, has no other function than preserving the rights of the “egoistic” individual pursuing his or her private pleasures, and both K/ Carls, for different reasons, have a problem with that.

* Emmanuel Sieyes: “The nation exists prior to everything; it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal. It is the law itself. Prior to the nation and above the nation there is only natural law. A nation never leaves the state of nature and, amidst so many perils, it can never have too many possible ways of expressing its will. . . . [A] nation is independent of all forms and, however it may will, it is enough for its will to be made known for all positive law to fall silent in its presence, because it is the source and supreme master of all positive law. . . . A nation should not and cannot subject itself to constitutional forms.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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