Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (3)

3. The Politics of Enclosure

Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was a 20th century German jurist and major legal and political theorist. Among other things, he provided theoretical justification for Hitler’s Third Reich. He did that in such works as Political Theology, which came out in 1922, and The Concept of the Political, first published in 1932, the year before the Nazi “Machtergreifung” or “seizure of power.” In those and other works Schmitt articulated a legitimation for any regime that, like the Nazi one in Germany from 1933-1945, claimed “special” executive powers and privileges based on purportedly “exceptional” circumstances such as “national emergency.”

It was just such a purported national emergency that Hitler claimed to exist after the all too convenient Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, less than a month after his ascension to the chancellorship. Hitler then used that purported emergency to engineer passage of the Enabling Act whereby the Nazis were eventually able to murder millions of people in concentration and extermination camps and killing fields across large parts of Europe—and to do it all quite “legally.” Similarly, President George W. Bush and his administration used the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, to push for passage of the Patriot Act under which the “war on terror,” which is still going strong today, could be proclaimed and prosecuted.

Schmitt maintains that the right to claim such emergency powers based on the declaration of exceptional circumstances lies at the very heart of “sovereignty” as such. “Sovereign is he,” Schmitt writes in the opening line of Political Theology, first published more than ten years before the Nazis took power, “who decides on the exception.”*

In turn, the need and therefore justification for there being any “sovereign power” at all—which amounts to saying any state power—is grounded for Schmitt in what he claims is the basic concept underlying the political itself. It is grounded, that is, in the distinction that, according to Schmitt, defines the “political” as such. “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced,” as he will write ten years after Political Theology in The Concept of the Political, “is that between friend and enemy.”** Thus, what defines the politics of sovereignty as such is that distinction, the one between friend and enemy, “us” and “them.”

Only by first literally ejecting and projecting—which is to say by first casting or throwing (Latin iacare, “to throw”) out (Latin e-) from itself, and before or in front of (Latin pro-) itself—what is to count as other than itself, can the political community, as Schmitt theorizes it, constitute itself in the first place, as a distinct community. It is only by sharply closing itself off from whomever it has so ejected and projected as its defining “other,” that the political community can en-close itself within its own borders, and thereby first clearly delimit “itself” as a distinct, not only potentially separable but also actually separated, community.

So conceived, as the ejective-projection of an “enemy” over against which alone a state or sovereignty can first define itself and its “friends,” we can easily go on to say that the political as such is in essence polemical—from the Greek polemos, “strife” or “war.” The political society, in Schmitt’s conception, is thus the society always at war with one enemy or another, because it can only define itself in term of such enmity. It is a society that can feel secure only in such ongoing warfare, regardless of whether that warfare breaks out into “active hostilities,” as they are called, or just remains at what we might appropriately enough call the level of “passive aggression.” If the community can found itself as such only by setting itself in opposition to an ejected and projected enemy, then the “enemy” is, as it were, more original, more truly archaic (from Greek arkhe, “beginning”), than even the community itself and all its “friends”.

It is just such a politics of war and enmity that defines the sovereignty of the nation-state. Accordingly, it is by no means accidental that nation-states are always so vigilant to maintain their “security” and to erect barriers along all their borders, to keep out all those who have been excluded as “different”—not like “us.”

However, besides such barrier-building self-enclosing politics, a politics of a very different sort is also possible—a possibility to which I will turn next.

*     *     *

To be continued.

* Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, translated by George Schwab (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).

** Translated by George Schwab (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p.26.