It is frequently said, and it is entirely true, that the Regime which rules us is illegitimate. But what does that precisely mean? No surprise, Carl Schmitt lights the way to an answer, in one of his lesser-known works, Legality and Legitimacy. This book should be more talked about—it was published in Berlin in 1932, when and where everyone knew that matters could not continue as they were, and that dramatic change was sure to come. As with the Germans of 1932, so with the Americans of 2023. Thus, studying and reflecting on this work is worth the effort.
This, Carl Schmitt’s best-known work, first published in 1932, is a crucial book for our present moment. The clear-eyed Schmitt, who stands far above any modern political philosopher, writes here of timeless principles that lie behind political action, and he slices through the ignorance, doublespeak, and confusion that surround any discussion today of the “why” of politics. As always, he offers a crisp analysis of reality, with implications and applications for all times and moments. And for Christians in today’s America, this book has extra value, because reading it restores the proper Christian understanding of “enemy,” something that has been (quite recently) lost, to our great detriment.
If, as Carl Schmitt asserted in Political Theology, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” what does that imply for political forms? This book, written immediately after Political Theology, addresses that question. Schmitt analyzes a political form that originated as theological but has adopted many different secular roles—the Roman Catholic Church. I have to say that Roman Catholicism and Political Form, even by Schmittian standards, is a difficult read. Nonetheless, it rewards close attention and thought, because what Schmitt says is, as all things Schmitt are, surprisingly relevant to our situation today.
“Sovereign is he who decides the exception.” Among serious students of political philosophy, at least on the Right, these may be the most famous words of the twentieth century. That sentence opens this work, Political Theology, which consists of four linked essays, bound by the theme that most exercised Carl Schmitt in the early 1920s—the edge cases of sovereignty. In the post-World War II decades, such questions seemed very remote and theoretical, part of the turmoil of a benighted age we had left behind. But we were wrong, about all of it, and Schmitt was right, that this topic is universal and timeless. Thus, from Schmitt we can learn much that we can be sure will be directly applicable to the 2020s.
Dictatorship, in the form of Caesarism, is in the American air. I have recently written on what, in practical terms, an American Caesar would do; I will soon tell you how likely our Caesar is, and why. As it happens, I am at the same time working my way through all the books of Carl Schmitt, in their order of original publication, and his next book up, Dictatorship, published in 1921, clarifies the historical and legal-analytical part of what is unspooling before our eyes. We cannot be better informed, analytically at least, than by pondering this work of the peerless German, whose book, as always, puts to shame today’s mostly insipid political and constitutional analysis.
To my excitement, Carl Schmitt is coming back into fashion, or at least into notice. Last week, for example, an excellent piece by the Swedish renegade leftist Malcolm Kyeyune received wide attention. It revolved around Schmitt’s concept, from The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, that when a regime must prove its legitimacy empirically, it is doomed. Kyeyune concluded that, just as the “bourgeois kings” of Schmitt’s analysis were doomed because they had lost intrinsic legitimacy, so has, and is, our own regime. Now I wish I had thought of and made that point in my own recent review of that book. Ah well. Instead, today you will have to be satisfied with my reflections on another book, Schmitt’s first, Political Romanticism.
Ah, Carl Schmitt, Carl Schmitt! No man like him exists today. Political philosophy in our time is, and for many decades past has been, largely the domain of intellectual pygmies and outright morons; the age of gold has degenerated into the age of brass, or of plastic with yellow paint. Schmitt is dead, but his work is not, and this, one of his series of books published during the early Weimar period in Germany, illuminates much of our own present condition. That’s not to say The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy is an easy read. Like much of Schmitt’s writing, it is somewhat elliptical, alternating great insight with moments of “where are we going with this?” But the payoff is worth the effort.
This is a book born of a particular time and place. The time was 1962; the place was postwar Europe. The West was frozen in the glare of spreading Communism, paralyzed by the catastrophic end of the old European system and wholly uncertain of the path forward. Since that time, the ice has broken and the West has lurched back onto the track—the wrong track, as it happens, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re talking about what Theory of the Partisan says to us in this time and in this place.
Carl Schmitt, preeminent antiliberal, is that rare thing, the modern political philosopher relevant long after his time. The simple remember him only for his grasping embrace of National Socialism, but the more astute, especially on the Left, have in recent times found much to ponder in Schmitt’s protean writings. He did not offer ideology, as did so many forgotten political philosophers, but instead clear analysis of power relations, untied to any specific system or regime. So, as the neoliberal new world order collapses, and the old dragons of man, lulled for decades by the false promises of liberal democracy, rise from slumber, such matters are become relevant once more, and Schmitt informs our times, echoing, as they do, his times.