Nazi-favorite philosopher Carl Schmitt has steadily become a patron saint of left-authoritarianism worldwide

Nazi-favorite philosopher Carl Schmitt has steadily become a patron saint of left-authoritarianism worldwide. By N.S. Lyons. An important topic that deserves quite a few words, so see the original if you want the full impact.

[Carl] Schmitt’s once hugely influential theories of politics and law have, at least on the surface, largely been rendered verboten and obscured in Western intellectual polite society for decades. What, I wondered, accounts for his sudden intellectual resurrection today? And what does this mean? I became determined to take a much deeper look at the Nazi philosopher, beginning what became a slightly obsessive year-long dive into the full span of his works, life, and legacy.

To many people this will probably sound incredibly arcane, like pure academic pedantry. I assure you it is not. As I soon discovered, the evolution of Schmitt’s ideas — and the course of his life — seems to speak directly to the forces at work beneath our present political, cultural, and spiritual upheavals, almost a century after his own time. …

To read Schmitt in 2023 can easily present the alluring feeling of having opened a hidden dialogue willing to honestly diagnosis the undercurrents so obviously raging beneath the chaos, absurdity, and official obfuscations of a Weimar America. …

Schmitt grew to prominence in from 1914 to WW2, a period of great turmoil in Germany and especially Bavaria, which saw large scale political violence including coups. Schmitt was mostly a poor jurist and academic, but he became increasingly prominent because he articulated a philosophy suited to the times.

He argued that the liberal commitment to “discussion and openness” had rendered the actual making of necessary political decisions impossible. .. .

He would develop an obsession with the ever-present potential for physical violence that lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilization and is kept contained only by the state’s total monopoly on force. He felt this truth was dangerously ignored by a liberal politics that assumed an inherently good, rather than evil, nature of man.

He would, again and again, return to Hobbes’ idea that the absolutely foundational contract behind any state’s legitimacy is its ability to provide citizens with security in exchange for their obedience

Hobbes himself had experienced this truth in the terrible times of civil war, because then all legitimate and normative illusions with which men like to deceive themselves regarding political realities in periods of untroubled security vanish. If within the state there are organized parties capable of according their members more protection than the state, then the latter becomes at best an annex of such parties, and the individual citizen knows whom he has to obey. …

USA 2020:

Ours is a moment yet unfolding in the wake [of] that traumatic, revolutionary, never truly reckoned with year of 2020, when the United States witnessed some of the most widespread and destructive political riots in its history. Riots that, citizens across the country observed with shock, the forces of order were not merely unable to suppress, but actively forbidden from suppressing — by a state that in large part openly proclaimed its allegiance to the insurrectionary faction bent on intimidation and destruction.

Though certainly not as deadly as the events witnessed by Schmitt, this revelatory moment, in which the state betrayed its most fundamental obligation to its citizens, was perhaps sufficient for many to begin calling into question all those “legitimate and normative illusions with which men like to deceive themselves regarding political realities.” …

Schmitt’s philosophy:

To Schmitt a dictatorship can be democratically legitimate if it fulfills the state’s obligation to protect, even if it acts beyond the law in making necessary decisions …

Who is truly sovereign? Who is the one who actually has the power to decide to act? The answer he settled on … would become one of his most famous lines: “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”

Because, in Schmitt’s view, it isn’t humanly possible to write law that can completely predict and account for in advance every possible situation, a legal framework must necessarily provide for the means to handle exceptional circumstances — that is, situations beyond what is written in law. …

Much as Schmitt experienced while in Munich, states of exception and dictatorships often go hand-in-hand: the dictator emerges to resolve the state of exception by personifying the law when the law cannot mechanistically provide pre-made decisions. This is the case whether the dictator is put forward by the constitutional state or by the raw will of the people. But the dictator isn’t necessarily sovereign; the one with ultimate sovereignty is not he who handles exceptions, but he who decides what counts as an exception.

By the start of 1930, Schmitt began to be asked by state ministers to write legal opinions on the justifiable scope of emergency decrees.  …

USA 2020: exceptional, or not?

Did a state of exception arrive in America in 2020? More than one politician and public intellectual did call for the exceptional deployment of military force to restore order amid a summer of uncontained violence, but none of these calls were heeded.

Despite years of loud claims that he deeply desired any possible opportunity to declare a dictatorship, then President Donald Trump either decided against announcing any state of exception in response to the riots, or found himself unable to actually make that sovereign decision.

A clear state of exception nonetheless did soon arrive however, if in response to a threat of an entirely different kind: the COVID-19 pandemic. In the name of protecting public safety, citizens’ normal civil liberties, up to and including bodily autonomy and freedom of association, were suspended for an indefinite duration. Normal democratic procedures were superseded. Opposition to these emergency powers was monitored and policed by the national security state.

But who decided on this exception? The president? The technocratic national or international “public health” bureaucracy? A handful of specialized “experts” and their billionaire backers from around the world? For most people the answer remains rather hazy.

Friends and enemies:

A second, more straightforward justification for maintaining a state of exception soon followed. In the wake of the riot at the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, new executive units were deployed with wide latitude to define and police “domestic extremists,” state-directed censorship of communications became the prevailing norm, investigative committees with extraordinary powers were established, and the right of sitting opposition political figures to participate in electoral contests even began to be challenged.

A bit over a year and a half later, the President of the United States had, while drenched in blood-red lighting and symbolically flanked by uniformed military personnel, hammered his fists on a podium and delivered a speech claiming that the state was “under assault” by his political opposition, whom he declared represented “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

His government, he averred, was engaged in “in a battle for the soul of this nation” with this faction, who didn’t “recognize the will of the people” and who posed “a ‘clear and present danger’ to our democracy.” It would, he intoned, be to “do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.” One political party had, in the eyes of the ruling regime, apparently been confirmed as no mere parliamentary debating partner, but as a mortal threat to the continued existence of the state.

For Schmitt, such a sharp, existential distinction by the regime between its friends and its enemies would be not only predictable but inevitable — and in fact essential to its interests. …

For Schmitt, the essence of politics is not parliamentary debate, or building consensus, or setting tax policy, or even determining who gets to be in charge of running things. Instead, “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism.” It is “the ever present possibility of combat” that comes into existence whenever one “collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.”

Such a divide between groups may begin over religious, moral, cultural, economic, or even completely trivial differences, and continue to always be dressed up in those terms. But all such non-political differences are pushed aside at the precise moment that they become strong enough to “group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy,” and are thereby subsumed into the political.

This moment necessarily arrives if either side finds that it must “judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.” …

Friend and enemy must therefore be “understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols,” for they “receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.” If this extremity is not a real possibility, then a distinction between friend and enemy does not yet exist …

Thus the highest political reality is those “moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy.”

Ultimately Schmitt seems to have understood the consequences of the politics advanced by his friend-enemy distinction quite well: “The idea of ethnic identity,” he predicted in 1933, “will pervade and dominate all our public law.” He joined the Nazi Party the same year.

Hitler provided Schmitt with the chance to see nearly every one of his ideas taken to their ultimate conclusion in Germany.

So when Schmitt’s old boss Papen invited him to join the Nazi Party and work to help legally justify the planned Reich Governors Law, which allowed the Party to effectively take over all functions of state governments, he didn’t hesitate for long. He brushed off repeated warnings from his old friend Ernst Jünger — a man far too right-wing to ever be fooled by revolutionary National Socialists — not to get involved, and let himself be seduced. In fact it barely took one meeting with Hermann Göring (by whom Schmitt found himself “inebriated,” deciding Göring was “maybe the right type for these times”) before he was well on his way into the belly of Leviathan. …


He had supported mass media nationalization, censorship, and the “burning of trash literature.” …

But he reached his apogee after the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when Hitler had his political rivals slaughtered outright. Schmitt wrote a simpering public defense of the extrajudicial killings, titled “The Fuhrer Protects the Law,” arguing that Hitler had acted in a state of emergency to protect the “people’s right to live” by removing those “enemies of the state” identified as threatening the “unity of state power.”…

They live for lower and struggle:

Differing from Hobbes, however, the truest purpose of Schmitt’s state is … to enable and formalize what he presumed to be the deepest human need: the thirst for meaning found in the fundamental pre-order of political struggle between groups — of the friend-enemy distinction.

This is a distinction that, as Schmitt points out, is totally content neutral: it doesn’t matter why or for what one struggles with the enemy, only that one struggles. Only in consciousness of and participation in this existential state of struggle is there meaning to be found in the world. …

The postmodern left love him:

After the war, when Schmitt’s ideas were still widely considered too tainted to touch, let alone translate out of German, there was one group that happily salvaged them for repurposing: the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, and their descendants. Otto Kirchheimer, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, Herbet Marcuse and their ilk were almost universally fascinated by Schmitt. Jacques Derrida later hailed him as the one “terrified and insomniac watcher” of the pre-war period unique in his ability to foresee the post-modern age. It’s not hard to glimpse why.

Schmitt’s rejection of eternal, objective truth, and replacement of it with the political … can be seen as a direct path to post-modern identity politics as we know it today, in which there is no truth but power. The now common idea that rights are not rights unless they are fought for and won, as our rights, is Schmitt distilled. He had put the struggle for power at the heart of life, and of all meaning, in a manner that was already strikingly post-modern in its implications …

It therefore shouldn’t surprise us that so many of Schmitt’s ideas have filtered deep into the political left today. His influence on the American New Left through Marcuse … is especially clear …

Meanwhile, the “idea of ethnic identity,” as Schmitt put it, has again come to “pervade and dominate” all our institutions and public law in the form of leftist identity politics, the totalizing “coordination” of the political’s corruption of every facet of everyday life seeming to proceed relentlessly.


Schmitt’s greatest influence today may no longer be in the West at all, however, but in the world’s new great laboratory of totalitarianism: China. For more than a decade now, the Chinese intellectual elite have been in the grips of “Schmitt fever,” with hundreds of new articles on Schmitt’s thought published in Chinese academic journals every year. Intellectual advocates of Chinese “statism” and “neo-authoritarianism” have adopted Schmitt and risen to the highest echelons of Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Again, the attraction is not hard to understand: the obsession with internal stability; internal unity of the state under a single party; dialectical struggle against internal and external enemies; the supreme rule of a personalistic sovereign dictator; rule “by law” rather than “of law” — all are profoundly fitting ideas for the Chinese total state. Which is why when Beijing needed a justification to crack down on 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong and impose a draconian new national security law, Chinese legal theorists cited Schmitt directly.

Global left:

At this point, it might not be a stretch to say that Schmitt has steadily become a patron saint of left-authoritarianism worldwide.

Across the world, the permanent emergency, centralization of power, technocratic “depoliticization,” and systematic distinction and isolation of state enemies all continue to gather pace as the preferred tactics of the post-modern, techno-statist regime.

hat-tip Stephen Neil