Carl Schmitt and the Politics of Hostility, Violence and Terror

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 24.3 (Fall 2010)

September 28, 2010

Carl Schmitt and the Politics of Hostility, Violence and Terror

Carl Schmitt and the Politics of Hostility, Violence and Terror, Gabriella Slomp (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 224 pp., $80 cloth.

Elizabeth Frazer (Reviewer)

This book provides an admirably clear exposition of Carl Schmitt's later books, The Nomos of the Earth (1950) and Theory of the Partisan (1963). Because of the lateness of accessible translations, these are less familiar to Anglophone political theorists and philosophers than the pre–World War II Political Romanticism (1919), Political Theology (1922), The Concept of the Political (1927), The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), and The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1938). Slomp's purpose is to correct the bias in Schmitt commentary and criticism to the earlier works, and in particular to correct readings of The Concept of the Political that purport to explain late twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century uses of violence by paranoid dictators. Carl Schmitt and the Politics of Hostility, Violence and Terror is not a historicist enquiry into Schmitt in context; nor is it a comparative account of his theory of state, membership, friendship, hostility, and terror. Rather, Slomp examines Schmitt's work as a whole, clarifying concepts and theories, and identifying incoherences and contradictions across the books and other works. She sets out in particular to draw out contradictions and tensions in Schmitt's theoretical endorsement of authoritarian state power.

Where Schmitt has most often been read as a theorist of enmity and hence of aggression, Slomp emphasizes his theory of friendship. This is the relationship that inheres between members of any "true" political form, according to Schmitt. True political entities cultivate a "total" bond, as Schmitt puts it, between their members, a telluric bond to a particular space, and a nomic bond to other entities. The concept "nomos" for Schmitt cannot translate conventionally into "law" or "norm" but is precisely connected to the apportionment of space and the cohabitation of peoples. A "new" nomos of the earth, then, will mean "new spatial divisions, new enclosures, new spatial orders" (p. 139n). Importantly, in Slomp's reading of Schmitt, the idea of political friendship as the "total" bond between co-members of a political entity is tempered by the equally important idea of friendship in the form of allegiance with members of political entities other than one's own. In opposition to common readings of Schmitt as the theorist of reactionary dictatorship, she also emphasizes that Schmittian politics are never fixed but are a "never-ending series of shifting alliances and changing identities" (p. 120), and that for Schmitt "real politics is inspired by a pragmatic search for identity" (p. 122).

Slomp's analysis of Schmitt's theory of political friendship and his ideal of a new nomos of the earth is very clear. However, in this short book she cannot thoroughly address a number of the questions that inevitably spring to mind, and some readers will wish for a more robust critique of aspects of Schmitt's theory. For example, Schmitt's theory of identity raises a number of insuperable problems. He resists "individualism" and endorses a concept of identity and subjectivity based on a complete collapse of boundaries between individuals, and the erection of clear, impassable boundaries between groups.

Of course, such a theory has tremendous pull for many political positions, including all kinds of racism and ethnic and cultural purism. When put together with Schmitt's theory that any "nomos of the earth" must establish clear territorial boundaries within which groups have a telluric bond, the relevance of his particularly vivid brand of thinking for contemporary racisms and ethnic nationalisms is clear. Yet all this is utterly unconvincing as a theory of human relationships. Neither the idea of "group" as a fundamental entity nor of a "total" bond between individuals can help with any understanding of, nor with any prescription for, relationships in a social world of networks, partial connections, and ambiguous relationships between "friends" and "enemies." Further, it is difficult to square Slomp's interpretation of Schmitt's dynamic conception of politics with the twin ideas of the total bond between members and the clear boundaries between groups. Slomp acknowledges this tension, but her consideration of the matter here is rather inconclusive.

In her discussion of the enmity principle, one of Slomp's main messages is that Schmitt was strikingly prescient with respect to antistate violence, and in this regard Theory of the Partisan is the book to study. In particular, he anticipates here our contemporary difficulties in making clear distinctions among such proliferating terms as "guerrilla," "partisan," "terrorist," "revolutionary," "militiaman," or "irregular" (p. 73).

Other themes are also raised by Slomp but not developed. One such is that of gender. She quotes Jacques Derrida's observation that there is "no figure of a woman, no femininity, not the slightest allusion to sexual difference" in Schmitt (p. 20). It seems to me that this matter must be relevant to the question of identity, and also to the profound contradiction between Schmitt's endorsement of authoritarian power of the kind that, arguably, resolved itself into Nazism and his clear perception of the impossibility of the authoritarian demand for total compliance by individuals.

However, if these and other critical themes are not dealt with in exhaustive theoretical detail, their importance is acknowledged, if briefly, by Slomp. The clarity of her account of Schmitt on friendship, enmity, political boundaries, and antistate violence is also such that the weaknesses of his ideas about identity, ethnicity, gender, and political relationships and organization are evident. Those who are beginning to discover Schmitt would do well to use this book as an introduction to his key concepts and to their critical interpretations.

—Elizabeth Frazer

The author is Official Fellow and Tutor in Politics, New College, Oxford, and Lecturer in Politics, University of Oxford.