The Paranoid Style

Slandering Obama montage. US, 2010.

There’s something of a cottage industry in the US, devoted to tying contemporary politics to their intellectual forebears. In some cases, it’s a matter of pure character assassination, as in the assertions from the far right that Barack Obama is some sort of  socialist. From the leftward side of the spectrum come claims that this or that politician is a devotee of the thought of that great seducer of the adolescent male mind, Ayn Rand.

At a somewhat higher level are attempts to associate various political tendencies with figures of real intellectual gravitas, such as the persistent search for the roots of US neo-conservatism in the thought of Leo Strauss. It is along these lines that the French writer Alain de Benoist has, in a book written in 2007 but only recently released in English, analyzed the influence of Carl Schmitt, among the most controversial of 20th century German thinkers, on the conduct of US. foreign policy.

Alain de Benoist is a peculiar figure in the intellectual culture of the West. A founding member of the French Nouvelle Droit and GRECE, the Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne, a prominent right-wing think tank, de Benoist’s writings are equally divided between incisive analyses of the political and cultural crises of Europe and risible neo-pagan claptrap. His 2013 book, Carl Schmitt Today (originally published in France in 2007), is an excellent example of both tendencies.

There is a certain segment of intellectual opinion in the English-speaking world (and not only there) for whom associating anyone’s thought with that of Carl Schmitt is simply a form of abuse. Schmitt is as brown-tinged as any major 20th century German thinker. After converting to National Socialism from the conservative Catholicism of his pre-1933 writings, Schmitt was forced out of his position in Nazi legal institutions through the Darwinian internecine struggles of their competitive leadership culture. His departure was not the result of any substantive disagreement with the political direction of National Socialism (certainly not with its anti-Semitism for instance). Rather, he was denounced by his rivals in the S.S. journal Das Schwarze Korps for his prewar writings. Schmitt never explicitly parted ways with Nazism, as a result of which he was forbidden from holding a teaching position in postwar Germany. He spent the last four decades of his life holding court in his house in the Westphalian town of Plettenburg as the éminence grise of the German right.

Schmitt’s thought has had something of a renaissance in the last three decades, although this has not been without a certain amount of turbulence (viz. the criticism of Paul Piccone and G. L. Ulmen’s engagement with his thought in the journal Telos). Scholars such as Gopal Balakrishnan and John McCormick have presented balanced accounts of the broader substance of Schmitt’s oeuvre, while avowedly leftist political theorists (most prominently Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe) have explored the significance of Schmitt’s critique of liberalism. In this light, it is hardly surprising that thinkers of whatever political stripe should try to employ Schmitt’s account of the political and his analyses of the broader structures of international relations (as found in his Der Nomos der Erde, published in 1950) to the contemporary political scene.

De Benoist begins by noting the attempts by some scholars to turn Leo Strauss into a sort of crypto-Schmittian, citing his extensive and generally favorable analysis of Schmitt’s seminal text of 1927, Der Begriff des Politischen (The Concept of the Political). He is correct to note both that this constitutes a significant overstatement of the degree to which Strauss took up Schmitt’s position, as well the undue inflation of Strauss’ influence on the neo-conservatism that accompanies it.

The 'Communist' President. US, 2011.
The ‘Communist’ President. US, 2011.

Central to this argument is the falsity of the distinction between liberalism and neo-conservatism. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we are all liberals now. Or, at least, everyone in the mainstream of Western European and North American politics. Putting aside the use of the term ‘liberal’ as the primary epithet in the lexicon of the political right (now being conflated with and replaced by socialism,) there is little in the theory and practice of modern conservatism that would put it at odds with the political thought of Cobden and Bright, or the economics of Jean-Baptiste Say. European conservatism has historically been much more sympathetic to the role of the state than its North American counterpart, and much more pessimistic about human nature. The attempt to pair Schmitt with modern neo-conservatism via a mutual hostility to liberalism becomes is thus quite problematic. As de Benoist notes, “Schmitt is in fact so little ‘conservative’ in the American sense of the term that he places the notion of private property at the center of the ‘moral-economic polarity’ which he denounces strongly as most alien to the essence of politics.”

The application of Schmitt’s politics to the post-9/11 political situation, the true substance of de Benoist’s book, presents a rather different perspective than that taken by the major factions of the American political establishment and the army of media bloviators who convey their views to the public at large. Schmitt’s account of war, all too often stripped down to a caricature of the friend/foe binary, actually involves an important element of restraint. This is clear from Schmitt’s rejection of “humanistic” arguments in The Concept of the Political. If the normative basis of one’s position is taken to be “the human,” than those who oppose it are then much more easily excluded from the category of humanity, and can thus be done away with entirely. For Schmitt, conflicts within the space of the jus publicum europeaum (and this spatial distinction is crucial) must be undertaken in the expectation of negotiated peace as the culmination of hostilities. For Schmitt, war was a means of resolving conflicts and tensions between states, much as political institutions did within states for thinkers like Max Weber. As such, they were a necessary feature of human coexistence.

The President's ship of fools.
Socialists in the White House. US, 2011.

Of course it is also true, as de Benoist recognizes, that the historical dimension of Schmitt’s account sees the progressive collapse of the concept of the war against a “just” opponent in the era of total wars. The breakdown of the jus publicum europeaum, and the lack of an overarching politico-spatial arrangement, has created a welter of overlapping and contested spaces in which states and substate private actors pursue conflicts unregulated by the obligations of mutual respect for the humanity of the other. “The effacement of boundaries between the classical categories of aggression,” de Benoist writes, “culminates in the confusion of notions of war and peace themselves. When the enemy is set up as a figure of evil, it is no longer possible to make peace with him, for to make peace would be to compromise with evil.” The “axis of evil,” now defused and multiplied since George W. Bush’s coining of that particularly infelicitous phrase, remains beyond the pale of those with whom some sort of settlement could justly be reached.

In de Benoist’s deployment of Schmittian criticism, the period after 9/11 was one in which neo-conservatives and their allies among the Evangelical churches propounded a myth of America as a chosen nation whose destiny it was to replicate its own definitively just political order throughout the world. Those who deviated from or refused this messianic bounty were thereby recategorized as falling outside the bounds of those toward whom a humane restraint was obligatory. There is a certain truth to this contention. But it should also be noted that it did not spring forth full-formed on 12 September 2001. It was, in fact, only an intensification of a view well-established in the mainstream of American political thought.

The poet Robert Frost once wrote that, “a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” He was, in that instance, referring to John F. Kennedy, whose foreign policy careened between the extremes of humanistic mission civilizatrice and unapologetic political violence. This has been a common thread in US foreign policy since the Second World War: the causing of large explosions among the nation’s enemies, punctuated by hand-wringing and the application of the occasional band-aid. If the events of 9/11 intensified the one, it did not thereby eliminate the other. Thus, for instance, one precursor of the American invasion of Afghanistan was Laura Bush’s insistence that something had to be done to alleviate the condition of Afghan women, a group whose collective fate was all but forgotten when the bombs began to fall.

For de Benoist, the most important negative consequence of these events has been the creation of a permanent state of emergency in which Schmitt’s exception has become the general rule and in which the pursuit of global political hegemony has prevented the US government from imagining a realistic post-conflict order. Rather than being Schmittians, George W. Bush and his successors have created a liberal-conservative hybrid with a catastrophic inability to reason politically. “Their liberalism (in the European sense of the term) and their messianic optimism are as alien to Schmitt’s ideas as the manner in which they conceive their ‘just’ war, where the enemy is never recognised, but designated as a figure of evil who should be eradicated, or in which they use the concept of the emergency to establish a permanent state of emergency.” De Benoist here reveals himself to be a sort of Gaullist, admittedly with neo-pagan tendencies alien to that particular faction. His employment of Schmitt amounts to a call for a multipolar rejoinder to the ‘you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists’ approach of post-9/11 US foreign policy. There is a sense in which this is apposite, or at least that part of it not connected to de Benoist’s commitment to reviving pre-Christian religiosity.

De Benoist is correct to argue that Schmitt is not the political basis for American neo-conservatism, as well as in pointing out that both foreign and domestic politics of the United States and its allies is enmeshed in a sort of spatial indeterminacy which has degraded the capacity for the pursuit of old style diplomacy. This has, in turn, created a political vacuum in which the dynamic of an ever-intensifying radicalization leaves the fragments of normal political life in its wake. But while de Benoist effectively deploys Schmitt to identify this crisis and probe its outlines, he (like Schmitt before him) lacks a serious and systematic means of reigning in the poisonous dynamics of the war on terror. In one respect, this is due to both his and Schmitt’s failure to properly conceptualize the economic dimension in the breakdown of the jus publicum europeaum, and the institutional disorganization that followed it.

The transformation of the spatial order of the developed and less developed worlds in the era since 1945 has allowed (and to an extent been driven by) a transformation in the structure of capitalism. Increasingly divorced from its connections to the nation state, nodes of capital accumulation have reconfigured the spatio-temporal order to conform to their own requirements. The growth in volume and intensity of these pathways of capital have created a substructure inimical to the creation of stable political formations, of the kind that both Schmitt an de Benoist view as critical for a stable and properly restrained political order. Absent a thorough understanding of this dimension of the modern world order, Schmitt and his successors, both conservative and liberal, lack to the tools with which to come to terms with the global order as it exists today.


Photographs courtesy of Sandi and Steve. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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