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Schmitt Notes

History Notes > History of Political Thought c.1890-present Notes

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Why was Schmitt so preoccupied with the question of sovereignty?
The question of sovereignty resides at the very core of and underpins Carl Schmitt's entire political philosophy. For Schmitt it is sovereignty that acts as the medium by which man can come to understand the necessity of and implement order within a polity. The primary function of the sovereign within a political system is its ability to fully realise the contrast between opposing elements in human society much in the tradition of Max Weber's hermeneutical dissimilarity between ideal types and reality or Friedrich Nietzsche's emphasis upon distinction between individuals in a hierarchical structure. Sovereignty monopolises the power to draw contrast and preserve the sanctity of the political. Crucial to the understanding of sovereignty in Schmitt's writing is an appreciation of the political context in which his texts were produced. Famously Schmitt shifted his political allegiances throughout his life, most notably in 1919 at the fall of the Kaiser Reich and 1933 at the fall of the Weimar Republic. Despite these ultimately superficial swings in political outlook, Schmitt's primary concern, embodied in the existential inviolability of human dignity, remains unwavering. What Schmitt conceived as the modern rise of rational liberalism from the sixteenth century becomes a chief target of criticism as a destructive element in modern politics. The egalitarian and levelling forces intrinsic to modern liberalism ignore the potency of the exceptional aspects of human existence and politics. In his famous Political Theology (PT) of 1921 Schmitt outlines his philosophical objective in restoring the 'genuine decision' to politics and thus avoiding 'degenerate decisionism' inherent in modern liberalism. This is to be achieved by the sovereign power. That is to say that Schmitt hopes to restore Bodin's sixteenth century conception of indivisible sovereignty undermined during the 1640s by the republican Levellers, hence his label as the Hobbes of the twentieth century. I do however hope to conclude that Schmitt ultimately goes beyond both Thomas Hobbes and the conception of sovereignty in his political thought. Crucial to this examination is firstly an illustration of Schmitt's idea of sovereignty. Political Theology is the primary text for the efficacious analysis of Schmitt's formulation and emphasis upon sovereignty in the political realm. In very basic terms the sovereign's role in politics is to make absolute decisions. The instances where such political decisions are required are described by Schmitt as Ausnahmezustand or emergencies. More explicitly, the state of emergency is where the sovereign power is supreme. Such a state of emergency can not define in particular of legalistic terminology. It is indeed the sovereign who alone possesses the power to define what is and what is not an emergency. In other words, it is the prerogative of the sovereign to decide what the exception to established law is. In time of exception the sovereign rules with supreme power yet also possesses the authoritarian power to decide when that time arises. This form of undisputable dictatorship is what legitimises the sovereign power. Schmitt furthers this point by identifying two forms of dictatorship, both of which possess sovereign power. Commissarial dictatorship acts to defend an existing constitution from forces vying to destroy it. Sovereign dictatorship possesses a creative power to construct a new constitution from the ruins of the old. There is an ethical dimension to Schmitt's conception of sovereignty and dictatorship that is pivotal to the understanding of the importance he places upon it. He writes, 'the exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology' (PT). In an almost religious sense, the exception represents the revelation of the true nature of sovereignty; it embodies sovereignty's very purpose and essence. The exception is a border concept or Grenzbegriff; it defines what is and what is not and draws the undisputable line of demarcation in politics. For Schmitt this is an existential issue. The only certainty in life is in fact death. Imbedded in the formulation of politics is the finality of death opposed to human existence. This dichotomy is the bedrock of Schmitt's philosophy and the key to understanding the meaning of human existence. To appreciate the inescapability of death as the exception in human existence is to recognise the essential nature and power of the 'genuine decision'. Schmitt advocates the Nietzschean notion of the integrity of individual decisionism beyond universal morality which only serves to restrain and confuse human existence. It is therefore clarity and stability that Schmitt pursues above all else in his political works, and it is only the sovereign who can provide this clarity and stability in politics. This notion of absolute sovereignty is translated into Schmitt's politics by the state; he wrote in 1932, 'the decisive question...concerns the relationship of...state and politics'. In The Concept of the Political (CP) (1927) Schmitt identified the state as the entity in possession of the power to define what aspects of human life exist in the political sphere and what aspects do not. The state is the heir of the Catholic Church; 'the central concepts of modern state theory are all secularised theological concepts' (PT). Before the reformation, Catholicism represented a universal spiritual entity that facilitated the ubiquitous struggle against man's pre-ordained sinful condition. To this end medieval monarchs were empowered by divine right to preside as sovereign over their subjects and were answerable to no-one. Domestically, the chief prerogative of medieval kingship was the maintenance of peace among the population. The state similarly should be

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