Open University

About Schmitt


by Jacob T. Levy
This is a commentary on the "Wolfe v. Berkowitz" stuff that's been going on on the main page and at The Weekly Standard, not in OU; and it's all 'who said what to whom in rejoinder to which rebuttal' kind of material. Read the whole thing at your own peril.

Note: I drafted this after "Wolfe vs. Berkowitz Round 2" was posted on the main page, then decided not to stir those waters any further. Now that two more rounds have been exchanged, it seems that I'm at no risk of bearing sole responsibility for keeping this argument going. I barely amended it in light of rounds 3 and 4, but those have basically been restatements of the original positions.

Co-blogger Alan Wolfe posted a piece on the main website (not here in OU), a rejoinder to a Peter Berkowitz response to Wolfe's own review of Dinesh D'Souza (The links are there; I won't bother summarizing the first three rounds any further.) At issue is Alan's piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago on Schmitt and American politics.

Alan characterized his essay as follows:

Do conservatives and liberals fight the war of ideas in different ways? More specifically, are liberals more likely to treat their opponents according to, well, liberal rules of fair play and tolerance, while conservatives are more likely to engage in no-holds-barred campaigns to win at any cost? Merely to ask such questions is to engage in generalization--there are liberals these days who hate George W. Bush and Dick Cheney with a passion, just as there are conservatives, influenced by philosophers such as Michael Oakeshott, who resist extremism and insist on tentativeness and restraint. Still, or so I argued in an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back, there are a disproportionate number of vitriolic firebrands on the right compared with the left; I cited the usual suspects, such as Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly. Calling for shooting people like Al Gore, which Coulter famously did in one of her columns, is not the stuff of ordinary political debate.

My essay was an effort to bring to people who might be unfamiliar with them the ideas of the twentieth century German jurist and Nazi sympathizer Carl Schmitt. I was careful not to call contemporary Republicans Schmittian; there are, I wrote, "no seminars on Schmitt taking place anywhere in the Republican Party and, even if any important conservative political activists have heard of Schmitt, which is unlikely, they would surely distance themselves from his totalitarian sympathies." I also pointed out the powerful attraction Schmitt has for thinkers on the left. And I specifically reserved any association between Schmitt and the contemporary right to explicit paleo-conservative intellectuals who have written favorably about the man, such as German new-right thinkers associated with the journal Junge Freiheit.

I have to say that that's not how I remember the piece--those "more likely" and "disproportionate" qualifiers, for instance, are conspicuously absent from the following crucial paragraph.

Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water's edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes. Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency -- conservatives always find cases of emergency -- the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.

or from this:

Still, if Schmitt is right, conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political. From the 2000 presidential election to Congressional redistricting in Texas to the methods used to pass Medicare reform, conservatives like Tom DeLay and Karl Rove have indeed triumphed because they have left the impression that nothing will stop them. Liberals cannot do that. There is, for liberals, always something as important, if not more important, than victory, whether it be procedural integrity, historical precedent, or consequences for future generations.

Those aren't apologetic generalizations. This is, as as I wrote at the time, "friend-enemy politics posing as an opposition to it. It is Wolfe who sees [the 2004] election as an apocalyptic contest between liberal democracy and its opponents rather than a competition between two legitimately opposed parties in an ongoing contestatory system."

In that original article, all the discussion of Schmitt, and of explicit interest in his arguments, is over in the first third, which makes it hard for me to read the essay as a whole as "an effort to bring to people who might be unfamiliar with them the ideas of [...] Carl Schmitt." Yes, the article notes that explicit interest in Schmitt is largely in evidence on the academic left. Again, that thought's introduced and then discarded, before the bulk of the piece is devoted to the kind of claim quoted above. It makes for a nice rhetorical move: "Among academics, most of the interest in Schmitt is on the left, and yet it's conservatives who put the Nazi intellectual'ss ideas into practice in American politics." What comes before the "and yet" neither seems like the point of the essay nor does much to diminish the sting of what comes after--of all those "conservaties see politics as an end" and "for conservatives, politics never stops" and so on.

The essay compares unlikes to unlikes in the service of equating liberalism to nice intellectual approaches and conservatism to thuggishness: "Schmitt had an explanation for why conservative talk-show hosts like Bill O'Reilly fight for their ideas with much more aggressive self-certainty than, say, a hopeless liberal like Alan Wolfe." (I have an explanation, too: it rests on the distinction between talk-show hosts and thoughtful academics.) It moves very quickly from "Ann Coulter" to "conservatives." And it doesn't spend a moment looking at any actual political actors or public figures on the left. It's popular in the blogosphere to trot out the other side's most obnoxious and venomous and extreme spokespeople (Pat Robertson! Noam Chomsky! Ward Churchill! R.J. Rushdoony! Ann Coulter! Al Sharpton!) as a substitute for debate. There's a place for that--I do think that at some point political movements should disassociate themselves from nominal allies, or be shamed for not doing so. But a one-sided list of bad actors can't be used as evidence in an evaluation of which side has worse actors. Now Alan claims this in his own defense--he didn't criticize conservative intellectuals--but that means that the essay played by shifting rules.

Here at OU Alan has been busy warning people against what he takes to be the censorious impulse involved in suggestions of anti-Semitism (regardless of underlying merit). Schmitt was a Nazi. Throwing around claims like "conservatives have absorbed Schmitt's conception of politics much more thoroughly than liberals" seems to me at least as ... uninviting of further discussion ... as some of the claims that he's suggested illegitimately manifest a desire to censor.

I don't want to relitigate the merits, as it were. I do want to say: Alan, you seemed very surprised that Berkowitz, a scholar you have liked and respected, reacted in the way he did to your Schmitt essay. You really shouldn't be. I'm no conservative, but I found the claim that liberals do, and conservatives do not, care about process over outcomes, about precedent, about the boundedness of state power and the autonomy of society, and about engaging with their opponents as legitimate participants in debate very offputting. Linking that claim up with Schmitt made it all the worse.

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