The political thinker and jurist of the Third Reich has become the symbol for our current era. But there's a fine line between citation and indulgence.by Joseph Owen / September 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Carl Schmitt seems to be experiencing a second life. The jurist of the Third Reich and famed twentieth century political theorist is now fodder for editorials in the Atlantic, the New Statesman, the Financial Times, and the London Review of Books. Authoritarian conservatives, amoral leftists and self-flagellating liberals have acknowledged, appropriated and claimed affinity to Schmitt’s work. He is invoked to apprehend crises as disparate as Brexit, the rise of Steve Bannon, identity politics, and the electoral successes of demagogues such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro. His influence is widespread. By today’s derided university metrics, he would receive posthumous congratulations. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) that supervises scholarly output would require a fresh order of reputational yardsticks: you might say he has gone far beyond demonstrating a “world-leading research impact.”
As electorates look towards authoritarian leaders and away from liberal pluralism, Schmitt suddenly appears prescient. This may be surprising: that he was a Nazi should be enough to preclude him from discussion. He argued, after all, that domestic paralysis, delay and indecision risked exploitation from extremist political actors, and then ended up aligning with them.
Yet his contemporary appeal is threefold. Firstly, he tries to demystify politics. To be political, in Schmitt’s retelling, is to be a truly meaningful person, one above frivolous moral, economic, and aesthetic identities. The political life is thus the essential life. Secondly, his apparent intellect and card-carrying Nazism provide an appalling and seductive framing that anticipates a disastrous era of totalitarian politics. This is why so many commentators are attracted to Schmitt today, despite his embroilment with National Socialism. Through him, they can perform moral disgust while claiming insight into a worrying future. Lastly, his mystique is intensified by the way he constructs his ideas. He uses pithy axioms about legal order and state decision-making that are as slippery as they are suggestive. You can do a lot with them. His outward suitability for the present is thus explicable: his thought promises meaningful political identity; he possesses second sight; his ideas and language are appealingly vague.
Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament is the latest in this trend towards Schmitt. Johnson has abused executive…