To Have All The Right Enemies
The jurist-philosopher Carl Schmitt was a Nazi. Since his death in 1985, his influence has only grown. How worried should we be?
The German jurist-philosopher Carl Schmitt is a popular figure on Twitter, even if he died in 1985. He was, for a time, one of the Nazi Party’s most prominent intellectuals. This inconvenient fact doesn't seem to have reduced his influence. In this sense, Schmitt echoes Marx and Engels, the rare theorists-cum-visionaries who managed to outlive, in ideas, the destruction they helped sow in war and politics.
Despite the dark provenance, Schmittians and Schmitt scholars abound, and one sees echoes of Schmitt's most influential works almost daily in the increasingly polarized environs of advanced Western democracies. When you hear someone speaking of the “friend-enemy distinction,” “the sovereign” or “the state of exception,” they are drawing on Carl Schmitt’s theories of enmity, even if they themselves have never read (or heard of) the man himself. To re-read Schmitt in light of recent events is to be struck by something very dark, made more dark by the realization that at least some of it rings true.
I was thinking about Schmitt's long shadow during last week’s uproar over Tucker Carlson’s visit to Hungary, where he, among other things, took to lauding Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as a model for insurgent populists searching for a new politics. Was Orbán a nationalist hero and pro-natalist exemplar who found vigor in Hungary’s cultural traditions? Was he, more neutrally, an “illiberal democrat”? Or was he a would-be dictator and Trumpist tyrant, the man the ex-president wishes he might have been?