Gopal Balakrishnan is one of the foremost experts in the Anglo-American world on the life and work of Carl Schmitt, and I am grateful for his response in nlr 68, ‘The Geopolitics of Separation’, to my essay on the thinker, ‘Decisions and Indecisions’, in nlr 67.footnote1 Balakrishnan’s intellectual biography of Schmitt, The Enemy, remains, according to one eminent voice in the field, ‘the best English-language study’ on the subject.footnote2 For a critical American scholar, the attraction of exploring and validating Schmitt as a radical and insightful critic of American imperialism and its liberal-cosmopolitan apologists would seem unobjectionable. Schmitt deployed a remorseless and uncompromising vocabulary to dissect the crisis of the legal form in the inter-war period, analysing the pathologies of liberal international law and the relations between constitutionalism, democracy and emergency powers, in order systematically to deconstruct the practice and ideology of the liberal-capitalist ‘zone of peace’—and with it, the incipient neutralization of inter-state relations.
Within this context, Balakrishnan not only regards Schmitt as a necessary complement to Marx, but clearly as a superior analytical voice and point of reference in fully understanding the legal-political controversies and geopolitics that marked the crisis-ridden transition from the ius publicum europaeum—the classical European inter-state order, regulated by international law—to an apparently de-politicized legal-moral universalism, codified in the Versailles Peace Treaty and institutionalized in the League of Nations. Schmitt, Balakrishnan suggests, identified a politico-jurisprudential problematic—and developed a corresponding categorial register—that Marx, in his own time, had never fully addressed or conceptualized. The systematic exploration of this register constitutes the strength of Balakrishnan’s outstanding study.
Yet, given Balakrishnan’s Marxist credentials and background, the remit and objective of what is, after all, an intellectual portrait, remain curiously restricted. The introduction to The Enemy frames his approach from the angle of a ‘diachronic contextualization’ and ‘intertextual reconstruction’ of Schmitt’s work, resulting in a ‘provisional framework for the comprehensive and critical evaluation of his thought’. The first aim conveys the nature of the work better than the second. For this promise of critique—already toned down by Balakrishnan’s prefatory warning that ‘adopting the role of either prosecutor or defence attorney in discussing Schmitt’ presents a false choice—remains unfulfilled.footnote3 Critique in The Enemy hardly ever reaches beyond occasional and rhetorical references to Schmitt as a deeply disturbing figure. In the process, the study’s emphasis on textual exposition and reconstruction relegates any systematic critique of the intellectual architecture, analytical purchase and political legacy of Schmitt’s thought to the sidelines, rendering the work primarily a philological, exegetic and informational exercise—with greetings from Germany to the us. In fact, Schmittian categories now seem to form the strategic centre of Balakrishnan’s broader reflections on the grand contours of the post-Cold War international scene, encapsulated in the master-idea of neutralizations.footnote4
More than a decade after The Enemy’s date of publication, such professed equidistance and equanimity, turning in the interim into embrace rather than critique, can no longer be afforded (if it ever could). The growing recognition and celebration of Schmitt in the wider social sciences and, specifically, in the field of International Relations, the actuality of Schmittian tropes in 21st-century American foreign-policy circles and the current contestation of dictatorial states of exception across the Middle East, from Tunisia and Egypt via Syria to Bahrain, have sharply re-politicized his significance, reception and legacy.
In this context, my intervention in nlr 67 was formally organized around five axes of inquiry. The first part provided an exposition of Schmitt’s grand historical-conceptual narrative of the ‘spatial revolutions’ that punctuate the history of international law and order, from the New World Discoveries to Hitler’s Großraumpolitik; followed by an outline of current neo-Schmittian attempts to comprehend an altered contemporary geopolitical constellation in comparable terms. The second section, drawing on Reinhard Mehring’s recent biography of Schmitt, set out a compressed diachronic contextualization of his intellectual and political trajectory.footnote5 It concluded that Schmitt’s thought, far from constituting the ad hoc, disconnected and conjunctural interventions of an intellectual bricoleur and footloose adventurist, can be better understood as revolving around an organic and consistent set of intellectual and political preoccupations, expressed in a recognizable problematic: the crisis of legal determinacy, the value of the state executive, German autonomy, political and geopolitical order in times of extremes. In face of these, Schmitt developed a series of ever more radicalized solutions: from his proto-decisionist writings of the late Kaiserreich and defence of the legality of Imperial Germany’s war during the 1920s, via the conception of the political in terms of the agonal friend–enemy binary in the late 1920s and advocacy of presidential emergency powers during the crisis of the Weimar Republic (his definition of sovereignty), to the full-throated embrace of the ‘total state’, the Führer-principle and insistence on territorial conquests as the fons et origo of all international law, as the Wehrmacht marched towards Moscow. Though his natural intellectual maturation and political opportunism afforded conceptual adjustments and theoretical shifts that need to be registered, it is this underlying Leitmotiv—rather than any ‘unifying fascist logic’—that forms Schmitt’s basso continuo, which any de-totalization of his thought is likely to render invisible.
The third and central part of my essay performed two tasks: first, it mounted an immanent critique of the gap between Schmitt’s core theoretical axioms—decisionism, concept of the political, concrete-order-thinking, and their substantive analogues: state of emergency, friend–enemy distinction, nomos—and the historical narrative constructed on their premises, outlining deficiencies in both. It was my thesis that this triple axiomatic consistently suppressed social relations as a relevant category of analysis for the history of international law, while elevating the abstraction of antagonistic power, the fetish of the political (and geopolitical), to the neuralgic centre of Schmitt’s thought. This theoretical orientation is actively consonant with the political Schmitt as a counter-revolutionary étatist and, later, fascist thinker. Further—and against Schmitt’s own advicefootnote6—the section probed whether it was possible to extricate Schmitt’s conceptual apparatus as a generic analytic to illuminate past and present geopolitical transformations and configurations, as the neo-Schmittian literature seems to suggest, answering in the negative. The essay then examined Schmitt’s notion of Großraum, as the territorial unit for a new planetary regionalism and the central juridical category of the Nazi ‘new international order’, along with his ex post attempts to sanitize this category’s political complicity with Hitler’s Großraumpolitik.
The final section returned to Schmitt’s intellectual and political legacy, indicating—contra Mehring’s thesis of his role as a quantité négligeable in the Federal Republic of Germany and beyond—Schmitt’s profound impact within (West) German social sciences, his influential role in the American disciplines of politics and International Relations and, more specifically, in American neo-conservative thought, which provided the ideological backdrop to the foreign policy of the Bush ii presidency. Moral aversion was reserved for the epilogue; no aprioristic ideological condemnations should foreclose the analytical view on Schmitt’s thought.