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carl schmitt & australian conservatism Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006


A Coincidentia Oppositorium? On Carl Schmitt and New Australian Conservatism

Matthew Sharpe
Deakin University


... for whosoever would take upon him to choose and to alter, usurps the authority of judging, and should look well about him, and make it his business to discern clearly the defect of what he would abolish, and the virtue of what he is about to introduce.

—Montaigne, Essays.

1. In an article in The Age early in 2005, Health Minister Tony Abbott reflected that Australia had become more conservative in the ten years of the Howard government. However, Mr Abbott contended, in this period of its near-unprecedented electoral success, Australian conservatism - long a political disposition that dared not speak its name - had also changed. "Conservatives are slow to conclude that significant problems or difficulties are 'the system's' fault", the Minister explained himself, evoking Edmund Burke, the father of anglophone conservatism:

confronted with a problem, the first instinct of a political conservative is to try to make the existing system work better. A serious conservative is always concerned not to take unnecessary risks or to indulge in cures that turn out to be worse than the disease (Abbott, 2005: 5).

Nevertheless, as Mr Abbott continued, "conservatism is about accepting responsibility, not avoiding it" (my italics). Mr Abbott's piece as a whole indeed puts a forthright case for changes to the existing relations between the States and Australia's Federal Government, with greater scope and powers to be afforded to the Commonwealth in health and education, if not in principle.

it is not inevitable that the states will decrease and the Commonwealth will increase, despite all the evidence of the past 100 years. Even so, Burke provides a salutary reminder that not all changes can be resisted and a warning against being sentimental about the states (Abbott, 2005: 4-5).

2. The question that I want to address in what follows is posed both with and against the Minister's timely meditations. It concerns whether the changed policies and laws that today's Liberal party have advocated reflect a qualitative change in political conservatism in this country. Minister Abbott's willingness to reconsider long-standing relations between the States and the Commonwealth would, if such a thesis were correct, stand as only one of many manifestations of this lasting change. Alongside it, we would have to place other well-remarked signs of the political times: from the current government's advocacy of changes to the bicameral system (as in the PMs October 2003 proposals for Senate reforms) or its exceptional recourse to the corporations powers granted to the Commonwealth by the Constitution in the Workchoices Act [1]; to the series of scandals surrounding ministers' actions and responsibility (from "children overboard" to the AWB inquiry), the chorus of politicians and commentators denouncing the ABC, academics and public servants as "politically correct" "chattering classes" or "elites", and the pre-emptive legislation of expansive new Anti-Terrorism powers in order to protect Australia's "way of life" from post-national "enemies".

3. One measure whereby we could decide the question of whether a new "type" of political conservatism is emerging would be to consider whether other paradigms of political thought than the Burkean conservatism invoked by Minister Abbott (or at times by the PM (Irving, 2004)), better allow us to comprehend these changes. In this vein, my contention in what follows is that the recent revival within Western academe of the thought of authoritarian political theorist Carl Schmitt - already one more very interesting sign of the times - becomes only more interesting.[2] For Schmitt's radical conservatism did not draw its inspiration from Burke. His conservative heritage instead came principally from Catholic counter-revolutionaries Joseph de Maistre, Archibald de Bonald, and Donoso Cortes. This essay will read Schmitt's political theory as it were from within today's Australia, in the light or the quickly-changing shadows of our political times. If Schmitt's political theory can be shown to revealingly anticipate many of the novel features of today's conservatism; as I propose (in Part I), equally a comprehension of the specific nature of this conservatism may contribute to the scholarly and political task of understanding where Australia stands politically at the start of the new century (Part II), and where it might be heading (Conclusion).

Part I: Carl Schmitt as Radical Democrat: A Conservative Critique of Liberalism

4. The founding difference between Carl Schmitt's conservatism and Burkean conservatism is that his thought is structured, from the ground up, around a strident critique of liberalism. Far from being a parliamentarian, as Burke was - let alone a Whig (O'Brien, 1993) - in 1923 Schmitt published The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy , one of the twentieth century's most devastating criticisms of parliamentary liberalism.[3] Schmitt's criticism turns on how he understands liberalism, beneath its signature pluralism, as a profoundly unified , contractarian worldview (Schmitt, 1983: 2, 8-9,13-14, 33-36). This weltanschuung maintains that it is only through the competition of multiple private perspectives that the best outcomes are achievable in social or political life. According to Schmitt, liberalism's founding principle is expressed as much in parliamentary politics as it is in the free market. Political liberalism, like "classical" economics, is structured around a metaphorics of "balance", Schmitt observes: a balance between the separated powers that will "check and balance" each other, and "a balance of opposing forces" within the legislature, from which truth is supposed to "emerge automatically as in an equilibrium" or, in a later Schmittian metaphor, as from a machine (Schmitt, 1983: 5, 36, 39-41, 46).

5. Parliamentary liberalism, Schmitt notes, was founded on the ideals of the openness or publicity of parliamentary discussion (Schmitt, 1983: 3-4, 37-39).   Liberalism set its peaceable openness against centuries of religious strife, and the arcana res publica of the early modern absolute states (Schmitt, 1983: 37-38). Like Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere , however, Schmitt's Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy argues that later liberal politics is characterised by a collapse of the private sphere into the public or political realm. The realities of twentieth century liberalism are "far removed from [the] beliefs" and ideals of its founders, Schmitt charges (Schmitt, 1983: 49). In their place, he espies a deleterious privatisation of public life, wherein the celebrated privacy of the ballot box is matched by "representatives" who "represent" nothing more elevated than their particular, quantitative constituencies:

Argument in the real sense that is characteristic of genuine discussion ceases. In its place there appears a conscious reckoning of interests and chances for power in the parties' negotiations (Schmitt, 1983: 7).

Parliament has become, in this constellation, a mere "antechamber" to party rooms, committees and caucuses, Schmitt contends (Schmitt, 1983: 7, 37-38). It is behind their closed doors that the real work of decision-making gets done. But in this way, ironically, parliamentary liberalism has turned out to be every bit as secretive as any Machiavellian prince or Hobbesian sovereign could have dreamed (Schmitt, 1983: 37). Whatever openness or publicity of political parties remains, Schmitt claims, is effectively collapsed into the formulaic business of "public relations": "poster like, insistent suggestion" - or as we might say today, media-managed twenty second "grabs" or "sound bites" (Schmitt, 1983: 6).

6. If Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy thus at times reads like the fearful lamentations of a "true believer" in parliamentary liberalism (Schmitt, 1983: 2), the deeper thrust of Schmitt's position is to assert that these shortcomings of liberalism are more than unfortunate, and hence reversible, accidents. Schmitt instead reads liberalism as embodying, in its very heart , such unholy "confusions" as his 1923 book decries. The subtitle of McCormick's recent book on Schmitt's critique of liberalism is "against politics as technology" (Schmitt, 1997).   Schmitt's thought undoubtedly, on one of its hands, intersects with a vein of conservative thought in Germany (including Heidegger's), profoundly concerned about the effects of technology on European gemeinschaft . Influenced by Weber's sociology of religion, however, Schmitt conceives the modern "spirit of technicity" as a direct corollary of the specifically Protestant sacralisation of the private sphere whose secular child is political liberalism (Schmitt, 1996a: 9, 14-17). Hence, if Oakeshott's Burkean conservatism envisages government as ideally an "umpire whose business is to administer [merely] the rules of the game" (Oakeshott, 1962: 187), Schmitt dissentingly concurs that the modern liberal West's faith in technik is the latest incarnation of a profoundly liberal process of "neutralisation", whereby all potential conflicts are increasingly refigured as private "differences" in a "pluriverse" of values. For Schmitt, that is, modern liberalism, for all its championing of civil rights and its cultural pluralism does not provide any footing for resisting the tide of modern technology, so much as represent its more upbeat, "romantic" flipside:

In the normative anarchy, everyone can form his own world, elevate every word and every sound to a vessel of infinite possibilities, and transform every situation and every event in a romantic fashion (Schmitt, 1985a: 76-77, 84-5).

7. What makes Schmitt's critique of liberalism so prescient for a political culture such as ours, where commentators regularly bemoan the electorate's lack of trust or interest in parliamentary politics, though, is first of all that it is mounted in the name of a revitalised democracy . "The belief in parliamentarism, in governance by discussion, belongs to the intellectual world of liberalism. It does not belong to democracy", Schmitt contends in Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (Schmitt, 1983: 8). "Democracy" means simply the rule ( krasia ) of the people ( demos ) (Schmitt, 1983: 9). As such, in his estimation, there can be socialist, liberal or totalitarian democracies: "bolshevism or even fascism ... are like all dictatorships certainly anti-liberal, but not necessarily anti-democratic " (Schmitt, 1983: 16). From Plato to Machiavelli, political philosophers conceived democracy under the sign of the pollos or "the many". By contrast, Schmitt draws on Rousseau to argue that any real democracy will be characterised by what he terms a "substantial" "homogeneity" between subjects - if not a "general will" (Schmitt, 1983: 9-13), the "identity of the governors and the governed, the rulers and the ruled, of those who receive orders and those who abide by them" (Schmitt, 1983: 16).

8. With Schmitt's radical-conservative conception of democracy in place, we can now fully lay out the two fronts of Schmitt's deeper criticism of liberalism, both of which I want to argue find troubling echoes in aspects of today's new Australian conservatism:

(i) Schmitt's first line of criticism of political liberalism draws on his criticism of technological-liberal "neutralization". It argues that liberalism is characterised by an undue faith in legality , conceived as the "government of rules, not of men" (McCormick, 1997: 207-213). As we shall examine in Part II, against such a "technologizing" of politics and civil life, he proposes more and more the existential unavoidability of exceptional emergency situations, and the necessity of an unaccountable, theologised sovereign. In Schmitt's work, moreover, this critique of liberal legalism is tied to a critique of liberalism as an internationalism at odds with any "substantial" form of national and/or democratic life:

Universal and equal suffrage is only, quite reasonably, the consequence of a substantial equality within the circle of equals and does not exceed this equality. Equal rights make good sense where homogeneity exists. But the 'current usage' of 'universal suffrage' implies something else. Every adult person, simply as a person, should be politically equal to every other person. This is a liberal, not a democratic, idea: it replaces formerly existing democracies, based on a substantial equality and homogeneity, with a democracy of mankind (Schmitt, 1983: 10-11).

(ii) Yet at the same time, Schmitt attacks liberalism for promoting a civically divisive pluralism destructive of the homogeneity imputably necessary for any democracy worth the name. As early as 1987, Schmitt was being presented in Telos as a critic avant la lettre of the "new class" (Sampler, 1987: 215), the American neoconservatives' nom de guerre for the typical constituents of the social democratic left, since borrowed by commentators in Australia's own "culture wars" (Selzer, 1987: 188-213; Sawer and Hindess, 2004). Certainly, from at least 1923, Schmitt firstly calls into question the value of a free press in "speaking truth to power", and keeping open a public sphere despite the liberal privatisation of politics (Schmitt, 1983: 38). The ideal of an open public sphere, Schmitt contends, functions to conceal liberalism's thoroughgoing privatisation of public life, since it is only a freedom for "private citizens" (Schmitt, 1983: 39): More than this, and in a way that sounds more darkly familiar, Schmitt charges that the bourgeois public sphere in reality only serves to indulge the "debating classes" narcissistic devotion to "unending discussion":

Catholic political philosophers such as de Maistre, Bonald, and Donoso Cortes ... would have considered [the liberal-romantic notion of] ever-lasting conversation a product of a gruesome comic fantasy. They knew that their time called for a decision (Schmitt, 1985b: 53).

9. Again, though, Schmitt's criticism of this pointless emptiness of public debate within liberal democracies has another, less sanguine side. If in 1923, Schmitt criticised the "backroom" re-privatisation of political life in liberalism, in his later Weimar writings Schmitt increasingly denounced what he called the "socialisation of the state". Liberal jurisprudence was premised on the ideal of laws being cast, neutrally, for all, Schmitt observes, again donning the mantle of outraged liberal (Schmitt, 1983: 33-38). Yet, with the development of the welfare state after the First World War, this ideal too was giving way to case-by-case "statutes", redressing the grievances of whichever minority happened to have sufficient numbers in parliament (Scheuerman, 1999: 87-105). As Schmitt wrote in Guardian of the Constitution:

the state [becomes] an outgrowth of society, and thus no longer objectively distinguishable from society, [it] occupies everything societal, that is, anything that concerns the collective existence of human beings. There is no longer any sphere of society in which the state must observe the principle of absolute neutrality in the sense of non-intervention (in Scheuerman, 1999: 89).

In The End of Law, William Scheuermann has shown how Schmitt's later Weimar writings denouncing this "quantitative total state" had a formative effect on Hayek, and thereby upon the economic neo-liberalism presently enjoying near-global hegemony (Scheuerman, 1999: 209-224).[4] Read in today's political light, I would by contrast propose, Schmitt's position in fact evokes more closely those of the "social conservatives" (or, in Australian jargon, the "uglies" (Hooper, 2005)), than the "economic rationalist" "dries".

10. In her recent Quarterly Essay, Judith Brett has attacked "left commentators on Howard", who "notice the reference to the bureaucracy and the new class" in many of Howard's statements, yet only "hear the imported rhetoric of American populism" (Brett, 2005: 25). She notes that the attacks on the "elites" characteristic of Mr Howard's government and today's right-leaning commentators draw on precedents set deep in the (capital L) Liberal tradition in Australia. From Menzies' "forgotten people" to "Howard's battlers", Brett contends, the Liberals have positioned themselves as the Party that governs in the name of "mainstream Australia". From Deakin onwards, the Liberals (or their predecessors) have presented Labour as the party of "sectional interests". Menzies' signature rhetoric, Brett notes, already isolated the same two levels of legitimate identification - with the nation and one's family - that Howard singled out in his 1988 Future Directions package as "enough for anyone to be" (Brett, 2005: 19). Nevertheless, Brett goes on to qualify that:

Since Howard became prime minister in 1996 he has played fast and loose with the difference between the national interest and majority opinion, and with the parallel difference between sectional self-interest and minority views. What Howard has done, time and again, is to represent the opinions of people who do not agree with him as the self-interested views of a section and then dismiss them of no account ... or they have been accused of attacking the mainstream, of being far more hostile and aggressive than they are, as in the for-or-against-us images of the culture wars (Brett, 2005: 43).

My question here is whether such a polemical cultural politics can be read as meaningfully conservative in the Burkean tradition. Given its measured appreciation of the limitations of human capacity, this conservatism is more enamoured of difference than homogeneity [5], fearful as it is of the potential "tyranny of the majority". By contrast, Schmitt argues that any democracy requires "first homogeneity", as we have seen (Schmitt, 1983: 9). The second thing that is therefore required, as he continues, "if the need arises - [is] elimination or eradication of heterogeneity". Legality and Legitimacy explains judiciously: "in truth the need for the protection [of minorities] can be very great. But then one must be conscious that with such, democracy is already denied and it is then less useful to expect a 'lasting' and higher democracy than a lasting minority-protection" (McCormick, 1997: 242). Certainly, given such a radically democratic logic, any political claims raised by specific groups - whatever their justice or motives - can only show up as divisive and, in this sense at least, as self -interested.

11. Equally, I would propose, it is exactly such a "democratic-conservative" type of populist logic that, for example, informs Mr Howard's lasting view on multiculturalism:

The objection I have to multiculturalism is that multiculturalism is in effect saying that it is impossible to have an Australian ethos, that it is impossible to have a common Australian culture. So we have to pretend we are a federation of cultures and that we've got a bit from every part of the world (in Brett, 2005: 37).[6]

Any apparently neutral non-state group who would claim to defend or to represent minorities in the political process, can in turn only show up in a Schmittian conservative-democratic estimation as "slicing flesh" from the body of the State, to invoke a 1930 metaphor. At best, their competing voices might cancel each other in the "endless discussion" of what today's conservatives would call the "chattering classes". At worst - and this is closer to how Mr Howard has consistently represented the Keating government - these "interest groups" will form exactly the type of backroom shadow-government Schmitt decried in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Consider, for example, Mr Howard's June 1995 speech to the Menzies Research Centre:

for the past twelve years, Labour has governed essentially by proxy through interest groups. Identification with powerful interest groups has been seen as the vehicle through which government largesse is delivered. / Increasingly, Australians have been encouraged to think of themselves as subgroups. The focus has been on where we are different - not on what we have in common. In the process our community has been severely damaged ... Mainstream government means making decisions in the interests of the whole community, decisions which have the effect of uniting, not dividing, the nation (in Brett, 2005: 23).

12. It is striking for contemporary Australian readers that Schmitt cites as his principal example of the type of democratic homogeneity he has in mind "the Australian commonwealth [of 1923], which restricts unwanted entrants through its immigration laws" (Schmitt, 1983: 9). It is hard for a contemporary Australian not to be reminded here of the Mr Howard's famous statement at the 2001 Liberal Party campaign launch: "We decide who comes here and the circumstances under which they come". As Judith Brett comments in "Relaxed and Comfortable" - and she might have cited Althusser or Eagleton (Sharpe, 2006) - "pronouns matter in politics". Menzies in 1963 still promised, with patrician pathos , to govern for all of you , she notes. "And because [Menzies' "you"] is ambiguous in its reference - singular or plural?" Brett observes, "it did not conjure up a sense of collective identity and a 'them' excluded from sharing that identity". There is thus a salient contrast at the heart of Howard's and Menzies' rhetoric, despite their frequently being compared. As in the famous 2001 statement, Mr Howard has consistently preferred "we" or "us" to "you" to describe the Australian people, from the "For All of Us " of his 1996 election campaign to today. Far from being incidental, Brett contends, "the shift from 'you' to 'us'" with the shift from Menzies' 1950s conservatism to Mr Howard's government matters. What is as significant for us here, though, is that Brett's reasoning is framed in words that recall very closely Schmitt's Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy : this shift to a "we" or "us", she writes, "evokes a stronger sense of collective identity, and it collapses the distance between government and governed" (Schmitt, 1983: 13).

Part II: Towards Postmodern Conservatism: Schmitt as "Exceptional" Conservative

13. An arresting case can thus be made that Schmitt's democratic-conservatism more closely characterises the emerging features of today's Australian conservatism than the liberal-conservatism of the Burke tradition. Yet the significance of this case, beyond the uncertainties surrounding Schmitt's political "blunder" between 1933 and 1936, remains undecided. In Part II, accordingly, I will examine three features of Schmitt's form of post-Catholic conservatism that arguably - again - presciently anticipate today's new conservatism; and which demarcate the singularity of Schmitt's conservatism in the history of political ideas. With these features singled out, given the comparison established in Part I, something of the distinctness and also the dangers that attend the ascendancy of the new conservatism can also be weighed:

14. (i) In the piece we began with, Minister Abbott comments that "conservatism is sceptical about the state rather than enamoured of the states. A conservative is not someone who mistrusts all governments except state governments" (Abbott, 2005: 5). The first feature of Schmitt's conservatism is that he was absolutely not "sentimental" in his criticisms of mediating levels of government that might threaten the centralising power of the sovereign nation-state. If Schmitt's 1923 criticism of liberals' "unending discussion" might invoke images of idle elites in Carlton or Fitzroy, the description of the "socialisation of the state" in "The Ethic of the State and the Pluralist State" is veritably apocalyptic:

When the 'mortal God' [of the State] falls from his throne and the kingdom of objective reason and civil society become 'a great gang of thieves', then the parties slaughter the powerful Leviathan and slice pieces from the flesh of his body (in McCormick, 1997: 272).

Herein lies the truth of Zizek's criticism of Schmitt in "Carl Schmitt and the Age of Post-Politics" - that Schmitt prioritises external conflict over internal antagonism (Zizek, 1999b). "The intensification of internal antagonisms has the effect of weakening the common identity vis-à-vis another state", Schmitt warns (Schmitt, 1976: 32). In place of the "quantitative total state" he decried in Weimar's burgeoning liberal welfare state, Schmitt certainly then did not propose smaller government in the manner of Hayek. Instead, he championed a "qualitative total state". This state, charged with guarding the German demos , would restore legitimacy to the staid legality of the parliamentary state (in the terms of Legality or Legitimacy ); and ground the written Constitution in the living "constitutional will" of the German volk (in the terms of his 1928 Verfassungslehre ). Decisive for it, then, would be the capability of waging war, as Schmitt contended centrally in his (in)famous 1927 work Concept of the Political. "To the state as an essentially political entity belongs the jus belli, i.e. the real possibility of deciding in concrete situations upon the enemy and the ability to fight him" (Schmitt, 1976, 45, 29-30).

15. As its title indicates, The Concept of the Political , as well as providing a theory of the state, more famously proposes a meta-theory of "the political" itself. Its opening line reads; "the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political" (Schmitt, 1987: 19). This hypostatization - of ' the political" versus "politics" - has since passed into such wide academic circulation that we might not think to question it. Yet there was something unusual - if not ironically "liberal"- in Schmitt's 1927 attempt to isolate a "sphere" of "the political" separable from economics, aesthetics, and other fields of human concern. Schmitt's definition of this "political" is also surprising when read in comparison with other conservative or classical notions, which refer political struggle to competing visions concerning the good or human excellence. For Schmitt, by contrast, "the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy".[7] And this "political" antithesis, he in turn makes clear, is grounded ultimately in nothing more elevated than the naked "possibility of physical killing" (Schmitt, 1987: 26).

16. The key thing about this Schmittian attempt to rewrite and radicalise Hobbes' "state of nature" into an existential "concept of the political" [8] is this. It is unclear whether liberal-conservatism, or the classical tradition to which it recurs, is unaware of the possibility of such extreme instances of conflict as Hobbes' "state of nature" or Schmitt's "political". It is very unclear indeed whether its exponents, equally, are unaware of the violence that invariably attends acts of political foundation. Augustine's City of God cites the murder of Romulus alongside Cain's physical killing of Abel in discussing the blood-rimmed foundations of worldly cities. Socrates' "city in speech' is erected on the back of a sober recognition that any polis that would cater for anything higher than pigs will need a strong army (Plato, Rep. 373d ff.). Schmitt's claim - which hails from Machiavelli (Schmitt, 1976: 59) - that the 'last word" on political life might be the blood and tumult of war or foundational violence is hence radically foreign to liberal-conservatism, and indeed to almost all other traditions of political thought. Burke, for example, counseled that even "the very habit of stating these extreme cases is not very laudable or safe". Conservatives' thought, he says, "... never can lead to an extreme, because their thought is laid in an opposition to extremes" (Strauss, 1953: 300). But it is precisely this type of claim - that the "extreme" instance of "the real possibility of physical killing" proves the necessary and sufficient rule of political life - that Schmitt defends in The Concept of the Political and his Constitutional Law of one year later, as a universal Truth:

Every existing political unity has its value and 'existential justification' not in the rightness or usefulness of norms but solely in existence as such. That which exists as a political form, considered juridically, has value because it exists. From this alone arises its 'right to self-preservation' ... It seeks ultimately to maintain its existence in suo esse preserverare. It protects 'its existence, its security, and its constitution'- all existential values (in McCormick, 1997: 245 (my italics)).

17. (ii) On 14 September 2001, President Bush "proclaimed a national emergency by reason of certain terrorist acts". This state of emergency has continued until the time of writing in the US (May 2006). In the face of widespread civil concern, in Australia Mr Howard has similarly appealed to the "unusual and threatening" times to justify extending ASIOs powers to pre-emptively police terrorism, accountable only to the executive. Liberal-conservatism of the Burkean tradition encouraged caution in such protective measures, which need in a liberal state to be balanced with the civil liberties of the citizen. As Michael Oakshott's "On Being Conservative" - which Irving Kristol, the "godfather" of American neo-conservatism, boasts about having rejected for his Encounter magazine - states:

modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them ... consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations ... he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious for changes in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extraordinary changes in order to make great changes and whose utterances are tied to generalities like 'the public good' or 'social justice', and of Saviors of Society who buckle on armor and seek out dragons to slay (Oakeshott, 1962: 190-191).

As Agamben's and Derrida's interest in Schmitt's work reflect, Schmitt is by contrast juridically and politically a thinker of "the exception" (Scheuerman, 1999: 15-38). That the law might be something like an "ignorant tyrant" blind to the particularities of individual cases was lamented by Plato in the Statesman (Plato, Stm. 294c). That the richness of experience undermines all attempts to codify laws that would cover all instances is a concern Aristotle and others address with salutary caution (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. , 1137a27-1138a2). If there is one topic that Schmitt is most famous for addressing, by contrast, it is "the exception", which Schmitt ties to a re-theologised account of the sovereign (Schmitt, 1985b: 13-15; 1976: 35).

18. Again following Hobbes, Schmitt conceived the sovereign as first and foremost the "guardian" of his citizens, who owe him their allegiance in exchange for their protection ( protégé ergo obligo ). Between 1921 and 1932, in the increasingly extreme circumstances of Weimar Germany, however, Schmitt developed his position in no less than four monographs, and several political articles. In his 1921 Die Dictatur , Schmitt still distinguished between "sovereign dictatorship" and "commissarial dictatorships" - named after the year-long office the Roman senate created to preserve the constitution in times of emergency (McCormick, 1997: 122-133, 146-149). In Political Theology , written in 1922, however, Schmitt makes no such distinction between the sovereign and commissarial dictator. Schmitt speaks only of the sovereign. If Hobbes was the first political philosopher to deny any real distinction between tyrannical rule and monarchy, Schmitt's Political Theology agrees that any real sovereign ought to be simply above any "checks and balances", or what he would still call in 1938 "the murky indistinctions of indirect powers" (Schmitt, 1996b: 86). The sovereign, as Schmitt famously begins Political Theology , "is he who declares the state of exception". And this declaration, as Schmitt is at pains to emphasise, is a wholly incalculable decision, one which "confounds the unity of the rationalist scheme" (Schmitt, 1985b: 14) in a way that will evoke for contemporary readers Derrida's analysis in "The Force of Law" (Derrida, 1980).

19. Political Theology spells out the implications of Schmitt's "occasional decisionism" in very concrete terms (Lowith, 1995):

The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can at best be characterised as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like. But it cannot be circumscribed factually and made to conform to a preformed law.... The precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case, especially when it is truly a matter of extreme emergency and how it is to be eliminated. The preconditions as well as the content of a jurisdictional competence in such a case must necessarily be unlimited (Schmitt, 1985b: 6-7).

Schmitt's texts offer two justifications for such an extra-judicial and extra-normative grant to the sovereign:

(i)   The first, despite Schmitt's revulsion for modern technik, is purely technical. Just as Hobbes defends his preference for monarchy on grounds of the greater speed it allows for political decision-making, so Schmitt suggests in Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy that a Caesarist dictatorship can more efficiently give voice to the people's will than any parliament (Schmitt, 1983: 13-18). Guardian of the Constitution, similarly, notes that the judiciary or other bodies of review always act post festum, which is "politically speaking, always too late" (in McCormick, 1997: 144). The sovereign's decision may need to be pre-emptive, if the people existential way of life is under threat.

(ii)   The distance between Schmitt's second rationale for an unchecked sovereign and Burkean conservatism can be measured by citing Oakeshott's comments in "On Being Conservative" concerning the all-too-human status of subjects and their leaders:

it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life (Oakeshott, 1962: 187).

In striking contrast, as the very title Political Theology suggests, Schmitt's post-1922 notion of the sovereign intersects with his post-Catholic theorization of the need for a charismatic or "personalistic" embodiment of authority (Schmitt, 1985a: 12-16). Against the mechanistic, law-bound models of the universe proposed in the "liberal" eighteenth century, Schmitt advocates that the decisions of the sovereign should stand in the same relation to human laws as the miracles of God stand vis-à-vis physical nature, capable at any moment of unaccountably suspending the very laws of this order itself . (Schmitt, 1985b: p. 36; Zizek, 1999a:19-21).

20. (iii) In defence of Schmitt against the anxiety such proclamations produce in a post-enlightenment audience, friendly commentators contend that Schmitt is the Hobbes of the twentieth century. The thought seems to be this. Hobbes' sovereign in Leviathan , as the beneficiary of the social contract, is then all-but-unlimited by it, every bit as much or as little as Schmitt's sovereign in Political Theology . Yet Hobbes is a canonical figure in political philosophy. Therefore, why is there such concern about Schmitt? The response to such thinking is to point out how the very fact that Schmitt is imputably the Hobbes of the twentieth century , significantly alters the significance of his political thought . Schmitt himself complains in Political Theology that "all tendencies of modern constitutional development point towards the eliminating of the sovereign" in Schmitt's sense (Schmitt, 1985b: 7). To defend such an unlimited sovereignty, after three centuries of liberal constitutionalism hardly then involves the same type of position as Hobbes', who preceded Locke and whose model of absolute sovereignty could draw on prevalent acceptance of the exceptional status of Kings.

21. As this observation would lead us to infer, then, there are telling asymmetries even between Hobbes' contractarian conception of the sovereign and Schmitt's position. And these differences, I would suggest, are vital in comprehending the specificity of Schmitt's radical conservatism. In particular - and it seems difficult to imagine how commentators could fail to see this - Hobbes argues that the state of war is one of "misery".   Sovereignty is what allows for the rule of law to emerge, for him. It is what puts an end to the exceptional violence. By contrast, as Strauss notes, Schmitt's "elevation of the state of nature to a place of honour" moves hawkishly in the opposite direction:

The divergence springs from the fact that Hobbes' definition of the state of nature is polemically intended: the fact that the state of nature is the state of enmity of all against all is adduced so as to yield a motive for relinquishment of the state of nature. Against this negation of the state either of nature or of the political, Schmitt sets the affirmation of the political (Strauss, 1976: 88).[9]

Everything then looks, that is, as though Schmitt comes very close - as his radical conservative predecessor Nietzsche also did, albeit in passing - to actively propounding the political need for an enemy, in order to secure anything like political order.

Of the two moments of [Schmitt's] point of view, the moment 'foe' clearly is dominant, as appears from the fact that, in his more detailed explanation of this point of view, Schmitt only speaks of what 'foe' means. One may say that every 'totality of men' first looks out for friends, indeed has friends, only for the reason that that totality already has enemies; 'in the reference to a concrete opposition the essence of political relations is contained' [Schmitt says]. 'Foe' takes precedence over 'friend' because 'the concept of foe' - as distinguished from the concept of friend - implies 'the real possibility of struggle', and because, from the ' ernstfall ', from 'the most extreme possibility', 'human life takes on its specifically political tension' (Strauss, 1976: 85-86).

The alarming nature of this position is clear. As Rowse puts it: "To begin with, on the one hand, to reject peace and agreement at any price is one thing - to regard enmity, and potentially violent opposition, as the normal and desirable state of humanity is another" (Rowse, 2005: 15). More than this, to regard friendship, enmity or political killing as beyond good and evil - as purely the matter of groundless decision - is to propound a position no less relativistic than liberalism, which Schmitt had complained is unable normatively to differentiate between creating poison gas and a silk blouse (Schmitt, 1996: 14-15). Schmitt's political theory, it thus indeed comes to seem, arguably becomes the victim of the vehemence of its own opposition or "enmity" to political liberalism, "transformed into a servile compliance with foreign power and foreign decisions" (Schmitt, 1985a: 162).

22. It is with this critical observation that I want to return to Schmitt's critique of levelling liberal internationalism, introduced in Part I. For, as The Concept of the Political makes very clear, Schmitt is not anxious that liberal or universalist attempts to pacify the globe might disastrously fail. An idealist at least in his pessimism, Schmitt's concern is instead that they might succeed:

if ... the distinction between friend and foe were to disappear, even as the merest possibility, there would be nothing but a world view devoid of politics. There would be culture, civilisation, economic life, morality, law, art, entertainment and so on, but there would be neither politics nor the state ... A completely pacified globe might contain very interesting oppositions and contrasts, competition and intrigue of every kind, but these could not meaningfully be any opposition by reason of which the sacrifice of life could be required of men (Schmitt, 1976: 35).

The third novel feature of Schmitt's conservatism, I would then suggest, is exactly this, its profoundly reflexive and post-modern nature: one which champions the need for groundless, sovereign decisions not because the world, lamentably, is a violent place but because liberalism imputably threatens to extinguish "the real possibility of physical killing", and with it, "the political" itself. Because of this, the very positions that most seem to unite Schmitt with anglophone conservatives in the mould of Burke in fact give more, telling, testimony to the differences. Certainly, Schmitt for example promotes the nation no less than many liberal-conservatives.   Equally, especially in his books on Hobbes and Roman Catholicism and Political Form, Schmitt points to the need for uniting symbols or muthoi to bind the people, no less than Edmund Burke. The Burkean conservative however affirms the organic, natural or quasi-natural inviolability of particular traditions:

as Burke said, 'the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.' The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors ... [or] what Chesterton called 'the democracy of the dead' (Kirk, 2002).

24. When Schmitt appeals to the homogeneity of the demos, by contrast, he does not do so any longer from a starting point for which binding social tradition would be given inalienably, and so in need of defence only in the name of prudential good judgment. The issue is that Schmitt's Weimar work is everywhere-animated by an anxiety about the potential of modern liberalism to "level" all inherited traditions, if not melt them into air. As Strauss again notes precisely in his early comments on Schmitt, having designated even "the political" as the final existential word on the humanitas of man in Concept of the Political , Schmitt nevertheless feels the need to speculate on "whether or when" liberalism will in fact produce a post-political world state (Strauss, 1976: 107). Rather than wanting to conserve any substantive tradition, in Strauss' words, Schmitt instead affirms his polemical conception of "the political". In other words, Schmitt's critique of the scourge of liberalism is not one that looks backward to pre-modern tradition. It looks forward, hoping that the decisive naming of an enemy by the state might enable the active construction of a culture and society at least as unified as those which lived under the banner of such traditional forms of life (Strauss, 1976: 88).

(Exhortatory) Conclusion

25. After having deliberated on these theoretical matters, let me return to present political concerns, and the question of whether our circumstances allow us to say that a new political conservatism is emerging much closer to Schmitt's than to Burke's. A recent essay on "The Life and Legacy of Carl Schmitt" concludes with the ominous affirmation that "for better or for worse, the actuality of Carl Schmitt will soon become apparent" (anon., 2005). In Part I of this paper, we saw how Schmitt's prescriptive positions are built around a strident critique of parliamentary liberalism, the "murky indistinctions" of its procedures, and its founding, internally divisive and existentially debilitating, faith in "unending discussion". The features of Schmitt's critique, I suggested, do strikingly anticipate the rhetoric, and many of the policies, of the Howard government in Australia which distinguish it from its Liberal predecessors. In Part II, we proposed that Schmitt's thought can be differentiated from that of Burke and the anglophone conservative tradition, because it is above all a post-traditional conservatism. Schmitt is under no illusions about the sufficiency of a solely conservative appeal to tradition in the face of political liberalism, and the emerging social democracy of the twentieth century. Although Schmitt recognises the value of tradition or myth in generating cultural unity, that is, his fear that liberalism might collapse the "friend-enemy" distinction push him towards actively advocating the construction of new conflicts - for the sake of generating some post-traditional simulacra of the traditions uniting pre-modern societies. This move is carried out by him through the construction of an authoritarian theory of a decisionist sovereign defended for His existential "decisiveness" in the face of enemies and emergency alone, rather than by reference to any higher or inherited notion of the political good.

26. If the comparative argument of Part 1 of this paper then has force, it would suggest that the novelty of today's new conservatism is that - in another coincidentia oppositorium - it is a post-modern conservatism. First: far from being averse to change, as Mr Abbott emphasises, the comparison with Schmitt leads us to expect that this new conservatism will be only too open to reforms which undermine federalism and strengthen a centralist federal government. It will contest political globalisation and domestic multiculturalism in the name of indigenous "traditions" whose substantial continuity its spokesperson recognise as having been lastingly uprooted by the social democratic "compromise" of much of the last century. It will strive to offset anxieties created by its sponsorship of economic liberalism by outspoken enmity towards discursive "liberal elites" aligned internally with the university and the welfare state, and internationally with the cosmopolitanism promised, however distantly, in institutions like the United Nations. Finally, and most perilously, the case of Schmitt illustrates how this new "post-traditional" conservatism will not desist from advocating exceptional political powers concentrated in the hands of the executive. In part, these measures will be justified by a rhetoric of strong leadership defended simply as resolute or decisive in the face of an enemy, and so imputably opposed to "wet" or "weak" left-liberals. In part, they will be motivated by a desire to actively construct the type of substantial national and cultural homogeneity increasingly at a premium in the new "globalized" world.  

27. The significance of 30 January 1933, Schmitt argued, was that it put paid to the aspirations and program of Hegel, arguably the modern philosopher par excellence (Marcuse, 1968: 275, n. 79). For their part, the Hegelian Marxists of Schmitt's time - particularly Herbert Marcuse - attributed the same political irrationalism to Schmitt as he had devastatingly attributed the liberals in his 1919 Political Romanticism (Marcuse, 1968). Marcuse's critique of Schmitt was grounded in an understanding which situated Schmitt's decisionism as the flipside of liberalism's "economic rationalism". Because capitalism increasingly delivers over all political questions to the market, Marcuse argued, a wish for decisive leadership is invariably generated, which could actively create the "law and order" and sense of boundaries that a wholly market-mediated society is experienced by subjects as lacking (Cf. Horkheimer, 1995b; Zizek, 1999b: ch. 6). Today's opposition within the Australian liberal party between neo-liberal "dries" and social conservative "uglies" (Hooper, 2005), from Marcuse's perspective, could then be argued to conceal a deeper coincidentia oppositorium between the two. The more economic neo-liberalism is pushed, it would allow us to opine, contra Hayek, the more the call for a "law and order" agenda opposed to cloying "political correctness" will take on force and meaning. In the absence of the "mediating" agencies of inherited and organic traditions or civic and local communities which neo-liberalism systematically undermines, however, this "law and order" can only come from the "top down", in the form of a politically strengthened State. In place of the much-bemoaned judicial radicalism, that is, what new conservatism might deliver is increasing executive radicalism.

28. Judith Brett observes astutely in her recent Quarterly Essay that "Howard's critics have been unable to develop any effective or plausible counter-strategies for talking to their fellow Australians" (Brett, 2005: 40). If we accept either an Hegelian or a Schmittian understanding of the constructed nature of political identity, which suggests that any new venture involving large numbers "needs enemies more than friends: in opposition alone does it feel itself necessary" (Nietzsche at McCormick, 111), there is a paradox. The paradox is that in the very political success of the new conservatism, we can expect its internal divisions to emerge. Perhaps the signs of such division within the Australian coalition can already be witnessed in the disputes over industrial relations reform, refugee policy, and over the sale of Telstra. Equally, the very success of the new conservatism may, with fortune and new leadership, point the way toward to a new Australian opposition. Any such opposition would have to oppose the push to centralism by defending the federal system, and the value of representative institutions in promoting the common good. Rather than holding onto old, too-ready mantras concerning the right, it would have to embrace some of the language of Burkean conservatism, especially in order to oppose the radical new conservative drift towards executive prerogative. Here an appeal could be made in the name of Australia's liberal tradition, and the "scepticism towards authority" that Mr Howard still has to associate with his dream of the Australian mainstream. Rejecting the current identification of morality with individualism - shared by left and right, as Clive Hamilton's recent work attests - it would also embrace something of the older conservatives' and social democrats' emphasis on the importance of education and local cultures in shaping good civic conduct, in the face of the neo-liberal revolution which threatens to render the university and independent media obsolete, and to make any venture not driven by the all-levelling "bottom line" increasingly unsustainable. Finally, despite the ALPs ceding of the Australian traditions of "informal mateship and egalitarianism" to Mr Howard in the last decade (Brett, 2005: 33), any such opposition would simply have to "stand in the centre with [Mr Howard] and tell different stories to one's fellow Australians about their past and present and the bonds they share" (Brett, 2005: 40).

29. For, in the words of an ancient poet, these older virtues are not yet dead, and our breasts are not yet extinguished.

Matthew Sharpe lectures in political philosophy and psychoanalytic studies at Deakin University. He is the author of Slavoj Zizek: A Little Piece of the Real (Ashgate 2004), coeditor of Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Zizek, and the author of numerous articles on political philosophy and critical theory. His current research interests centre on new forms of political conservatism, the coincidence of theoretical doxai across the political divide, and the return of the religious in the contemporary world.


1. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: - ... (xx.) Foreign corporations, and trading or financial corporations formed within the limits of the Commonwealth: (xxxv.) Conciliation and arbitration for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State" ... The Australian Constitution at:, accessed at 12/10/05.

2. Hegel's Phenomenology counsels that in times of burgeoning empire, we should expect the hegemony of forms of Christianity, Stoicism and scepticism. To Hegel's list, the twentieth century might counself we should add political decisionism. The current rediscovery of Schmitt has not been restricted to conservative journals and outlets. The fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the European Union has sparked renewed interest in Schmitt's argument for a united European grossraum, given the emergence of what he would call after the war a new global " nomos of the earth". In 1987, the Western Marxist journal Telos ran an entire issue on Schmitt's work. In the same year, Jacques Derrida published The Politics of Friendship, a work which - like some of his other later essays - engages in depth with Schmitt's political and legal writings. More recently, Giorgio Agamben has engaged extensively with Schmitt's legacy in Homo Sacer and The State of Exception, as has radical democratic theorist Chantale Mouffe in her Return of the Political.

3. Throughout the Weimar period, indeed, Schmitt produced a series of devastating criticisms of liberal constitutionalism (Constitutional Theory, The Guardian of the Constitution), liberal jurisprudence (Legitimacy and Legality), and liberal politics and culture generally (The Concept of the Political, Political Theology, "The Age of Neutralisations and Depoliticisations"...). It is Schmitt's stance on liberalism, notably enough, that forms the decisive issue in the remarkable critique of Schmitt's work by Leo Strauss - the philosophical name most often associated with today's American neo-conservatism.

4. It needs to be noted that Schmitt's own direction, as we will see in Part II, is very different from that taken by Hayek, at least on the surface of things. In the increasingly extreme climate of the prolonged stagnation of the parliamentary process in Weimar, Schmitt saw, and then himself succumbed, to how liberal pluralism:

the institutions and concepts of liberalism, on which the positive statute state rested, became weapons and power positions in the hands of the most illiberal forces. In this fashion, party pluralism ... perpetuated the destruction of the state by using methods inherent in the liberal statute state (Schmitt, 1996b: 74).

5. Kirk's second conservative principle reads: "Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigour and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called "democratic despotism" (Kirk, 2002). Or, as Oakeshott rejoins: "... if the [conservative] is asked: Why ought governments to accept the current diversity of opinion and activity in preference to imposing upon their subjects a dream of their own? it is enough for him to reply: Why not? Their dreams are no different from those of anyone else; and if it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them" (Oakeshott, 1962: 187, 186-7).

6. Again, it is evident in Mr Howard's 1988 position on the issue of any treaty with the aboriginals: "... treaties with Australian aboriginals ... would permanently recognise them as citizens apart, unable to participate in the mainstream of Australian life, even when they wished to do so. Where communities are kept separate from Australian society there is no equality of opportunity" (Brett, 2005: 25).

7. For Schmitt, this distinction "can neither be based on any other antitheses or any combination of other antitheses [good-evil, beautiful-ugly ..]" (Schmitt, 1976: 25). Nevertheless, it should be noted that, as he was to qualify in later editions, "the political" could certainly come to affect disputes over any of these distinctions, should they become sufficiently heated (Schmitt, 1976: 26).

8. As McCormick and others have noted, Schmitt's "concept of the political" represents his attempt, in the twentieth century, to rewrite Hobbes' "state of nature". (see below) In this "state" or pre-state - as Hobbes famously wrote - "every man to every man, for want of a common power to keep them all in awe, is an Enemy" (see McCormick, 1997: 231). But equally, Schmitt argues in The Concept of the Political that, at the level of "the political": "Only the actual participants ... [are] in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his way of life [sic.] and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one's form of existence" (Schmitt, 1976: 27). On Schmitt's changed political times, and the changes this implies in his Hobbesianism, see below.

9. Equally, and although Schmitt's 1919 Political Romanticism had pilloried political romanticism as unregenerately liberal (Schmitt, 1996: 16-17, 82-3), Political Theology actively affirms the exception on what seem like explicitly aesthetic grounds:

The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing: the exception proves everything. It confirms not only the rule but its existence, which derives only from the exception ... In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism which has become torpid by repetition. (Schmitt, 1985b: 15 (my italics)).


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