Our Friend/Enemy Politics02-19-2023
Our Friend/Enemy Politics
In my seminar on “Truth and Politics” this semester we are grappling with the pure weaponization of claims to truthfulness and lying. I’m at colloquium this weekend on federalism where one theme is how federalism is embraced by whichever party or group doesn’t control political power. Principled ideas of governance and politics are fully sacrificed to the overriding goal of winning. These ideas are grounded in a larger nihilist worldview, and one thinker who understood the full implications of nihilist politics was Carl Schmitt. N.S. Lyons offers some important thoughts on reading Schmitt’s friend/enemy approach to politics. They write:
“Today will be very instructive for those still clinging to the idea of returning to norms and sacred institutions,” tweeted one popular young right-wing commentator shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft ruling on abortion was leaked to the left-wing press in May of 2022. “It’s going to be friend/enemy all the way down, strap in.”
I found the tweet striking, though not because of its pessimistic political prediction, which sadly turned out to be all too accurate. Rather, its abbreviated reference to the concept of the “friend-enemy distinction” seemed to perfectly illustrate a trend of which I’d begun to take note. As those active in the energetic digital corridors of the more disaffected portions of American politics – especially, though not exclusively, on the right – may already know, the ideas of one particular thinker have over the last several years become increasingly commonplace vernacular. In a growing proliferation of articles, videos, podcasts, and social media threads, Carl Schmitt – political theorist and Crown Jurist of the Third Reich – has today returned to center stage.
Schmitt’s once hugely influential theories of politics and law have, at least on the surface, largely been rendered verboten and obscured in Western intellectual polite society for decades. What, I wondered, accounts for his sudden intellectual resurrection today? And what does this mean? I became determined to take a much deeper look at the Nazi philosopher, beginning what became a slightly obsessive year-long dive into the full span of his works, life, and legacy.
To many people this will probably sound incredibly arcane, like pure academic pedantry. I assure you it is not. As I soon discovered, the evolution of Schmitt’s ideas – and the course of his life – seems to speak directly to the forces at work beneath our present political, cultural, and spiritual upheavals, almost a century after his own time. From the liberal state’s flailing degradation of its popular legitimacy, to the emergence of governance by permanent emergency, to the radical polarization of politics, to the birth of post-modernism and the dominance of identity: Schmitt foreshadowed all of these things. Indeed, to read Schmitt in 2023 can easily present the alluring feeling of having opened a hidden dialogue willing to honestly diagnosis the undercurrents so obviously raging beneath the chaos, absurdity, and official obfuscations of a Weimar America.