Editor’s note: This essay is the final response to David Corey’s article published here on Monday, “A Coalition of the Sensible: What’s Wrong with ‘The New Right.’” This series, which includes essays from R. J. Snell and Elayne Allen, explores what a principled and sober approach to politics might look like in our current climate of escalating discord.
I must start by commending David Corey for an all too rare call to moderation. He is right to point out that today’s politics is characterized by an increased polarization to which both Right and Left have contributed. He is also not mistaken in worrying that the partiality and narrowmindedness of activists have quite frequently brought out our worst passions. Common decency no longer seems to restrain people from behaving and speaking in despicable ways. While pretending to speak in the name of democracy, supporters of both sides sometimes give the impression they would only be satisfied with a total and final victory over their adversaries. There is no question that this situation is unhealthy and threatens the very functioning of our institutions.
Corey attributes the polarization of our public life to the perverting or misplaced influence of Carl Schmitt’s thought, which leads us to see the political opponent as an enemy to be defeated by all means necessary. Schmittian ideas certainly do find their way into today’s discourse.
But by taking the woke Left and the New Right at their word, Corey, in a sense, takes them too seriously; in critiquing the New Right’s misuse of Schmitt, Corey neglects the ways in which Schmitt can actually help us understand this political moment. The other misstep in Corey’s essay is that he calls for a return to old liberal values, such as moderation and tolerance, as a solution to the woke Left and New Right’s excesses. In doing so, I argue, he misunderstands the nature of both movements, and their insights about liberalism’s weaknesses. The problem of our time is not a Schmittian problem, or if it is, it is a problem Schmitt shares with liberalism itself.
Schmitt’s definition of “the political” involves the possibility of violent conflict. Despite the far Right’s and far Left’s dramatic rhetoric, the type of violent conflict that Schmitt identifies is simply not on the table in today’s conflicts. In fact, under Schmitt’s definition of the political, our society is remarkably depoliticized, even though it is polarized. In overlooking the unpolitical nature of today’s conflicts, Corey misses Schmitt’s important critique of liberalism: in depoliticizing society, liberalism dodges normative and philosophical questions, and undermines the possibility of political friendship.
For Schmitt, the permanent possibility of human hostility, by exposing us to the risk of violent death, forces us to consider for what order we are ready to sacrifice ourselves. Conversely, it also forces us to consider what types of order we would rather fight to the death than be subjected to. It is because there is no definitive answer to the question of the right order of human things, he argues, because we have mutually exclusive answers to that question, that humanity comes to political agency, not as a united whole but in the shape of separate political units potentially at war with one another. The friend–enemy distinction is what structures the separation of humanity into rival sovereign entities. As we see, Schmitt’s distinction aims at concrete situations of hostility where words may have immediate and irreversible consequences.
Corey certainly does no harm in calling on us to refrain from understanding each other as absolute enemies. But he fails to note that, if one steps back from rhetoric, the very notion of enmity is entirely devoid of meaning in our current situation. However misguided, the efforts of what he calls the woke Left to enforce its views and the New Right’s attempt to resist it, and impose its own, do not actually map onto the friend–enemy distinction, even as a few thinkers in both camps claim it does. The truth is that neither of them is willing or able to escalate to the extreme case.
It is from its willingness to expose itself to the danger of violent death that Schmitt derives a faction’s unilateral power to shape the state and society according to its own views. As much institutional power as the Left has, it does not have the power or intention to kill dissidents. There was a time not too long ago when an American president could not be sure to end his term alive, and when assassinations were not an uncommon way of solving political conflicts. That is what Schmitt is talking about when he speaks of enmity. Inasmuch as we may regret the violence of today’s discourse, we cannot seriously say that we are at risk of being exposed to the kind of political violence that was still common a few decades ago. In fact, one could say that it is because the political discourses whose radicalism Corey criticizes are so detached from the prospect of actual violence that they can afford to be so extreme. A quick comparison might help.
According to Schmitt, the organized proletariat, i.e., Communist parties, constituted a threat to their enemies regardless of whether these enemies were sensitive or not to the Marxist critique of the capitalist mode of production, and whether or not they had access to the public space. Indeed, the Communist parties constituted a very concrete power grounded in society itself, which one could ignore only at one’s own peril. They found in themselves a sense of purpose and the material capacities to transform their words into action. However one looks at it, the woke Left is in no position to mobilize such a force within society. It always needs others to act on its words.
Much more than a truly revolutionary project, “wokeism” is more akin to an attempt to extend the professor’s authority over students to the rest of society. But this strategy will only have limited success: students are ready to listen and be convinced by their professors, but most of society doesn’t regard itself as pupils of the woke Left. True revolutionaries do not need to borrow authority from institutions, because they have the power to take what they want from their unconsenting enemy. The woke Left, whether we want to admit it or not, and whether it is itself conscious of it or not, has no such power. It has only consenting victims.
In a way, it is because the kind of danger inherent in political life has largely disappeared from our political horizon that we can so carelessly speak about each other without fear of consequences. By overlooking that paradox, Corey misses Schmitt’s core lesson. He falls under the illusion that, simply being protected from fear of violent death, or absolute enmity, gives us all it takes to form a united society.
Schmitt’s friend–enemy distinction is not a celebration of violence and war but a reminder that societies are formed and oppose each other for the sake of a certain political order. It is precisely because we have forgotten the very thing of which Schmitt wished to remind us–that politics exists within a sobering horizon structured by the possibility of violent death–that unbridled vanity has overtaken our political discourse. Far from justifying our present situation, Schmitt’s theory can, to a point, serve to explain it and warn us about the dangers it contains.
People on the New Right will probably object, claiming that they’re unwilling to listen to and aren’t convinced by the woke Left but are coerced into acquiescing in its beliefs and required conduct thanks to its institutional power—that they are the victims of a form of violence. But the nature of the new Left’s power is not Schmittian. Instead, its power comes from its capacity to influence the state through what Corey rightly calls “institutional capture” and others call “cultural hegemony.” Schmitt himself spoke of “indirect powers”:
It belongs to the essence of an indirect power to perturb the unequivocal correspondence between the state’s prerogative to command and political danger, between power and responsibility, between protection and obedience. And, on the basis of the irresponsibility of an, admittedly indirect, domination, but not less intense for that reason, to retain all the privileges of political power without assuming any of its dangers [emphasis added]. It is that method, typically indirect, which has allowed these powers to give to their action the appearance of something other than politics—namely religion, culture, economics, or private endeavors— while exploiting nonetheless all the advantages of statism.
Enjoying the benefits of political power—such as the influence over educational, media, and nonprofit institutions—while exposing oneself to none of the responsibilities of political life is an escape from the Schmittian dichotomy, not an embrace of it. The force of the woke Left, dependent on the right to demonstrate and on the power of established authorities (such as the universities and the media), would be of little use in the case of an effectively violent opposition. By calling such people “enemies” in a Schmittian sense, New Right activists simply do not speak seriously. Hence their warlike rhetoric and calls for regime change look much more like the theatrical posturing that Schmitt criticized as a problem endemic in liberal politics.
This theatrical posturing that Schmitt describes means that our society is filled with violent desires and cruel passions, but these have much more to do with unchecked vanity (the desire to see the world as one wishes and to call oneself what one is not) than enmity (the readiness to kill or be killed for the preservation of one’s way of life). For what is the state of nature without fear of violent death, if not, on all sides, and in all groups, a free display of vanity? The irritating proximity of different ways of life, which is inevitable in complex modern societies, would not lead their proponents to such extreme expressions of disdain and mutual hatred if those proponents were made to bear the consequences of their discourse. Without such a prospect, each side can all too safely afford to see the other as an absolute enemy and claim to heroically stand for its cause. In the spirit of Schmitt, no situation is as little political as ours.
My disagreement with David Corey might seem minor. After all, both of us agree that our situation doesn’t involve absolute enmity. We also both think the New Right stakes its credibility on making the woke Left a more serious threat than it is. But by ascribing today’s polarization to an excess of politicization and to Schmittian rhetoric—in other words, to a departure from liberalism—Corey overlooks the ways in which our current problems stem from liberalism itself. The woke Left and the New Right are manifestations of a deeper crisis. Both of them find their origin in the neutral state’s aims to liberate people from the responsibility to determine and to pursue a common good, and therefore focus on the administration of things. The state remains neutral out of fear that our disagreements about the common good might lead us to become enemies. But polarization shows clearly enough that peace reduced to mere coexistence, and the virtues attached to it (tolerance and moderation), fall short of what makes human beings want to form a united people, and ready to cultivate the virtues necessary to achieve such a goal.
Freedom, understood as individual autonomy, can never be the sole or even the main question to which a political regime provides the collective answer: How to live together and still be free? In reality, the liberal assertion of individual autonomy—the assertion that reason doesn’t support any answer to the question of the good life, that man is free by nature to choose his own, and therefore that no power exercised to promote a specific form of life can claim the support of reason—means that we have to abandon the natural question of politics: “What should we do?” In its place, we must raise the new, specifically modern questions of anthropology: “How do men in general use their freedom? And what type of institutions are necessary to produce peace out of the way men generally behave?”
Through his assertion of anthropological pessimism, Schmitt points us to the question of the order of human things as what human beings fight each other over. Yet he stands with liberalism in thinking that there is no rational answer to such a question, that it must be left to a decision “on the basis of nothing.” To that extent, Schmitt is problematic, not for the reasons Corey invokes, but because he embodies more than any other the problem of liberalism: the potentially indecent political consequences of refusing to ask how one should live his life.
Such a question is not incompatible with political liberalism. Civic friendship, the awareness that our common pursuits are more important than our private or public disagreements, is in fact what gives us the sincere desire to convince those we disagree with instead of insulting them. Polarization doesn’t come from the fact we see each other as mortal threats, but from the lack of any sense that such common pursuits may still exist between the opposing parties.
Our problem is not that Left and Right are bringing us to the verge of civil war, but that their political demands have become completely detached from the reality of the human relations that make the satisfaction of such demands possible and just. The argument of rights has become so natural that they demand from people they openly despise the very things they can seriously expect to be offered only by people who do not want to be separated from each other, people who want to remain friends. Reminding us that we are not enemies, as Corey does by invoking pluralism and moderation, may make us less enraged over the things we dislike about each other, but it is not sufficient to make it worth overcoming our private and public disagreements for the sake of collective action. Perhaps there is nothing we can do together, and maybe we can only enjoy our rights separately. But such a prospect shouldn’t make serious advocates of liberal democracy rejoice, as it threatens the future of our regime at least as much as the excesses of polarization.