Carl Schmitt was a Nazi. He was also one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century. But he was a Nazi, and for some, that’s all that matters.
Among the liberally inclined, you will rarely find Schmitt’s name mentioned favorably—while the post-liberal left found his work thought-provoking, Schmitt has always been an enemy of liberalism. You see, Schmitt claimed that the friend-enemy distinction was fundamental to politics, that people define themselves primarily by what they are not or what they are against rather than what they are or are for. Liberals know this belief to be false; they’re not like those … Nazis.
Schmitt’s critique—though critique is far too soft a word—of liberalism has a number of components, and today we’ll take a look at one particular work of his, The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations from 1929. In this short article, Schmitt describes the evolution of European thought in terms of what he calls central domains. After reviewing Schmitt’s account, we’ll enrich it with various other versions of the same story. Finally, we’ll analyze various contemporary ideologies through the lens of central domains.
Schmitt begins in the 16th century, the era of the Protestant Reformation and various wars of religion. The Protestant Reformation shattered the respublica Christiania, the spiritual commonwealth of Christendom, and ushered in a period of internecine strife unmatched in intensity since the Peloponnesian War. Out of these struggles emerged the concept of cuius regio, eius religio, of whom the rulership, of him the religion, since Protestant subjects would not accept a Catholic ruler and vice versa.
As Schmitt describes, theology was the central domain of the 16th century, the intellectual sphere in which disagreements principally occurred. “If a domain of thought becomes central,” he writes, “then the problems of other domains are solved in terms of the central domain—they are considered secondary problems, whose solution follows as a matter of course only if the problems of the central domain are solved.” During the 1500s, disputes were primarily theological, but as soon as theological questions were satisfactorily answered, answers for everything else followed as a matter of course.
In essence, what the thinkers of the 16th century were trying to accomplish was to recapture the relative peace and tranquility of the Middle Ages, and this they eventually managed to do quite successfully, as Schmitt describes in his later work The Nomos of the Earth. Practical men, jurists, politicians, and generals, were quite capable of crafting a satisfactory political order, but the intellectuals found it impossible to do so for long. The quest thus began for something on which everyone could agree, which would theoretically provide a much more permanent ground for political order.
The quest for the universal, what Schmitt calls a process of neutralization, produced the following progression. After the theological 16th century came the metaphysical 17th century; when people couldn’t agree on a metaphysics, they shifted to humanitarian moralism in 18th; when that proved divisive, economics emerged as the central domain of the 19th century; and finally, technology replaced economics in the 20th century. Each transition was marked by the substitution of a neutral domain for the old central domain in the hopes that this neutral field would be something more universal. People are creative when it comes to reasons to quarrel, however, and so each attempt was met with failure.
Intellectual historians might easily dissect Schmitt’s rather breezy summary of over 400 years of European thought, but when it comes to the 20th century, Schmitt is spot-on and even remarkably prescient. Technology is ostensibly the perfect, neutral domain: “Here all peoples and nations, all classes and religions, all generations and races appear to be able to agree because all make use of and take for granted the advantages and amenities of technical comforts.” Technology serves all equally, so we should stop arguing about religion, culture, or economics and focus simply on finding what works.
However, Schmitt observes that “Technology is always an instrument and weapon; precisely because it serves all, it is not neutral.” To make technology the central domain is to suppose that all other meaningful questions have been answered and all that remains is determining how to achieve them. Schmitt did not believe this was possible in the long run, but the Cold War proved him wrong. The only serious challenge to leftism in the 20th century was Nazism, which was quickly quashed and expunged. The conflict between the capitalist West and the communist East was about the proper means for achieving the same leftist ends of freedom and equality.
Technology as the central domain of the 20th century helps explain the exultation of the 1990s, exemplified in Francis Fukuyama’s premature declaration of “the end of history.” Not only had Western intellectuals found a perfectly neutral domain, but they had also finally come to universal agreement within that domain. The technological question had been answered, and that meant the answers to every other question would just follow naturally. There was at long last nothing to kill or die for.
The current century has pulled the clouds over the sunny optimism of the 1990s, but before diving into the current milieu, let us take a moment to enrich Schmitt’s historical account with two others. The first is the rise of leftism, conceived of as an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation, and the second is Alvin Gouldner’s story of the rise of the intellectuals. Neither narrative contradicts Schmitt’s, and indeed we can learn a great deal by combining all three.
Let us begin with the original sin of the Protestant Reformation: the simultaneous destruction of authority and exaltation of the individual by placing every man immediately under God. This set off a centuries-long holiness spiral as people sought to prove their moral superiority over their neighbors by embracing and intensifying a bundle of beliefs collectively known as leftism that had become high status and had captured status mechanisms. Over time, leftism subverted and destroyed its opposition, establishing the ideological hegemony we all know and love today.
After the Reformation, leftism achieved its ultimate supremacy slowly through the Enlightenment, culminating in the French Revolution. As the pragmatocracy set to work reestablishing order, the intellectuals found the siren call of leftism irresistible and so undermined what the kings and ministers had built. The non-ideological conservatism of Burke and the purely Catholic tradition of which Schmitt and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn were heirs proved ineffective, and their lines largely died out after the First World War. Indeed, the Burkeans have largely accommodated themselves to the ascendancy of leftism, serving principally to consolidate the gains of the radicals.
Astute readers will notice a distinction we’ve been eliding: that between leftism and liberalism. Strictly speaking, liberalism is a sect of leftism, but until recently it was the only major variety. Post-liberal leftism has only gained prominence today in the 21st century. This new version of leftism is specifically anti-Western, and most of its differences with liberalism can be traced back to that feature. However, it will almost certainly be cast aside when the West falls and the rest of the world starts carving it up for spoils. We will talk about this distinction more later.
Now, let’s throw Alvin Ward Gouldner into the mix. Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy serves as a good supplement for Gouldner. Though he doesn’t cite Schumpeter explicitly, Gouldner extends his thesis that the intellectuals are taking over and ushering in socialism to include a history of this transformation.
The intellectuals grew up out of the city-dwelling merchant class during the Middle Ages and allied themselves with the merchants to overthrow first the Church and then the nobility. To this end, the intellectuals articulated the doctrines of leftism, giving moral justification to the merchants’ rise. However, once this former middle class achieved ascendancy, cracks began emerging in the old alliance, exemplified in the apocalyptic creed of Marxism, whereby the intellectuals prophesied the ultimate destruction of their merchant rivals.
Writing in the 1970s, Gouldner saw the great political contest to be not between capitalism and communism per se, but between the owners of capital and the university-educated intellectuals. Indeed, university education is now all but mandatory for many business careers. Though Gouldner was an intellectual himself, he was not entirely sanguine about the ascendance of his class—still wedded to the liberal ideal of a classless society, Gouldner could merely hope that his colleagues would indeed carry out the program they have been espousing for the past 500 years.
Combining these two narratives with Schmitt’s reveals three crucial points. The first is that liberalism is a flight from responsibility but in a more subtle form than that exemplified in the welfare queen. A wastrel merely wishes to live forever as a child with his parents or surrogates taking care of him and keeping him from suffering any pain or discomfiture; LARPing is his preferred mode of existence. While the dream of LARPing is certainly a component of liberalism—most visible in the vision of the future presented in Star Trek—liberalism is truly seeking a return to its prelapsarian fantasy of the Middle Ages through the creation of a mechanistic state-society.
Liberalism desires there to be no more serious decisions to make; not merely that there be no more killing and dying but that there be nothing at all to kill or die for. This immaturity of liberalism can be summed up as the denial of the Political, but that is a matter for another time.
The second answers the question of who is responsible for this evolution. The intellectuals, specifically but by no means exclusively Protestant intellectuals, are the demonic figures in this tale. The merchants are not blameless, and it’s doubtful the Jews did much to arrest the progress of leftism. Additionally, leftism has been given its greatest gift in the form of insecure, democratic government, which further solidifies and makes the left-right distinction much more sociopolitically salient.
Finally, we can see clearly that liberalism requires the existence of a central domain in order to be a living intellectual tradition. Indeed, if the utopia and state-society were actually accomplished along liberal lines, most intellectual activity, aside from natural science, would cease to be worthwhile. If all serious questions are answered, then there is no need to keep asking them. If the problems of the central domain are ever resolved, then liberalism ceases to exist.
This brings us back to the present day. The fact of the matter is that history did end when the Berlin Wall fell and communism stood revealed and ashamed before the world. With the resolution of the technological problem, capitalism vs. communism, the liberal epoch came to an abrupt conclusion. There was nothing left for liberalism to do—all its problems had been solved.
This means that we are today living in a post-liberal epoch. It has taken some decades for the putrefaction of liberalism has become widely apparent and there are still many people in denial—most notably the libertarians—but the plain fact is becoming harder and harder to refute that liberalism is dead, killed by its own success. The next step, of course, is to build something new out of the rubble, which many parties have been attempting to do.
With the death of liberalism dies also the usefulness of the central domain concept that Schmitt employed, but it does not mean that the concept must be totally discarded. It must simply be reworked, changed slightly to fulfill a different purpose. Rather than organizing the thought of Western society, a central domain can be conceived on an ideological level, with each ideology having its own central domain. Ideologies can then be classified and differentiated according to their central domains. In this case, the central domain of an ideology is the issue which it considers primary, the one it seeks to resolve first and foremost, with solutions to all other problems being subsidiary.
While doing this, we have to be careful, as there is emerging a new area which might appear to be a new central domain in the original sense: identity. Samuel Huntington argued that issues of identity would be crucial in the 21st century. Identity politics is becoming ever more fashionable, and indeed, once identity is sorted out, once we agree on “who we are,” pretty much everything else appears to follow nicely. However, this appearance is misleading.
Identity has always been the central political issue; it just has not usually been so baldly stated as such.
Let’s look at libertarianism first. Many libertarians these days—especially the vocally left-libertarians—are somewhat put off by their ideology being labelled right-wing because it has little to with the right from more than 50 years ago. Still, libertarianism’s central domain is economics, the old central domain of 19th century leftism. This is particularly true of anarcho-capitalism, which is supposedly content with any social arrangement that comes about as long as the appropriate property rules are respected. In this sense, libertarianism is quite reactionary, being stuck in the mindset of over a hundred years ago.
The post-liberal left is really quite variegated when examined closely enough, and many segments disagree with each other vehemently, but they do all share an identifiable central domain: equality. As soon as equality is achieved, they profess, then everything will be hunky-dory. Of course, different groups prioritize different forms of equality, but so far the post-liberal powers have narrowed the field down to half-a-dozen or so and done a pretty good job of forcing the ideology’s devotees to agree to all of these forms of equality. Whether this alliance can stand the test of time remains to be seen.
When we go outside leftism, we run into a difficulty trying to use the notion of central domains: non-leftist ideologies don’t typically say, “Fix this one thing, and we’ll be done forever.” This means that other ideologies don’t have a central domain in quite the same way that leftism did and does. Thus, we have to be a little looser in our usage of the term: non-leftist central domains are not proposed silver bullets but rather diagnoses for what is wrong about leftism and the contemporary world. It might still be hard to summarize an ideology’s viewpoint, but let’s see what we can do.
Burkean conservatism is so unprincipled in its opposition to leftism that its central domain is easy to identify: speed. Burkeans want the left to slow down and let them catch their breath before hurrying on to the next radical re-imagining of society.
Authentic rightist ideology has authority as its central domain. Leftism ascribes equal authority to every individual, thereby stripping those in possession of true authority of their proper esteem and empowering both the oppressed and most especially those who have the privilege of identifying and championing the oppressed. Unfortunately, it is difficult in this day and age to identify just who should have authority—the Church? Businessmen? Old royal families?
And if one chooses a particular bastion of authority to champion, one will invariably be disappointed, as not only are they all manifestly unworthy of power, but they don’t even want it anymore.
Neoreaction addresses this problem by means of a different, though by no means new, central domain: virtue. The rallying cry of neoreaction is not some version of “Power to the ______!” but rather “Become worthy.” Since even before Plato, wise men have observed that only the virtuous truly deserve power and esteem, though the world often conspires to rob them of their proper station. But in times of chaos, people seek out bastions of order and strength.
Neoreaction is also the perfect foil to the immaturity of leftism. Where a leftist demands that the world reorder itself to become congruent with his petty conceits and childish fantasies, a neoreactionary understands that the world is not his to command, and he should focus his attention first on those matters within his sphere of control. Only after he has proved himself worthy of greater power should he presume to exercise it.