Wednesday 1 October 2008

Carl Schmitt on war and the power of the state

Carl Schmitt’s 1936 book on Hobbes is now available in English: The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol (Chicago, 2008). I read it just last night, and it’s an astonishing work (published here with a very fine introductory essay by Tracy Strong). Chapter 4 may well be the most brilliant – and most “contemporary” – analysis you’ll ever read on war, the power of the state, and the state’s demand for obedience. Here are a few excerpts:

“With the incredible development of the technical means of disseminating communication, information, and weaponry, the power of the state’s command mechanism grew in a manner that was astonishing. One can thus believe that the power of a modern state in comparison with that of ancient communities is proportionately much greater and more intensive, as, for example, is the range and piercing power of modern artillery in comparison with the effectiveness of a crossbow or a siege machine.” (p. 42)

“The state machine either functions or does not function. In the first instance, it guarantees me the security of my physical existence; in return it demands unconditional obedience to the laws by which it functions…. Resistance as a ‘right’ is in Hobbes’ absolute state … factually and legally nonsensical and absurd. The endeavor to resist the leviathan, the all powerful, resistance-destroying, and technically perfect mechanism of command, is practically impossible…. [Resistance] has no place whatsoever in the space governed by the irresistible and overpowering huge machine of the state.” (pp. 45-46)

In international law, “wars become pure state wars, that is, they cease to be religious, civil, or factional…. From this follows the question of the just war, for such an interstate war is just as incommensurable as the question of just resistance within the state. In contrast to religious, civil, and factional wars, wars between states cannot be measured with the yardsticks of truth and justice. War between states is neither just nor unjust…. The state has its order in, not outside, itself…. The state absorbs all rationality and all legality. Everything outside of the state is therefore a ‘state of nature’. The thoroughly rationalized mechanisms of state command confront one another ‘irrationally’…. There is no state between states, and for that reason there can be no legal war and no legal peace.” (pp. 47-49)


Mason said...

Suprisingly resonant to today's situation considering all the changes since the 30's, if anything the comments about the pervasive power and demands for feilty the state puts forth are even more the case these days.
Thank's for the recomendation.

tzoanni said...

Actually, it's been somewhat available in English since 1996, with the Greenwood edition. (I believe the translation is even the same.) I say somewhat because that version was prohibitively expensive.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, I have been wanting to read some later Schmitt on IR but, like tzooanni, found it too expensive, plus not being a student anymore having no decent library nearby.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for pointing that out Tzoanni, I hadn't realised that this was a reprint. Gotta love these cheap Chicago paperbacks!

tzoanni said...

No problem! It's quite a book. Among other things, Schmitt's view of Hobbes's pagan-Christian synthesis (or whatever S calls it) challenges the currently-dominant trend of reading Hobbes as some sort of crusading secularizer (e.g., Lilla and Strauss). I think Schmitt's pretty right on the money there; it's hard to honestly read the second half of Leviathan and then try to say Hobbes wanted a "Great Separation."

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