July 19, 2024


The following is the third in a multipart series. The first can be found here, the second can be found here.

In Part 2 of this series of posts, I was arguing by way of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise that as a proto-liberal, Spinoza’s conception of the “state of nature” has a different inflection than the more well-known Hobbesian characterization.  While I’m willing to admit that a closer reading than I am able to provide here would provide stronger support for certain readers, my glossing on Strauss and thinkers who have read too much of a linear and “developmental” on the conception of the “state of nature” is mostly meant to highlight differing dispositions in the technique of reading itself.

The linear “developmental” readings I am referring to often tacitly embed a eurochristian metaphysics of time where time acts as a kind of “savior.”  Jewish messianism, to the extent that we could attribute that to someone like Spinoza, is different.  What is more important to my immediate purpose in employing Spinoza is not so much a forward-looking but a backward-looking that, as I said, is not euhemeristic in a nostalgia for a “golden age.” 

There is more historicism to Spinoza, and I noted how he importantly situates miracles to an earlier era to which we no longer have access.  He is at least modern in that sense, and that is partly why I think he’s important in both elucidating and demystifying tacit connections between the “state of nature” and the “state of exception.”  Of course, miracles, as I’ve alluded in earlier posts, are important because of Carl Schmitt’s connecting them to the “state of exception.”

To me, Carl Schmitt was only partially correct in his famous critique of liberalism in his 1922 book, Political Theology, which contains the oft-quoted passage:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized religious concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.  Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries. (36)

Schmitt also famously says the sovereign is the one who decides in the state of exception and that ability itself establishes the normal and non-exceptional. But right away, we are struck by his invocation of miracles with respect to the state of exception. 

According to Spinoza, miracles no longer (if they ever did) exist.  This notion of Spinoza’s is harmonious with liberalism in the sense that liberal histories emphasize a receding of the divine in worldly matters.  One can also read the Bible as a narrative of God’s receding from human affairs.  In such readings, God’s intrusion in human affairs would undo the sense of God as omnipotent and all powerful, or at the very least that God is imperfect and capable of making mistakes in the creation of the world that necessitate miracles. 

In eurochristian thought, this movement toward a “wholly other” God coincides with the static-and-transcendent notions of God accompanying Protestant thought.  The desire to bread the forms of mediated power in the Catholic church produced theologies of direct-access to the divine both through prayer and scripture, as well as oft-repeated but not always contextualized allusions to Luther’s sola fide.  Such static-transcendent notions of power would also provide a shadow-text to the formation of secular nation-states.

The breakdown of nation-states, which had formed largely after the 1648 Treat of Westphalia meant to end Europe’s religious wars, was apparent in World War I, which was only “world war” in the sense of the economic and military power that colonialism had given to European powers and the notion of “civilization,” which was always already “Christian civilization.”  That context would ground the Enlightenment thought and projects that that produced major players in the contemporary world, like the United States, which is philosophically-framed as an outgrowth of European civilization despite the instance of “revolution.”

Carl Schmitt was a Catholic conservative who was nostalgic for a German Empire and its Kaiser, the modern incarnation of the Holy Roman Empire.  Like many German conservatives (such as those belonging to the Stefan George Circle), a eurochristian religious aura expressed what Giorgio Agamben has more recently analyzed as the aesthetic “glory” that theologically affects politics.  Not all conservative critics became outspoken anti-Semites and Nazis, but there was a shared sentiment (among leftists too) that resented the impositions of liberal democracy on the Weimar Republic after WWI. 

Schmitt would later become an ardent anti-Semite as a member of the Nazi party, but he remained influential as a legal thinker to thinkers both on the left and the right.  The sentiment of the religious aura was certainly pervasive throughout National Socialism through its racist use of “Positive Christianity” and flirtations with neo-paganism and archaic revivalism.  Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century sold in the millions, just as other anti-Semitic writers appealed to the “higher criticism” of late-nineteenth-century German scholarship, which favored historical interpretations of scriptures over emphases on miraculous deeds.

It is important not to confuse the late nineteenth-century historicism of witers who sought to tell the history of “races” with the historicism apparent in a seventeenth-century thinker like Spinoza.  Yet he was no secularist either.  According to Spinoza, theology does not disappear or act as a deus ex machine within the legal engine of the state.  No!  For him, law is part of philosophy which arises from the awareness of temporality and history (a very important Old Testament concept). 

In both thinkers, theology is a recognizable force at work in society, but Schmitt’s own secularization narrative and nostalgia for central sovereign power operates as what William Cavanaugh would claim to be a mythological force in his thinking.  In other words, because Schmitt implicitly accepts the secularized myth, he produces an idea that religion has left the world and needs to be brought back through the incarnation of a new strong sovereign. The resonance with Christian eschatology and parousia are clear here, even if understated. His longing for such a strong sovereign would manifest in 1933.

Schmitt’s 1927 Concept of the Political is the first notation in William Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence.  What Cavanaugh glosses over (he is citing Schmitt to a different purpose) is Schmitt’s fierce critique of liberalism.  Schmitt’s critique of liberalism is founded in his early concept of the political which appears in Political Theology, and which requires states to have clear decision-makers. 

Liberal democracy, for Schmitt, tends to disperse authority too widely, making decisions slow and ineffective.  This is evidenced in his praise of Hitler taking action during the state of exception that ended the Weimar Republic.  The idea of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, makes it less possible for there to be one sovereign who decides in the state of exception and thus, in his or her ability to break from the norm, establish what norms are. But of course, this is a matter of faith in the representational status of leaders. 

In other words, Schmitt is concerned that in a democracy, there will not be a strong enough sovereign to determine a state of exception.  Thus, in his support for a strong sovereign in Hitler, Schmitt (and others) ignored an important part of Article 48 in The Weimar Constitution of August 11, 1919:

If public security and order are seriously disturbed or endangered within the German Reich, the President of the Reich may take measures necessary for their restoration, intervening if need be with the assistance of the armed forces. For this purpose he may suspend for a while, in whole or in part, the fundamental rights provided in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153.

In other words, the President had the right to invoke a state of exception in cases where the state itself was threatened.  American readers ought to be feeling some parallel exigence to the events of January 6th here, but also to the increasing contestations over election outcomes fueled by impulses to destroy democracy.

The problem in Germany in the early 1930s was at least partly the fact that President Hindenburg did not invoke Article 48 against the Nazis after the Reichstag Fire Decree in 1933, which allowed Adolph Hitler and the Nazis to imprison their political opponents, which was a clear threat to the German democracy.  Strangely, by Carl Schmitt’s own logic, stopping the Nazis should have happened in order to protect the state. 

But then again, Hindenburg’s impotence to invoke article 48 may prove Schmitt’s point about the lack of a strong sovereign in liberal democracy.   What is important is that the state of exception / state of emergency put in place in 1933 lasted until 1945.  So-called “Positive Christianity” and historicism that placed archaic revivals and neo-paganism into new mythologies of the Third Reich and its efforts at racial cleansing collapsed ideas of “state of nature” and “state of exception” into its own kind of Pentecostal fascism.

Yet this was not just a Nazi-inspired state of exception.  It was the manifestation of an ever-becoming, trans-historical, fascist temporality.  It was an attempt to articulate a “new” culture that was both “evolutionary” and “pregnant,” writing in the birth-pangs of a new era, a fusion of theological and political. 

Working in the late 1920s, another concern Schmitt had with liberal democracy was with the concept of depoliticization.  Schmitt critiqued liberalism for being utopic and believing there can be neutral spaces that overcome war.  Schmitt’s argument concerning depoliticization, however, is itself historicized. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt framed the political as arising from an implicit historical trajectory shaping European culture throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: a trajectory from the moral, with its emphasis on good and evil (1700s), aesthetic, with its emphasis on beauty and ugliness (late 1700s / early 1800s), economic, with its emphasis on profitable and unprofitable (1800s), and finally, in the political, with its emphasis on the State’s ability to distinguish between friend and enemy (1900s).

Embedded in Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction as “the political” is morality, aesthetics, and economics.  For him, the problem with liberal democracy is that it depoliticizes and thus loses the ability to determine friend-enemy distinctions.  He longs for a sovereign who protects culture as well as territory. 

The question of the friend-enemy distinction is, for Schmitt, to be determined internationally, that is, between States. And the reterritorializing of Europe after the First World War was his context.  Schmitt says,

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, an association or dissociation.  It can exist theoretically and practically, without having simultaneously to draw upon all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions.  The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions.  But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible. (26-27)

It is important to see that Schmitt implicitly historicizes his concept of the political in terms of “progress” away from morality.  Morality was necessary only in a world without religion.  As Tracy Strong notes in his “Introduction” to Schmitt’s book, Schmitt’s politics relies on a subject capable of deciding who the enemy is, not out of dislike or hatred, but as a way to position action through totalization – to give a conception of political identity (xvi).   

Depoliticization, for Schmitt, without clear friend-enemy distinction, creates the conditions for a leaderless state and the most inhumane of wars because of either the necessity to vilify the enemy or the necessity to simply let “nature” take its course.  It is relatively easy to see from this perspective why National Socialism may have seemed appealing as an identity category for Schmitt.  Living in the ineffective liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic was an economic disaster, and the conservative Schmitt longed for a decider to maintain stability. 

States rely on subjectivity of citizens but also on the special subjectivity of the Sovereign capable of making a decision.  We can see in Schmitt’s importance to recent scholars the growing questions concerning cosmopolitanism and the changing relationship between the individual subject, the state, and citizenship or national identity.  States and economies in the 1920s could no longer be theorized in isolation, as the Great War had shown, and indeed the forced imposition of liberal democracy along with the fierce conditions of the Treaty of Versailles in Germany were economically devastating. 

Questions about the control of markets are intimately connected to the conception and role of the western nation state, which in turn is intimately connected with ideas about subjectivity.  These questions maintain a eurochristian worldview, however, which affirms individual subjection to a political order or theological authority in order to find a pathway to salvation.  As I have detailed more thoroughly elsewhere, the rise of the U.S. economy after the World Wars, for example, and especially with the emergence of neoliberalism has been, both through broader American exceptionalism and specific neoliberal theorizing articulations, an expression of “Christian values.”

But that expression of “Christian values” is, like the “Positive Christianity” of the Nazis, but one expression of a deeper eurochristian worldview.  Even as neoliberals sought to explicitly frame fascism and National Socialism as their enemies, liberalism, conservatism, communism, fascism, and socialism are various articulations of a deeper rooted eurochristian worldview.  The state of exception appears as both revelation and apocalyptic desire.

The apocalyptic desire manifests as revolution, insurrection, and a political vortex between binaries such as “right and left” as sovereign succession is decided.  In western political philosophy, this state of “all against all” (Hobbes), the depoliticization and indistinguishable characteristics of friends and enemies is a “return” of the “state of nature.”  Echoing what I said earlier, in my view, Carl Schmitt is only partially correct in his famous critique of liberalism and the roots of all political concepts being religious.  He, like so many others today, is wrong because he relies on a eurochristian myth that characterizes government as arising from a state of nature. 

As Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas traced in Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, there are pre-Christian notions of the Golden Age as far back as Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.  Yet I tend to see a specifically Judeo-Christian notion of transcendence at work in European culture that indeed gives birth to the idea of the Enlightenment nation-state.  But my historical reading is nothing like those German’s who drew upon “higher criticism” to articulate grand theories of racial development. Nor is it claiming, like Schmitt does, that there is a theological essence beneath law itself. 

The “new” temporality of the Enlightenment modernity masked a broader eurochristian history while allowing its embedded and traditional anti-Semitism to emerge with particularly brutal and unapologetic force under the state of exception and the Final Solution.  That tradition was drawing on almost a thousand years of millenarianism that employed anti-Semitism for its own purposes.

Although rejections of Judaism can be found in early gnostic movement such as Marcionism’s condemnation of the Old Testament, anti-Semitism as it emerged in the broader social movement of eurochristianity – a form already hybridized with Roman culture – developed explicitly genocidal approaches to Jews.  as Sara Lipton has tracked in Dark Mirror, The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography, for the first 1000 years after the crucifixion, christians did not depict “Jews” as Christ’s murderers.  They depicted Romans.  Anti-Jewish sentiment as we know it today emerged with the crusade efforts starting in 1096.  European Jews were seen as being “in the way” of Christ’s millennial return.  Lipto notes,

By and large before 1160 Jews do not appear in the role one might assume to be most typically assigned them: killers of Christ.  These executioners are typically bareheaded and dressed as yokels in short tunics.  Though they occasionally wear pointed headgear that has been taken for Jewish hats, the form of headgear is different from the hats assigned to antique Hebrews and would most likely have been Roman helmets. (61)

This is at least part of what I mean by a particularly eurochristian expression.  The coming of the millennium helped to propel a sense of apocalyptic desire for “the end” that justified in the minds of eurochristians the extermination or “sacrifice” of Jews at various times.  Violence has a narrative, even if it is a distorted, and so-called “Religious violence” is not so much essentially “religious” but designed to catalyze or bring about a desired situation.  In the next post in this series, I will critique essentialist notions or ‘religion’ that found secularist notions of “religious violence.”

To be continued

Roger Green is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) and the recent dissertation Ayahuasca in the Wake of the Doctrine of Discovery (2020).  He has collaborated musically with Anne Waldman on Untethered I (Fast Speaking Music 2017).  He is also contributor to an edited collection by Miguel A. De La Torre, The Colonial Compromise: The Threat of the Gospel to Indigenous Worldview (2021), which celebrates Tink Tinker’s career and teaching.  He’s currently co-authoring a book with Tink Tinker on eurochristian worldview.

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