Carl Schmitt on Classical Liberalism

Continuing from recent posts about Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth, I’m addressing the issue of a possible liaison between Carl Schmitt and Classical Liberalism. Schmitt’s membership of the Nazi party and attempts to become a prominent jurist during the Nazi period may make this look like a bizarre claim, and no one I know of claims that Schmitt takes Classical Liberalism as a foundation. Political Romanticism certainly contains some strong criticism of German Classical Liberals.

The supposed Classical Liberal link comes from moments at which Schmitt suggests some respect for private property and the market economy. In Nomos of the Earth, he certainly seems nostalgic for the highpoint of European interstate order in which war and state appropriation of territory did not interfere with private property. Property remained in the same hands, business and commerce carried on as before, in a successful bracketting of war from normal order within, and between, states. In general Schmitt limits his interest in politics as struggle with the enemy to the political sphere and favoured liberal economics.

On the other side, we must note the following points. In Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt also refers to the impossibility of making economics an absolutely neutral sphere in relation to politics. The market economy rests on property. Property rests on appropriation. Appropriation is an act of violence which implicitly contains the political construction of a sovereign who distributes property. The distribution of property is always a political act, something that Schmitt traces back to Aristotle’s comments on distributive justice and even further back into Ancient Greek mythology. Even when he refers to the triumph of the market economy at the high point of the European inter-state order, he includes protectionist economic policies and the forcible opening up of markets, as when Commodore Parry forced Japan to accept trade with the United States. Fir Schmitt, the market economy is something organised by the state and that is not in contradiction with some aggressively interventionist acts of the state. It must also be noted that Schmitt refers to Britain’s maritime empire as a failed ‘catechon‘. The catechon refers to the power which resists the premature coming of the Anti-Christ, but is given a wider role by Scmitt as the force which resists disorder. From Schmitt’s point of view the original theology may be implicit in the secularised understanding. Though Schmitt often likes to adopt a pose of Olympian detachment with regard to political ideas, it’s clear that he finds the sea lacking in the capacity of the earth to ground appropriation and sovereignty. The sea is disorder, the place which escapes law. In The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, it is clear that Schmitt’s respect for Hobbes is limited by Schmitt’s respect for individualism under the leviathan -state and that Schmitt links that liberal aspect of Hobbes with Britain as power infected by liberalism resulting from its maritime role. In Nomos of the Earth, Britain is featured as a disruptive power within European order, due to its ambiguous position in relation to Europe: both belonging and not belonging. The maritime power cannot belong to Europe in the same way as a ‘Continental’ power. This is supported with somewhat strained arguments to deny France and the Netherlands maritime power status.

The reading of Schmitt may help liberals of various stripes to give more emphasis to political conflict and the necessity of the state. Schmitt’s articulation however emphasises contradictions between liberalism and the real concepts of politics, and must be seen as resulting in the limitation of liberalism within an economic sphere subject to the political as the superior instance.

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