Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation III

Chapter One 

Commissary Dictatorship and State Theory 


Schmitt’s starting presupposition is the opposition between commissary and sovereign dictatorship, that is between the dictator for a limited period with a limited task and the dictator who has completely sovereignty, which for Schmitt refers to the right to make laws. As mentioned in previous posts, Schmitt equates the commissary dictator with the antique role of the dictator as defined in the Roman Republic, so that the sovereign dictator is a modern figure, even one invented with the birth of the bourgeois liberal world in the eighteenth century. However, Schmitt brings in a series of qualification and precisions that really make the two kinds of dictatorship two perpetual aspects of the state, that are necessary to the functioning of that state. That is the function of appointing officials/commissars with special powers directly from the sovereign which more or less stand out from normal procedures; and the capacity of the state to maintain its sovereignty against external and internal threats. So a contrast between the special powers of the state and its absolute power .

In some degree Schmitt is suggesting that the dual nature of dictatorship only becomes really apparent in the Renaissance and Early Modern era, in a revelation that only becomes complete from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, the office of dictator of ancient Rome goes through stages. as Schmitt admits a rather indirect manner, our understanding of the office in the Early Republic, in the time of its origin comes from legend. Schmitt acknowledges this when he suggests that the idea of the dictator stepping down when his task is complete, even if that is before the end of the six months of the appointment might be an ideal picture of the Early Republic, rather than solidly based fact. As he acknowledges, we are relying on the work of historians writing much later, Livy is of course the most famous. The idea of the dictatorship as a very limited form of exceptional power is in contrast with antique  monarchy, though in some degree the dictatorship temporarily revives the power of the overthrown Roman monarchy.

One thing Schmitt refers to with regard to Roman dictatorship is that it is still a limited form of power, since though the dictator had powers over the Senate and the law courts, he was still subject to veto from the tribunes. In principle this was still the case during the time of the longer term dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar. The original office was an appointment for six months. Sulla revived an institution that had not been used for a long time (Rousseau thought this period of dormancy was a reason behind the fall of the Republic as challenge to the state which could have been solved by the original form of dictatorship  built up  until no such resolution was possible), and held the office for three years, while Caesar turned it into a lifetime appointment shortly before his assassination. The movement from commissary dictatorship to something like sovereign dictatorship in antiquity, is explained by Schmitt with regard to the tendency of the aristocracy to use the office against plebeian power, and then find they had created a power above the aristocracy. The development of a power above the collective power of the aristocracy was confirmed by the rule of Augustus, the first of what we know as the Emperors.

Schmitt notes an interest in the rule of Augustus in the tine of Machiavelli and Bodin. For Schmitt, Machiavelli brought out the technique of the state, and was fascinated by the details of technique as shown in his advice to rulers in The Prince and Schmitt also refers more elliptically to The Art of War, military technique being of great interest to Machiavelli. It is a time of interest in the arcane aspects of power, of the secrets of rule and maintaining power. State power beyond making and applying law becomes an object of interest as absolute monarchies appear who can be compared with Augustus. It is at this time that the division and collapse of statue power becomes a major theme, which is where the idea of the exception comes in (famously discussed by Schmitt in Political Theology published a year after Dictatorship) and this is the time when there is an awareness that of sovereignty as resting in whatever rules in the state of exception, in a situation of possible breakdown. Schmitt’s sympathies seems to be with Bodin in defining the different aspects of sovereignty under a monarchy, even if Bodin does not completely grasp the nature of sovereignty with regard to the exception and the more absolute aspects of sovereignty, the need to reserve the power to break trough legal restraints even if these are generally laudable.

The object of criticism is Locke with regard to his belief that laws can only come from the ‘people’, or in practice the members of estates of whatever assembly, and his need to somehow incorporate the concrete practical aspects of sovereignty through an obsession with forming commissions and a ‘federative’ power for military and inter-state matters. The suggestion is that liberalism is only to grasp sovereignty as general laws, excluding the actions of power. That power has to be incorporated somehow, and can only be done so through inconsistencies and evasions. The liberal understanding of properly formulated laws claims that the people make the laws, but in reality gives the power to assemblies which do not necessarily represent the views of the people as a whole at all.


(The above refers to:

Carl Schmitt


From the origin of the modern concept of sovereignty to proletarian class struggle 

Translated by Michael Holzel and Graham Ward

Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014)


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