Carl Schmitt on Dictatorship. Reading the First English translation IX

Chapter 3

The Transition to Sovereign Dictatorship in Eighteenth-Century State Theory


Before I get onto Rousseau, I need to add a bit more about Montesquieu. Schmitt explicitly describes Montesquieu as anti-Enlightenment, which for most people is stretching the possible reasonable labels for Montesquieu. He contributed to the central text of the French Enlightenment, The EncyclopaediaThe Spirit of the Laws was placed on the Index of prohibited books by the Catholic Church, in that book he complains of the influence of the church in the most Catholic countries, denounces torture and murder suggesting that they re against humanity, he praises the spirit of commerce, he praises liberty and statute law (i.e. he believes  that customary law, law inherited from the past cannot be absolute), he tried to put the study of history and society on a   more regular and objective basis, and took other positions generally accepted as part of Enlightenment.

Schmitt appears to be employing Enlightenment to refer to the most radical, materialistic, democratic, and individualistic aspects of Enlightenment. He also seems to put the Physiocrat (early economist) Turgot (Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune) on the anti-Enlightenment side, by emphasising that like Montesquieu he worked as a servant of the monarchy (Montesquieu was a judge and Turgot was an ‘intendant’, that is a state bureaucrat), and shared a commitment to monarchy, which in the case of Turgot seems to have slipped over into support for absolute monarchy.

What Schmitt also suggests in his analysis of Montesquieu is that Montesquieu had a belief in the universality of law and in exceptions necessary to preserve the system, so the suggestion is that Montesquieu grasped that the law must be contradictory in some way, and that it needs a concrete reality in which it is unified with the king. The suggestion is that both Montesquieu’s understanding of law as in some degree autonomous of sovereign will, though not completely, and Turgot’s understanding of a ‘natural’ laissez faire economy as dependent on laws and the force provided for  laws by the sovereign  will, are part of a unity of laws and sovereign will within the monarchy. There is an implicit argument that Bonald style monarchist traditionalism s best understood with reference to the  constraints on sovereign will resulting from robust laws and legal institutions, and leaving the economy to the interplay of private decisions.

The contrast Schmitt develops, through a lot of other references and sub-arguments is between Montesquieu and Rousseau in a strategy that maximises their differences and situates Rousseau as the most consistent of liberals and the revealer of its inner logic. Locke is also mentioned, but as a less ‘pure’ liberal more aware of the necessity for some kind of sovereign power in the foundation of his thought than Rousseau is. Locke is given credit for appreciating the need for stability in law, distinct from the wishes of the sovereign at any moment and for a ‘federative power’ (which in Locke refers to sovereignty in relation to inter-state relations including war).

For Rousseau, the sovereign is the general will, that is the unanimous agreement of all individuals with regard to any law that can be regarded as legitimate. This takes Rousseau in a more radical individualistic direction than Locke, who allows that a representative assembly is the sovereign with regard to the making of laws, so clearly does not require the consensus of every single individual (with full political rights) in the territory of the state concerned to agree. Schmitt sees Locke’s thought as flawed by an excessive reliance on the sovereignty of the law making assembly, rather than the kind of concrete individualised sovereign will Locke relegates to the ‘federative power’, and as drawing on a Protestant related metaphysics of the substantial individual that also limits Hobbes’s thought. Schmitt refers to contradictions between Locke’s metaphysics and his politics, which is I suppose about the well known apparent tension between Locke’s sensationalist empiricist views of the mind and knowledge, and the  idea of natural rights as the foundation of political institutions.

Presumably Rousseau’s upbringing in Calvinist Geneva and later adherence to a  version of religion which rests on inner experience, combined with metaphysical views that seem to waver between deism and the providentialism of a not very interventionist deity. For Schmitt the vital foundations of Rousseau’s political thinking are a belief in complete consent of laws in the general will and the natural goodness of man. On the latter point, it seems to me that Rousseau is a bit more ambiguous than Schmitt suggests, but there is enough truth in it to not disturb the analysis very much.

The problem for Rousseau, according to Schmitt, is that laws come into conflict with with a lack of natural goodness of individuals in society. That is the background to Rousseau’s famous declaration than man must be forced to be free and in the end the historical process in which the Jacobins used the terror of the Committee for Public Safety during the French Revolution. This rather stereotypical picture of Rousseau’s thought and its influence, does not quite do justice to Schmitt’s account which is a lot more nuanced, makes more distinction between texts and political acts in their name,  and is a lot more aware of Rousseau’s use of paradoxes, than the summary just given. Nevertheless, Schmitt does not really dissent from the stereotype of Rousseau, he is just a lot less polemical and reductive than a lot of thinkers who should know better (Isaiah Berlin is the prime defendant in the dock here).

It seems to me Schmitt’s account is slightly failing to take account of the equivocations and qualifications in Rousseau, but given that he is producing a general argument about the evolution of ideas about sovereignty and law it is largely a satisfactory account. In the context of this book, Schmitt’s concern is to fit Rousseau into arguments about dictatorship. He notes that Rousseau prefers the rule of magistrates to dictators, while it is Montesquieu who refers to the necessity of some form of commissary style dictatorship with regard to republics, giving the example for modern republics of the the special courts of Venice. Schmitt’s view of Rousseau’s place in the  emergence of sovereign dictatorship, is that as for liberals as a whole, Rousseau establishes the idea of sovereign dictatorship by treating laws as something can be created and imposed on the basis of pure virtue as long as it rests on the unanimous consent of the general will. In practice this will lead to dictatorial acts against those who lack virtue and places liberal government on the foundation of a dictatorial power over society to impose laws, as opposed to the restraint of traditional monarchy acting through intermediate powers.

(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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