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Backstage Politics
July 11, 2020

Carl Schmitt and decisionism


Decisionism is the core concept of Carl Schmitt’s thought, and we’re going to see it in depth.




Today, I want to speak to you about the role of decisionism in Schmitt’s thought. This concept plays a fundamental role in his political and philosophical thinking. For this reason, it has many different ramifications. It is related to the distinction between friend and enemy, his notion of sovereignty, as well as his critic of liberalism, and his particular theory of the State. For all of this, it is reasonable to address this concept to understand its meaning in the broader context of Schmitt’s work.

To grasp this notion of decisionism, I’m going to take the anti-liberal standpoint of Schmitt as a starting point, besides the way he defined the political. That will help us see the importance of decisionism in his political philosophy.


The Schmitt’s critic of liberalism and his notion of the political


The bitter critic of liberalism made by Schmitt focuses on different aspects. One of them is a lack of decisiveness. According to Schmitt, liberalism is weak insofar as it dives into endless deliberations in the political process of parliamentary systems. So, the legislature is where quarrels between different political factions take place, and the absence of unity and determination in this legislative body prevents it from making a final decision on conflict. Instead of that, political and social strife becomes a managerial matter because the parliament is unable to leave aside permanent debates and reach a conclusion. Then, the parliament dives into indecisiveness and inability to make resolutions. From Schmitt’s perspective, that is the result of the importance that discussion has for liberalism as a supreme political value.

Schmitt put political efficiency first, rather than normative issues. That connects with the German philosophical tradition initiated by Immanuel Kant. This author reflected on right, liberty, and other essential matters with vast political implications. In this regard, he stressed the distinction between “Sein” and “Sollen,” that is, between to be and ought to be. We are talking about positive and normative statements. That entails a strict separation between these two realms. However, Schmitt opposed this theory by claiming that moral or legal precepts are the product of decisions made by political or legal bodies. Hence, only political decisions can determine any normative nature of any legal resolution. The main problem is not the validity of a legal system but its efficiency in a specific situation.

That connects with the comments on the state of exception that Schmitt made, and I discussed on another occasion. In this respect, Schmitt stressed that no law is useful in exceptional situations where extreme needs happen. In these cases, the exception takes place insofar as any legal constraint vanishes. So, the decision on exception is the true decision. In these circumstances, the individual or political body that wields the capacity to make this sort of decision is over and outside the law, because they are sovereign. That contrasts with the constitutional thought, which claims that the sovereign lacks any personal element because objective laws, and not human will, rule the political community. Nevertheless, the critical situation in which an emergence requires big decisions to save the polity shows a clear relation between sovereignty and decision in Schmitt’s view. Therefore, who wields sovereignty is who can decide on exception.

The former explanation shows us the reasons of Schmitt’s opposition to liberalism. His critic of liberalism is broader to address it in a few words. In any case, that leads us to consider the notion of the political in Schmitt’s thought. Although I spoke about it on several occasions, I want to go over it again.

In this respect, Schmitt emphasized the autonomy of the political. We have multiple realms that involve different distinctions. For instance, morality has good and evil as the final distinction. The aesthetics’ distinction is between beautiful and ugly. Economics has the dichotomy between profitable and unprofitable. However, Schmitt concluded that “the specific political distinction is that between friend and enemy.” In his words, this dichotomy refers to the “the utmost degree of intensity… of an association or dissociation.” Indeed, any social difference can become political insofar as it reorganizes social relations in terms of this distinction. Nevertheless, this distinction depends on a decision ultimately. That brings decisionism into the core of the political in Schmitt’s thought.




As I advanced before, Schmitt argues that decisionism is a political, ethical, and jurisprudential doctrine. It states that decisions made by political or legal bodies determine the legal or moral precepts. This doctrine has profound political implications if we analyze it with more detail. Not only it represents an intellectual attack on liberalism foundations, but it also sets a different philosophical and political frame for the State. In this regard, Schmitt considers that will is the base of right and not reason. Therefore, we have to comply with laws because the sovereign has issued them, and not because of their rational content. Why did he reach this conclusion? Schmitt shares with Hobbes the same idea on this matter. The raison d’etre of the State is the security it provides, and the obedience it requires in return. That is the base of the political obligation. Besides this, Schmitt admits the existence of a fundamental truth or value that supports the State’s life. Nevertheless, that value or truth depends on the sovereign’s interpretation. Consequently, what matters is not the existence of a truth that endorses the State, but who has the authority to interpret it and determine its meaning.

Hence, a decision made by the proper authority in the interpretation of that truth determines the validity of legal and moral precepts. Otherwise, political loyalty would depend on debate and argumentation, which would lead to a state of war. That makes supreme authority fundamental to determine what is fair and unjust, what is good and evil. That is necessary to avoid the natural state of general warfare and the dissolution of the State.

Indeed, a decision made by the sovereign creates legal and moral precepts that validate laws. So, the legitimacy of the political and legal order rests on the body or individual that wields sovereignty. Decisionism takes shape in this context because a decision made by the sovereign determines how the people have to understand the political and legal order in which they live. In any case, Schmitt made the sovereign the supreme source of any moral and legal decision in public life. In this way, we are before a voluntarist doctrine representing the negation of liberalism’s values, namely, rationality, individuality, equality, and liberty. That reflects on the state of exception because, as Schmitt upholds, the exception shows who the sovereign is and who wields the authority to make binding decisions on the whole society in a specific territory. Values and rules are not the results of public debate in any representative chamber, but the result of a sovereign decision that determines how to interpret them.


Question of the day


Question of the day! How decisionism works in our current society, and more specifically in constitutional regimes? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.

Bibliography used:

Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political

Schmitt, Carl,  Dictatorship

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