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Backstage Politics

Carl Schmitt and the friend-enemy distinction



Who is your enemy? That’s the fundamental question in politics. Let’s see why.




Today, I want to speak to you about the dialectic of friend and enemy from Schmitt’s thought perspective. I consider this is important because it is useful to understand social and political conflict. This dichotomy is related to different aspects of Schmitt’s work, such as his notion of the political, decisionism, and so on.

In this episode, I want to focus on its relation to decisionism in domestic politics. The following discussion will revolve around this relationship and how it works in the polity’s inner sphere. That will lead us to explain how it works at two different levels. The State’s political level and the social level in which political rivalries between groups occur.


Decisionism and the friend-enemy distinction


The question I posed at the beginning defines the essence of the political. However, not always we can answer it by ourselves. Sometimes someone else decides for us and considers us their enemy. In any case, what matters here is that the distinction of the enemy is the result of a fundamental decision, and it determines the dynamic of politics.

When different social groups perceive each other as a threat to their existence, because of their incompatible beliefs, values, interests, and so on, they decide and define who their enemy is. It entails an intense dissociation between groups and a strong association between the members of those opposite groups. We can deny that we’re talking about political identities. To be more precise, we refer to identities that become political because they make social groups fight each other.

The identification of the enemy is, therefore, the consequence of a decision that affects the public sphere in which hostilities develop. No matter who takes that decision first, its effects reflect on the public arena and make groups and individuals gather according to that distinction. Political relations depend on that decision, and they work according to those hostilities that define interactions between groups.

Hence, the distinction between friend and enemy defines those oppositions that drive the political dynamic. Indeed, politics works mostly according to this principle. That allows us to understand the rationality that works behind these relations in the public field. As I commented on another occasion, anything can become political and, then, gather people in rival groups that fight each other.

Nevertheless, this is only one aspect of the distinction between friend and enemy. Its dynamic is essential to grasp the evolution of political quarrels. Besides, the role of decisionism happens to be fundamental when political relations develop, and social groups look for power to prevail over their enemies. In general, it accurately depicts the political process in any society. Yet, this is not enough. We need to see how this distinction works from a structural perspective. That includes the two levels I referred to before, that is, society and the State.


The two levels of the friend-enemy distinction


It’s important to recall that Schmitt understood the political in the State because it is where political struggles happen. In this section, I want to address how this distinction works in society and the State.

Although the former explanation has set out the main ideas about how enmity relations work in society, I can say something else. In this respect, I want to stress that the social realm is the battlefield in which political confrontations and struggles develop. Groups compete and fight each other to gain ground, exclude their enemies, and control the polity when possible. They look for imposing their interests, values, goals, and so on. Alliances and coalitions happen in this field. This distinction becomes crucial in the process of politicizing the whole society. That’s quite evident insofar as different groups seek support. By doing so, they apply the logic of the friend and enemy distinction. As a result, you are a friend if you support the group. Otherwise, you become an enemy. Everybody ends up in this dynamic, even if they don’t want to. So, society splits up in friends and enemies, which is the antechamber of the civil war. Indeed, it resembles the state of nature depicted by Thomas Hobbes in his work. Schmitt made some remarks on this and warned about the perils of this dynamic that may lead to the dissolution of the polity. That explains why he advocated for a strong executive, a supreme authority above any other group or social conflict, with the capacity to make binding decisions, and impose them without constraints.

The dynamic of social conflict is appealing and interesting because it shows us how things work. In this regard, the friend and enemy distinction is very enlightening. However, the logic of this distinction also works at a different level, namely, the State. Although this dimension of this distinction includes both the international and domestic realms, I want to focus the attention on the internal domain because I already said something about the external one on another occasion.

If we consider the role of decisionism in Schmitt’s thought, we also have to apply the same logic of this distinction that I’m discussing now. In this respect, Schmitt’s anti-liberal political stance led him to emphasize the importance of the existence of a supreme authority to rule the country and decide who the enemy is. We can find many different examples throughout history. However, I want to outline the general idea and leave aside specific cases. So, the State considered as a political actor can decide the enemy of the polity in the internal domain. The law is very indicative when it excludes a social group from the political order it shapes. In this sort of situation, we witness how the State involves in the exclusion of those who it considers its enemies, and resorts to all its means to keep them out of the law. Naturally, that includes their persecution.

Besides this, I have to mention the state of exception because it is a powerful instrument to prosecute those who represent a severe threat to the State. That means its enemies. In these situations, the State gets rid of any constraints and clampdown its opponents. In this way, we see how the distinction between friend and enemy operates on a broader level that includes the whole society and imposes its dynamic in the relationship between rulers and ruled. Nowadays, that has profound implications in all fields due to the increasing powers the State has concentrated. Its enemies can run, but they can’t hide.


Question of the day


Question of the day! How much, and in what way, does this distinction affect you in your interpersonal relations? 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

Agamben, Giorgio, State of Exception

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan

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