Carl Schmitt: The Friend-Enemy Distinction

In one of his early and most well-known works, the Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt endeavors to explore what the political is and is not.  There are multiple layers to Schmitt’s thinking and his criticism of liberalism, in particular, and where he sees himself in the grand scheme of Hegelian epochal historicism and the broader tradition of political philosophy and jurisprudence.  The most famous line of the work is that “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”

The first sentence to what some consider his early magnum opus (his other magnum opus being the Nomos of the Earth) is, “The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.”  What Schmitt means by this is that the idea of the state comes from the idea of the political.  Since the state is real, as it exists in a concrete manifestation in our world and history, but does not exist at the beginning of history, where does the state sprout from?  For Schmitt the state sprouts from the concept of the political?  So we must first address the concept of the political before discussing how Schmitt understands the friend-enemy distinction that underlies all politics.

Schmitt stands in the classical tradition which understood man to be a political animal.  Following Aristotle, Cicero, and Catholic political thinking in particular.  The concept of the political is based upon the principle of organization.  To be political is to be social is to be a member of a community – which in Greek and Latin contexts meant to be a member of a body; for even citizen which comes from civitas (city) and serves as the root for civilization means “body of citizens” – from which one is a member of a body.  All bodies are organized.  The organization of a body, which is intrinsic to what it means to be political, codifies itself in the form of the state.  Ergo “the concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political.”

Since man is a political animal by his very nature (and therefore it cannot be abolished), and to be political means to be in a state of organizing the body and making decisions about how to organize the body, the essential characteristic of the political is the constant decision making one must take with regard to organizing.  To be isolated, cut-off, and to not have the power of decision-making is to be a-political or anti-political.  What should immediately be clear from Schmitt is that politics is not an individual endeavor.  There is no such thing as a “private citizen” because that’s a contradiction in terms.  To be a citizen is to be a member of a public body.  Furthermore, society and civilization are not individual endeavors.  Politics, and the act of creating and sustaining society and civilization is a group, or collective, endeavor.  Again, the very words society (rooted in social) and civilization (rooted in civitas) embody the principle of the collective (or if you prefer, communitarian) nature of politics.  That is to say that politics is a very public, or social, affair.

The other important thing to understand from Schmitt is his (revisionist) Hegelianism.  From Hegel’s philosophy of history, in which History is a rational process of growth and unfolding, Schmitt understands  this concept of the political as unfolding in history.  The first principle of political organization – and some might say the only natural one as Rousseau did in his Social Contract – is the family.  This is not unique to Schmitt for this is found in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Khaldun, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau among many others.  But this principle of organization as rooted in the family then expands to the polis (or city).  This is seen in history through the city-state era of Mesopotamia and Greece.  As Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all say in their respective works, the city is essentially conceived of as the extended and extension of the principle of family.  The epoch of the city gives way to the imperium (or empire) which is still centered around a city (like Rome being the center of the Roman Empire, etc.) but Schmitt understood the age of imperium to be one of overreach and he viewed it in the negative.  (He also understood imperium as seeking universal consummation which is another theme he explores in his work.)  The epoch that he saw himself occupying was the emerging epoch of the nation-state.  And Schmitt felt that nation-states were the culmination of his politicized Hegelianism.  The nation-state is centered around a capital city.  But it is more than just a city.  It includes the nation, which is codified in the state, which has its apparatus roots in a particular city (the capital).  We can understand the nation as the Aristotelian mean in Schmitt’s political thinking.  The failure of the city-state was that it was too small to defend its sovereignty.  The failure of the imperium was that it was too large to maintain its sovereignty.  The nation-state occupied that happy mean between the deficiency of the city-state and the excess of empire.  (Readers familiar with Hegel’s philosophy of history will see why Schmitt is considered a revisionist Hegelian, he doesn’t agree with Hegel that history is the unfolding of despotism to freedom as codified in constitutional and cultural norms, he sees history as trying to find that golden mean of political sovereignty.)

This marks Schmitt as a sovereign theorist of the political.  All politics is about the power of sovereignty.  This is why man is political.  He seeks to exert a certain degree of power, or dominance, in life.  (Schmitt takes the Catholic idea of Original Sin and Augustine’s doctrine of libido dominandi and politicizes it, or secularizes, it.  In other words, man does in fact have a lust for domination and this constitutes an essential aspect of his human nature.)

Schmitt is also a pluralist.  He sees many communities, many peoples, many religions, and many cultures.  These are all the product of man’s political aims and ends.  Because plurality is the natural constitutive composition of the world, this plurality naturally leads to antagonism and conflict.  This is also an essential aspect of man’s human nature.  Conflict and struggle help give man meaning in life.  It is also what helps propel history onward much like it does in Hegel.  And because man lusts for domination he comes into conflict with the “other” wherein either these opposing forces reach the status of friendship or the status of enemy.

Herein lies Schmitt’s essential Hegelianism: the friend-enemy (those who are part of your community and those who are not part of your community) is foundational to understanding oneself.  Following Hegel, one only knows oneself through the Other.  The Other is almost always going to be an enemy as the Other stands apart from you and your community (the Other may be an ally but is always potentially an enemy).  This is a consequence of pluralism – that is, real difference.  If we’re not all the same (monism) then there must be difference and differentiation by definition.

Because pluralism is the natural order of things Schmitt’s friendship theory in politics is that two communities are “friends” and “allies.”  They mutually respect one another’s culture and boundaries and do not seek to transgress them.  They will engage in trade with one another and stay on friendly terms for as long as possible.  But as Schmitt also says, the friend-enemy distinction is not static in the sense that just because we’re friends now doesn’t mean we’ll be friends forever.  And just because we’re enemies now doesn’t mean we’ll be enemies forever.  But Schmitt’s concept of political friendship comes with respect and recognition of boundaries and borders wherein nation-states remain friends so long as they don’t overstep the recognition of those boundaries and borders – wherein doing so launches the two nations into a state of war (or conflict) whereby they are enemies.

Friend also means to imply someone who is also a member of your body.  Fellow citizens.  Therefore friendship takes on a double-meaning.  True friends are those who are members of the same collective body.  Temporary friends (allies) are those outside of your body whom you have no qualms with (as of a particular moment in time), but may become an enemy precisely because they’re not part of your civic body.  Friend, therefore, is someone who shares the same values as you. Ally is just someone you have no qualms with at the given moment.

Who is the enemy then?

For Schmitt the enemy are those forces, communities, or peoples who threaten the integral sovereignty of the state, or the sovereignty of the self.  As Schmitt makes clear, enemies exist even before the rise of the state or various norms of social organizing and decision-making.  At the very beginning of human existence there has always been something, or someone, that threatened existence.  That was the enemy.  (Imagine the carnivorous beast in the plains of Africa or the “other tribe” that threatened our water-hole.)  But since we’re beyond that early primordial state of existence, and we now live in the age of nation-state sovereignty, the enemy is principally the force that threatens what humans have achieved in this historicist evolution of the political.  This is also because the enemy, which leads to conflict, is essential to the nature of the world and meaning in life.  Without the enemy life would be meaningless and shallow.  To have no enemies.  To have no power to decide who to include as a member of the body and who to exclude as a member of the body, is to not be political at all.  And since man is political, and this is part of his human nature, those who attempt to eliminate conflict and transform enemies into “rational actors” whom one can persuade to not have qualms with, are nihilists out to destroy man’s political nature.  (Schmitt makes it clear that liberalism is one such force that attempts to eliminate all conflict and, in doing so, would destroy human nature and make man’s life miserable for he would not be political at all, which is to say he would cease being human if he ceased being political.)

So who is the enemy, to return to that question?  On one hand it is someone who threatens our sovereignty as nation.  On another hand it is anyone whom the public deems to be an enemy irrespective of whether they actually threaten sovereignty or not.  For the very existence of enemies is part of the political.  People who have read Rousseau will see a stark contrast immediately between the two; for in the Social Contract Rousseau wrote that “men are not naturally enemies” but only become enemies over competition of things and are not enemies metaphysically or ontologically as Schmitt asserts.  In other words, anyone can become the enemy.  This is what the principle of the friend-enemy distinction understands, and is the basis for Schmitt’s existential communitarianism.  And this is the first principle of all political organization and therefore all societal, or civilizational, organization.  Who is in (friend) and who is out (enemy).

And since man is political, which means he is a social or public animal, this also means, “The enemy is solely the public enemy.”  We do not have “individual” enemies.  We only have public enemies.  This is confirmed from ideas like “public enemy number one.”  Or a “clear and public danger.”  Enemies do not merely threaten individual well-being.  They threaten public well-being and order.  Someone who is a threat to an individual, is, in actuality, a threat to all precisely because of man’s social nature.  Let us take the example of a serial bomber, something that Americans know well after the March 2018 serial bombings in Austin, Texas.  That enemy (the bomber) was a public enemy because his actions threatened public safety, public work, and public well-being.  He was not merely the individual enemy to anyone he may have sought to kill.  Because man is a social animal who lives in a public square, all enemies are de-facto public enemies because human nature is social.

There are friends and there are enemies.  Even if everyone managed to become friends, Schmitt implies that we would make someone an enemy just because that is human nature and that is what politics is about.  Without the struggle life is shallow.  And, on top of it, he also says that such a view that we don’t have enemies is a flawed view of human nature.  Man lusts for domination.  Man lusts for power.  Man lusts for control.  This is why Schmitt segways part way through his work (pages 64-65) to discuss ancient theology and the Catholic doctrine of sin and original sin.  Schmitt doesn’t necessarily accept these ideas on their purely theological grounds.  Rather, as I mentioned already, he accepts them on “secular” grounds insofar that these originally theological doctrines deal with human nature and the question of quid sit homo (what is man) and do, in fact, tell us something very truthful about human nature.  Schmitt appraises and endorses ancient theological anthropology as having gotten human nature essentially correct: Man is “sinful,” he is imperfectible, he is in conflict (with himself and with others), he constantly makes “irrational” choices and decisions, etc., he lusts for power and this lust for power breeds conflict.  Modern anthropologies of benign goodness or, from the like of Hobbes, wherein man’s domineering ethos can be overridden (because Hobbes denies man’s sinfulness), have gotten human nature incorrect.  To follow modern anthropology is like following religious heresies that promise a “heaven on earth” or utopia to come.  To follow modern anthropology, with its political ramifications, would lead to human misery and shallowness in life.  Just as heresies lead to disappointment, so too is following modern (political) anthropology going to lead to disappointment.

As he wittily remarks, “A theologian ceases to be a theologian when he no longer considers man to be sinful and in need of redemption.”  In the same way man ceases to be political when he no longer considers himself to have enemies.  Man lusts for domination and domination, or want for domination, is always ever present in man’s being.  This is why Schmitt remarks,

A domination of men based upon pure economics must appear a terrible deception if, by remaining nonpolitical, it thereby evades political responsibility and visibility. Exchange by no means precludes the possibility that one of the contractors experiences a disadvantage and that a system of mutual contracts finally deteriorates into a system of the worst exploitation and repression. When the exploited and the repressed attempt to defend themselves in such a situation, they cannot do so by economic means…

 And “Today technical inventions are the means of the domination of the masses on a large scale.”

A political theorist ceases to be a political theorist when he no longer considers conflict and enemies to be an essential aspect of human nature and, therefore, the concept of the political.  Even in capitalism, as Schmitt critiques, it is premised upon domination masked in the veil of free exchange, rational choice, and opportunities.  The union of technology, capital, and industry, with the propaganda of “progress” and “reason” allow for a new and even greater exploitation of the common masses than feudalism and monarchy ever did!  (To some degree Schmitt was influenced by Marx, and has influenced a new generation of Left-post-Marxian thinkers, while also rejecting Marx’s essential economism.)  Economism, disguising itself as rational cooperation, is really a form of conflictual control which, ironically, destroy’s man’s capacity to fight for himself and this is the graver threat that liberalism poses to man and state.  In dominating man into passive submission, liberal man – the hedonistic compromiser – is unable to defend hismelf, his family, his community, his nation, against forces that have not lost the lust for conflict and control.  Overtaken by capitalism, capitalism paves the way for a people to be overtaken by a more militant and still political people outside of the country’s border.

To be political means one must have the ability to distinguish friend from foe.  To be political means one will always have enemies.  And the existence of enemies gives us real meaning and “hard choices” in our lives.  This is what it means to be political.  We do, in fact, need to make difficult choices.  “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.”  Something very real is at stake.  And as Schmitt also says, “A valid meaning is here attached to the word sovereignty, just as to the term entity. Both do not at all imply that a political entity must necessarily determine every aspect of a person’s life or that a centralized system should destroy every other organization or corporation.”  The defense of sovereignty gives us meaning both individually and, more importantly, collectively (as a nation or group).   The dissolution of the friend-enemy distinction is the dissolution of the political.  It is the dissolution of man’s political nature.  “These dissolutions aim with great precision at subjugating state and politics, partially into an individualistic domain of private law and morality, partially into economic notions. In doing so they deprive state and politics of their specific meaning.”  And to lose that specific meaning in political life is to fall into political nihilism.

But man’s political nature can never be stripped from him (only ever suppressed; there will always be men who are political, e.g. war-like and willing to fight and conquer).  Therefore, man’s political nature can go in one of two directions: Toward meaning (found in the friend-enemy distinction); or toward nihilism.  Political meaning gives the nation something to strive for.  Political nihilism subjects the nation to domination from others because, as Schmitt equally made clear, domination is very much part of man’s nature and cannot be destroyed.  What happens is this lust for domination is suppressed and man allows himself to be dominated by others for the promise of peace and prosperity.

Furthermore, political meaning is found in political sovereignty.  Political domination, via falling down the path of nihilism, is found in the loss of political sovereignty – that is, you have allowed yourself to be conquered by the foe.  Political sovereignty does not mean you have vanquished the foe, but it does mean you have the possibility of keeping the enemy at bay.  Political sovereignty simply means you always have the path of survival with friends open to you.  That means you need to be able to confront the enemy when he appears, retain and embody the sovereign decisions to protect onself and one’s nation, against whatever forces may threaten to subject you into domination.


This is Part One of a three part reading of Schmitt’s Concept of the Political.  Part Two will deal with Schmitt’s understanding of liberalism and his critique of it, which is already hinted at and implied in this post.  Part Three will concern itself with the ‘metaphysics’ of man in Schmitt’s anthropology.

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