Deus Ex Machina: Schmitt’s Political Theology

The concept of political theology describes the theological genealogy of political legitimacy, the validation or justification of power over others in the equitable establishment of order, and the protection of freedom. As an idea, it is associated with Carl Schmitt, one of what Yvonne Stewart called ‘Hitler’s Philosophers’, an intellectual inheritance tainted by his association with and support for the Nazi party. Nevertheless, as an abstract concept, political theology helps us to deconstruct the nature of power, and trace its origins in legitimacy and the development of political order. Because as we have seen technology embeds politics, particularly and more aggressively as automation and AI proliferate, it has become important to consider whether technology itself has some divine provenance in its human construction.

While Schmitt was immediately despondent, and wrote on the night of Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 ‘[i]t is a terribly cold night’, in the words of Stewart ‘[h]e relegated democracy to a burnt memory, and, like a dark phoenix from the ashes, he allowed tyranny to rise: authoritative, powerful and legitimate.’ (p. 103) It is impossible to detach his legacy from Nazi Germany, and it is necessary to read his work carefully in anticipation of the ideology that it would ultimately support. In the 1934 version of his Political Theology, for example, a work with which this post is substantially concerned, he quotes Emmanuel Sieyès, saying ‘The people are always virtuous. In whatever manner a nation expresses its wishes, it is enough that it wishes; all forms are good but its will is always the supreme law.’ (p. 48) Still, there are sufficient constructions in the work that allow us to consider a coherent, structured theological etymology or structure for politics and the political.

Schmitt begins his consideration with the declarative: ” All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts…” This is his thesis. From the divinity of kings through to the divine right of kings in the early modern period, sovereign authority was a theological thing. In an important construct, he argues that ‘[t]he exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.’ The miracle sustained the transcendent nature of theology, just as the exception meant that there could be no absolute set of laws for men. Each was an immanent thing, a mystical force that defied rationalism – until the Enlightenment. The modern state, Schmitt argues, ‘…triumphed together with deism, a theology and metaphysics that banished the miracle from the world…[t]he rationalism of the Enlightenment rejected the exception in every form.’ (p.36-7)

Schmitt considers sovereignty and the personification of the State, in Rousseau’s general will, and Hobbes’ leviathan. Schmitt appears to agree with Preuss who considered such a development as the replacement of a religious fiction with a juristic one. (p.39) Taking the argument further (and relying on jewish philosopher Hans Kelsen), ‘[d]emocracy is the expression of a political relativism and a scientific orientation that are liberated from miracles and dogmas and based on human understanding and critical doubt.’ The modern state, Schmitt is saying here, is a historical materialist machine.

Schmitt continues on in his short and at times brilliant essay: on history  and rationalism; art and culture; bureaucracy and power; the sociology of concepts; determinism; how juristic concepts are pushed into metaphysics and theology; and, presaging Hayek perhaps, how in the late Enlightenment, the sovereign ‘…has been radically pushed aside. The machine now runs by itself.’ Again referencing Kelsen, he suggests that democracy can be conceived of ‘…as the expression of a relativistic and impersonal scientism.’ (p.49) Schmitt looks at the anarchists Proudhon and Bakunin, and the ‘battle against God’. He situates the movement in the artistic and cultural exclusivity of the Church and State, operating in tandem – rejecting the impressionists in the late nineteenth century, and modernist writers and artists such as James Joyce and Egon Schiele. The church and the state were disconnected; God, it seemed, was wrong.

Concluding the piece, Schmitt says that ‘…the democratic notion of legitimacy has replaced the monarchial….Royalism no longer exists because there are no kings. Therefore legitimacy no longer exists in the traditional sense.’ (p.51) We are now, it appears, in an exclusively scientistic age, one in which the divine is no longer acknowledged. Worryingly, we see some omens in his restatement of the Hobbesian dictum: Authoritas, non veritas facit legem. Power, not truth, makes law.

The reduction of the State to rational materialist action, to economic behaviour, characterised the ascendant thinkers of the twentieth century until the ecological movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a reaction to overbearing and impersonal bureaucracy. It persists in technocracies all over the world, where politicians are almost frightened of being accused of theism of any kind (though it seems to be increasingly a badge of honour in the reactionary United States), or of acknowledging anything other than a cold, impersonal rationalism. This is the philosophical platform necessary for the rise of the machines in the business of government, political machines. The historical materialist basis for judgement and discrimination, the base upon which the modern rule of law is founded, denies the exception, the miracle.

The real problem in all of this is that our modern science, our rationalism, is increasingly uncertain. Quantum theory show us that things are not always what they seem – things are not even when they seem! Juxtaposed with an acknowledgement that our advanced science appears not to be delivering any kind of universal progress in a real sense, and we become suddenly bewildered. Everything we have been taught to believe, every article of faith that we have carried with us through our education, is somehow fraught. As Schmitt says, ‘[i]n a positivistic age it is easy to reproach an intellectual opponent with the charge of indulging in theology or metaphysics.’ (p. 38-9) And yet when the alternative in our binary structure turns out to be flawed, where then do we turn? Back to the miracle? Or maybe, in a new theology of technology, we can find a middle way.

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