“In The Concept of the Political, which remains his most famous work, Schmitt suggests that liberalism gives rise to a paradox. On the one hand, a state that unconditionally affirms individual liberty must believe that conflict over values is destructive and unnecessary—that it is possible to build a society that is agnostic about transcendent values and allows everyone to pursue her own idea of the good life without state interference. But conflict over fundamental commitments, including value-commitments, is for Schmitt the whole basis of politics. That means that liberalism is committed to a program of what he calls “depoliticization.” By setting disputes over values and identity aside, liberalism reduces politics to a series of technical disputes over the best means for reaching universally agreed-upon ends. The ultimate agreed-upon end is material prosperity, so liberal “politics” tends to reduce to debates over how we can maximize economic growth.

It’s not difficult to recognize depoliticization at work in our own politics. Think of the well-rehearsed argument that one or another form of bigotry is bad for business. The phrase is meant to communicate a sort of brusque pragmatism. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a racist,” it says, “because as long as you care about making money, you won’t act like one.” The liberals who argue that discrimination is unbusinesslike are implicitly setting aside the value-conflict over whether it’s bad. For Schmitt, they’ve abandoned the political debate over the good for the economic debate over the efficient.

The paradox is that when nothing is political, everything is political. This is because, as Schmitt noted, liberalism’s embrace of economic growth and human autonomy is, in fact, a substantive ideological commitment that has to be defended polemically. Liberals assume that their apolitical politics must necessarily be agreeable to all of humanity, so anyone who dissents from the liberal order is not merely dissenting from a particular conception of the human good; he is defying a political order that purports to encompass all political orders. The state that ceases to recognize the possibility of conflict over ends, Schmitt wrote in an essay called “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” “immerse[s] itself into every realm, into every sphere of human existence” in an attempt to stamp out its intolerable antithesis. Depoliticization turns into hyperpoliticization. Especially when liberalism believes it is under threat, every action becomes political and every individual has the responsibility to punish the dissenters in her own life.”

The above passages come from an article written by Malloy Owen in The Point Magazine. I think he sums up some of Schmitt’s key ideas really well. The sudden change from government being understood as existing for the common good, with core values being instilled and articulated by its leaders, as well as by the philosophers, religious leaders, artists, poets, and great writers of that society–which was the case for most great civilizations throughout human history–to existing to protect merely “life, liberty and property” is patently absurd and, yes, paradoxical as Schmitt points out.

Illustration above by Molly Mendoza

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