Understanding the Political

The idea of politics permeates society and ‘politics’ are is discussed and debated at levels ranging from individual exchanges to mass media presentations; yet, a definition or concrete understanding of the political remains elusive. It is this question – what is political? – that Carl Schmitt addresses in his text The Concept of the Political; in addition, Max Weber has also considered the question in his “Politics as a Vocation.” Both theorists arrive at similar conclusions about what is political, determining that things political can ultimately be reduced to interactions with violence or coercive power as an underlying presence. Despite this similarity in assessment, the arguments advanced by Schmitt and Weber differ in that Schmitt sees politics as any interaction with the ultimate threat of violence (32), while Weber’s argument is more limited to an understanding of politics that necessarily and mostly involves the state. Weber is also concerned with the ethical question of when the state is justified in using means of violence. In the end, while Schmitt’s and Weber’s conclusions bear similarity by invoking violence as a decisive concept, Schmitt’s

In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber concludes that “the specific instruments of politics is power, backed up by violence,” an observation which compounds any understanding of a relationship between ethics and politics (216). Weber further argues that regardless of the ends, “for politics, the essential means is violence” (218). In considering if potentially harmful means are justified by the ends, he concludes that “no system of ethics can make it possible to decide” when such is the case (218). In fact, Weber makes reference to examples which delineate this difficulty justifying the means of violence and even associate politics with evil: “The ancient Christians, too, knew very well that this world is ruled by demons, and that he who meddles with politics, who in other words makes use of the instruments of power and violence, concludes a pact with the infernal powers” (220). Clearly, then, Weber finds that violence is the primary means of politics, thus creating an idea of the political which is firmly rooted in violence.

Like Weber, Schmitt defines his concept of the political in terms of violence, arguing that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” with the ultimate threat of combat between the two (26). And, “the friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing” (33). Indeed, Schmitt goes beyond merely identifying the political with violence and argues that the threat of violence is indirectly the sole motivator of political interactions: “war is neither the aim nor the purpose nor even the very content of politics. But as an ever present possibility it is the leading presupposition which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking and thereby creates a specifically political behavior” (34, emphasis added). It seems evident, then, that Schmitt, like Weber, considers the threat or ultimate means of violence the most useful concept in defining the political.

Despite the similarity, however, in understanding that violence is the means and defining characteristic of politics, Schmitt faults Weber for mostly limiting his understanding of power and violence to the state (20, n2). A precise instance of this limitation of politics to the state comes from Weber’s discussion of political ends which justify the means of violence: “ordinary Protestantism … legitimised the state, and therewith violence as a means” (221). By this example, violent means are equated to the means of the state; since Weber defines violence as the means of politics, this necessarily equates politics with the state. In fact, Weber’s very discussion of justifying the political means of violence seems to imply the involvement of a state or similar body that should have an interest in “ethics of intention” or “ethics of responsibility” (214-225). Moreover, notes Schmitt, for Weber “power appears mostly as state power…: ‘aspiring to participate in or of influencing the distribution of power, be it between states, be it internally between groups of people which the state encompasses,’ or ‘leadership or the influencing of a political association, hence today, of a state’” (20-21 n2). Certainly, Weber envisions a concept of the state which has a monopoly on violence, and therefore a monopoly on politics

Such an understanding of politics, i.e. an equation of politics with the state, is unacceptable to Schmitt: “In one way or another ‘political’ is generally juxtaposed to ‘state’ or at least is brought into relation with it. The state thus appears as something political and the political as something pertaining to the state—obviously an unsatisfactory circle” (20). Aside from his concern with the circular logic, Schmitt correctly finds the equation of the state with politics an insufficient way of describing reality. Notes Schmitt, “the equation state = politics becomes erroneous and deceptive at exactly the moment when state and society penetrate each other,” as in most modern political systems (22). If the state is not completely distinct from the rest of society, “everything is at least potentially political, and in referring to the state it is no longer possible to assert for it a specifically political characteristic” (22). Schmitt’s improved understanding of the political is well summarized by his argument that, “the political can derive its energy from the most varied human endeavors, from the religious, economic, moral,” and is therefore not limited to the state as Weber suggests (38).

Nevertheless, it might be argued that such a criticism of Weber’s limited definition of the political is justified only upon a very strict reading, while a more relaxed interpretation of “Politics as a Vocation” would find no conflict with Schmitt’s ideas. In other words, while Weber does in fact equate the state with politics, he does not explicitly exclude activities outside the state from being political. If such an argument seems at first justified, it is quickly invalidated by simple observation: Weber’s discussion of the political comes from a document that describes, essentially, how to be a politician. This very idea of “politics as a vocation” implies politics that relate to the state or some similar type of governing body. After all, a teacher or priest would not be deemed a politician; the term is reserved for those who seek to govern and thus be part of the state or be the state itself. Additionally, Weber’s concern with ethics and morality throughout his text seems to imply a body with a responsibility towards those it would govern, in contrast to Schmitt’s idea of any group with intense beliefs that conflict those of another group (Schmitt, 28).

Consequently, Schmitt’s and Weber’s understandings of the political are similar in recognizing violence as a foundation, but disagree considerably on the relation of the political with the state. Insofar as Weber understands the state to have a monopoly on violence, the state is necessarily involved in all things political. Weber, thus, creates an idea of a state that has a monopoly on politics and is separated from the rest of society, that is apolitical society. Schmitt does not afford a concrete definition to the concept of the state, nor does he deny Weber’s assertion that the state is political: “that the state is an entity … rests upon its political character” (44). However, Schmitt views the State as an entity which has the ability to encompass or be involved in many aspects of society and, thus, which does not have a monopoly on politics. Certainly, this understanding of the political is much more easily reconciled with both historical and modern observation. Throughout European history, religion has played an intensely political role, even fueling wars between neighbors and against foreigners. More modern systems of politics have also seen profound political influences outside of the state, as with modern democracies and even twentieth century fascism. Thus, though Weber’s understanding of the role of violence is useful in describing the political, it is Schmitt’s conclusion that politics need not be limited to the state which resonates best with reality.