Schmitt in America: Against liberal totalitarianism


Perceptions of Carl Schmitt’s thought in the United States and American thinkers’ reflections on the ideas and categories put forth by this great European thinker are quite unfamiliar to readers from other countries. At the same time, however, as the center of modernity, the United States is the center of all the tendencies that manifest themselves in globalization. Hence why we cannot be indifferent. Even if we do not study modern America, America and modernity still affect us. Studying the heritage of Schmitt and his concepts in regards to global modernity is a most beneficial exercise in properly interpreting the US and attempting to overcome liberal hegemony.

From our point of view, the most interesting trend in  “Schmittean studies” in the US was developed by the group of “new left” intellectuals grouped around the journal Telos who the early 1980’s pioneered the broad study of Carl Schmitt’s heritage in the United States. The most famous of them worth noting are the editor and founder of Telos and the American “new left” thinker Paul Picone, his associate researcher and Schmittean scholar Gary Ulmen, the political scientist and sociologist of Jewish descent close to the Republican Party, Paul Gottfried, and the former diplomat and scholar of Croatian origin who is one of the most prominent figures among the European New Right, Tomislav Sunic.

Despite accusations of fascism hurled at the neocons by their opponents who claim such based on their link to Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, who for a short time unsuccessfully tried to influence the political and legal doctrine of the Third Right, neoconservatives in general did not show any special interest in Schmitt’s creativity. Piconet and Ulmen approached not only the lack of interest in Schmitt among American influential circles, but also the desire to avoid talking about him at all, as he was mentioned only in connection with Strauss and artificially tied to “Nazism” [1]. Perhaps some of Schmitt’s concepts penetrated neoconservative circles via Strauss, but there was and is clearly something in Schmitt which bothered and halted the builders of the “New World Order.” [2]

Let us consider Schmitt’s ideas based on the concepts of American authors in order to identify what it is exactly that is so “disturbing” to the modern world in Schmitt.

Concrete orders and the critique of technology

Schmitt’s understandings of legality, legitimacy, and his usage of the Greek term nomos not as abstract law, but as a territorial order imply that legal order must be based on something other than mere rules or laws. His theory of concrete orders is defined by a pre-legal axiological dimension which is older than any code-related standards - without such a dimension, any codification is impossible. It is precisely these conceptual exceptions which Picone and Ulmen analyzed in the context of distinguishing between the pre-conceptual dimension and categorical objectification. This is the distance between being and thinking, the distance to the former always being greater than to the latter. Referencing Adorno and Horkheimer and their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Picone and Ulmen insisted on eliminating the gap between being and thinking in the Enlightenment ideology which gave rise to a rationalism only justified by itself which, in an extreme case, can transform into the mad rationalism characteristic of Nazi ideology. "The only solution is to ground this rationalism in the pre-rational and pre-conceptual dimension that has become occluded or forgotten: through mimesis for Adorno; in the lifeworld for Husserl; in experience for Dewey; in “concrete orders” for Schmitt, by returning to Being for Heidegger, in “forms of life” for Wittgenstein, etc.." [3]

Schmitt’s criticism of technology is understood by them in this context. Following the John McCormick’s approach to Schmitt [4], the authors note his critical attitude towards engineering and technology, the spirit of which he compares to the “Antichrist” in Roman Catholicism and Political Form [5]. According to Picone and Ulmen, this represents a critique of technology’s “oblivion of Being,” i.e., the inability to think outside of existing structures which represents man’s alienation and his suppression by tools. Technology is the essence of Enlightenment knowledge which, according to Bacon, is power. Adorno writes that “[the] Enlightenment refers to things in the same way as a dictator to the people” [6]. In criticizing alienation, legal positivism, and the “rule of law”, what Paul Gottfried - influenced by Schmitt - calls managed democracy or the managerial state is fully applicable to the critique of modern “democracies.” From this Picone and Ulmen develop their critique of the concept of the “rule of law,” which is at heart Schmittean in acquiring a meta-historical and even existential dimension where Schmitt, Adorno, Heidegger, and Husserl merge. The “rule of law” is essentially anti-human in nature, is alienated from the concrete history of societies and political life, and thus functions more as a technological rather than political concept.

John McCormick claims that Schmitt’s critique of art and technology is linked to the criticism of the intellectual class which led the West from theology to technology. The “priests” in Schmitt’s terminology gravitate towards complete mechanization and depoliticization, i.e., absolute apolitical neutrality, since there is nothing more neutral than technique itself. “Technologization”, however, yields two unexpected consequences. Firstly, the masses, who unlike the elites can never be completely secularized and do not accept neutral technique, discover a new theology under the guise of technology, the “theology of technique.” Secondly, in a world in which technology has already prevailed and is bolstered by the liberal intellectual elite, it no longer requires promoters. It merely need conduits and social engenderers, not creators. Thus, the domination of technology leads to the elimination of intellectuals and culture, which are replaced by managers, engineers, and a worship of technology. The deprivation of meaning and spirituality of the cultural dimension of man lead to a denial of any restrictions upon those who use technology. Thus sets in the domination of the “new barbarism” of managers in modern states.

The therapeutic state, the rights of peoples, complexio oppositorium and multiculturalism

As a right-wing conservative, Gottfried is no friend of Marxism, but in relying on the concepts of Schmitt, he comes to the same general conclusions as Ulmen and Picone. In his work Mass Democracy and the Managerial State, Gottfried concludes that the evolution of liberalism results in its rebirth in the form of a managerial liberalism in which basic freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, are violated and the liberal regime becomes increasingly totalitarian [7]. Gottfried asserts that the managerial state gradually develops into a “therapeutic one” which, as he shows in his book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilty: Towards a Secular Theocracy, seeks to establish full control over the thought and speech of democratic citizens through its institutions and civil society and implant the concept of guilt in relation to allegedly “offended” minorities [8].

Developing Schmitt’s idea of the state as a continuation of theology, Gottfried notes that the therapeutic state could not appear without the corresponding change in liberal Protestantism which took place in the middle of the 20th century. Liberal Christianity as a religion, only sensitive to the suffering of alleged victims, begins to promote the “politics of guilt.” Moreover, the introduction of the American liberal-Protestant concept of multiculturalism onto European soil yields chimerical effects as European seek to impose this policy with authoritarian zeal against their own “guilt.”

Here multiculturalism plays a special role. As the US-Croatian scholar Tomislav Sunic points out in his essay A Global Village and the Rights of the Peoples?, the rule of apolitical liberal values forcibly homogenizes the diversity of ethnic groups and gives birth to a "multicultural zoo" where different cultures can move freely only within a single cell under the supervision of liberal overseers, intellectuals and managers. State domination is introduced as neutral and therefore not “problematic” [9]. This model starkly contrasts Schmitt’s concept of complexito oppositorium which posits the unity of opposites in which neither one is suppressed, a unity which Schmitt saw particularly personified in the Roman Catholic Church (See Roman Catholicism and Political Form). Sunic attempts to illuminate the concept of peoples’ rights in appealing to Schmittean categories. The very possibility of understanding the world surrounding us in Schmittean categories presents an alternative to the current situation, as the visibility of diversity is an indispensable foundation for the lasting reign of the overseers attempting to legitimize their rule by the legitimization of supposedly universal axiological systems.

The weakness of liberal values ​​and the emergence of tyranny

How did the "therapeutic state" emerge? This question too can be answered if we turn to Schmitt and refer to Schmitt’s critique of liberalism.

How did Schmitt criticize liberalism? What Gottfried, following Donoso Cortes, considered to be a weakness in calling liberals la class discutidora was also considered by Schmitt to be a strength of the liberals, who seek to avoid fundamental decisions and search everywhere for compromise [10], thus weakening the state. This was also echoed by Leo Strauss when he said that Schmitt’s criticism of liberalism is an “internal” criticism [11]. Yet another sin of liberalism, as already mentioned, is the depoliticization of Western society.

Schmitt wrote that the “pluralistic state controlled by parties became total not because of its effectiveness, but because of its weakness. It intervenes in every aspect of life because everyone is waiting for it to satisfy the needs of all those who suffer” [12].

It is the weakness of the liberal regime that ultimately leads to its replacement by totalitarian regimes, and then by the managerial state regime. In the latter case, degeneration occurs in liberalism itself as it moves in the technocratic direction. James Burnham terms this the managerial revolution, the coming to power of a new class of administrators under egalitarian slogans, which manifests itself in the West in the form of the “welfare state” [13]. This is the first step to the modern therapeutic state insofar as there is the removal of the division between the actual state and civil society, depoliticization, and the generalization of administrative legality. The next phase - actual therapeutic control - is possible when people’s thoughts, and not their wallets, can be controlled.

In such a state, as Schmitt noted, the separation of legality and legitimacy reaches its peak and liberals emphasize legality and the rule of law. But legality, as a zone of mere legal norms, when separated from the legitimacy of the bureaucracy becomes a code of conduct based on prescriptive regulations (Setzung von Setzungen). Gary Ulmen stresses that the resulting hyper-technicality of laws, restricted to themselves, renders them meaningless [14]. The more legally-substantiated the system becomes, the more senseless and tyrannical the state becomes, reaching its peak in the form of the therapeutic state in which managers eliminate any insubordination to their meaningless and absurd rules and impose values which are designed to legitimize the domination of those imposing them. Thus, the rejection of legitimacy as a source of legality yields the legitimization of domination, a new theology which does not subside into the sphere of the pre-conceptual, and thus one which represents a threat similar to the fascist threat of insane rationality.

Gottfried notes that Schmitt foresaw such a senseless dictatorship of rules in his work The Tyranny of Values. “Schmitt’s remarks on liberalism and democracy illuminate this modern paradox of pluralistic societies imposing particular values by shame or by force” [15]. The most vivid embodiment of such tyrannical values can be found in the United States, and especially among the neoconservatives. On this basis, Godfrey rejects their labelling as “conservatives,” as he notes that they are closer to Kant and his ethical doctrine which, as noted by Schmitt, by no accident favors a world federation of states rather than traditional, conservative views [16].

In the context of this social critique, the plebiscitary democracy to which Schmitt was inclined is no less “democratic” than modern representative democracy which is manipulated by private and lobby interests.

Such non-conformist American studies of Schmitt confirm the notion that Schmitt’s legacy has a pronounced anti-totalitarian character. Picone and Ulman even noted that critics of Schmitt are often forced to admit that, by his defense of the traditional state, his critique of the associations of civil society, and his defense of the autonomy of the state, Carl Schmitt was anything but a supporter of totalitarianism. As it turns out, modern Western “liberal-democratic” states are not autonomous from society, but are in fact totalitarian. Similarly, the liberal state has no intrinsic value, and is merely a tool in the hands of idealistic projects.


[1] Drury S.B. Alexandre Kojeve: The Roots of Postmodern Politics, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994

[2] Piccone P., Ulmen G. Uses and abuses of Carl Schmitt. Electronic resource] URL: (Reference date 7.10.2010).

[3] McCormick J.D. Introduction to Schmitt's "The age of neutralizations and depoliticizations". Electronic resource] URL: (Reference date 7.10.2010).

[4] Schmitt C. Roman Catholicism and Political Form. G. L. Ulmen, trans. New York: Greenwood Press, 1996 /

[5] M. Horkheimer, Adorno, T. Dialectics of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments. St. Petersburg, 1997. P.23

[6] Gottfried P. After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001

[7] Godfried P.Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

[8] Sunic T. A Global Village and the Rights of the Peoples? Electronic resource] URL: (Reference date 7.10.2010).

[9] Gottfried P. Carl Schmitt. 1990. p 12

[10] Strauss L. "Comments on Carl Schmitt's Der Begriff des Politischen / Schmitt C. The Concept of the Political tr by George Schwab, Chicago:. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[11] Gottfried P. Legality, legitimacy, and Carl Schmitt // National Review. August 28, 1987.

[12] Burnham J. The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World. New York: The John Day Company, 1941.

[13] Ulmen G. The concept of nomos: introduction to Schmitt's "Apprpriation / distribution / production" (Reference date 7.10.2010).

[14] Gottfried P. Carl Schmitt and Democracy. Electronic resource] URL: and democracy. (Reference date 7.10.2010).

[15] Gottfried P. Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

[16] Sunic T. Liberalism or Democracy? Carl Schmitt and Apolitical Democracy. Electronic resource] URL: (Reference date 7.10.2010).