Saturday, April 19, 2014

Scott Corey on Carl Schmitt's Influence on Neoconservatives

Carl Schmitt
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Scott Corey -- one of my old friends from Berkeley, where he earned his political science doctorate in revolution and political violence -- has published an online op/ed piece titled "Release the Entire Torture Report!" In this op/ed, he looks at the torture used by Americans on suspected terrorists and asks (among other questions), "why did the torture regime arise and take hold?"
The why is easily found in neo-conservative doctrine and praxis. Once a respectable strand of conservative theory, the neocons departed into subversion by combining the thinking of Carl Schmitt with the practices of ex-Trotskyites who joined them during the 1980's. Their core belief is that legal/rational government is inadequate for a world of catastrophic dangers that may appear in forms and at times that are uncertain (hence the drivel about fearing "the unknown unknown" and the need to somehow overcome the tautology that "we don't know what we don't know").
I have to admit that I'd always found Rumsfeld's systemization of our knowledge and our ignorance (known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns) rather intriguing, intellectually, as well as a humorous way of stating our epistemological state. But what really interested me in Scott's article is the assertion above that neoconservatives turned to the legal views of Carl Schmitt (the legal theorist used by Germany's National Socialists), so I was disappointed that more wasn't said on this point.

Scott, however, is a careful scholar, so I accept that there must be some research supporting this assertion, and I suppose I'll just have to ask him. He did -- in one of his email circulars -- mention that he is "not the first to note the neocon link to Schmitt," and he also speaks of a run-in with a neoconservative professor who was instructing an inner group of students in the political thought of Schmitt.

Perhaps he'll comment . . .

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At 2:34 PM, Anonymous Scott Corey said...

Thank you for the invitation, Jeff. I will not paste the 600 word lecture I drafted.
Connecting the neocons and Schmitt is commonplace, now. It gets a paragraph in the Schmitt entry of Wikipedia. Tracy B. Strong makes it in the forward of recent editions of two of Schmitt's books. Or then, there is William Scheuerman, "Carl Schmitt and the Road to Abu Ghraib," in Constellations 13:1.
The thing to avoid, though, is accepting this connection as some proof that the neocons are fascists. Schmitt was in important Nazi for 3 years, and then was purged. What his thinking has to do with the 21st Century is that he raised the question of how a legal/rational polity can manage catastrophic dangers of uncertain kind and timing. His answer was, briefly, by allowing the sovereign to make unlimited exceptions to the rules for itself.
His thought evolved to argue that the prospect of disaster was constant, so the sovereign was actually always in a realm of exception.
Just to site one example, this argument tracks very well with the neocon advocacy of torture. They habitually start with the "ticking time bomb" scenario to claim the possibility of an exception to rules on torture. Then they assert the Global War on Terror will last our lifetimes, and the exception has become the rule, and the ruler. From there, you easily get "law free zones" like Guantanamo and military contractors in Iraq operating outside any court jurisdiction.
When we hear Cheney or Rumsfeld struggling to justify themselves by reference to "unknown unknowns" and "what we don't know we don't know," we are hearing them mangle Schmitt.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Scott. I'll look into this further.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Fake Herzog said...

Mr. Hodges,

With all due respect to Professor Corey who is your old friend, he is begging many questions in his answers to you and in his original piece.

I consider myself a neocon (of the Catholic variety though) and while I grant that waterboarding is indeed torture, to the neocons this question of definitions is crucial. In fact, when Professor Corey says to you Schmitt is relevant to neocon thinking because he gives you the theory for why "the sovereign" will make "unlimited exceptions to the rules for itself" that may be true but it doesn't describe the neocons. They went out of their way to make sure everything they did was legal -- if you thought the sovereign could do whatever they wanted (i.e. supposedly we have "law free zones"! at Guantanamo and military contractors running amok in Iraq) then why bother with law briefs, military courts, etc.

You might not like John Yoo's legal briefs but he wrote a lot of them -- engage the arguments.

P.S. Juan Cole is stark raving nuts. Professor Corey should find better company

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Fake Herzog,

Thanks for the comment. I'm not a fan of Cole. Though I've rarely read his columns, I've been unconvinced, for example, by his views on radical Islam when I've followed up links.

I see mostly religious motives behind Islamism -- though I note that Islam does not separate politics and religion.

Cole tends (if I recall) to find political motives even for suicide bombers, whereas I think that they're primarily motivated by promises of a sensual paradise in the afterlife.

As for Schmitt's legal theories (political theology and the sovereign), I haven't yet followed them up on the issue of their putative inspirational role in motivating neoconservatives.

Too much teaching and grading and editing . . .

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:23 PM, Anonymous erdal said...

I belive the Carl Schmitt -> Neocon connection is less one of inheritance of substance, and rather a case of patrilinearity, running through Leo Strauss, of course, who was Schitt's student and wrote a rather famous book about his tutor.

The most striking similarity beween the present-day neocons and Schmitt appears to me to be their ability and willingness to cuddle up with whomever to exert influente. Opportunism, in a word.

At 7:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting, that Strauss was Schmitt's student. I didn't know that. Thanks, Erdal.

Jeffery Hodges

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