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Liberalism for Losers: Carl Schmitt’s “The Tyranny of Values”

To those familiar with his most famous writings, it may seem that Carl Schmitt is an enemy of liberalism. In texts such as The Concept of the Political (1932) and Legality and Legitimacy (1932), Schmitt critiqued the Weimar Republic and the liberal tradition, the weaknesses of which Weimar seemed to embody. Liberalism, Schmitt argued, depends on systematic neutralizations—fictions by which all individuals and points of view are imagined to be equal, and by which the confrontations of political life seem to be transformed into peace­ful, rule-governed debates with open-ended, undetermined outcomes. His writings during the Nazi era endorsed a new understanding of politics in which such deceptive procedures are replaced by the decisions of a charismatic leader who acts on behalf of a homogeneous people against its internal and external foes. Radicals of the Right and Left have found inspiration in Schmitt’s analysis of liberalism and calls for moving beyond it to a realistic and engaged theory that recognizes the insuperable conflicts at the heart of politics.

In his 1960 essay “The Tyranny of Values,” however, Schmitt reconsidered liberalism. He pleaded for a neutral legal order that at least pretended to respect all points of view and disguised the violent, terrifying nature of the political. Politics, he argued, should not im­pose “values” (Werte) on individuals, but should offer just the sort of value-neutral (Wertfrei) legal order and neutralizing fictions he had criticized in his Weimar-era writings. Schmitt based this argument both on a historical account of the idea of “values” and on a psychological account of what it is like to be a human being creating and imposing values in the world.

To understand what Schmitt was doing in his critique of “values” requires additional context, particularly since “value” had a specific meaning in the philosophy and political culture of his era that it no longer has in ours. Working through this historical context makes it possible to appreciate not only the significance of “Tyranny of Val­ues” within Schmitt’s intellectual trajectory but, more importantly, to see what his postwar call for a value-neutral politics might have to teach liberals and those who position themselves against, or after, liberalism. As Schmitt’s earlier, illiberal writings continue to fascinate intellectuals in the West and, increasingly, in China, the circumstances of this call for value neutrality and the arguments that underlie it deserve careful attention. Much of what circulates in our contemporary discourse echoes Schmitt’s Weimar-era critiques of liberalism. From such varied quarters of opinion as social conservatives dis­illusioned by their culture war defeats to left-wing radicals eager to remake America around new doctrines of “anti-racism,” one hears that neutrality is impossible. In these accounts, both political realism and moral seriousness demand a confrontation with the openly parti­san and value-laden character of everything, from the law to acts of private speech. To this postliberal, or anti-liberal, set of postures, the postwar Schmitt offers a warning: such a confrontation can only result in catastrophe, from which the useful myths of liberalism are our shelter.

A “Turn” to Liberalism and a Plea for Amnesty

“Tyranny of Values” is increasingly recognized as one of Schmitt’s most important postwar texts. In the last twelve years, a new edition of the original German (Die Tyrannei der Werte), two Italian trans­lations, and a growing body of European scholarship have testified to rising scholarly interest.1 Anglophone readers are fortunate that Sam­uel Zeitlin, a historian of political thought at Cambridge, has recently translated “Tyranny of Values,” along with several of Schmitt’s other postwar works, into English in a volume for Telos Press.2 Zeitlin has also written a companion article on the political context and polemical intent of “Tyranny of Values.”3

“Tyranny of Values,” as the text’s German editor Christoph Schönberger notes, may appear to be a “turn” toward liberalism.4 Scholarly commentary on “Tyranny of Values,” however, has not yet explained some of the key features of the text on which this apparent “turn” depends. In particular, commentators have overlooked the ways in which “Tyranny of Values” overturns the accounts of the “value-neutrality” and “autonomy” of different domains of “value” in Schmitt’s Weimar writings. Likewise, they have not grasped the political motivation for Schmitt’s break with his earlier critiques of liberalism. But Schmitt’s own principles of interpretation, the stand­ards by which he demanded that philosophical texts be read, require us to interpret “Tyranny of Values” above all as a political document—indeed, as a political weapon.

Schmitt’s work can never be read in abstraction from politics, as Zeitlin reminds us. In Concept of the Political, Schmitt insists that “all political concepts, images and terms have a polemical meaning.” Something “polemical” is not merely a controversial topic, but a question of such intensity that it creates a state of “polemos” (war). Schmitt defines the political as that which has to do with the distinction between “friend and enemy,” which brings conflict to the “ut­most degree of intensity,” i.e., to war. “Political concepts” for Schmitt are not merely concepts about the political (and thus about friendship and enmity, and thus the possibility of war). They are political. Or—what is only another way of saying the same thing—they are “polemi­cal” (participating in a particular war) and not “polemologi­cal” (describing war as such). Political concepts, Schmitt claims, “are focused on a specific conflict and bound to a concrete situation.” They do not reveal enduring truths about human nature. Rather they serve the rhetorical strategies that, for the moment, appear convenient to one party as it attacks another. All political ideas, therefore, are “incomprehensible if one does not know exactly who is to be affected, combatted, refuted or negated” by them.5 One must there­fore ask what polemical intent there was behind Schmitt’s claim that all political concepts have political intent—and what enemy this claim was meant to negate.

Applying these hermeneutic principles to “Tyranny of Values,” Zeitlin demonstrates that the text was part of a broader strategy to rehabilitate those who had supported the Nazi regime. In “Tyranny of Values,” as well as in texts such as “Amnesty, or the Force of Forgetting” (1950), Schmitt argued that former Nazis were being persecuted by the postwar West German state, which was using the concept of “value” to keep its former enemies out of the political process. Leading Nazi-era thinkers and officials like Schmitt himself were banned from teaching and their writings censored. This sup­posedly unjust treatment was done in the name of West Germany’s official “values” of protecting democracy from antidemocratic points of view, values which were enshrined in its constitution, the 1949 Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany.

Schmitt, however, had been one of the chief proponents of the idea that the German constitution ought to protect “values.” In his 1932 Legality and Legitimacy, Schmitt attacked the Weimar regime for its lack of reference to values, and argued that its defenders’ attachment to a supposedly “value-neutral” liberalism would be their downfall. The Weimar state, like liberal states in general, was only a formal, legalistic shell of empty principles, Schmitt claimed. The constitution offered “the equal chance for achieving political power” to any party that could win elections, even if those parties, like the Nazis and Communists, promised to install an antidemocratic regime once in power.6 Weimar’s defenders needed to recognize that the only way to save the substance of the constitution was to suspend certain of its principles, such as open elections, and abrogate the rights of those who opposed democracy.

In his 1958 afterword to a republication of the text, Schmitt attempted to convince readers that Legality and Legitimacy had been intended to “safeguard the last hope of the Weimar Constitution . . . from a form of jurisprudence that refused to pose the question of the friend and enemy of the constitution.”7 He quoted from postwar doc­uments that suggested the new West German constitution had been inspired by his critiques. No longer would defenders of the constitution allow antidemocratic views to be expressed; they would suspend the right to political participation of those who opposed the regime—just as Schmitt had urged them to do in 1932.

Yet in other writings from the postwar period such as “Tyranny of Values,” Schmitt lamented that defenders of the constitution had taken his critique of liberal neutrality to heart. In this as in many other cases, Schmitt was trying to have it both ways. Any serious reading of “Tyranny of Values,” therefore, must begin with an acknowledgment of Schmitt’s polemical intent and patent bad faith. He pointed to Legality and Legitimacy as evidence that he was a friend of democratic “values,” while complaining that those values were being enforced by the very measures he himself had once advo­cated. Believing that political concepts—that is, claims about the nature of the political—were tools for advancing one’s interests in specific contexts, Schmitt perhaps felt no compunction about using contradictory arguments.

This does not mean we should simply dismiss the arguments that “Tyranny of Values” makes on behalf of value-neutral liberalism as self-interested sophisms, however. Reversing some of Schmitt’s key positions in Legality and Legitimacy and Concept of the Political, “Tyranny of Values” offers an innovative response to Schmitt’s own earlier claims that liberalism is unable to recognize the conflicts of value that constitute political life. Making sense of this response re­quires not only that we keep in mind that “Tyranny of Values” is a polemic against the West German state, but also that it is a subtle engagement with a number of Schmitt’s intellectual rivals, such as Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss. By arguing that “values” are instruments of persecution, Schmitt was participating in a decades-long debate with friends and enemies.

The Genealogy of “Values”: Technology, Nihilism, and Polytheism

“Tyranny of Values” advances the thesis that not only was the postwar West German government using the rhetoric of democratic “values” to silence former Nazis, but that values are, inherently, engines of political violence. A politics based on values is a persecu­tory politics. If it is impossible for politics to escape reference to values, Schmitt suggests, these should at least be hidden through systematic neutralizations. The latter will allow political actors to maintain the fiction that the state is indifferent to the diversity of its citizens’ values, and that all points of view are protected by the same universal rights. The claims that Schmitt advances about the nature of values, politics, and human nature in “Tyranny of Values” constitute a defense of many of the liberal positions criticized in his earlier writings—and provide a basis from which a defense of liberalism in general can be advanced.

In order to make these claims, however, Schmitt engages in a roundabout historical argument on the origin of “value philosophy.” He sketches a genealogy of how “values” became a central topic of modern German thought, one borrowed from Heidegger, and par­ticularly Heidegger’s essay “Nietzsche’s Word: ‘God Is Dead’” (1950). Heidegger, according to Schmitt, argues that nineteenth-century European culture was pitched into a “crisis of nihilism” by the rise of industrial technology and scientific thinking, especially as the latter began to be applied to human beings in the emerging social sciences. The growing power of disciplines and institutions that conceived of society as a set of predictable and manageable behaviors and norms “threatened the freedom of the human and his religious-ethical-juristic responsibility.”8 Human beings became just another object to be studied and manipulated through the instruments of experts.

The once prestigious and influential disciplines of theology, philo­sophy, and jurisprudence, by which individuals had tried to use their reason to articulate laws for human action, were premised on a con­ception of human beings as having a stable, transhistorical nature and an inalienable measure of freedom, and thus responsibility. As human beings were transformed by industrial society and the new social sciences into evermore interchangeable parts of a manageable social mass, increasingly distant from traditional norms, these premises no longer seemed self-evident.

Nihilism, in Schmitt’s reading of Heidegger, is the sense that human life cannot appear meaningful in such a society. If our actions can be understood to be determined by biological, psychological, and social processes that can be scientifically studied (and manipulated), then there seems to be no freedom for human beings, and thus no meaning to their lives. It seems vital—that is, necessary to life—for us to be able to plausibly imagine ourselves as enjoying some sort of freedom; in other words, we must be able to give a coherent account of the fact that we experience ourselves as making choices.

Responding to the crisis of nihilism that arose from this unfulfilled need, “value philosophy” emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Shaped by thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, this philosophy held that there is a “realm of values” outside and in opposition to the “realm of an only causally defined being” (that is, the realm in which deterministic science explains human behavior). In the realm of values, human beings posit meanings and distinctions, setting stand­ards of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, etc. The distinctions which found the aesthetic, moral, and other domains as specific areas within the realm of values have no basis in an unchanging rational order. Instead they are made by particular human beings at particular mo­ments, and arise out of contingent, arbitrary, and (therefore) free acts of “value-setting” (Wertsetzung).9

It might seem that “value philosophy” rescues human freedom from scientific determinism and from nihilistic despair. Yet it requires us to give up the idea that our positing of values has a rational basis. Because they are entirely “free,” our various evaluations of beauty, goodness, and so forth cannot be seen as participating to a greater or lesser degree in the Beautiful or the Good, or some other ideal do­main against which values could be measured. The “realm of values,” in this sense, is not so much autonomous as anarchic. Thus opposing conflicts between different conceptions of value, between different areas of values (such as the aesthetic and the moral), or between different societies organized around different values cannot be settled with appeals to reason, or indeed to anything.

Here Schmitt reveals his debts not only to Heidegger but also to Max Weber. In his 1918 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” which Schmitt attended, Weber explained that such an understanding of values implies that both values and human beings are necessarily in conflict.10 Between different standards of value, there can be neither real debate nor an overarching rational order. Instead, there is a “polytheism” of rival values, each a “god” to those who believe in it. We may be able to maintain a sort of value pluralism, accommodating the worship of all these gods in a spirit of tolerance. But, Weber warned, “different gods struggle with one another, now and for all times to come.”

Schmitt observes that Heidegger considered “value philosophy” to have been a failure and Weber’s polytheism no solution at all. The idea that our experiences of beauty, goodness, and the like are based on acts of “value-setting” appeared to Heidegger as a “positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.”11 It was necessary, he thought, to go back to the fundamental questions of metaphysics, and then to get behind them, to undo the series of intellectual errors that had led to scientific determinism, and thus to nihilism and “value philosophy.” But Schmitt does not endorse Heidegger’s suggestion that “value philosophy” had misunderstood the character of morality, aesthetics, etc. Nor does he say that value philosophy got it right and truthfully revealed the value-setting character of human psychology. Instead, in “Tyranny of Values,” he maintains an ambiguous relationship with Heidegger, using the latter’s genealogy of “value philosophy,” but ignoring that Heidegger meant this genealogy to inspire a rejection of the very notion of “values.” This allows Schmitt to treat value philosophy’s description of the endless conflict of irrational values as true—at least for as long as Schmitt needs it to be true for the purposes of undermining the West German constitution’s lan­guage of values.

Schmitt’s attack on the 1949 constitution, the real target behind his genealogy of values, requires him to endorse the view that Heidegger’s genealogy of value philosophy is historically accurate, but also that value philosophy truly describes human nature. Here we should keep in mind Zeitlin’s point about applying Schmitt’s herme­neutics to his own writings. According to Schmitt’s principles of interpretation, a thinker always uses a concept for a polemical (that is, warlike) purpose, or multiple purposes at once. As he says in Concept of the Political, “a word or expression can be simultaneously reflex, signal, password and weapon for a hostile confrontation.”12

Just as a claim to truth is always polemical (attacking some target), so too it is always historical, or “only true once.” So Schmitt claims in a 1955 essay, “The Historical Structure of the Contemporary World-Opposition. Notes on Ernst Jünger’s Text, The Gordian Knot” (in­cluded with Zeitlin’s translation of “Tyranny of Values”). The pas­sage is worth quoting in full, since it reveals the combination of cunning and frankness with which Schmitt spoke about the topic of historical truth. When human beings “believe themselves to be his­torical and hold themselves to that which was only true once, they forget a historical truth is only true once.”13 That is, if we are in a historical situation in which historicist thinking predominates (in which we ask, as Heidegger for example does, about what human beings are like in our specific historical moment rather than as such and for all times) then (and perhaps only then) it is true that true claims are only true “once,” that is, in one particular historical in­stance. Insofar as we do not believe in an enduring human nature, truths are only valid for us for some specific purpose and for some limited duration. Schmitt thus tells readers quite candidly that what­ever claims he makes are only to be considered true for as long as he wants them to be—just as he tells them that these claims are always aimed at the heart of some enemy.

A Response to Strauss

In “Tyranny of Values” Schmitt breaks with some of the major claims of his earlier work. Presumably, their moment of historical truth had passed. He not only abandons the critique of value-neutral liberalism advanced in Legality and Legitimacy, but also the understanding of “values” on which the main arguments of Concept of the Political had been built. This break was, as Schmitt’s own hermeneutics would suggest, a polemical response to a specific historical situation in postwar Germany. But it was also a philosophical response to the criticisms that Leo Strauss had raised about Schmitt’s understanding of “values” in his 1932 commentary on Concept of the Political. Schmitt nowhere mentions Strauss in “Tyranny of Values,” but his apparent turn to liberalism is incomprehensible without reference to their long-running dialogue.

In Concept of the Political, Schmitt drew on Weber to argue that politics is one of the distinct areas within the realm of values, like aesthetics and morality. Just as the latter depend, respectively, on acts of valuation that distinguish beauty from ugliness and good from evil, politics is possible only because we distinguish friends from enemies, people who share our way of life from those who pose a threat to it. The values of friendship and enmity neither have nor require any rational basis, nor do they need to refer to any other sort of values (we do not have to believe that someone is ugly and evil in order to hate him).

Liberalism, Schmitt claimed, fails to recognize “the objective na­ture and autonomy” of politics. Liberals therefore imagine that friendship and enmity, like aesthetic and moral values, can be accommodated in the sort of polytheism that Weber described. Here Schmitt broke with Weber, or radicalized Weber’s pessimism, to insist that liberals do not understand that what makes political values different from other sorts of values is their dangerous intensity. Uniting us to other people in a group of friends opposed to some enemy, political value-setting leads us to the extreme possibility of violent conflict.14

This misunderstanding on the part of liberalism may seem to make liberals naïve, and their preferred form of government uniquely ex­posed to the unrecognized perils of political disagreement. But pre­cisely because liberals cannot imagine that there is a distinct area of politics, separate from morality and other kinds of values, they trans­form political conflicts into moral ones. Unable to see their enemies simply as enemies (with no moral valuations involved), liberals imagine them as evildoers who must be eliminated. Liberals’ moralized political struggles are not only hypocritical (liberals do not admit that they are even doing politics) but also “unusually intense and inhuman.”15

As Leo Strauss pointed out in his commentary on the text, Concept of the Political defines the relationship between values and politics in an inconsistent way. On the one hand, Schmitt took from Weber the idea of a realm of values divided into distinct regions, of which the political is only one. By this light, the error of liberalism was to have ignored a particular region of the realm of values, and Schmitt’s task in Concept of the Political was to draw attention to this neglected area. On the other hand, Schmitt argued that any values can become political if they become intense enough to create the distinction between friends and enemies. This means, as Strauss observed, that in fact every act of value-setting is potentially political and a cause of deadly strife.16

Schmitt took Strauss’s critique to heart, as Heinrich Meier has shown.17 He made changes to the subsequent edition of the text to move away from his earlier formulation of politics as one domain of the realm of values, stating more clearly that all values can acquire a political dimension. These revisions did not, however, address the most important implications of Strauss’s comments. If, as Strauss suggested, what Schmitt was really working towards was the notion that all value-setting as such is political, then there was little basis from which to criticize liberalism for moralizing political conflicts. Schmitt’s critique of liberalism depended on the possibility of keeping areas of the realm of values distinct from each other. But, as Strauss observed, this is impossible if all values can become political. Schmitt’s attempt in Concept of the Political to limit the intensity of political conflicts by keeping them distinct from moral issues is thus absurd.

In “Tyranny of Values,” three decades after Concept of the Politi­cal, Schmitt at last took on the full consequences of Strauss’s critique, recognizing that value-setting of any kind could become a source of political conflict. But rather than use this radical vision as the basis from which to finish the critique of liberalism he had begun in the Weimar era, Schmitt now argued that recognizing the inherent politi­cal dimension of value-setting is a terrifying threat to humanity. While in Concept of the Political he had chided liberals for failing to come to terms with the specific character of the political domain of the realm of values, in “Tyranny of Values” Schmitt accepts liberalism, with its neutralizations and depoliticizing fictions, as the only means of constraining the potential for violence at the heart of all value-setting.

The Violence of Values

“Tyranny of Values” offers a vision of human existence as the play of value-setting drives that lead us into political conflict, that is, into enmity and the risk of death. Only by denying and disguising the dangerous character of all value-setting, Schmitt suggests, can we give ourselves some measure of protection from the potential for violence inherent in the basic psychological acts by which we give meaning to the world. It is from this horizon that he makes his apparent turn to liberalism.

After tracing the history of “values” as a concept in German philosophy, Schmitt draws out the consequences of the claims made by “value philosophy.” He observes that “the purely subjective free­dom of value-setting” cannot be contained in the sort of tolerant polytheism Weber had hoped for. Rather, it leads to a condition worse even than that of “the old bellum omnium contra omnes . . . of Thomas Hobbes.”18 Hobbes was a central figure in Schmitt’s prewar writings, such as Concept of the Political and Leviathan in Thomas Hobbes’ Doctrine of the State (1938). He also has a critical role in “Tyranny of Values,” providing a model by which a generalized fear of conflict can justify the creation of a political order.

In Hobbes’s account, we can imagine individuals in a “state of nature” prior to the existence of the political state living in constant fear of violent death at the hands of other people. Even if there is no violence going on at a particular moment, Hobbes noted, individuals must still fear that it might break out. Other people are always capable of violence, and individuals’ fear of each other could lead, of itself, into conflict. The omnipresent possibility of violence makes the state of nature so terrifying that any reasonable person would seek to escape it, even at the price of obedience to a ruler.

Schmitt insists that things are worse than Hobbes thought. Indi­viduals are not so much afraid of each other as they are aggressive, starting conflicts in order impose their values. “Value-setting,” Schmitt argues in a sketch of psychology that owes much to Nietzsche, begins in conflicts within the psyche of an individual. Values are “set” by drives, instinctual irrational forces that compete for mastery of the personality. The victorious value-setting drive then seeks to realize itself, to achieve satisfaction by taking control not only of individual personality, but also of other people. Each individual, therefore, is riven with internal struggles among value-setting drives, and is forced by them into conflict with other people as all of them try to impose their values on each other. The basic cause of violence and fear is not, as Hobbes has it, human vulnerability, but the inherent aggressivity of “value-setting.” Schmitt warns, “it is always values that stoke the battle and keep enmity awake.”19

It is impossible, therefore, to have a society in which different values can be reconciled through a spirit of tolerant pluralism. The psychological act of positing a value for oneself is inseparable from a desire to realize that value in the world. One cannot hold a moral or aesthetic value for oneself alone. When one sets a value, one attributes it to objects and topics in the public sphere, articulates it as a general standard, and imposes it on others. Of course, these others have their own values that they are also trying to realize in the world. We each seek to give concrete expression and achieve social recognition for our values. Thus realizing our values in the world will mean fighting against those who have others. The “potential aggressiveness that is immanent to any setting of values,” that is, to human psychology as such, means that human beings are basically oriented towards vio­lence without limit.20

Rather than asking how we ought to recognize and confront this potential for violence, as he had in Concept of the Political, Schmitt now asks how we can hide from it. The “battle of subjective values” can perhaps “end otherwise” than in a war of all against all, he says, but only if we conceal the dangerousness of value-setting.21 This can be achieved through a twist on Hobbes’s ideas about the passage from the state of nature to the political state. For Hobbes, individuals desperate to escape the terror of the state of nature will accept giving up their freedom to a powerful government. The latter—the Leviathan—imposes obedience on its subjects and deprives them of the capacity to do violence to one another. From Schmitt’s perspective, however, this is not enough to constrain the violence of our value-setting drives. Even after the passage from the state of nature to the rule of Leviathan, these drives continue to operate within us and to seek realization in the world, stirring up more conflict.

What we need, Schmitt urges, is a political order that can deceive its subjects as well as dominate them. Individuals must be made to believe that values can be confined to a distinct private sphere, that opposing values are not in serious conflict, and that the state and other institutions are not always being used by some group or another to realize particular values and to annihilate others. They must be made to think of the state, and particularly of the legal system, as a value-neutral space in which they can expect to encounter “calculable and enforceable rules” that secure their rights. These are all fictions, of course. The value-setting character of human existence cannot be suspended for even one moment, or cordoned off into a distinct nonpolitical domain. But if people understand that their fellow citizens are all advancing rival projects for realizing values, and that the state is a vehicle for whichever values are more powerful at a given moment, then the “naked immediacy” of the truth of human nature will return life to the “terror” of the state of nature.22

We do not, in fact, ever make our way out of the state of nature. Leviathan can restrain the most obvious forms of violence that other people might perpetrate against us, but it cannot stop—and indeed cannot stop itself from being an instrument of—their value-based political projects for remaking the world. Before or within the state, life is a ceaseless struggle to impose one’s values on others. We can, however, escape the “terror” of this struggle, and to some extent reduce its intensity, through practices of “mediation” by which we ignore or deny that this struggle exists.

We can understand liberalism as a system of such mediations. It convinces us that there is a private sphere of personal values, separate from the values held by other people. It convinces us that we can have rational debates about our values in the public sphere, or create universally valid rules for getting along with people regardless of the values that they hold. It convinces us, finally, that the state can be neutral in regard to all of our different values. Thus denying that the problem even exists, liberalism can “hinder the terror of the immediate and automatic enforcement of value.”23

Hindering the terror of the truth from manifesting itself, liberalism is a kind of katechon, “the one who withholds.” This obscure New Testament figure is a critical concept in Schmitt’s postwar thought. Certain Christian eschatological traditions understand the katechon as holding back the arrival of the Antichrist—and thus both resisting evil and delaying the second coming of Christ. Schmitt saw the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and himself as having exercised at various times the function of the katechon.24 We may say, from the vantage of “Tyranny of Values,” that liberalism, with its mediating, neutralizing, and depoliticizing myths, is a katechon as well. It withholds the truth of human existence (value-setting and strife), allowing us to tolerate each other and hide from the essential terror of life. Seen in this way, liberal political theory does not appear weak or naïve in its hypocrisy. Rather, it seems more cunning and more cynical than the illiberal intellectual traditions that try to reveal the unresolvable potential for enmity that each human being bears. By calling attention to this potential, thinkers like the early Schmitt merely “stoke and intensify” the “enduring battle of convictions.”25

Schmitt had argued in the Concept of the Political that liberalism’s characteristic misrecognition of the relationship between politics and values made political conflicts worse by giving them a moral dimension. Now, however, he made the opposite point. It is critiques of liberalism that, by drawing attention to the political and polemical nature of value-setting, make political conflicts more dangerous. Just as the task of the state must be to neutralize conflict by creating the appearance of respecting, or being indifferent to, all values, so must the task of political theory be to collaborate in the concealment of the terrifying potential for violence that shadows all human life. We must keep talk of values out of the public sphere, and especially out of the legal system, throwing a veil over the ceaseless turmoil that seethes within each of us and among all of us.

Schmitt’s Liberalism of Fear

“Tyranny of Values” is an almost grotesquely self-serving text. Applied to the specific situation of postwar Germany, Schmitt’s his­torical and psychological accounts of “values” imply that the West German government should not suppress former Nazis on the grounds of their having antidemocratic and anti-liberal values. One may find this implication questionable, the West German government’s policies justified, and Schmitt’s rhetorical tactics contemptible. Nevertheless, if we keep these issues in mind, we can find that “Tyranny of Values” offers enduring insights on liberalism and its enemies.

Perhaps the most important of these is that liberalism is for losers. It is those who are weak, in a minority, or for whatever reason unable to impose their values on others who appeal to liberal principles of value-neutrality, a separation of private and public life, equal rights, etc. If they ever have the opportunity to wield power (that is, if they ever stop being losers), they are likely to abandon liberal principles. It was only when he could see himself as a victim of the state’s value-based agenda that Schmitt could see the appeal of the liberal neutralizations he had once despised. This seems rather bad news for liberal­ism. Its apparent friends are in fact powerless losers who turn to liberal principles for lack of an alternative.

The good news, such as it is, is that from the perspective offered by Schmitt’s innovative pairing of “value philosophy” and Hobbes, we all have to worry about being losers. In a war of all against all, in which even our own internal psychological drives struggle against each other, we cannot know what values will be victorious tomorrow, let alone the day after. We may find ourselves today ranged among those whose moral values, for example, are dominant—but the un­stable and polemical nature of our value-setting drives implies that the contingent coalition setting today’s moral order may suddenly col­lapse. Given that none of us can be sure of being able to impose our will on others in an enduring way, liberalism might appear a kind of prudent insurance. Since each of us might lose the struggle over values, we each have some incentive to agree to pretend that there are limits to this struggle, or areas of life in which we will refuse to recognize that the struggle is taking place. As possible future losers, we have reason to maintain the mediating myths and neutralizations of liberalism, and reason to fear critiques of liberalism that would make these strategic depoliticizing fictions disappear, leaving us in a state of unmediated terror.

Schmitt can be seen as offering a kind of “liberalism of fear,” wherein that which is to be feared is not, as Judith Shklar has it, fear of physical cruelty at the hands of others, but rather fear of our own value-setting drives—and fear of the truth about them. Twenty-first-century American readers may not find the idea that “values” and “value-setting” are basic elements of human psychology convincing. Nietzsche, Weber, and Heidegger are not typical reference points for our everyday self-understanding. But accepting, even for provisional (and polemical) reasons, the truth of these ideas allows us, just as it allowed Schmitt, to defend liberalism in a novel way that may speak to our fearful and pessimistic age. As America descends into a new phase of the culture wars, a disorienting crisis in which moral stand­ards are uncertain and our common life is sundered with struggles, accusations, and cancellations, “Tyranny of Values” suggests that liberalism may be our katechon, holding back the apocalypse with a noble lie.

There are a number of obvious difficulties with this suggestion. For one, it may strike many as perverse to endorse a political regime and an ideology because they are false. It is hardly congenial to imagine that we cannot withstand the truth of human nature and must disguise it as best we can in order to make a decent society. Liberal and illiberal thinkers alike might wish to challenge the account of “values” or the genealogy of “value philosophy” by which Schmitt arrives at such a pessimistic conclusion. In the absence of an alternative account of human nature that could justify a greater degree of hopefulness about our capacity to live peacefully together in the truth, however, we might say that Schmitt’s postwar perspective at least seems to account for some important features of our own historical moment.

In the United States today, activists from the Left and Right purport to expose the partisan, and existentially threatening, agendas at work in the supposedly neutral institutions of the state—and indeed, not only of the state, but in an ever-more comprehensive domain of what had once been seen as apolitical private life. In response, activists demand not that genuine neutrality be achieved, but that the very pretense of neutrality be abolished. For example, when anti-racist radicals claim that “silence is violence,” or that everything from the judicial system to the Oscars are instruments of white supremacy, they follow these assertions about the supposedly omnipresent parti­sanship on behalf of whites with demands for an equally relentless struggle against them. As Allan Bloom noted in The Closing of the American Mind, postliberal, anti-racist activists often sound like Weimar-era Schmitt.

Things that were once understood as belonging to autonomous domains of value outside the political, such as the distribution of film awards or the continued existence of nineteenth-century statues, now become, as we say, “politicized,” acquiring the degree of emotional intensity by which they divide us into friends and enemies. Our political life increasingly appears as the endless churning of conflict among groups, with liberal notions of neutrality, the separation private and public, and so on only serving as sinister instruments of, or impotent distractions from, the struggle for power.

Many on the right, too, are becoming disenchanted with liberalism and long for a conservative politics that would discard the language of individual rights and the inviolability of the private sphere in order to impose its values, often packaged, vaguely and appealingly, as the “common good.” The early Schmitt, whose supposedly realist cri­tiques of an increasingly ineffectual liberal democracy went hand in hand with political-theological meditations on the Church as a model of governance, is of clear use to such postliberal conservatives.

Indeed, both a Left that abandons liberalism for endless war against symbols of a supposedly ubiquitous white supremacy and a Right that abandons liberalism for various fantasies of moral order can find an arsenal of arguments in Schmitt’s Weimar-era writings. But they have just as much reason to heed his postwar warnings as do whatever straggling liberals may remain on the political landscape. Schmitt suggests that, insofar as we might be losers in today’s or tomorrow’s struggles over values, we have a common interest in setting limits to the intensity of those struggles (and to the humiliations and sufferings inflicted on their losers), which we can only do by collectively pre­tending that some aspects of our common life, such as the law, are not the sites of conflict that they in fact are.

It is not difficult to sympathize with Schmitt’s position when we consider that in the United States today, those who lose political conflicts and “culture wars” seem to quickly become moral and social pariahs, held to be reprehensible, dangerous individuals who must be made to disappear from public life. Those who hold or held what are now seen as the “wrong” views (that is, the views of the side that lost) on political issues such as civil rights, feminism, gay marriage, etc.—or who even venture to express opinions in vicinity of the wrong—may find themselves deprived of employment, denied platforms for speech, and socially excluded. Many have drawn the conclusion that, given the apparent stakes of political defeat, one must give no quarter to one’s enemies: partisanship calls forth partisanship, until no areas of our lives are free of the crushing intensity of politics. The chastened postwar Schmitt, however, suggests that rather than spurring us to abandon liberalism’s appearance of neutrality so that we can triumph over our opponents, our intensifying conflicts over values should inspire us to fight for a world safe for losers.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 1 (Spring 2021): 222–40.

1 Carl Schmitt, Die Tyrannei der Werte (Berlin: Duncker & Humboldt, 2011 [1960]); La tirannia dei valori, trans. Giovanni Gurisatti (Milan: Adelphi, 2008 [1960]); La tirannia dei valori, trans. Paolo Becchi (Brescia: Morcelliana, 2008). Franco Volpi’s afterword to the Adelphi edition of the text (“Anatomia dei valori”) is espcially useful. Some of the most valuable examples of recent scholarship on “Tyranny of Values” include: Tommaso Gazzolo, “‘Valore’ e ‘Limita’ in Carl Schmitt. Per una lettura della ‘Tirannia dei valori,’” Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica 40, no. 2 (2010). Paola Premoli de Marchi, “Norms without Values: Philosophical Reflections on Carl Schmitt’s Tyranny of Values,” Phenomenology of Mind 5 (2013). Ida Coco, “La tirannia dei valori. Riflessioni di un giurista: Carl Schmitt,” Tigor. Rivista di scienze della comunicazione e di argomentazione giuridica 5, no. 1 (2013). Antonio Cerella, “Encounters at the End of the World: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt and the Tyranny of Values,” Journal for Cultural Research 20, no. 3 (2016): 266–85.

2 Carl Schmitt, The Tyranny of Values and Other Texts, trans. Samuel Zeitlin (Candor, N.Y.: Telos Press, 2018). Zeitlin is also the translator of Schmitt’s Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation, Dialogues on Power and Space, and the forthcoming The Value of State and the Significance of the Individual.

3 Samuel Zeitlin, “Indirection and the Rhetoric of Tyranny: Carl Schmitt’s ‘The Tyranny of Values,’” Modern Intellectual History (2020): 1–24.

4 Christoph Schönberger, “‘Kehre’ Carl Schmitts zum liberalen Gestzesstaat?,” in Die Tyrannei der Werte, 79–88.

5 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008 [1932]), 30, 26, 31.

6 Carl Schmitt, Legality and Legitimacy, trans. Jeffrey Seitzer (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007 [1932]), 10.

7 Legality and Legitimacy, 96.

8 Tyranny of Values, 29.

9 Tyranny of Values, 29.

10 Julien Freund notes, “there is no doubt that C. Schmitt is Max Weber’s true intellectual heir [le véritable fils spirituel],” in his preface to the French translation of Concept of the Political. Carl Schmitt, La Notion de Politique, trans. Marie-Louise Steinhauser (Calmann-Lévy, 1972 [1932]), 15.

11 La Notion de Politique, 29.

12 Concept of the Political, 31.

13 Tyranny of Values, 115.

14 Concept of the Political, 27.

15 Concept of the Political, 36.

16 Leo Strauss, “Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political,” in The Concept of the Political, 97–121.

17 Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue, trans. J. Harvey Lomax (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 [1988]).

18 Tyranny of Values, 30.

19 Tyranny of Values, 30.

20 Tyranny of Values, 33.

21 Tyranny of Values, 35.

22 Tyranny of Values, 40.

23  Tyranny of Values, 40.

24 Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013 [1987]), 7, 12–13.

25  Tyranny of Values, 36.

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