The Unwinding Liberal Clock

On Wednesday, March 15, 2017, a federal judge in the US state of Hawaii blocked a second attempt by US President Donald Trump to ban travel from six countries with Muslim-majority populations. To summarize the situation purely from a state-administrative perspective: the directives of one arm of government (the president) are being curtailed by another arm (the judiciary). Such situations are not unusual for a liberal democracy, especially the US republican system, predicated as it is on ‘checks and balances.’

At a rally in Nashville later that evening, Trump reasserted that under the US constitution, the president has the right to curtail immigration when deemed necessary to protect the vital interests of the country. Trump voiced a concern that the inability to have his order enforced suggests weakness in the face of a national emergency. Trump said,

The danger is clear. The law is clear. The need for my executive order is clear. I was elected to change our broken and dangerous system and thinking in government that has weakened and endangered our country and left our people defenseless.

One of Schmitt’s essential convictions was that the limits of any state are tested by danger. Danger can take an infinite number of forms. You can’t build a norm around it because it will always suprise you. Danger — to be classified as danger — always has the upper hand. Schmitt’s greatest contribution to the history of ideas may be the refinement of this truth: that the separation of powers can critically undermine the liberal state from necessary functions such as providing stability and security. In short, some of the very qualities of liberalism can make it unable to resolve a crisis.

In Leviathan in der Staatslebre des Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan in the state theory of Thomas Hobbes) (1938) Schmitt makes the point most clearly. In the book, Schmitt traces the key features of contintenal liberalism from the reception of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and its key symbol, the Biblical fish leviathan in scripture and Judeo-Christian culture. But behind this symbol, Schmitt argues, is Hobbes’ idea that the state operate as an impersonal mechanism. In other words, Hobbes’ Biblical fish was a mechanical beast who opened its eyes and flapped its tail using an elaborate clock-like mechanism.

At first, the technically neutral state envisioned by Hobbes was an improvement on what Hobbes considered to be a medieval anarchy:

For Hobbes it was relevant for the state to overcome the anarchy of the feudal estates and the church’s right of resistance as well as the incessant outbreak of civil war arising from those by confronting medieval pluralism, that is, power claimed by the churches and other “indirect” authorities, with the rational unity of an unequivocal, effective authority that can assure protection and a calculable, functioning legal system. To such a rational state power belongs the assumption oftotal political responsibility regarding danger and, in this sense, responsibility for protecting the subjects of the state. If protection ceases, the state too ceases, and every obligation to obey ceases.

The great achievement of Hobbes liberal leviathan was its monopoly of force, and the transformation of feudal battles into the court battles of a “calculable, functioning legal system.” But while the technically neutral state can unfiy on the basis of force and legal procedure, it cannot unite on the question of values — it pushes those conflicts offstage, in a sense. This pushing aside of values to the domain of private culture and morality can lead to the liberal state’s undoing.

A technically neutral state can be tolerant as well as intolerant; in both instances it remains equally neutral. Its values, its truth and justice, reside in its technical perfection. All other conceptions of truth and justice are absorbed by decisions promulgated in legal commands. The absorbtion of other kinds of standards and values into juristic argumentation would only create new conflict and new insecurity.
The state machine either functions or does not function. In the first instance, it guarantees me the security of my physical existence; in return it demands unconditional obedience to the laws by which it functions. All further discussions lead to a "pre-political" condition of insecurity, where ultimately one can no longer be certain o f one's physical security because the appeal to justice and truth does not produce any kind of peace but instead leads to war, very wicked and vicious. Everyone claims, of course, that right and truth is on his side. But the assertion of being in the right does not lead to peace. Instead, it is designed to contravene the decisions of a well-functioning legal force that was created to end strife.

And in one passage that can be considered particularly poignant and prescient (given that he was writing this book in 1938), Schmitt pronounces the collapse of liberalism on the European continent on the eve of the Second World War. Hobbes’ liberalism held back the forces of medieval anarchy by subsuming force into the legal order. Without a common value system providing orientation to the legal order, it becomes no better than the medieval anarchy of force it was supposed to repress.

Dynamics of force do not all conform to one model, and can be so complex that they cannot be grasped empirically, but only via analogy or metaphor. A dynamic of force can be represented by the violent contest of two opposing armies. Or, it can be represented as the interaction between two gears of a clock, in which the energy of one gear attempts to overcome the resistance of another in order to move the hand. In a wound-up clock, the energy of a principal gear overcomes the resistance of one or many subsequent others. In a clock that is unwinding, the clock is slowly being overcome by the inertia of these secondary gears. In the final paragraph of chapter VI of this seven-chapter book, Schmitt behaves as a critic pronouncing judgement on this metaphorical aspect of Hobbes’ leviathan:

The wonderful armature of a modem state organization requires uniformity of will and uniformity of spirit. When a variety of different spirits quarrel with one another and shake up the armature. the machine and its system of legality will soon break down. The institutions and concepts of liberaIism, on which the positivist law state rested, became weapons and power positions in the hands of the most illiberal forces. In this fashion, party pluralism has perpetrated the destruction of the state by using methods inherent in the liberal law state. The leviathan, in the sense of a myth of the state as the “huge machine,” collapsed when a distinction was drawn between the state and individual freedom. That happened when the organizations of individual freedom were used like knives by anti-individualistic forces to cut up the leviathan and divide his flesh among themselves.