Interview with Carlo Galli

Gerardo Muñoz
Lehigh University

Volume 13, 2019

Schmitt’s grandeur is to be found in his genealogy, that is, in his idea that to understand politics one must first understand the concrete origin.

Carlo Galli

A democracy devoid of a political center and the capacity to analyze its own dynamics and being capable of responding to them, will always find itself at the mercy of every risk.

Carlo Galli

Carlo Galli is a world renowned Italian political philosopher, as well as one of Europe’s most important scholars of the work of German jurist Carl Schmitt. Until the summer of last year, Professor Galli was also member of the Italian Parliament, representing the party Articolo Uno Movimento Democratico e Progressista. His most recent works translated in English are Political Spaces and Global War (University of Minessota Press, 2010), and Janus’s Gaze: Essays on Carl Schmitt (Duke University Press, 2015). This year marks the twenty-third anniversary of his important work, Genealogia della politica: Carl Schmitt e la crisi del pensiero politico moderno (Genealogy of the Political: Carl Schmitt and the crisis of modern political thought, Il Mulino, 1996), which has just been published in Spanish (Buenos Aires: Unipe: Editorial Universitaria, 2018). This publication coincides with the one hundredth anniversary of the Weimar Republic (1919-2019), a historical highpoint of the crisis of parliamentary democracy, the context of Schmitt’s most important formulations against the pathologies of liberal legalism. The controversy of Schmittianism is still present today, as we confront multipolar conflicts, new forms of authoritarianism, the domination of the liberal economic order, and the slow erosion of legitimacy across the West. We take this opportunity to speak with Galli on some of these themes, as well about the different symptoms of our current political interregnum.

1. Professor Galli, more than twenty years have passed since the publication of your Genealogy of the Political (1996), a work that is considered a landmark interpretation of the thought of Carl Schmitt. The Spanish translation has just appeared in Argentina, and we hope that the English will soon follow. In the Americas, the reception of Carl Schmitt’s thought has been growing in the past decade. My first question is common place, although perhaps necessary: do you expect that that both readers in English and Spanish read this work?

The late Argentine political philosopher, Jorge Dotti (1947-2018), has shown the depth of the reception of Carl Schmitt in Argentina. As we know, this reception that intertwined in diverse disciplinary fields: from political reflection to legal and political thought, all related to the destiny of the Argentine state. I hope that my book, thanks to this new translation in Spanish, will be of interest to numerous scholars of Carl Schmitt, both young and the more expert, that are now numerous in Argentina, but also in the Americas and in Europe. After all, Schmitt has had a long relation with Spain. As Miguel Saralegui has shown, the German jurist can easily be considered a “Spanish thinker”.

2. The new edition of Genealogy of the Political coincides this year with the centenary of the crisis of the Weimar Republic (1919-2019), a decisive moment that Max Weber described as the entrance to a polar night. Of course, this is also the moment in which Schmitt brilliantly showed the insufficiency of liberal parliamentarianism. Are we still contemporaries of the lesson of the Weimar Republic?

Carl Schmitt was the most important interpreter of the Weimar Constitution, and we must remember that this epoch had many brilliant constitutionalists. His Doctrine of the Constitution is a brilliant diagnosis of the concrete historical situation in Germany in which major political concepts of modernity were operating. Schmitt was also the most acute analyst of the ruin of Weimar (we should think of works such as “The Guardian of the Constitution” or Legitimacy and Legality), exacerbated by the abyss between the spirit and the tools of democratic consensus, on the one hand; and a radical polarization of the People and the German political system fueled by a deep economic crisis, on the other. A democracy devoid of a political center and the capacity to analyze its own dynamics and being capable of responding to them, will always find itself at the mercy of every risk. This was the case in Weimar between 1930 and 1932, and it remains the case today in Europe, even if the specific forms of authoritarianism that Schmitt had witnessed are not the same, such as the commissarial dictatorship of the Reich President contemplated in Article 48 of the Constitution). Certainly, the ability for political systems to manage crises has very much improved today. However, we must remember that a weak political system that does not analyze the causes of its political problems (think of the contradictions between neoliberalism and the order of the Euro) cannot decisively respond to economic or socials crises.

3. There is no doubt that Weimar symbolized the weaknesses of parliamentarianism and the rise of presidentialism as a consequence of Germany’s status as a ‘belated nation’ (I borrow the term from Helmuth Plessner’s well-known diagnosis). Now that strong presidentialism is on the rise in different countries of the West, should we assume that Schmitt’s intuitions were correct (specifically when it comes to the executive decisionism against the neutralizing force of the economy)?

We find ourselves today confronting two weaknesses: on the one hand, the weakness of parliamentarianism that is a century old, and that of the market, which at least in Europe, is only a decade old. The solution of an authoritarian presidentialism and the strengthening of a the military is most definitely advancing, although my impression is that this answer is a superficial response to the real crisis of the neoliberal logic within our societies. In other words, there are times when changes take place at the level of politics so that nothing is transformed at the level of the relations of power of society (or labor rights, for instance). In sum, I am under the impression that the “anti-system turn” could be understood as the last reserve of the system. We have learned from Schmitt that politics not only requires order, but also energy, and that there is no order without energy. I am convinced that the energy to affirm a new order cannot be the monopoly of an authoritarian leader that can position himself, in a plebiscitarian form, above the masses. This vertical projection of energy must start from below, whether it is from political parties or strong collective subjects (that is not “empty” signifiers that stand for subjects). Let me reiterate this: without strong political collective subjects, there is no democracy. The attempt to reconstruct a mass subject could perhaps be the beginning of the problem. Of course, institutions must also be reformed, but I think that this is the most important challenge.

4. We know that Schmitt was perhaps the greatest thinker of the concept of sovereignty. He understood himself as the last representative of the ius publicum europaeum. Given the nationalist backlash that we are witnessing today against globalization, the importance of Schmitt is enormous. My question here is short: do we find ourselves in a ‘Polanyi moment’, as you called recently it?

As I argue in my most recent book Sovranità (Bologna, Il Mulino, 2019), we find ourselves in a ‘Polanyi moment”. We have come to know the intrusion of the market logic and the failure of its self-regulation. This process that has destroyed public wealth at the same time that has created immense inequalities, to the point that social relations are now broken. This has challenged the very nature of democracy, since it has thrown the citizen in a state of economic and existential despair. More recently we have seen a defending themselves (in spite of the neoliberal and individualist ideology that is still present), and demanding more security, more state, and more political regulation in order to contain the immense force of the economy, which today fundamentally lacks all idea of a constructed social order. The tragedy is that, very much like in the 1930s, the demand for security as a restraining power against the unlimited has been interpreted by the right; while the Left has accepted either to represent minorities that live relatively well within the system, or simply dismiss the problem as fascist. As we have already said, the right is only proposing partial solutions to the problems; and when it proposes to enact “strong decisions”, it does so against the most weak of our societies, and not against the economic powers. But the new right proposes an order, which is a positive concept, which shall not forget it. But it remains an external order that leaves disorder and social injustice fully intact.

5. We know that the interpretations of Schmitt’s juridical interpretations have flourished in the last half a century. There are many readings of his legacy: the Catholic interpretation, the democratic exceptionalist interpretation, the interpretation in administrative law, the counter-revolutionary interpretations, and also the interested interpretations that favor an ‘antagonistic politics’. However, in your Genealogy of the Political, you argue for the idea of “origin” (arche) as a form of genesis to understand the turbulence of the political. In your opinion, is this still the most relevant way for us to approach the “original” Schmitt”?

Schmitt’s strong influence across the world has two distinct branches: the Anglo-Saxon world and the Latin world. Both of these communities respond in different ways to the same problem: the crisis of Liberalism and liberal democracy. We have to keep in mind that these two branches have different political, institutional, and genealogical traditions, as well as different disciplinary commitments. However, the return of Schmitt speaks to the question of how to think an alternative to effective political architectures of the West during the last two centuries. The alternative is not ideological (although we know that Schmitt is clearly a reactionary thinker), but methodological: in other words, Schmitt’s grandeur is to be found in his genealogy, that is, in his idea that to understand politics, on must first understand the concrete origen of a structure of power. Here origin shall not be understood as a stable ground, but rather as energy, as instability; conflict as it exists within every given order. For Schmitt, the notion of order always travels with nihilism. His theoretical discovery is that of the ‘origin of the political’, which as a consequence it could have a revolutionary praxis (in the same of the activation of a new origin of conflict, as it happens in revolutions). A politics of origin always presupposes the defense of an extra-legal power of decision against a concrete existing order, which grants legitimacy in its motion towards stability. The revolutionary constituent power and the system of protections are always present in Schmitt. As a jurist, Schmitt undertook the most radical and complete genealogical deconstruction of state form. In fact, besides being a defender of the authoritarian state, Schmitt also tried to think its overcoming. At the same time, Schmitt was a great defender of the state, which is something enormously appreciated today in China. Perhaps this is the ‘third branch’ of his global influence, which allows the scientific (think-tank) community in the United States to legitimize certain aspects of the authoritarian Chinese communist system.

6. Returning to the previous question about the different contemporary appropriations of Schmitt’s thinking, what is your opinion of the so called ‘Left Schmittianism’? I am thinking here of the models of postfoundational theories of populism that have incorporated Schmitt’s lessons…

There is no doubt that Schmitt can be appropriated for diverse ideological ends. Schmitt himself tied his thinking to one of the terrible ideologies of the twentieth century. But his merit resides in his idea of genealogy. From a practical point of view, it is important to emphasize that the political is energy before it is institution; it is conflict before it is order. But this is neither left nor right. We should come to terms in a serious way with the nature of conflict and intensity in the energy (of the political). I am not in favor of populism, if by populism we understand a logic of a series of empty signifiers. I am also not interested in a populism that is merely a “revolt” instead of a People with a concrete social class (exploited and oppressed). Thirdly, I am also not in favor of an “agonistic democracy”, if by this we understand a praxis of civil disobedience and a series of dispersed revolts. Schmitt never cared for the “majority”, but for “sovereignty” in a strong structural sense. That is why to domesticate his thinking or to turn it metaphorical is useless. The force of Schmitt’s thought appears in the way in which he comes face to face with the political. For Schmitt, sooner or later, the concrete situation obliges us to confront the problem here and now. This is why Schmitt is not a thinker of norms or of the everyday; nor is he a thinker of the dialectical movement. Schmitt is not a politically correct thinker, and he cannot be used as an emblem to oppose global capitalism.

7. Genealogy of the Political is organized by an important methodological premise: the importance of the space in Schmitt’s understanding of political concepts. Indeed, space was a fundamental notion for Schmitt who believed the Roman Catholic Church was linked substantially to “space” (Rome as Raum). How important is it that we seriously think through Schmitt’s lessons on spatiality, both in the political and geoeconomical senses?

First, we must remember that Schmitt is the great enemy of universality; whether it is technical, moral, legal, or economic universality. For him, universality is an interested form of the political, since it acts as an indirect potestas. This is why a smooth space like the sea lacks political qualification: political order requires nomos, that is, the capacity to mark borders on the ground and inscribe limits. Every order is monist in its interior, and pluralist in its exterior. The concept of order requires borders and sovereignty, because it needs concrete enemies, and not criminalized enemies, like that pirate who stands for the enemy against Humanity. On the other hand, the relationship between Schmitt and the Church is a complex one: there is strong rejection of universality as a form of indirect potestas; but we also find the existence of the order that aspires to actualize the complexio oppositorum of the Church; a power that the state cannot embody. We should not forget that what Schmitt appreciates in Catholicism is its emphasis of a “concrete ground”, in contrast to Protestantism. Schmitt favors a strong notion of Rome, whose value is merely metaphorical. Certainly, for Schmitt the political takes place in space, whether as form or as conflict, whether in the space of the state or in that of the imperium (or the Grossraum, the grand space).

8. The crisis of political and economic domination during the long twentieth century was countered by Schmitt from a strong theological stance (complexio oppositorum) of the political. The Pauline figure of the Katechon, was understood as the power that withheld the end of time and the force of anarchy against every order. However, are we not today in the face of the ruin of political legitimacy, which is a fully integrated into the spirit of technology (techne)? In other words, are we in a post-katechon epoch?

I would not identify the “political” with the complexio oppositorum. The notion of the complexio oppositorum is a mode of order that lacks the political (understood as the relation between friend and enemy), since it is based on a strong sense of auctoritas, which was not accessible to the modern state. The political is both the concrete and the conflict; in this sense, it is the form of political existence, but it is not a katechon, since the katechon is the force that restrains conflict. Certainly, the political is a conflict that generates a decision, but this is never fully realized. On the other hand, the katechon is that which, when confronted with an absolute conflict, as the one that exists in the universal world of technology, it can express a concrete conflict. Here Schmitt comes close to Clausewitz’s position, who analyzes the specificity of war as a conflict, but not absolute war. In any case, today we are in a conjuncture that, in diverse ways, is also post-katechontic, since conflict is disjointed from the territory and from borders (we can only think of terrorism). However, it is also true that a new spatial order is taking place in the planet, organized by new emergent grand semi-sovereign spaces, which at times bring into conflict multinational corporal and medium size states. This also entails that we are already in a post-global epoch, where the political returns.

9. Finally, Prof. Galli, as you have claimed in Global War (2000), the intensification of conflicts on a planetary scale today was a phenomenon that Schmitt understood in his late writings (Ex captivate salus, The Legal World RevolutionThe Tyranny of Values, among others), only that today they have become an effective operation of liberal administration as well as a form of government. Is Schmitt’s theoretical horizon relevant to think the global civil war, or do we need tools to go beyond Schmitt?

I think that we must be accompanied with Schmitt to go beyond Schmitt. In other words, we should renounce the weight of his ideology, which is inscribed in a very specific moment: the German crisis of the 1920s, the tragedy of the 1930s, and the European crisis of the 1940s. In this sense, I wouldn’t like to “extract laws” from Schmitt’s corpus, just like I do not think that we should extract eternal rules for politics. Form an intellectual point of view, Schmitt’s genealogy allows us to undertake a permanent reflection on politics. Schmitt has taught us to think concretely, and to interpret politics in a serious and dramatic way, in contrast to always being on a search for principles of stability. We should be able to read the signs of order within a time of disorder. Schmitt taught us not to believe in moral or technical solutions when confronting political problems. In other words, his lesson hinges on making us think the question of order as both necessary and contingent. We must be capable of thinking politics as both an energy and an institution. I do not think that we can free ourselves of his teaching, although today we live in an international context that is different from the time in which he lived. In sum, Schmitt’s thinking is a fundamental part of every critical thought that desires to leave behind all normativism, functionalism, and the structure of neoliberalism.