Carl Schmitt contra William Barr

In a high-profile speech at Notre Dame, Attorney General William Barr made a forceful case for religion in public life. He argued that Judeo-Christian religious and moral values have been essential components in the life of the Republic since its founding. He noted that these values have been under siege in the public square for some time, with dire consequences for the moral and political life of the nation. Indeed, Barr observes that the Judeo-Christian values have been replaced with secular values that present serious threats to ordered liberty. Barr recently made a similar case in a speech in Nashville, Tennessee. It is clear that Barr sees these moral values as necessary for a healthy, functioning state.

Barr has recently been the subject of some attention in the press, with Tamsin Shaw calling him “the Carl Schmitt of our time” at the New York Review of Books. David Rohde, writing at the New Yorker, presents Barr as an ideologue, using Donald Trump’s expansive notions of presidential power to achieve religious and political goals of his own. It is the allusion to Carl Schmitt that is most evocative. Shaw has in mind the early-2000s Schmitt revival, especially in the context of George W. Bush’s War on Terror policies. This is not unreasonable. Important thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben turned to Schmitt for a framework to assess the political-juridical environment following the September 11 attacks. However, for Shaw, Barr appears to be a Schmittian figure largely because he believes in an expansive interpretation of presidential power under the Article II Vesting Clause of the United States Constitution.

It is unclear to me, however, that Barr is actually much of a Schmittian. His rhetoric in the Notre Dame and Nashville speeches is, candidly, basically the same religious conservative rhetoric that I’ve heard from various places for the past fifteen or twenty years. (It’s even older than that, I think.) Barr is a little gloomier about the state of the Republic, but we live in an era after Donald Trump’s “American Carnage” speech. Indeed, following Obergefell and other significant setbacks for religious conservatives during the Obama years, there is room for pessimism about the state of the United States. Likewise, the despair that finds concrete expression in widespread drug use and the appalling suicide statistics of recent years does not necessarily inspire great optimism. In this sense, Barr is simply identifying what anyone with eyes to see should understand.

More than this, it is Carl Schmitt himself that offers the most serious rebuttal to Barr’s rhetoric. Barr speaks entirely of values: if the correct values were enshrined, he says, in our laws and public institutions, the pernicious phenomena of recent years would be addressed. However, Schmitt makes a compelling case that conceiving of important metaphysical commitments in terms of values inherently leads to enmity and strife, which ultimately will imperil the ordered liberty Barr evidently seeks to preserve. Worse than this—at least for Barr—to conceive of these commitments in values paradoxically leads to the secularization that Barr wants to avoid.

In his 1959 speech (privately printed in 1960 and reissued in 1967), The Tyranny of Values, the jurist Carl Schmitt makes the claim that “[v]alue is not, rather it holds.” For this reason, Schmitt argues that “[v]alue precisely lusts after actualization. It is not real, but directed toward realization and longs for enforcement and implementation.” This is a startling claim: value is not real—but it is held and it is enforced. It also comes as no surprise that other values are diminished in the process of enforcement and implementation. Schmitt observes that “No one can value without devaluing, raising in value, and valuizing. Whoever sets values has thereby set himself against non-values.” In other words, to hold—to enforce—a value means necessarily to reject and exclude other values. To declare them, in effect, non-values.

At the outset, one sees that, in Schmitt’s account, the enforcement of values is inherent in the concept of value generally. The constant judicial strife in United States courts over this or that social issue becomes immediately comprehensible: it is necessary that values be enforced and judges are as good as anyone to enforce values. (More on that in a moment.) Indeed, more broadly, cultural strife becomes immediately comprehensible. Values have to be held and enforced, other values have to be rejected and excluded, and this can take place in any number of forums.

In a passage reminiscent of his 1922 book, Political Theology, Schmitt cites Martin Heidegger’s Holzwege for genealogy of the philosophy of values. For Heidegger, value philosophy emerges in the 19th century as a response to the advance of value-free science. It is, in Heidegger’s pungent phrase, “the positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Schmitt expands the argument: science threatened the freedom of the individual, especially in the “religious-ethical-juristic” dimension. Value philosophy answers this dilemma by preserving the individual as a “free, responsible essence,” if not as a being, then as a holder of values. In other words, for Schmitt, value philosophy is an attempt to preserve individuality in the face of science, which imposes purely causal definitions for beings.

A brief aside: seen in this light, value philosophy is a reaction to the advance of value-free science. But it is not an escape from the effects of value-free science. In Schmitt’s lengthy introduction to The Tyranny of Values, written for a 1967 edition, he observes that theologians, philosophers, and jurists “promise themselves from a philosophy of value … salvation from an irresistibly advancing natural scientificity.” But the transformation of the foundations of theology, philosophy, and law—that is, the metaphysical presuppositions of those fields—into values “can only accelerate the process of the general neutralization.” The “general neutralization,” Schmitt argues, even goes so far as to dissolve all oppositions, including, for example, the opposition between science and utopia. More than that, no less than science, values themselves become levers for utopia. Indeed, “[a]ll social and biological utopias consequently place values of all kinds at their disposal.”

In other words, Schmitt decisively rejects the notion that any particular values—even values heretofore denominated as conservative—are a bulwark against precisely the scientific, neutralizing tendency that required the adoption of values. On the contrary, the adoption of values accelerates “the process of general neutralization.” Making things worse, there is a positive feedback loop: the general neutralization dissolves all oppositions, opening the field for a scientific-utopian conception, which in turn uses values in its own way. So far from resisting the creeping advance of science, value philosophy for Schmitt ensures the ultimate triumph of science and pure causality.

All of this presents serious problems for Barr’s vision. For one thing, to speak of Judeo-Christian religious values is not to escape value logic, but instead to reduce profound metaphysical commitments to values and to subject them to the process of valuation and de-valuation inherent in the logic of values. Worse than this, this process hastens the “process of general neutralization.” In other words, re-enforcing and re-implementing “Judeo-Christian values” will not stop the processes that alarm Barr, but are simply new phases in those processes. As they continue, the re-enforcement and re-implementation will end up serving the neutralization that he objects to.

It is not merely for Barr that this account of “values” presents significant problems. If one accepts Heidegger and Schmitt’s account—which goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche according to Heidegger—to speak in terms of “values” is to accept a certain approach to metaphysical contentions resulting in a “positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Likewise, one must question, from the Christian perspective, whether or not it is advisable, even inadvertently, to reduce human freedom and responsibility to the dimension of holding this or that value. (Surely it is not.) The language of values becomes less and less appealing as a line of flight from the inexorable march of scientific nihilism.

It is in this same vein that Schmitt makes another important point. He follows Max Weber’s argument that individuals set values. For Weber, according to Schmitt, the subjective freedom of the individual in setting values is opposed to the “absolute value freedom of scientific positivism.” Schmitt sees a particular outcome, however. The world of individuals, all subjectively setting values that long for enforcement will produce a bellum omnium contra omnes. Indeed, for Schmitt, values set in subjective freedom are simply the “old gods” making war—and with new technological means. This is inherent in the logic of values. Value must be made valid. As a result, “[t]he boundless tolerance and neutrality of the arbitrarily exchangeable standpoints and viewpoints immediately turns over into its opposite, into enmity, as soon as it becomes a concretely serious matter of enactment and making valid.” But we already know that value “longs for enforcement and implementation.” Value inevitably leads to enmity.

As a result of all of this, Schmitt follows Nicolai Hartmann in speaking of a “tyranny of values.” “The higher value has the right and duty to subject the lower value to itself, and the value as such annihilates with right the non-value as such.” As a result of this, the value assumes a dominance over the individual who holds it. Schmitt is indifferent to whether this is psychologically unavoidable or unavoidable in itself. The bottom line is that “[i]n terms of value logic, it must always be valid: that for the highest value the highest price is not too high and must be paid.” As a result, the war of values becomes total war, without, as Schmitt goes on to observe, any of the traditional categories of just war (e.g., proportionality). There is only, Schmitt says, the annihilator and the annihilated. It is therefore the role of the supreme legislator to mediate this process and “to hinder the terror” of the enforcement of value.

Recently, there has been an ongoing debate in conservative circles (broadly defined) about state power and the extent to which the state should intervene decisively in social questions. This is for the most part the essence of the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. We see in Carl Schmitt’s account the incoherence of French’s position and the strength in Ahmari’s. In yielding to value philosophy, there is inevitably conflict. This conflict has to be managed and mediated by the legislator, lest the total war of values turn to technological weapons capable of achieving the distinction between annihilator and annihilated.

It is also worth noting here that Schmitt gestures toward the total state and the hero-leader when he observes that the lawgivers who have successfully mediated the enforcement of values (and hindered the terror associated with that enforcement of values) become “mythic figures,” such as Lycurgus, Solon, and Napoleon Bonaparte. In other words, the bellum omnium contra omnes unleashed by values requires a figure of mythic proportions to take things in hand. The notion that Judeo-Christian values lead to limited government is, in Schmitt’s account, simply false. Values require unlimited government to mediate the struggle between individuals holding strongly opposed values.

This too shows the dangers for Barr in thinking in terms of values. In the Notre Dame speech, he identifies at length the serious actions taken against Christians and other people of faith in the name of the new secular values that have displaced Judeo-Christian values. But this is necessary according to the logic of values. Inevitably, reducing these commitments to values leads to the enmity Barr laments. Value must be made valid, and this process results in total war. To re-enforce and re-implement Judeo-Christian values would not be an end to this war, according to Schmitt, but instead a new round.