This is the first chapter of the English edition of Carl Schmitt's Political Theology, in which the German jurist and philosopher outlines his legal doctrine of decisionism. I am posting it here because its opposite, the notion of so-called "rule of law," has been based on usury from the beginning. One Israeli article, entitled "The Magna Carta's Very Jewish Underpinnings," explains how and why. "Rule of law" is, in the final analysis, bourgeois capitalism. Schmitt's decisionism offers a real alternative.
Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.
Only this definition can do justice to a borderline concept. Contrary to the imprecise terminology that is found in popular literature, a borderline concept is not a vague concept, but one pertaining to the outermost sphere. This definition must therefore be associated with a borderline case and not with routine. It will soon become clear that the exception is to be understood to refer to a general concept in the theory of the state, and not merely to any emergency decree or state of siege.
The assertion that the exception is truly appropriate for the juristic definition of sovereignty has a systematic, legal-logical foundation. The decision on the exception is a decision in the true sense of the word. Because a general norm, as represented by an ordinary legal prescription, can never encompass a total exception, the decision that a real exception exists cannot therefore be entirely derived from this norm. When Robert von Mohl said that the test of whether an emergency exists cannot be a juristic one, he assumed that a decision in the legal sense must be derived entirely from the content of the norm. But this is the question. In the general sense in which Mohl articulated his argument, his notion is only an expression of constitutional liberalism and fails to apprehend the independent meaning of the decision.
From a practical or a theoretical perspective, it really does not matter whether an abstract scheme advanced to define sovereignty (namely, that sovereignty is the highest power, not a derived power) is acceptable. About an abstract concept there will be no argument, least of all in the history of sovereignty. What is argued about is the concrete application, and that means who decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest or interest of the state, public safety and order, le salut public, and so on. The exception, which is not codified in the existing legal order, can best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like. But it cannot be circumscribed factually and made to conform to a preformed law.
It is precisely the exception that makes relevant the subject of sovereignty, that is, the whole question of sovereignty. The precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case, especially when it is truly a matter of extreme emergency and how it is to be eliminated. The precondition as well as the content of jurisdictional competence in such a case must necessarily be unlimited. From the liberal constitutional point of view, there would be no jurisdictional competence at all. The most guidance the constitution can provide is to indicate who can act in such a case. If such action is not subject to controls, if it is not hampered in some way by checks and balances, as is the case in a liberal constitution, then it is clear who the sovereign is. He decides whether there is an extreme emergency as well as what must be done to eliminate it. Although he stands outside the normally valid legal system, he nevertheless belongs to it, for it is he who must decide whether the constitution must be suspended in its entirety. All tendencies of modern constitutional development point toward eliminating the sovereign in this sense. The ideas of Hugo Krabbe and Hans Kelsen, which will be treated in the following chapter, are in line with this development. But whether the extreme exception can be banished from the world is not a juristic question. Whether one has confidence and hope that it can be eliminated depends on philosophical, and especially on philosophical-historical or metaphysical, convictions.
There exist a number of historical presentations that deal with the development of sovereignty, but they are like textbook compilations of abstract formulas from which definitions of sovereignty can be extracted. Nobody seems to have taken the trouble to scrutinize the often-repeated but completely empty phraseology used to denote the highest power by the famous authors of the concept of sovereignty. That this concept relates to the critical case, the exception, was long ago recognized by Jean Bodin. He stands at the beginning of the modern theory of the state because of his work “Of the True Marks of Sovereignty” (chapter 10 of the first book of the Republic) rather than because of his often-cited definition (“sovereignty is the absolute and perpetual power of a republic”). He discussed his concept in the context of many practical examples, and he always returned to the question: To what extent is the sovereign bound by laws, and to what extent is he responsible to the estates? To this last, all-important question he replied that commitments are binding because they rest on natural law; but in emergencies the tie to general natural principles ceases. In general, according to him, the prince is duty bound toward the estates or the people only to the extent of fulfilling his promise in the interest of the people; he is not so bound under conditions of urgent necessity. These are by no means new theses. The decisive point about Bodin’s concept is that by referring to the emergency, he reduced his analysis of the the relationships between prince and estates to a simple either/or.
This is what is truly impressive in his definition of sovereignty; by considering sovereignty to be indivisible, he finally settled the question of power in the state. His scholarly accomplishment and the basis for his success thus reside in his having incorporated the decision into the concept of sovereignty. Today there is hardly any mention of the concept of sovereignty that does not contain the usual quotation from Bodin. But nowhere does one find cited the core quote from that chapter of the Republic. Bodin asked if the commitments of the prince to the estates or the people dissolve his sovereignty. He answered by referring to the case in which it becomes necessary to violate such commitments, to change laws or to suspend them entirely according to the requirements of a situation, a time, and a people. If in such cases the prince had to consult a senate or the people before he could act, he would have to be prepared to let his subjects dispense with him. Bodin considered this an absurdity because, according to him, the estates were not masters over the laws; they in turn would have to permit their prince to dispense with them. Sovereignty would thus become a play between two parties: Sometimes the people and sometimes the prince would rule, and that would be contrary to all reason and all law. Because the authority to suspend valid law—be it in a general or in a specific case—is so much the mark of actual sovereignty, Bodin wanted to derive from this authority all other characteristics (declaring war and making peace, appointing civil servants, right of pardon, final appeal, and so on).
In contrast to traditional presentations, I have shown in my study of dictatorship that even the seventeenth-century authors of natural law understood the question of sovereignty to mean the question of the decision on the exception. This is particularly true of Samuel von Pufendorf. Everyone agrees that whenever antagonisms appear within a state, every party wants the general good—therein resides after all the bellum omnium contra omnes. But sovereignty (and thus the state itself) resides in deciding this controversy, that is, in determining definitively what constitutes public order and security, in determining when they are disturbed, and so on. Public order and security manifest themselves very differently in reality, depending on whether a militaristic bureaucracy, a self-governing body controlled by the spirit of commercialism, or a radical party organization decides when there is order and security and when it is threatened or disturbed. After all, every legal order is based on a decision, and also the concept of the legal order, which is applied as something self-evident, contains within it the contrast of the two distinct elements of the juristic—norm and decision. Like every other order, the legal order rests on a decision and not on a norm.
Whether God alone is sovereign, that is, the one who acts as his acknowledged representative on earth, or the emperor, or the prince, or the people, meaning those who identify themselves directly with the people, the question is always aimed at the subject of sovereignty, at the application of the concept to a concrete situation. Ever since the sixteenth century, jurists who discuss the question of sovereignty have derived their ideals from a catalogue of determining, decisive features of sovereignty that can in essence be traced to the points made by Bodin. To possess those powers meant to be sovereign. In the murky legal conditions of the old German Reich the argument on public law ran as follows: Because one of the many indications of sovereignty was undoubtedly present, the other dubious indications also had to be present. The controversy always centered on the question, Who assumes authority concerning those matters for which there are no positive stipulations, for example, a capitulation? In other words, Who is is responsible for that for which competence has not been anticipated?
In a more familiar vein it was asked, Who is supposed to have unlimited power? Hence the discussion about the exception, the extremus necessitas casus. This is repeated with the same legal-logical structure in the discussions on the so-called monarchial principle. Here, too, it is always asked who is entitled to decide those actions for which the constitution makes no provision; that is, who is competent to act when the legal system fails to answer the question of competence. The controversy surrounding whether the individual German states were sovereign according to the constitution of 1871 was a matter of minor political significance. Nevertheless, the thrust of that argument can easily be recognized once more. The pivotal point of Max Seydel’s attempt to prove that the individual states were sovereign had less to do with the question whether the remaining rights of the individual states were or were not subsumable than with the assertion that the competence of the Reich was circumscribed by the constitution, which in principle meant limited, whereas the competence of the individual states was in principle unlimited.
According to article 48 of the German constitution of 1919, the exception is declared by the president of the Reich but is under the control of the parliament, the Reichstag, which can at any time demand its suspension. This provision corresponds to the development and practice of the liberal constitutional state, which attempts to repress the question of sovereignty by a division and mutual control of competences. But only the arrangement of the precondition that governs the invocation of exceptional powers corresponds to the liberal constitutional tendency, not the content of article 48. Article 48 grants unlimited power. If applied without check, it would grant exceptional powers in the same way as article 14 of the [French] Charter of 1815, which made the monarch sovereign. If the individual states no longer have the power to declare the exception, as the prevailing opinion on article 48 contends, then they no longer enjoy the status of states. Article 48 is the actual reference point for answering the question whether the individual German states are states.
If measures undertaken in an exception could be circumscribed by mutual control, by imposing a time limit, or finally, as in the liberal constitutional procedure governing a state of siege, by enumerating extraordinary powers, the question of sovereignty would then be considered less significant but would certainly not be eliminated. A jurisprudence concerned with day-to-day questions has practically no interest in the concept of sovereignty. Only the recognizable is its normal concern; everything else is a “disturbance.” Such a jurisprudence confronts the extreme case disconcertedly, for not every extraordinary measure, not every police or emergency decree, is necessarily an exception. What characterizes an exception is principally unlimited authority, which means the suspension of the entire existing order. In such a situation it is clear that the state remains, whereas law recedes. Because the exception is different from anarchy and chaos, order in the juristic sense still prevails even if it is not of the ordinary kind.
The existence of the state is undoubted proof of its superiority over the validity of the legal norm. The decision frees itself from all normative ties and becomes in the true sense absolute. The state suspends the law in the exception on the basis of its right of self-preservation, as one would say. The two elements of the concept legal order are then dissolved into independent notions and thereby testify to their conceptual independence. Unlike the normal situation, when the autonomous moment of the decision recedes to a minimum, the norm is destroyed by the exception. The exception remains, nevertheless, accessible to jurisprudence because both elements, the norm as well as the decision, remain within the framework of the juristic.
It would be a distortion of the schematic disjunction between sociology and jurisprudence if one were to say that the exception has no juristic significance and is therefore “sociology.” The exception is that which cannot be subsumed; it defies general codification, but it simultaneously reveals a specifically juristic element—the decision in absolute purity. The exception appears in its absolute form when a situation in which legal prescriptions can be valid must first be brought about. Every general norm demands a normal, everyday frame of life to which it can be factually applied and which is subjected to its regulations. The norm requires a homogenous medium. This effective normal situation is not a mere “superficial presupposition” that a jurist can ignore; that situation belongs precisely to its immanent validity. There exists no norm that is applicable to chaos. For a legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist, and he is sovereign who decides whether this normal situation actually exists.
All law is “situational law.” The sovereign produces and guarantees the situation in its totality. He has the monopoly over this last decision. Therein resides the essence of the state’s sovereignty, which must be juristically defined correctly, not as the monopoly to coerce or rule, but as the monopoly to decide. The exception reveals most clearly the essence of the state’s authority. The decision parts here from the legal norm, and (to formulate it paradoxically) authority proves that to produce law it needs to be based on law.
The exception was something incommensurable to John Locke’s doctrine of the constitutional state and the rationalist eighteenth century. The vivid awareness of the meaning of the exception that was reflected in the doctrine of natural law of the seventeenth century was lost in the eighteenth century, when a relatively lasting order was established. Emergency law was no law at all for Kant. The contemporary theory of the state reveals the interesting spectacle of the two tendencies facing one another, the rationalist tendency, which ignores the emergency, and the natural law tendency, which is interested in the emergency and emanates from an essentially different set of ideas. That a neo-Kantian like Kelsen does not know what to do with the exception is obvious. But it should be of interest to the rationalist that the legal system can anticipate the exception and can “suspend itself.” That a norm or an order or a point of reference “establishes itself” appears plausible to the exponents of this kind of juristic rationalism. But how the systematic unity and order can suspend itself in a concrete case is difficult to construe, yet it remains a juristic problem as long as the exception is distinguishable from a juristic chaos, from any kind of anarchy. The tendency of liberal constitutionalism to regulate the exception as precisely as possible means, after all, the attempt to spell out in detail the case in which law suspends itself. From where does the law obtain this force, and how is it logically possible that a norm is valid except for one concrete case that it cannot factually determine in any concrete manner?
It would be consequent rationalism to say that the exception proves nothing and that only the normal can be of scientific interest. The exception confounds the unity and order of the rationalist scheme. One encounters not infrequently a similar argument in the positive theory of the state. To the question of how to proceed in the absence of a budget law, Gerhard Anschütz replied that this was not at all a legal question. “There is not only a gap in the law, that is, in the text of the constitution, but moreover in the law as a whole, which can in no way be filled by juristic conceptual operations. Here is where public law stops.”
Precisely a philosophy of concrete life must not withdraw from the exception and the extreme case, but must be interested in it to the highest degree. The exception can be more interesting to it than the rule, not because of a romantic irony for the paradox, but because the seriousness of an insight goes deeper than the clear generalizations inferred from what ordinarily repeats itself. The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.
A Protestant theologian who demonstrated the vital intensity possible in theological reflection in the nineteenth century stated: “The exception explains the general and itself. And if one wants to study the general correctly, one needs to look around for a true exception. It reveals everything more clearly than does the general. Endless talk about the general becomes boring; there are exceptions. If they cannot be explained, then the general also cannot be explained. The difficulty is usually not noticed because the general is not thought about with passion but with a comfortable superficiality. The exception, on the other hand, thinks the general with intense passion.”