What Is The New “Nomos of the Earth”? Reflections on the Later Schmitt (Carl Raschke)

Commentary, History

German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, who coined the term “political theology”, is best known for his seminal works in the 1920s that dealt with such familiar concepts as sovereignty, the “state of exception”, and the “friend-enemy” distinction.

But his later thought, developed in writings in the two decades after the Second World War, is starting to garner increased attention and actually has far more relevance to the global political and economic issues we are facing today, especially the character and deepening crisis of what has come to be known as “neoliberalism.”

Schmitt’s most important later work, published in the early 1950s and entitled The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, essentially asks the question of how the earth is going to be “re-territorialized” (Deleuze and Guattari’s term) in the postmodern era and beyond. Most of the book is devoted to periodizing Western political history in terms of the idea of nomos, which etymologically does not signify “law”, according to Schmitt, so much as a system of spatial order defined by the “division and distribution of land” (from the Greek nemein as preserved in the German word nehmen=”to take hold of, to seize”).  As Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato (one of the great contemporary theorists of neoliberalism) has shown us in various writings, nomos refers to an apparatus of “capture” or “appropriation” of the world’s material resources.

Thus it is the “earth,” Schmitt writes, that “became known as the mother of law.” (42)   Deleuzian “geophilosophy” and Schmittian “geopolitics” converge in a notion of nomos that suffuses so many of the theoretical debates concerning globalization.   The question of “international law” ultimately boils down to the issue of how both natural bounty and material production is parcelled out and organized, the generative components structured as well as distributed, and the output of the larger process codified as a certain proprium (i.e., what is “one’s own”) that may be individual, collective, or broadly generic.

In other words, both legislative and juridical categories can be resolved into the elements of political economy in the classic sense of the term.  Nomos is a direct function of the Aristotelian oikonomia writ large and expanded beyond the single “household.”  The nomos of the “earth” serves as a master trope for both the morally compelling and legally significant imaginary of how peoples should be defined and their territorial markers inscribed in accordance with the proper symbolic means of apportioning the nature of their lives as well as livelihoods.

The lion’s share of Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth concerns how we got to where we are today.  Chapter one makes the case that in the ancient world as late as Roman imperial times there was actually no such thing as a nomos of the earth.  The ordering of space was laid out with respect to the territorial and administrative contours of empire.  The diffusion of empire were entirely conceived for the most part in terms of the military expansion of mystically sovereign and superior political entities.

It was the Romans, for example, who came up with the idea of their imperium as the Greek polis with all its civil and legal prerogatives writ large at a universal level – hence the term cosmo-politan, or “world-citizen.”  Ancient peoples did not recognize the legitimacy of any rival imperial configurations.  That is why, according to Schmitt, empires such as the Romans and the Persians, or previously the Assyrians and the Babylonians never could co-exist, but sought to “annihilate” each other.

Chapter two discusses the formation of the beginnings of international law – and hence an embryonic terrestial nomos – as the ancillary to the theological idea of the respublica Christiana, or what has come to be known as “Christendom.”  As scholars of the Dark Ages well know,  the extensive “barbarian invasions” (technically, the Völkerwanderung) from the early fifth through the tenth centuries that led to the collapse of central authority in the West can only be described as a long-standing, complicated civil war within the borders of Romanitas itself rather than an effort to do away with the imperial concept.  As Schmitt writes, “the history of the Middle Ages is thus the history of a struggle for, not against Rome.” (59)

Schmitt ascribes the genesis of the respublica Christiana to a transformation of the imperial imaginary that took place from the fourth century onward after the conversion of Constantine.  The original empire had been sustained by the conviction that Rome was “eternal,” which is why the ancient global imperial fantasy did not dissolve until 1918 (even though one could argue it persisted up through the ruin of Germany’s “Thousand Year Reich” in 1945,  or until the collapse of world communism in 1991, or even beyond that in Fukuyama’s dream of “the end of history” and the once-and-for-all triumph of market capitalism in the form now understood as “neoliberalism”).

The “empire” was no longer a cosmopolis with a positive role of establishing order and defining what it meant to be “human” in an essential manner, as Roman law had done, but an impermanent, temporal arrangement that God allowed in order to prevent the world itself from falling apart and into the hands of the Antichrist  prior to the Second Coming. Schmitt argues:

The Christian empire was not eternal.  It always had its own end and that of the present eon in view.  Nevertheless, it was capable of being a historical power.  The decisive historical concept of this continuity was that of the restrainer, katechon. (59)

In subsequent chapters that treat the Age of Discovery and the subjugation from the sixteenth century forward by European powers of people of color through a system of enforced inequality and economic exploitation that came to be known as both “colonialism” and “imperialism” Schmitt tacitly, rather than explicitly, seems to push the view that the Medieval paradigm of the katechon helps to explain much of modern Western history.

Columbus’ initial motive for sailing to the New World was to find a route to the Far East that would protect the flanks of Christendom from the encroachments of Islam, which was not so subtly associated in the minds of both church and secular leaders with the dominions of the Antichrist.

According to Schmitt, on discovery of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World ecclesiastical scholars had to configure these strange new peoples with an identity that fit the Medieval world picture.   They became “barbarians” who also needed to be restrained so that they could eventually be “civilized”.  Their exploitation – and in many cases their de facto liquidation – was the unfortunate, but necessary, collateral damage from the “civilizing mission” that went hand in hand with the functioning of the imperial katechon.

The contemporary progressivist narrative that the European expansion and strategy of conquista was from the start was all about race, and racial identity, thoroughly belies the historical evidence.  “Race” in the sense of an identity differential based mostly on skin color is at earliest an eighteenth century invention .  The Europeans of the late Middle Ages were quite familiar with dark-complexioned peoples from the Arabs to the Central European nomads to the Chinese, and did not consider their physical appearance a significant marker as much as their moral and religious values.

The fact that these peoples were not “Christian” was what really mattered.  As Walter Mignolo has persuasively contended in his The Darker Side of Western Modernity, racial identification and typecasting arose as a “taxonomical” gambit of the secular Enlightenment as way both of rationalizing de facto forms of hegemony and social inequality and upholding the supremacy of the “religion of reason.”

In the last section of his book Schmitt poses the tantalizing question of “what is the new nomos of the earth”?  It is easy to draw the conclusion from the manner in which Schmitt poses the question – and how he stumbles around in writing in the confused aftermath of World War II and the looming threat of nuclear war – that he is poignantly aware that the postcolonial era is dawning and the age of Europe is over.   The post-European epoch, therefore, is from the standpoint any global nomothesis both the end of the ancient cosmopolitan ideal and the Medieval/modern version of the katechon.

In both The Nomos of the Earth and his earlier writings Schmitt talks predominantly about the production of laws without any extensive analysis of the economic processes of material production and appropriation which these legal appliances all along have legitimated.   Yet, as Wendy Brown notes in her telling and important recent book entitled Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Schmitt’s was one of the first to realize that “liberal democracy was already a form of economizing the state and the political.” (32)  That is similar to the argument I myself have made in my book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy.

Neoliberalism is perhaps the new “nomos of the earth” in Schmitt’s provocative meaning, but contrary to popular understanding it is something far more subtle and insidious than domination, predation, and profiteering, as I have argued here and here.  It is a new pervasive form of “nomothetic” reorganization founded on a positive redaction of the human (as Brown argues) as “human capital” that is infinitely exploitable through a massive machinery of signs conveying with ephemeral inconsistency our highest ideals, desires, and fantasies.

In The Nomos of the Earth Schmitt subtly deflects the question of the political away from the notion of “sovereignty” (with which he is famously imbricated) to that of the “economic” segmentation, appropriation, and “territorialization” of the entire human sphere of influence.  If sovereignty cannot be separated from the religious in Schmitt’s earlier works (i.e., his formulation that all political statements are ultimately theological statements), then perhaps the same must be said of nomos.

However, nomos is always the mechanism for what Foucault called “veridiction” – the rendering of what is differentiated from out of the mass as real and true.  God may “lay down” (legein=”law”) the “truth” of nomos, as in the Decalogue.  Or the process of veridiction under neoliberalism is carried out, as Brown points out, by the impersonal appareil of the “market.”

If the end of the katechon that was Christendom corresponds with the emergence of a pervasive, global “nomothetic” apparatus that fully abstracts and “economizes” the human as capital, thereby making everything the entirety of humanitas “machinically” deployable for various productive purposes while brooking no distinction between what is immanent and what is transcendental, or what is righteous and what is unholy, then we know what kind of age we have genuinely entered upon.

Schmitt, who invented the concept of “political theology,” reminds us that it is easy to be seduced by cosmopolitan secular hallucinations of a planetary pax neoliberalismus founded on the phony distributive principles of personal identity and private desire.  He also suggests that political theology must always deal with the question of nomos from the standpoint of some sort of sovereign singularity.  That includes of course the “nomos of the earth” as well.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is also managing editor for Political Theology Today.  He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books besides Critical Theology include Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008)  and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) –  examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity. Faith and Reason: Three Views (IVP Academic, 2014), of which he is a co-author, is a conversation among three contemporary Christian philosophers. 

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