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  • Strauss and Schmitt as Readers of Hobbes and Spinoza:On the Relation between Political Theology and Liberalism
  • Miguel Vatter (bio)


Among those thinkers who experienced the emergence of totalitarian regimes and lived to offer a theoretical analysis of them, it is not infrequent to notice the absence of what in our times is presented as unquestionable evidence: the conviction that liberalism constitutes a political system antithetical to totalitarianism. Arendt and the early Frankfurt School, for instance, did not share this conviction. For them liberalism does not effectively counteract totalitarianism, and may even favor conditions that make it possible. The various phenomena that attest to this inversion of liberalism come under the name of "dialectic of Enlightenment." The recent work of Giorgio Agamben offers a provocative and increasingly influential recasting of this dialectic, a hypothesis as to how liberalism, understood as a system of rights based on the absolute respect of human dignity, may be internally connected to totalitarian phenomena. Agamben locates the connection in the very idea of the rule of law. Modern liberalism demands that individuals give to their conduct the form of law so as to allow for the mutual coexistence of their freedoms. Behind this demand, Agamben [End Page 161] identifies a biopolitical finality that seeks to bring human life under the control of the law in order to exercise unlimited mastery over it.

Significantly, Agamben relies heavily on Carl Schmitt's theory of sovereignty to deploy his hypothesis. Just as Schmitt argues that a legal order obtains only where someone has the power and authority to decide on what constitutes an exception to that order, so Agamben argues that life can be given the form of law only when the law is suspended, and a "state of exception" is introduced in which human life is "sacralized," that is, becomes a form of life that can be killed without committing either murder or sacrilege. For Agamben, the sacralization of human life names a process that makes use of the original intention behind liberalism, namely, the protection of the biological life of individuals from the threats of war and anarchy in order to arrive at the systematic production of "bare life" which can be killed with impunity in the totalitarian Lager.1 In Agamben, Schmitt's concept of sovereignty becomes the discursive topos where totalitarianism and liberalism reveal a troubling affinity.

It is not usually remarked that Leo Strauss's oeuvre, and in particular his famous works of the 1950s such as On Tyranny and Natural Right and History, offers a precedent of the kind of discursive strategy advanced by Agamben. In these works Strauss also calls into question the reassuring beliefs that liberalism and totalitarianism are the opposed forces at play in Western civilization, and that liberalism has emerged victorious from their contest. The main polemical object of Natural Right and History, for instance, is Max Weber: revered in Germany and in the United States for his liberal temper, Strauss tries to unmask him as a moral nihilist, as a thinker whose basic philosophical principles represent the kind of spiritual malaise that made totalitarianism possible. In his analyses of modern liberalism or modern natural right, Strauss centers his attention on what he takes to be its fundamental assumption: civil society is possible on the basis of the transition from a state of nature, which is essentially a state of potential war, to a state of culture, which is essentially a state in which social conflicts are regulated through the medium of law. To be in the state of culture means that each individual, in principle, agrees to give the pure form of law to its conduct. But the difference between state of nature and state of [End Page 162] culture precedes the possibility of autonomy, and Strauss consequently analyses it independently from the rule of law. If liberalism understands the mutual recognition of the autonomy of individuals, in and through the rule of law, as the ground of moral value, Strauss, on the contrary, claims that the anterior passage from nature to culture already contains in itself the roots of a moral relativism and nihilism which inevitably propel modernity towards totalitarianism—not despite modern liberalism, but...


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