Carl Schmitt’s ‘Political Theology’: A Process Theological Intervention

“Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology: A Process Theological Intervention”

By Matthew David Segall

Introduction

This essay critically engages with Carl Schmitt’s anti-liberal political theology, offering important interventions from the related perspectives of Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmopolitical process theology, philosophical personalism, and Bruno Latour’s Gaian political ecology. Schmitt’s criticisms of early 20th century “liberal normativism” are tested against Dan Dombrowski’s admirable defense of a process reading of Rawlsian political liberalism. Since Schmitt was at least nominally Catholic, I also turn to the New Testament for a source of spiritual resistance to his fascist ideology. 

As a politically engaged process philosopher, I have found Schmitt’s political writing to be disturbingly brilliant. Brilliant because his criticisms of liberalism are trenchant (though as we’ll see, they are blunted by Dombrowski’s process-inflection of Rawlsian liberalism); disturbing because his aim, having laid bare the perceived contradictions of liberalism, is to justify fascist dictatorship. Schmitt is usually described as the “Crown Jurist” of the Nazi party. Despite being a raging antisemite, Schmitt was a member of the Catholic Centre party before Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. In the final year of the Republic’s existence he even argued against the constitutionality of the Nazi party (see Schmitt 1986, x). But following Nazi takeover he was quick to pledge fealty. Within a few years he would enthusiastically defend Hitler’s executions of political enemies. Nonetheless, he was booted from his professional leadership position by the Reich in 1936 because of the perception that he was an opportunistic turncoat. In 1950, he published a memoir, Ex Captivitate Salus/Rescue from Captivity, comparing himself to a character in Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno (1855): just as the mutinied captain of Melville’s fictional slave ship was forced to do the bidding of the rebellious crew, Schmitt claimed he had been forced to do the legal bidding of the Nazis. Despite his attempt to save face, the posthumous publication of his diaries from the early 1930s show his support for Nazi rule was hardly feigned. Whatever his reasons for joining the Nazi party, he only narrowly escaped the Nuremberg trials (trials which he, predictably, found illegitimate) and has since developed something of a cult following among “post-liberals” on both sides of the political spectrum (see Wolin 2022). 

In this article, I focus in particular on Schmitt’s book Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922/1934), written in Germany during the tumultuous post-war Weimar period when a fragile parliamentary government lurched from one constitutional crisis to the next. The 1934 second edition includes a new preface written after Hitler rose to power and Schmitt joined the Nazi party. In this preface, Schmitt references his October 1929 lecture “The Age of Neutralization and Depoliticization,” wherein he unpacks his view of the process of secularization. A few salient ideas from this lecture will help set the stage for my summary of Political Theology.

Modern Political Epochs and the Rise of Technological Progressivism

After admitting that “all historical knowledge is present knowledge” (1929, 130), Schmitt briefly recounts European modernity’s movement through various political epochs, roughly corresponding to each century. He does not necessarily view these epochal shifts as a progression. They could just as easily be read as a regression. Each epoch in effect “neutralizes” the controversial terms of the prior epoch, resolving disputes by establishing a new regime of truth: 

  • 16th century: the theological epoch
  • 17th century: the metaphysical epoch (by which Schmitt means the rise of scientific materialism)
  • 18th century: the humanist/moral epoch (the Enlightenment)
  • 19th century: the economic/positivistic epoch
  • 20th century: the technological epoch

Schmitt saw the 20th century becoming increasingly dominated by the “anti-religion” of technological progress. This new epoch is supported by the widespread assumption that the “ultimate neutral ground has been found in technology” (1929, 138). But Schmitt rejects the idea of technological neutrality, since the use technology is put to is inevitably shaped by metaphysical, ethical, political, and economic presuppositions. Typified by the rise of Soviet Russia, he described the new anti-religion as implying an “activistic metaphysics,” i.e., a belief in the unlimited power and domination of man over nature, even over human nature. He perceived early on the political potential of technologies of mass media (e.g., radio):

Today we see through the fog of names and words with which the psycho-technical machinery of mass suggestion works. Today we even recognize the secret law of this vocabulary and know that the most terrible war is pursued only in the name of peace, the most terrible oppression only in the name of freedom, the most terrible inhumanity only in the name of humanity. (1929, 142)

George Orwell’s novel 1984 was published nearly 20 years later, though it is clear from Schmitt’s concerns about technological societies that the idea of “Newspeak” was already in the air. Schmitt accepted that the rise of the new techno-scientific religion of progress had made the traditional image of an omnipotent deity seem incredible. In the new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene, powers that once belonged only to God have succumbed to hubristic human ingenuity. Nearly a century after Schmitt’s lecture, the proliferation of electronic media (whether traditional mass media or social media) has made it no less difficult for liberals to sustain their faith in the power of free speech and a free press to secure and convey the truth. The technologically amplified power of mass suggestion and disinformation has become a major obstacle to the liberal dream of replacing political struggle with legislative proceduralism. Increasingly fragmented social networks have fomented tribalism and ideological capture, making it difficult for democratic polities to agree on what is reasonable in Rawls’ sense (1993, p. 48), much less to agree on the facts or what to do about them. Media technologies were limited to newspapers and radios in Schmitt’s day, but having participated in the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich, he was well aware of the vulnerability of liberal democracy to demagogic hijacking.  

Schmitt’s Political Theology and Criticism of Liberalism

Schmitt’s target in Political Theology is what he calls “liberal normativism,” with Hugo Krabbe (1857-1936; a Dutchman) and Hans Kelsen (1881-1973; an Austrian Jew, author of the Austrian Constitution in 1920) serving as the main representatives of the approach. Schmitt laments the depoliticization resulting from liberalism’s attempt at a positivistic purification of legal theory, whereby theorists claim to be politically neutral, unaffected by any personal bias, and capable of securing scientific objectivity by way of a purely formal treatment of law. Unlike liberal theorists, Schmitt was adamant that jurisprudence could have no justification in the absence of philosophical or metaphysical convictions, which legal positivists could only pretend to sidestep. In effect, he accuses liberal theorists of refusing to decide on their true convictions by pretending to have risen above personal political and religious views to judge from a superior “scientific” or “objective” position. He rejects the trans-political status attributed to law by liberals, since any decision about what is not political is itself already political: “the political is the total” (1934, 2). Schmitt contrasts the positivistic liberal approach with his own decisionist theory, which refuses to purify law of the personal, instead making the personhood of the sovereign constitutive of both statehood and its legal procedures.

According to Schmitt, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (1934, 5). Abstract systems of law cannot encompass or predict the exception, as it represents an emergency that breaks any routine. While the liberal constitutional state “represses” the question of sovereignty, deferring the inevitability of decision by means of endless discussion, Schmitt’s sovereign decides not only on the concretely exceptional case but also on the general norm. 

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 definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists. (1934, 13) 

Schmitt mocks the liberal political theory of his time as an “interesting spectacle” because of the way its contradictory empiricist and rationalist tendencies are constantly facing off against one another. Though Locke clearly contrasts “law” with the “command” of the monarch (thus rejecting decisionism), Schmitt suggests there remained at least a “vivid awareness of the meaning of the exception” in his pre-critical conception of natural law. Kant’s critical rationalism, on the other hand, simply ignores the exception, since acknowledging it would confound the unity and order required of his transcendental system. Neo-Kantians like Kelsen do what they can to regulate the exception as precisely as possible, to articulate in detail when in an emergency situation it is legitimate for law to “suspend itself.” Schmitt objects: “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 definitive manner?” (1934, 14). 

Schmitt insists that any philosophy that claims to take concrete life seriously must face the exception, the extreme case, since it is more important than the rule: 

…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. …In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of mechanism that has become torpid by repetition. (1934, 15). 

Here is the first opportunity for dialogue with Whitehead, who certainly took concrete life and creative advance seriously. In Process & Reality he claims that “the moralistic preference for true propositions [has] obscured the role of propositions in the actual world.” The problem, he explains, is that propositions have been collapsed into logical judgments. “The result is that false propositions have fared badly, thrown into the dustheap, neglected.” Instead, propositions, true or false, ought to be distinguished as non-conscious “lures for feeling” that only rarely rise to the level of consciously stated judgments. Thus, “in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true” (1929, 259). Of course, truth is important because of its contribution to interest. But if truth is repetition of the established rule, then the uncompromising prohibition of false propositions would leave us imprisoned in bureaucratic routine. Strictly formal systems aimed solely at the universal and so blind to the personal are, in the words of Whitehead’s favorite poet, “rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend of truth” (1970, 209). Such systems—content rather “to sit in judgment that to feel”—leave no room for the unpredictably unique expressions of creative process. Schmitt (1934, 15) quotes Kierkegaard’s Repetition

Over time, one tires of the interminable chatter about the universal and the universal, which is repeated until it becomes boring and vapid. There are exceptions. If one cannot explain them, then neither can one explain the universal. One generally fails to  notice this, because one does not normally grasp the universal passionately, but only superficially. The exception, on the other hand, grasps the universal with intense passion. (2009, 78)

As becomes apparent below, it is important to remember Whitehead’s theory of propositional feelings when dealing with the statements of scripture. Even factually false propositions may function in a powerful world-transforming way as ideals luring us toward greater goodness and beauty.

In the real world, unexpected historical events give rise to novel needs and interests, catalyzing reactions against any formulaic treatment of public law. Thus, the law must be self-evolving, the state self-legislating. While philosophers may be tempted to imagine that political truths can be established by way of abstract conceptual dialectics, in historical reality sovereignty and law have more often been defined by bloody power struggles. Schmitt agrees with Rousseau about at least one thing: “The connection of actual power [coercive force] with the legally highest power [which is a mere formula, sign, or signal] is the fundamental problem of the concept of sovereignty” (1934, 18). In other words, what is the relationship between the state’s monopoly on violence and the symbolic power of a legal order? Neo-Kantian liberal theorists like Kelsen lean on the is/ought distinction in an attempt to subject legal praxis to formal epistemological critique. Legal concepts are thereby thought to be purified of personal political or religious interests. The origin of authority in a liberal constitutional state is therefore not a “sociopsychological power complex” or personal sovereign but rather the ideal unity of a system of norms. Kelsen claims the positivist objectivity of his approach is secured by the fact that the norms he affirms are not his own personal value assessments but belong to the given legal order governing the society he finds himself in. For Kelsen, then, “the concept of sovereignty must be radically repressed,” as he himself put it (Das Problem der Souveränität; quoted in Schmitt 19934, 21), since there can be no legal decree transcending the unified system of law. Schmitt retorts: “Unity and purity are easily attained when the basic difficulty is emphatically ignored and when, for formal reasons, everything that contradicts the system is excluded as impure” (1934, 21). 

Krabbe does not ignore the question of sovereignty, but addresses it by making the law itself sovereign, rather than the state: “However one wants to approach it,” he writes, 

the doctrine of sovereignty of law is either a record of what is already real or a postulate that ought to be realized. …We no longer live under the authority of persons, be they natural or artificial (legal) persons, but under the rule of laws, spiritual forces. …These forces rule in the strictest sense of the word. Precisely because these forces emanate from the spiritual nature of man, they can be obeyed voluntarily. (Die modern Staatsidee; quoted in Schmitt 1934, 22)

No more can be said about the foundation of legal order and the state, then, than that they spring from our spiritual feelings of what is right. The state thus expresses the legal consciousness emergent from the life of the people. Krabbe is said to converge with the “association theory” founded by Otto von Gierke (1841-1921), which practically eliminates the concept of authoritarian sovereignty, replacing it with the internationalist ideal of a decentralized community of communities constituted from below without need of any centralized monopoly on power. Schmitt resists such conceptions of a self-organizing state, which he seems to associate with the “irrationality” of philosophies of life like Schelling’s and Bergson’s. He recoils from their organismic intuitions of an evolving mutual immanence between the soul, the world, and God.[1] Whitehead offers another hand here, as his process philosophical project is in part an attempt to “rescue [Bergson’s] type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it” (1929, xii). 

Schmitt is unwilling to relinquish the idea of the sovereign state as the ultimate guarantor of law and order. He zeros in on the Scholastic concept of the “substantial form” of law, a concept he thinks neo-Kantians misunderstand because of their focus on the subjective transcendental deduction of formal categories. “The legal idea cannot realize itself, it needs a particular organization and form before it can be translated into reality [i.e., by the application of a legal thought to a factual situation]” (1934, 28). My colloquial translation for what Schmitt means is that law can only be concretely applied by a soul, the substantial form of a person. Schmitt argues that Kelsen contradicts himself by claiming that a critically deduced subjective concept of form could nonetheless objectively unify the legal order through an impersonal act of judgment (1934, 29). This attempt to remove the personal dimension neglects the evident fact that no legal idea says anything about who should apply it (1934, 31). A legal judgment, in other words, is impossible without a personalist element. Schmitt thus turns to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), the classic text in decisionist political theory. Hobbes writes: “autoritas, non veritas, facit legem”/ “authority, not truth, makes the law” (quoted in Schmitt 1934, 33). On Schmitt’s reading, Hobbes advances an argument definitively linking decisionism with personalism, rejecting the rationalist attempt to substitute “an abstractly valid order for a concrete sovereignty of the state.” Despite the natural-scientific bent of his thinking, Hobbes realized the legal form could only be located in a concrete decision emanating from a particular personal authority. Schmitt: “What matters for the reality of legal life is who decides. … It does not have the a priori emptiness of the transcendental form because it arises precisely from the juristically concrete” (1934, 34).

Schmitt then annunciates perhaps the most influential line in any of his books: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” both for reasons of historical development and because of their systematic structure (1934, 36). In Process & Reality, Whitehead adds that the analogy between God concepts and political concepts operates also in the reverse direction: 

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. …The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar. (1929, 342) 

While Schmitt argues upon the basis of a transfer from theology to the theory of the state, Whitehead shows that it is equally valid to see a transfer from the theory of state to theology, such that the omnipotent lawgiver became the omnipotent God “fashioned in the image of an imperial ruler.” This tragic idolatry, whose violent shadow looms over so much of Western Asiatic and European history, obscures the novel spiritual significance of the life and death of Jesus, who does not at all fit the images of the ruling Caesar, ruthless moralist, or unmoved mover. Rather, the God-image of Jesus as poetic lurer rather than petty ruler reveals a God who 

dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. (1929, 343) 

While Schmitt unveils the self-contradictions of liberalism, he fails to see the log in his own eye (Matt 7:3; Luke 6:41): how can he, allegedly a Catholic Christian, theologically define politics as the means by which we distinguish friends from enemies when Jesus calls upon his followers to: “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44)? Further, as Whitehead insists, the “Gospel of Force” is self-defeating because by baring cooperation it stunts social life: “Every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants” (1925, 206). 

Process Political Theology and Personalism

Schmitt’s reactionary regression to an idolatrous image of God and solipsist conception of politics is where the process theological intervention shows its potential. Whitehead urges philosophers to secularize the concept of God’s function in the world (1929, 207). This can be borne out both in speculative cosmology and in political theory. What sort of political organization is implied by his processual, panentheistic conception of God? Certainly not a totalitarian dictatorship, whether of the communist or fascist type. Whitehead was, as Dombrowski emphasizes, a political liberal committed to deliberative democracy undergirded by a virtue ethic (2019, 156-7). According to Dombrowski, while political liberalism remains compatible with a variety of comprehensive visions, Whitehead’s cosmology “can offer metaphysical support for” it (2019, 24). 

Is liberal democracy then the secularized transposition of process theology? I don’t think it is that simple, at least not if we imagine the liberal individual as an independent substance and “society” as a mere aggregation of such substances, with democracy amounting to little more than the counting of individual votes for or against a particular decision, the terms of which are set in advance by formal legal procedures. While Dombrowski affirms the importance of individual rights, he also articulates a balanced process critique of abstract individualism as well as abstract collectivism, the latter of which reduces individuals to an overarching national, ethnic, or economic whole that they are commanded to serve (2019, 42-43). Nonetheless, process thought involves a social conception of the universe: “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (1929, 50). While I agree with Dombrowski that Whitehead’s cosmology is compatible with his process reading of Rawlsian political theory, I see his metaphysical scheme as implying a no less democratic but, somewhat in contrast to liberal formalism, radically personalist political ontology. A Whiteheadian conception of the person diverges sharply from the deracinated unity of the Kantian transcendental ego. On Whitehead’s account, our own self-consciousness as living personalities arises in the context of complex organic societies (i.e., human bodies and their cultural inheritances) that shelter non-social nexūs (1929, 107). Within such non-social living nexūs, which Whitehead suggests hover in the interstices of the brain (1929, 105-6), the deep character of a person is transmitted from occasion to occasion not as a simple unity (whether substantial or transcendental), but as a complex intersection of maximally intensified experience issuing from the harmonization of free originality and social canalization (1929, 109). As there is no sharp line in Whitehead’s account between the rational and the bestial, nonhuman animals with continuity of character are also persons (and thus moral patients), even if the creative intensity of human personality may be especially pronounced (to the point where moral agency becomes applicable). 

Dombrowski argues cogently for a process interpretation of Rawls’ method of reflective equilibrium, whereby we are counseled to bring our experience of particular beliefs into coherent balance with our theoretical reflection upon universal principles. But the reliance of this method upon the abstract thought experiment of an original position of deliberation behind a veil of ignorance risks privileging the rigidly formal over the creatively personal to such an extent that the latter comes to seem an impediment to rather than the principle strength of political liberalism. On Dombrowski’s reading of Rawls, the deeper the political conflict the higher the level of philosophical abstraction that is required to sort it out (2019, 159). Clearly, however, in the real world passionate emotion easily overflows our capacity to abide by rational procedures. 

Mary Parker Follett’s (1868-1933) process-inspired theory and praxis of public administration would greatly contribute to fleshing out more deliberative and participatory forms of democracy that go beyond mere voting and parliamentary proceduralism in their concrete realization of power-sharing decision-making processes (see Stout and Staton 2011). Follett invites experimentation with a novel method of human association beyond both market domination and political compromise that she called “integration”: 

An individual as an abstraction does not meet another individual as an abstraction; it is always activity meeting activity. …What happens when I meet another person for the first time? … I have different wants to integrate; you have different wants to integrate. Then there are your wants and my wants to be joined. But the process is not that I integrate my desires, you yours, and then we together unite the results; I often make my own integration through and by means of my integration with you. (1924, 177)

Follett, writing in the early 1920s, could observe the “disintegration” (also a creative force) of the German empire in 1918 “as a signal sign of advancing liberalism” (1924, 178). Unfortunately, raw emotion and power politics soon won out over abstract parliamentary procedure, the fragile constitutional order being no match for the competing ideological interests of a war ravaged, economically hamstrung nation. One wonders what may have transpired if liberals in Germany were able to apply Follett’s administrative theory. 

Whitehead may not agree with more philosophically idealist personalists on all points, but his intuition given condensed gnomic expression on the final two pages of Process and Reality concerning the intimate connection between human personality and the consequent nature of God (1929, 350) suggest a deeper consonance. For French personalists like Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), the political conflict and metaphysical confusion following the first world war called for something more than an uncritical endorsement of liberal democracy. He worried that the consumerism, individualism, and mass culture that flourished under and were even encouraged by liberal states made these polities especially vulnerable to totalitarian takeover, whether from the communist left or fascist right (Williams 2022; Mounier 1952, Ch. V). This is because on his view the abstract, formal definition of human freedom defended by liberal theorists could only function as a debasement of the true nature and moral value of the human person. Western liberals remain embarrassed by the deep moral roots of their own political values, namely the Biblical idea of the human being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), believing instead that human rights originate in and are endowed by secular human institutions and associations. Personalists do not at all begrudge the development of human rights: witness Jacques Maritain’s role in the drafting of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration. But they warn that a failure to affirm the truly divine value of persons leaves an inviting vacuum to be filled by objectifying concepts of the human being, whether as Volk mystically identified with the Führer, as material-economic products in need of communist re-education, or as hedonistic consumers enjoying a life of untrammeled private freedom in service of capital accumulation.

Dombrowksi notes the Rawlsian distinction between theoretical conceptions and moral ideals of human persons, insisting that “conceptions of the human person underdetermine moral theory” (e.g., Catholics all accept the imago Dei principle but vary dramatically in their political application of it, ranging from the personalism of Mounier and Maritain, to Marxist liberation theology, to Opus Dei fascism, to political liberalism); as a result of this underdetermination, liberal democracies must remain neutral as regards “competing conceptions of the human person” (2019, 15). Of course, there are limits to liberal tolerance of such conceptions, namely that all parties no matter their metaphysics agree to mutually respect one another as rational agents and to fair decision-making procedures. But deeper than this sort of tolerance, and indeed grounding of the mutual respect required for the functioning of its institutions, is the metaphysical affirmation of natural rights rooted in the imago Dei principle or some similar spiritual source (rough translations of this principle, though obviously not equivalencies, can be found in non-theistic wisdom traditions, e.g., the Mahayana Buddhist concept of Buddha-nature/tathagatagarbha). Dombrowski (2019, 9-10) cites Rawls’ footnote (1999, 442-3n30) wherein the latter affirms a source “established independently from social conventions and legal norms” that affirms “the concept of natural rights…assigned in the first instance to persons.” 

While it is true, as Charles Hartshorne often put it, that “a liberal is someone who knows that he or she is not God” (Dombrowski 2019, 154), it appears that Rawls himself ultimately holds individual rights to be inalienable, thus the human person inviolable, because we are created in God’s image. Secular liberals may object that this sort of religious reasoning has no legitimate place in a pluralistic democratic society. The source of our rights to life and liberty must either be bracketed or institutionally constructed. But is such quietism or formalism sufficient to protect a democratic order from the threats it faces from the comprehensive doctrines motivating both left- and right-wing extremes? If one accepts Whitehead’s secularization of the concept of God’s function in the world, including his amendments to the traditional divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience, I would argue the imago Dei principle (or a similar spiritual principle from non-theistic traditions) enhances rather than pollutes public reason. If God is love rather than force and knows only as much as creativity allows, then “we do not make ourselves more like God by utterly rejecting [epistemic and ontic] anxiety” (Dombrowski 2019, 156; summarizing Malone-France 2012). To affirm that liberal political values stem from a spiritual source is not to impose one comprehensive doctrine in the face of a plurality of other reasonable doctrines, but simply to admit that there is no such thing as a neutral starting point for the derivation of such values. Liberals committed to individual rights and reasonable pluralism should be more forthright about the metaphysical grounds of their values. Whitehead’s open and relational process theism provides an especially helpful guide in this respect. Liberals can also turn to personalists like Martin Buber (2013) or Emmanuel Levinas (1979) for examples of how these values can be grounded in the experiential immediacy of face-to-face encounters, rather than in discursive theoretical arguments. Follett offers her own such vision: 

The essence of experience, the law of relation, is reciprocal freeing: here is ‘the rock and substance of the human spirit.’… We are all rooted in that great unknown in which are the infinite latents of humanity. And these latents are evoked, called forth into visibility, summoned, by the action and reaction of one on the other. All human intercourse should be the evocation by each from the other of new forms undreamed of before, and all intercourse that is not evocation should be eschewed. … The test of the validity of any social process is whether this is taking place—between one and another, between capital and labor, between nation and nation. … To free the energies of the human spirit is the high potentiality of all human association. (1924, 303)

As Mounier has it, the nature of the human person cannot be systematized, nor its moral status reduced to the terms of any legal form or political program. It is not institutions that create our natural rights or freedom, but our freedom that creates (and destroys) institutions. The introduction to Mounier’s Personalism (1952) resonates deeply with Whitehead’s account of human self-consciousness (see footnotes): 

The person is not the most marvelous object in the world, nor anything else that we can know from the outside. It is the one reality that we know, and that we are at the same time fashioning, from within. Present everywhere, it is given nowhere. … A fount of experience, springing into the world, it expresses itself by an incessant creation of situations, life-patterns and institutions. But the essence of the person, being indefinable, is never exhausted by its expression, nor subjected to anything by which it is conditioned. Nor is it definable as some internal substratum, as a substance lurking underneath our attitudes, an abstract principle of our overt behavior…It is a living activity of self-creation, of communication and of attachment, that grasps and knows itself, in the act, as the movement of becoming personal. To this experience, no one can be conditioned or compelled. (1952, 3)[2]  

Whitehead could easily affirm this view of human experience as “the movement of becoming personal.” In light of the personalist emphasis on indefinability, it is essential that the process liberal keep their abstract deliberations in the original position honest and realistic by refusing to stray from consideration of concrete experience, as Dombrowski himself affirms (2019, 153). 

Gaian Political Ecology

According to Wolin (2022), Schmitt was present at the University of Munich in 1921 when Max Weber delivered his famous lecture on “Science as a Vocation.” On Wolin’s reading, 

Schmitt agreed wholeheartedly with Weber’s characterization of modernity as an ‘iron cage’: a world in which the corrosive powers of ‘rationalization’ and ‘disenchantment’ had precipitated a crisis of ‘meaninglessness.’ (2022, I)

Bruno Latour has made a career as a sociologist of science by calling this myth of modernity into question. While it may be true that contemporary liberal societies are faced with something of a “meaning crisis” (as philosopher John Vervaeke refers to it[3]), Latour argues compellingly that modern science has not, in fact, purified itself of religion nor disenchanted the world. In alignment with Whitehead’s claim in Science and the Modern World (1925, 13) that “faith in the possibility of science…is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology,” Latour reveals how the scientific worldview is more mixed up with religion than moderns like to admit: in the course of lengthy battles in the 17th century, science borrowed the traditional theological idea of “matter” to invent a “material world” governed by an overtly religious view of the nature of deterministic causation, wherein all the action is placed in the antecedent such that “it hardly matters…whether the antecedent is called an omnipotent Creator or omnipotent Causality” (Latour 2017, 71).[4] In Latour’s view, science did not so much disenchant the world as learn to sing a different song (Latour 2017, 72). His task as sociologist was to disentangle the exact methods of the various sciences from the still too theological origin story of capital-S Science. 

We have known all this, of course, we who for a long time have been studying this curious obsession of the Moderns with deanimating the world in which they have nevertheless been causing unexpected and surprising agents to proliferate. We were well aware that the rationalizing style had no relationship with the sciences as they are practiced. This was even what had allowed me to assert, twenty-five years ago, that ‘we have never been modern.’ (Latour 2017, 72; referencing Latour 1993)

Whitehead similarly rejects the modern scientistic image of nature as valueless, deterministic material that might be entirely subdued by human technologies. Latour shares and amplifies Whitehead’s protest against “the bifurcation of nature” first annunciated in The Concept of Nature (1920, Ch. 2). The bifurcation of nature enforced by scientific materialism has led modern societies to deanimate the nonhuman natural world, deeming it little more than a collection of inert objects, and to overanimate the human, deeming it the sole possessor of subjectivity and creative freedom (Latour 2017, 85). 

In We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour paints the picture this way: Modernity in its liberal and communist forms had a twin mission, “the double task of emancipation and domination” (1993, 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters and possessors of nature. These two tasks depend upon one another, such that challenging the image of nature as raw material to be owned and reverse engineered to serve human purposes also challenges the liberatory project of modern politics. 

Like Schmitt, Latour returns to Hobbes, but he draws a somewhat different lesson in light of the planet-wide ecological mutation now undeniably underway (remember, as Schmitt says, “all historical knowledge is present knowledge”). Hobbes’ Leviathan remains important to techno-scientifically-minded moderns as a reminder of the inescapably entangled history of modern science, politics, and religion (Latour 2017, 147-9). Natural science was not then and is not now purified of sociological and theological elements. Amidst the 17th century’s religious wars and scientific revolution, Hobbes sought to achieve a lasting peace by replacing the “immortal god” invoked by various religious fundamentalists with the “mortal god” of the sovereign state. He drew up a treaty to be signed on the basis of a new metaphysics, one that distributed agency according to the new materialism. Among the agencies were an inert matter governed by mechanistic laws of nature known with scientific certainty, a society driven solely by the passion of interest, and a strictly controlled interpretation of the figurative language of the Bible. Hobbes sought to extract human society from the state of nature by means of a social contract. Latour’s Gaian political ecology, arising at the terminal moment of the Cenozoic era, cannot but scramble Hobbes’ early modern attempt to purify these categories. James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia is a muddle, the exact opposite of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Unlike “nature” or “the material world” as moderns had conceived of it, Gaia is not the inert background of human history but animate, vibrating underfoot, a proliferation of responsive nature-culture hybrids. Human beings, too, find themselves in quite a muddle. Social authority has become increasingly scattered and diffuse; science has become increasingly mixed up with techno-industrial capitalism; and the Pope has found himself attempting to lay claim to ecology. Humanity has been overcome with political inertia just as what used to be called “matter” has come to life in the form of Gaia’s reaction to our industrial provocations. In Latour’s words: 

We can no more indulge in the belief that the question of nature has been resolved, that religion is a thing of the past, that science offers an unquestionable certainty, that we can fool ourselves into believing that we know the driving forces that agitate humans or the goals of politics. (2017, 150)

From Latour’s non-modern perspective, neither “nature” nor “society” can survive the ecological mutation unscathed. The theater of modern history has been destroyed and must be re-constructed from the ground up. Gone is the passive stage, “nature,” upon which the actors, “rational animals,” have for so long waged their wars and signed their peace treaties. The Anthropos is no longer in nature, nor outside of nature. Latour heralds the coming of an entirely new kind of political animal, a novel form of political body. They are a people to come, the people of Gaia, agents of an impatient planet. That the supposedly incontestable category, “human,” does not apply universally could not be made more evident than by the notion of “human-caused climate change.” Responsibility for the climate catastrophe is obviously not evenly distributed among members of our species. Unfortunately, its effects will not be evenly distributed, either. Sea level rise, food shortage, disease, and other disasters will disproportionately affect precisely those sectors of the world population that are least responsible for causing the catastrophe. Today climate change is perpetuated by certain industrialized sectors of the human population, that is, by a particular people (consumer-capitalists) summoned by a particular God: Mammon (i.e., the capitalist market). Gaia, now fully sensitive to the presence of the people of Mammon, is growing increasingly impatient with that presence.

Latour does not believe Gaia provides some sort of political magnet that might swiftly, as if by magic, unify us into a global people. Even climatology has become politically contested, not to mention the questions of who should pay for climate change mitigation or what to do about untold millions of climate refugees who are already seeking resettlement in the Global North. So far Gaia is more likely to divide than to unite us. Latour (2017, 144) compares Gaia to Jesus, who says: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). In other words, Gaia is not here to reason with us but forces us to decide on fundamental cosmopolitical questions: “What people are you forming, with what cosmology, and on what territory?” (2017 143-4). The need for such decision is putting tremendous pressure on liberal political institutions, severely challenging their superficial universality and supposed metaphysical neutrality. 

Latour finds it difficult to secularize “nature,” since the Science claiming knowledge of it already has so much religion in it. Modern science is the inheritor of the Axial monotheisms’ “counter-religiosity,” i.e., their negligence of the ultimate concerns and absolute authorities affirmed by the plurality of other people’s religions (2017, 152). Like monotheism, which insisted on One True God, modern Science insisted on objective Nature. Latour argues that the Gaian muddle we find ourselves in calls for a more diplomatic pluralism that is “at once post-natural, post-human, and post-epistemological” (2017, 144). For Latour, secularizing the modern idea of nature means replacing it with the Lovelockean vision of Gaia. “With Gaia, Lovelock is asking us to believe not in a single Providence, but in as many Providences as there are organisms on Earth” (2017, 100). 

Cosmopolitical Theology

Latour’s Lovelockean secularization of nature finds its polar complement in Whitehead’s secularization of God, a feat he accomplishes by divinizing the cosmos. God is not an omnipotent dēmiurgós above the world, but becomes “the judge arising out of the very nature of things, redeemer or goddess of mischief,” an incarnate love providing “the particular providence for particular occasions” (Whitehead 1929, 351). Whitehead’s is a depth democracy, deeper than most modern liberalisms and socialisms. He rejects modern anthropocentric individualism, totalitarian collectivism, and techno-scientific materialism in favor of a cosmopolitical vision of each of us as individuals-in-community, or in Paul’s terms, “members one of another” (Romans 12:5). 

Whitehead’s clearest articulation of the political relevance of his process philosophy occurs in the first “sociological” part of Adventures of Ideas (1933). He operates under the assumption that human civilization has profound cosmological and theological significance. The fact that civilized beings have emerged in the course of the evolution of the universe tells us something important about the nature and perhaps even the purpose of this universe. Whitehead’s speculative hypothesis is that the rise of human civilization exemplifies the effective lure of ideas in the adventure of cosmogenesis. While the issue of novel ideas into practical consequences may be slow, the upward adventure of life on Earth testifies to their persuasive power. 

For Whitehead, history is far more than a collection of facts. Were we to be presented with the bare facts, devoid of any theoretical interpretation, we would have merely sound vibrations and the motion of colored shapes (1933, 3). History is a story told in the present, often to serve as material for the formation of our own self-understanding and moral motivation. Further, our imaginations of history are inseparable from our metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. 

Whitehead’s philosophical study of history reveals a general dichotomy, that between senseless, often violent, compulsion and consciously formulated aspiration. People “are driven by their thoughts as well as by the molecules in their bodies, by intelligence and by senseless forces” (1933, 46). Whitehead lists environmental conditions and the brute necessities of technological production (e.g., the socially transformative effects of coal, steam, electricity, and oil) among the senseless forces, and Axial religion and democratic equality as examples of intelligent aspiration (1933, 7).  

While Whitehead was himself a progressive liberal (he was involved in the women’s rights and educational reform movements of his day), he cautions against the impetuous insistence upon imposing new ideas in the wrong season. Sometimes in the rush to implement social improvements, attendant complexities are ignored, and the attempt to remove an evil ends up releasing further evils (1933, 20). 

A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good [people] to carry it into practical effect. …The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification.” (1933, 21)

Ideals may be well-intentioned, but due to the complexities of both nature and culture (and the complex interplay and overlap between them), the actual effects of their untimely implementation often far outrun any conscious intent.

Whitehead dwells on the institutions of human sacrifice and slavery long accepted among supposedly civilized peoples as examples of the power of inherited instinctive behaviors to override higher ideals. “Freedom” was almost a meaningless notion for earlier societies, such as the Egyptian or Babylonian (1933, 49). Whitehead tasks philosophy with seeking to consciously entertain and articulate those ultimate intuitions, obscured by habitual customs, that nonetheless guide human beings toward civilized order, that is, toward a world wherein the persuasion of free beings has emerged victorious over coercive force as the prime agent of history (1933, 25). 

Whitehead offers an updated rendering of Plato’s suggestion in the Republic—that the ideal state would be run by philosopher-kings: 

Today, in an age of democracy, the kings are plain citizens pursuing their various avocations. There can be no successful democratic society till general education conveys a philosophic outlook.” (1933, 98)

Such a philosophical outlook would marshal wisdom as a “modifying agency” upon the two streams that feed into our consciousness, that is, inherited instincts/routines and intellectual ferment/spontaneity (1933, 47). Wisdom functions to coalesce these streams into some self-determining (i.e., free) and integrative judgment. Wise decision-making is limited by the limitations of our consciousness: “We do not initiate thought by an effort of self-consciousness. We find ourselves thinking, just as we find ourselves breathing and enjoying the sunset” (1933, 47). Nonetheless, few are willing to deny the role of knowledge and freedom in human life, though admittedly they tend to come in brief and unexpected flashes. Civilization advances, if it does, because wisdom kindles these flashes into the flame of virtue, which melts and makes malleable inherited customs to light the way toward juster futures. 

Whitehead sees little evidence that humanity’s inborn mental capacities have increased during the historical period. Rather, he points to “the outfit which the environment provides for the service of thought,” that is, to the impact of various media technologies (e.g., literary and mathematical symbolisms, communication methods, etc.). The downside is that technologically mediated intelligence is liable to get locked into its favored abstractions, “[dismissing] the baffling aspects of things” in favor of the certainty provided by logical system. “Wisdom,” Whitehead suggests, 

is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions…The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes. (1933, 47-48)

Writing in the early 20th century, Whitehead thought that the economic sphere constituted the “most massive problem of human relationships” (1933, 62). He maintains high hopes for commerce, since ideally “it is the great example of intercourse in the way of persuasion,” while “war, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force” (1933, 83). But difficulties stand in the way of realizing the ideal. Whitehead decries the invention of corporate personhood, which he believes totally undermined classical liberal political philosophy, wherein freedom belonged to individual human beings, rather than to fictional corporate entities. He also questions the hazy notion of private property, which with the expansion of monopolistic corporate rule and competitive market dynamics has come to signify little more than “the will of the stronger” (1933, 63). 

Whitehead admits that the classical liberal idea of “absolute individuals with absolute rights” is both metaphysically and politically inadequate: “The human being is inseparable from its environment in each occasion of its existence” (1933, 63). His process-relational understanding of reality has it that individuals, while they constitute the real loci of aesthetic and moral value, are nonetheless emergent from their social relations. Similarly, societies are shaped by the decisions of their members. The emergence of individuals from their social relations means that custom forms the instinctive basis of our behavior. But determination by custom is not total, as individuals are also free to emphasize novel intuitions of alternative courses of action, and to consciously agree to mutually beneficial transactions with one another. In the end, 

nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance. Sporadic spontaneity is composed of flashes mutually thwarting each other. Ideas have to be sustained, disentangled, diffused, and coordinated with the background. Finally they pass into exemplification in action. (1933, 64)

Obviously, much work remains to be done in nominally democratic societies to translate the ideal of freedom into the economic domain.

Whitehead traces the rise of the ideal of freedom in the history of human societies. Once a negligible fancy, it has gradually become the founding value of democratic societies. But he warns us against conceiving of freedom in purely cultural terms, as freedom of thought and speech, of the press, or of religious practice; that is, it is shortsighted to conceive of restraints on our freedom as stemming merely from the conflicting desires of other human beings. It is not our fellow human beings, but the “massive habits of physical nature” that constrain our freedom and set the scene for our suffering: “birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease…all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men” (1933, 66). Process-influenced political philosopher William Connolly (2013) recounts the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which provides as striking an example as we could ask for of what Whitehead means. Connolly describes how the senseless shock of this terrible natural disaster fed into the emergent Enlightenment mentality represented by Voltaire, who in his satirical book Candide (1759) ridiculed both traditional religious consolations as well as Leibniz’s rationalist conception that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. In Connolly’s terms, the Lisbon earthquake, like all natural disasters, exemplifies the way “the human estate is both imbricated with and periodically over-matched by a cosmos composed of multiple, interacting force fields moving at different speeds” (2013, 7). 

Rather than adopting an atheistic position in response to nature’s vicissitudes and the fragility of human life, Whitehead affirms the role of Ideas in history, believing that we can directly intuit an eternal Good beyond all changing circumstances. Without such ideal intuitions to stir the soul toward higher life and deeper relation, he sees no reason why civilized beings should have come to exist in the first place.

Whitehead critiques the socioeconomic consequences of the Malthusian doctrine and the attendant Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest,” which he believes are at best an over-simplification and, at worst, when compared with the recent facts of European history, demonstrably false. The doctrine naturalizes the inequalities of capitalist society, with its “fortunate few, and…semi-destitute many,” forcing us to abandon “hope of improving the social system by a humane adjustment of social…conditions” (1933, 73). Connolly demonstrates the continued effect of these doctrines in his discussion of neoliberalism, an ideology seeking to use state power to inject market dynamics into all domains of human life (2013, 21). The assumption is that the self-organizing dynamics of the market will result in the best of all possible worlds. Neoliberalism is thus a kind of capitalist Panglossianism (2013, 6) (Pangloss is Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz).

Though Whitehead emphasizes the selective agency required for the evolution of civilization out of nonhuman nature, he rejects the prevalent dichotomy between humanity and nature. “Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature” (1933, 78). Life itself is about more than mere survival, as living beings are constantly groping toward novelty and expansion of their powers. In the human sphere, it follows that “a policy of sociological defense is doomed to failure” (1933, 81). “In a live civilization, there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change” (1933, 83).

Whitehead’s speculative scheme extends some degree of subjectivity and self-creativity beyond the human to every creature in the cosmos, such that our sense of moral ideals—of what has value and how it ought to be treated—cannot be separated from our sense of scientific fact or ontology—of what there is and how it comes to exist: 

The basis of democracy is the common fact of value experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole. This characterizes the meaning of actuality. By reason of this character, constituting reality, the conception of morals arises. We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity. Also no unit can separate itself from the others, and from the whole. And yet each unit exists in its own right. It upholds value intensity for itself, and this involves sharing value intensity with the universe. Everything that in any sense exists has two sides, namely, its individual self and its signification in the universe. Also either of these aspects is a factor in the other. (Whitehead 1938, 111)

Whitehead’s politics is thus a cosmopolitics, a “democracy of fellow creatures” that calls humans to dramatically expand our circle of ethical concern not only to include all members of our own species, but also the nonhuman persons belonging to all species of life. Humans may still be unique at least in our heightened capacity for reflective abstraction (Whitehead 1938, 102-3) and self-consciousness of imaginative participation in the divine nature (by whatever name we refer to it), even if the divine image or Logos enlivens every creature in turn. “We, who are many, are one body in Christ,” as Paul put it (Romans 12:4). Politics is thus not about the friend/enemy distinction, but a means of coming, through ongoing diplomatic encounter, to understand and sympathize with the values and experiences of others. The only reason any of us exist as we do today is because our ancestors found some way of coexisting, of composing common worlds together. Cosmopolitics is about finding a way to continue and deepen our existing relationality, and is thus a compositional, cocreative activity, as far from Hobbes’ “war of all against all”/Bellum omnium contra omnes as could be imagined. 

Schmitt links the historical development of liberal constitutionalism to a kind of Jeffersonian deism. Just as God was, as it were, neutralized by being conceived of as “wholly other” to the natural world, genuine sovereignty becomes neutralized by being equated with the constitutional order. Just as the deistic God cannot break the laws of nature, no authoritarian ruler can break the laws of the state. All miracles are banished from the world, and with them any concrete legal conception of the sovereign decision about when protection of the legal order requires an exception. The machine of the liberal state, like the machine of nature, is supposed to run automatically without exception. Eventually, even deism became unbelievable and was replaced either by a more pantheistic or atheistic immanence or by a positivist indifference to metaphysics as such. Political revolutionaries began to replace God with man, insisting that all that stood in the way of human freedom was traditional religious dogmas and the political forms these dogmas supported. As Engels put it (quoted by Schmitt 1922, 51; from Schriften aus der Frühzeit, 1920): “The essence of the state, as of religion, is mankind’s fear of itself.”

Whitehead rejects both the deist’s separation of an absolutely transcendent God from an entirely immanent nature as well as the positivist’s pretense to have no need for metaphysics (all the positivist means when they deny metaphysics, Whitehead would say, is that they don’t like having their own covert metaphysics criticized). Whitehead’s processual panentheism invites us to imagine God as both beyond and within the world: “The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” as he puts it (1927, 149). In other words, Whitehead’s secularization of the concept of God invites us to perceive every instance of worldly creativity—each actual occasion of experience—as itself a miracle made in the image of God (Whitehead 1929, 85). Such a vision, if it commands anything, calls us to attend reverentially to every creature and to each unique human person, who in innumerably diverse ways reflects and embodies the infinite love and wisdom of God. 

Prospects for Process Liberalism

Schmitt’s Political Theology climaxes with his turn to the book’s principle protagonist, the Catholic counter-revolutionary political theologian Juan Donoso Cortés. Donoso began his life as a liberal diplomat advocating for constitutional monarchy, but gradually grew more conservative as Europe’s political situation grew more chaotic. The revolutions of 1848 marked his definitive turn away from liberalism toward Catholic dictatorship. Schmitt praises Donoso’s intense consciousness of “the metaphysical kernel of all politics” (1922, 51). Just as the liberal positivists could not grasp the significance of the personal element in decisionist concepts of state sovereignty, Donoso could not grasp the scientism shaping their mechanistic conceptions of political order. His political and cosmological imagination remained resolutely medieval.  

While Donoso’s love of all things medieval led some to consider him a product of Romanticism, Schmitt insists that this is a reductive misreading. Schmitt sees Romantics, like liberals, as too easily satisfied with endless conversation and at best merely aesthetic resolutions (see Schmitt 1986, 139). Donoso and other counter-revolutionary Catholic thinkers argued, like Schmitt, that the times demanded a firm decision. Neither the syntheses of Hegelian dialects nor the evolving potencies of Schellingian Naturphilosophie were adequate to the moral disjunction—the either/or—that Donoso insisted upon. Donoso rejected “the strange pantheistic confusion” he perceived in the German idealists. For the decisionists, there can be no higher third or complex identity of identity and difference, no mutual immanence between the soul, the world, and God. It is either the omnipotent Being of the traditional Catholic God, or the abyss of nihilism; either good or evil, life or death. 

Schmitt’s claim that “Every political idea in one way or another takes a position on the nature of man” (1922, 56) is difficult to dispute. Are we good or sinful by nature? This decisive issue, on Schmitt’s reading, can only be clouded by educational or economic explanations, the terms in which liberals and socialists may prefer to discuss the matter. Fichte, for example, saw the state as little more than a tyrannical “educational factory,” while Marx just denied outright that humanity has a nature, since we are molded always by the socioeconomic conditions of a given historical epoch. In general, the atheistic anarchists insisted that humanity is basically good, and that all evil stems from theology or the state authority it justifies. Donoso, predictably, bases his political theology on an anthropology of original sin: “Had God not become man, the reptile that my foot tramples would have been less contemptuous than a human being” (quoted by Schmitt 1922, 58). He is so convinced of the utter depravity of human nature, the stupidity of the masses and the vanity of their leaders, and the near complete disaster of history that even Schmitt recoils from Donoso’s pessimism, seeking a more doctrinal view of sin as an injury that can be repaired. 

Schmitt relays Donoso’s mid-19th century apocalyptic conviction that “the bloody decisive battle” between Catholicism and atheist socialism had arrived (1922, 59). Donoso disdained bourgeois liberalism precisely because it shrunk from decisiveness in the face of this battle, retreating instead into the evasiveness of everlasting discussion. In Schmitt’s view, “A class that shifts all political activity onto the plane of conversation in the press and in parliament is no match for social conflict” (1922, 59). Schmitt then enumerates the “curious contradictions of liberalism” as he perceived them during the Weimar period: 

Although the liberal bourgeoisie wanted a god, its god could not become active; it wanted a monarch, but he had to be powerless; it demanded freedom and equality but limited voting rights to the propertied classes in order to ensure the influence of education and property on legislation, as if education and property entitled that class to repress the poor and uneducated; it abolished the aristocracy of blood and family but permitted the impudent rule of the moneyed aristocracy, the most ignorant and the most ordinary form of an aristocracy; it wanted neither the sovereignty of the king nor that of the people. What did it actually want? (1922, 60)

While some liberal theorists tried to construe this metaphysical indecisiveness as an expression of the organic life of a pluralistic democratic society, these contradictions contributed to liberalism’s growing irrelevance as communist and fascist extremes vied for total power over the German state. Since Schmitt, like Donoso, accepted that the idea of the divine right of kings had become incredible, he did not reject democracy but sought to anoint a demagogue to corral the will of the people in devotion to the sovereign Führer. The secular liberal miracle of truth emerging naturally from free speech and a free press did not occur. Instead, Hitler harnessed the new psycho-technology of radio—the Volksempfängeror “people’s receiver” (Meier 2018)[5]—and raised an army of committed national socialists. In a state of emergency, faced with the existential threat of what he perceived to be radical evil, Schmitt sought legal justification for fascism. The choice, as he saw it, was anarchy or authority, and he was decisive. 

Fortunately, this is not only a forced but a false choice. As we’ve seen, on Dombrowski’s reading (2019, 21), Rawlsian political liberalism must be distinguished from liberalism as a comprehensive metaphysical doctrine, the latter being just one among a plurality of potentially reasonable comprehensive doctrines (some theological, others not). Politics is thus not the place to debate human nature or other matters of ultimate concern, but rather an arena wherein reasonable, rational agents adhering to varying comprehensive doctrines can nonetheless agree on a fair decision-making procedure that respects the rights of all to life and liberty (i.e., “the right is prior to the good”). At the same time, and contrary to Schmitt’s caricature of liberalism, Dombrowski shows how Rawls, rather than seeking to entirely purify political theory of the personal, emphasizes that it is precisely the moral personhood of each citizen—established independently of any social convention or legal procedure—that entitles them to rights. Despite first appearances, Rawls’ theory of justice is, on his own admission, rooted in some version of natural rights theory (Dombrowski 2019, 8-10) and perhaps ultimately even some version of the imago Dei principle (2019, 3). 

In place of any pretense to positivist neutrality, the core of my argument is that process liberals are better positioned to admit and to rationally defend the metaphysical grounds of their political values than Rawls, who remained something of a fideist (Dombrowski 2019, 28). As Whitehead himself warned, liberalism without metaphysics loses its intelligible justification (Whitehead 1933, 36). I agree wholeheartedly with Dombrowski that “the fact that [political liberalism] either encourages or requires [metaphysical views] should be more widely known” (2019, 72). I also accept that in a pluralistic society the political arena as such is not the place to debate the ultimate nature of reality, with the important exception that the liberal ideal of mutual respect among equals presupposes the spiritual ground of human personhood (as the image of a loving God, or Buddha-nature, etc.). Whitehead did not hold it to be possible, nor desirable, for those of diverse comprehensive doctrines to agree on all the details of their views. But he did believe that it was possible, despite differences in sympathetic intuitions and stresses on various metaphysical insights, “to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and in general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence” (1933, 161). That human persons are divinely endowed with inalienable rights to life and liberty is one such element, essential for the healthy functioning of any liberal political project.

As Dombrowski makes clear, a Rawlsian process liberalism is decisive that democratic values require the just economic distribution of all basic goods within a society: “formal liberties like freedom of speech do not amount to much if there is not also material freedom from hunger” (2019, 136). Process liberalism is thus decisive in its rejection of neoliberal capitalism as a system predicated upon injustice and “the curse of money”; but it is just as decisive in its rejection of centralized communism as a system insensitive to the democratic rights of individuals (2019, 137, 144). Finally, process liberals must decisively affirm that in the self-consciousness of our own freedom is revealed also the parousia of an all-loving God: “For the kingdom of heaven is with us today” (Whitehead 1929, 351). 


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[1] See also Schmitt’s Political Romanticism (1986). Schmitt presumably also rejected the organically differentiating conception of society put forward by his anarchic esoteric Christian contemporary, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s “social threefolding” movement emerged in the aftermath of the first world war, proposing a differentiation between political/legal, cultural/spiritual, and economic domains guided by the values of equality, freedom, and solidarity, respectively. See Segall, The Urgency of Social Threefolding in a World Still at War With Itself.

[2] Whitehead affirmed a reformed subjectivist principle that saw human experience as an exemplification of a more generic texture of experience pervading the cosmos: “Our datum is the actual world, including ourselves; and this actual world spreads itself for observation in the guise of the topic of our immediate experience” (1929, 4). 

“The body…is only a peculiarly intimate bit of the world. Just as Descartes said, ‘this body is mine’; so he should have said, ‘this actual world is mine.’ My process of ‘being myself’ is my origination from my possession of the world (1929, 81)

[3] See https://vervaekefoundation.org/what-is-the-meaning-crisis/

[4] Dombrowski’s neoclassical process theism leads him to an identical criticism of what, following Hartshorne, he calls “etiolatry,” or worship of causes (2019, 44).

[5] For a Whiteheadian look at the metaphysical implications of 21st century media technologies, see Segal 2019. 

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