Total Enemies: Understanding ‘The Total Enemy’ through Schmitt, Arendt, Foucault, and Agamben
by Mikkel Thorup
Mikkel Thorup is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and the History of Ideas, University of Aarhus, Denmark. Mikkel's specific interest is the political history of ideas, i.e., the ways in which we justify and criticize political actions, especially those actions that are morally questionable, such as political violence. He is the author of An Intellectual History of Terror (Routledge, 2012). His website can be accessed here.
AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF TERROR: War, Violence and the State
Author: Mikkel Thorup
Published on: 2012
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This book investigates terrorism and anti-terrorism as related and interacting phenomena, undertaking a simultaneous reading of terrorist and statist ideologists in order to reconstruct the ‘deadly dialogue’ between them. The main focus is on how the state and its challengers have conceptualized and legitimated themselves, defended their existence and, most importantly, their violence. In doing so, the book situates terrorism and anti-terrorism within modernity’s grander history of state, war, ideology and violence. This book will be of much interest to students of critical terrorism studies, political violence, sociology, philosophy, and Security Studies/IR in general.
During the Stalin era a Cheka deputy M. Latsis said: “Do not look for evidence that the accused rose up against Soviet power with arms or with words. The first thing you should ask is to which class he belongs, his social origin, his education, and his profession. It is these questions that should decide his fate. This is the essence of Red Terror” (Gregroy 2009: 110). When, after the end of the Nazi regime, a doctor who participated in the mass killings was asked how he could reconcile the Hippocratic Oath with his actions during the war, the doctor said: “Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.” (Lifton 2000: 15-16).
How are we to understand two such radical statements on the enemy? This article will explore the idea that totalitarianism introduced a completely new and hitherto unseen enmification process and enemy category, namely the ‘total enemy’ whose enemy status was derived from being rather than action. Rather than focus on totalitarian actors or enmification processes I will reconstruct how a number of significant thinkers have tried to grasp and conceptualize this ‘break’ in the history of enmity introduced by totalitarianism.
The article will have three main sections starting with Carl Schmitt and his interwar theories of ‘the total’ as a new political and ideational armament of the state as well as his post-war reflections on the ‘absolute enemy’. The next section will deal with Hannah Arendt’s elaborate but unsystematized theory of the totalitarian enemy and her strong thesis of a completely new enemy complex in totalitarian societies. This section will also include Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of the Holocaust and the idea that in racism one ‘exists before one acts’ making one’s qualification as an enemy something one bears as a body. This point towards the third and final section dealing with Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s notion of a biopolitical enmity and totalitarianism’s conflation of war/peace, exception/normality, individual/collectivity.
I. Carl Schmitt’s Many Enemies
Perhaps no one scholar has been as closely associated with enmity as Carl Schmitt. He made it a defining feature of his definition of politics; much of his work can be said to be explorations of the instrumental value of various enmity forms while also seeing these forms as diagnostic symptoms of various political and judicial constellations. And finally is he himself, due to his involvement in Nazi politics, the center of various enmity positions. That is not our concern here. It is rather to summarize his theory of various enemy forms and to document how he – despite a 1937 article on ‘Total Enemy, Total War, Total State’ (Schmitt 1994) never really did engage with the totalitarian form of enmity.
The article was part of a broader Continental European interwar exploration of ‘the total’, an exploration Schmitt took a very active part in. ‘The total’ was mobilized in opposition to what was thought to be the now obsolete liberal era of individualism and non-intervention. In the era of the masses and planning, the concept of ‘the total’ seemed to summarize the new political challenge. In Germany general Erich von Ludendorff spoke of ‘the total war’ (Ludendorff 1935), the writer Ernst Jünger about the ‘total mobilization’ (Jünger 1930), the jurist Ernst Forsthoff of ‘the total state’ (Forsthoff 1930), and the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels spoke in 1939 about the ‘The Total Revolution of National Socialism‘ which “has embraced all areas of public life and transformed them from below. It has completely changed and recast the relationship of people to each other, to the state, and to life itself.“ (Goebbels 1995: 133-5). In Spain the leader of the Falange Española, José Antonio Primo de Rivera spoke of the need for a” total feeling of what is required: a total feeling for the Fatherland, for life, for History” (Rivera 1995: 187-8). Similar sentiments could be heard in Italy and throughout Europe. The concept of ‘the total’ clearly resonated with a reading of the times and seemed to summarize a forceful approach to political power.
It is in this context that Schmitt wrote his 1937-article and other minor pieces on ‘the total’ reflecting on the related developments of war, the state and enmity. And they got phrased or interpreted through a competition between logics, the logic of territoriality – characterized by limits, hedging of conflicts, rational or conventional enmity – versus the logic of universality – characterized by a complete disintegration of all limits and a totalizing, all-including enmity.
Firstly we have the ‘conventional enmity’(or just enmity), the ideal according to which the other enmities are measured. This is the great achievement of the nation state era. It is also what we here describe as political enmity. It describes a relation of enmity between states who recognize, fight and negotiate with each other. The conventional just enemy is recognized as an equal and the war is thus contained through international law and a code of honour among combatants. European international law was, according to Schmitt, based, inscribed or grounded in earth, territory, boundaries drawn on the land and, ultimately, on the division into states. From this derives the real, the contained, the most peaceful available kind of law, war and enmity. The Europe of land-based law is the classical epoch, the era of the jus publicum Europaeum, where Europe writes the law.
This state of (idealized) international relations is disrupted, when Britain turns to the sea .A split is introduced in Europe. Law based on land develops, according to Schmitt, a codified war, a contained enmity, where state confronts state, each with a regularized army. Only the fighting armies are in principle enemies and the civilian population is considered beyond the fighting. This is the scene of the conventional enmity. But once a dominant power turns to the sea, all this changes, because the sea is a stateless space, which renders the interstate containment of enmity impossible (Schmitt 2003: 382). Britain initiates a ‘space revolution’ in its choice of the sea (Schmitt 1981: 54-7).
Out of Britain’s maritime dominance, an absolute enmity emerges. The sea is a natural borderland. It isn’t owned by anyone, it defies proper institutionalization or demarcation and it evades being filled with infrastructural power. The sea resists the state. The sea, then, offers another law, another organizational, political and juridical modus operandi, which stands in direct opposition to the state or land based order. In the years 1588-1688 the island of England detaches itself from mainland Europe and becomes the metropolis of an overseas world empire and the creator of the industrial revolution, all this without attaining the continental state characteristics (Schmitt 1985: 66-7). Free trade, industry and safe passage became catchwords of a new universalist-liberal world order, which breaks down the line separating Europe from the rest of the world. A line which used to be defined, according to what Schmitt considered substantial notions of similarity and equality, rather than the new functionalist and internationalist notions of a one world (market).
The paradigmatic war of the state/land order is the clash on the battlefield. The paradigmatic war of the maritime order is the sea war. Inherent in the two are, according to Schmitt, completely different concepts and realities of both war and enmity. In the sea war the war effort is also directed against the trade and economics of the enemy. This makes civilians and neutrals direct participants in the war (Schmitt 1981: 87-8; 1995c; 1995d: 253-9): “The British sea war is total in its capacity for a total enmity. It knows, like only one of the great world historical arts of war, how to mobilize religious, ideological, psychological and moral force” (Schmitt 1994: 271).
The war is not won through a decisive battle but by starving and exhausting the enemy: Blockade, economic pressure, sanctions. Sea war is, according to Schmitt, the first liberal war and its implicit logic is a “space-abolishing universalism” (Schmitt 1995b: 390), which, in Schmitt’s understanding, is the first reappearance of the borderland in Europe. The British are, according to Schmitt, not even principally against exodus, against moving their nation elsewhere, which shows the same kind of lack of attachment to the land, as he thought to discover in Protestants who could erect their industry anywhere (1995a: 421). Schmitt’s narrative is based on the presumption of benign limitation, that is, of the moderating effects of being embedded in a particular, limited context and the dangers of universalist disembedding.
This enmity threatens to destroy European interstate law and thereby the containment of war inherent in the paradigm. The enemy is no longer the concrete other on the battlefield but is on the contrary being portrayed as the enemy of humanity. As the battlefield shifts to the sea, the constraints of enmity are abolished. The sea war reintroduces the private contractor of violence, which the nation state had incorporated and conquered as a precondition for its sovereign status. Privateers, freebooters and pirates with semi-public authorization enter the war, blurring the boundary between combatant and civilian on the side of both perpetrator and victim.
The former divide between enemy and criminal, combatant and civilian/neutral, war and policing, ultimately between war and peace dissolves. The enemy is criminalized, which again leads to interventions described as police actions or punitive expeditions. The legitimization of war goes from being described in terms of state interest to that of morality. The new sea-based warfare (which is, of course, also conducted on land, it’s a general mode of war) requires a new concept of enmity to justify its means of combat.
This is the concept of ‘enemy of humanity’; an enmity which, according to Schmitt, is logically meaningless, as humanity as such cannot have an enemy, as he/she/they would then be effectively non-human. But the concept is still very useful politically-ideologically: “’Humanity’ is an especially useful ideological instrument for imperial expansions” (Schmitt 1996: 55). One side is prosecutor, judge and executioner, whereas the other side is ‘enemy and criminal, vermin and criminal’ (Schmitt 1991: 76). A new discriminatory concept of war emerges.
The concept of enemy is lifted from the concrete confrontation; the aim of the war is no longer just the defeat of a present and actual enemy; the interested parties in the conflict are no longer two or a few more states; the battlefield is no longer geographically contained and the duration of the war is no longer temporally contained; the war is now a just war, the enemy a global criminal and the war aim suddenly “concerns the whole world and is of global significance: It is about naming the political opponent as a criminal who acts against the interest of the whole world and who is the last barrier before world peace” (Schmitt 2005: 664).
To invoke humanity is to occupy a universal concept and thereby immunize one’s own position and defame that of the other. Schmitt is fond of quoting Proudhon, who allegedly said: “Whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat” (Schmitt 1996: 55). This change in operative enmities makes war more not less likely. It provides new possibilities for ‘international hostis-declarations’ and it “legitimates and sanctions some kinds of wars” (Schmitt 1996: 52 & 57), namely wars couched in universalist, moralist rather than state interest terms.
After the war, rather than reflect on the ‘total enemy’ of the totalitarian state he chose to on the one hand continue to apply the basic dichotomy between limited state wars and unlimited universalist wars and to focus on a typology of enmities derived from the struggle between the state and state subversive forces, namely the partisan (real enmity) and the revolutionary (absolute enmity). These two enmities are, like the total enmity of the inter-war and war years developed in opposition to the inter-state conventional enmity.
‘Real enmity’ is an enmity, which cannot be contained within or by international law (Schmitt 2002). The prime example is the partisan, a non-state contractor of violence, where the rules of law do not and cannot apply as they are characterized by the opposite of the regular army: they hide their status as combatants, they merge with the civilian population; they evade the battle; they have no clear hierarchical chain of command: “The partisan leads the regular army away from the traditional theatre of war and into a secret clandestine underground war, without traditional fronts, without emblems or uniforms” (Slomp 2005: 510).
Real enmity, according to Schmitt, emerges where a war is being fought by the population or segments of it to expel an intruder. Its first appearance was, according to Schmitt, in the opposition to Napoleon’s war on Spain and Prussia. Napoleon’s army can be considered the first modern army with mass mobilization, national conscription, national propaganda etc. And at the same moment its counter-force emerges. This shows the precarious nature of the conventional enmity, which produces its own challengers and the fight against the partisan takes on an irregular form, where the fight against the partisan entails copying his tactics.
The partisan explodes the distinction between enemy and criminal. The partisan knows that his opponents consider him a criminal acting outside both juridical and moral law. The partisan on his part tries to gain political status as a military and political opponent, that is, to turn the real enmity into a conventional one, although his tactics consistently hinders this transformation.
‘Absolute enmity’ is the radicalization of real enmity. The goal is no longer concrete and limited but pervasive and universal. Whereas real enmity is carried by ‘freedom fighters’ liberating an occupied nation, absolute enmity is carried by world-aggressive actors fighting for an abstract notion of justice. The goal is liberation of mankind. Schmitt sees this figure as a degeneration of the telluric partisan. The world-aggressive partisan has cut his connection to the ‘real’, concrete fight; the local fight is only one front in a global struggle.
The telluric partisan locates his enemy in a concrete geographical and historical setting, whereas the world-aggressive partisan views his enemy as a universal enemy: A class, a race, a religion. The enemy is de-humanized; he stands in the way of the final liberation and his complete destruction is hence both necessary and justified. This is a war without limitations. All containments are dissolved; all demarcations other than that between friend and enemy are meaningless.
In his diary from the years 1947-51, Glossarium, Schmitt explains the difference between conventional and absolute enmity by the different behaviour of the German army on the Western and Eastern front during WW2. Against the West-European (state) enemies, Nazi-Germany fought a basically non-discriminatory war, where the rules of combat were by and large upheld and the enemy was considered an equal; and then a discriminatory against the East-European and Russian absolute enemies, where all rules of combat and morality were systematically violated and the enemy was considered inhuman (Schmitt 1991: 117). As always, Schmitt neglects to deal with the plight of the European Jewry, where Nazi-Germany fought an all-out discriminatory war.
Schmitt failed to ever really engage with the concept of the ‘total enemy’, though the ideological radicalization in the absolute enemy directs our attention to the limitlessness of such an enmity. But in the post-war years Schmitt devoted his attention on enmities to the partisan or political struggle enmity forms while failing to really explore what it means when ideological radicalization merges with a state machinery. In his Clausewitz – Philosopher of War, Raymond Aron has a chapter on the partisan inspired by Schmitt.
But he criticizes him, not least for the concept of the absolute enemy, which Aron wants to differentiate further between a biologically absolute enmity: ‘Ludendorff-Hitler’, that is, an enmity based on a biological or racist philosophy: “I would call this ‘absolute hostility’ as it alone deserves the term ‘absolute’, since it ends logically in massacre and genocide” (Aron 1983: 368); and ideologically absolute enmity: ‘Mao-Lenin-Stalin’ and In a letter to Schmitt on October 1, 1963 he also mentioned ‘politically absolute enmity (Carthago for Cato)’ (Müller 2003: 100). Aron is, of course, aware that Mao and Stalin murdered more people than Hitler, but that was no logical or necessary consequence of the ideological enmity:
Hostility based on the class struggle has taken on no less extreme or monstrous forms than that based on the incompatibility of races. But if we wish to ‘save the concepts’ there is a difference between a philosophy whose logic is monstrous and one which can be given a monstrous interpretation. (Aron 1983: 369)
In his book Democracy and Totalitarianism, Aron differentiates the “aim of the Nazi Party” which was “to remake the racial map if Europe and to eliminate certain peoples”, whereas the “aim of Soviet terror is to create a society which conforms completely to an ideal, while in the Nazi case, the aim was pure and simple extermination.” (Aron 1968: 203). With Aron we get not only a differentiation of the totalitarian state enemy but also – like Schmitt but applied to the totalitarian state – a differentiation in stages of enmification or as he calls it “three kinds of terror” (Aron 1968: 187). They seem to follow Hannah Arendt’s differentiation elaborated below and we can conclude this section by noting that Aron, while inspired by Schmitt, saw a clear and evident failure on Schmitt’s part to apply his enemy theory on the totalitarian state. Once a real totalitarian state came into being in Germany – a qualitatively total state as Schmitt would call it – he suspended his reflections on the enemy, only to return to it in the partisan setting.
In order to understand the peculiarities of the total enemy we have therefore to depart from the premier theorist of the enemy and to take from him only the reflection on the decisive difference between an interstate, codified and hedged ‘conventional enmity’ and then various forms of unhinged, uncontained enmities, of which Schmitt failed to grasp the most important one. What he basically didn’t understand was that the state too could be carrier of a completely limitless enmity. To him it was always state-subversive forces, of which the British Empire was one, that carried such a universalist enmity, never the territorial state. Unlike Schmitt – but with decisive common points of departure (Sluga 2008; Bates 2010) – Hannah Arendt made the total enemy a key concept in her explorations of both war and post-war ideological and geopolitical constellations.
II. Hannah Arendt and the Abyss
In a conversation in 1964 with Günter Grass, Hannah Arendt stated what I take to be the all-important point of departure in her thoughts on enmity: “Before [the extermination of the Jews] we said: Well, one has enemies. That is entirely natural. Why shouldn’t a people have enemies? But this was different. It was really as if an abyss had opened.” (Arendt 1993a: 13-14). This indicates a difference between a legitimate, and perhaps containable, enmity and then another much more sinister form which opens the abyss of mass extermination. In her trilogy Origins of Totalitarianism we find the fragments of a theory of enmity structured around a distinction between a statist and hedged enmity, the ‘real enmity’ and its more problematic successors in a post nation state reality characterized by the ‘totalitarian enmity’ and the ‘stateless enmity’. These last two are the kinds of enmity that the following will focus on (and we could have included the ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial enmity’).
The common denominator for the stateless and the totalitarian enmity is what Arendt calls ‘objective enmity’ (Arendt 1965: 100), that is people being someone’s enemies solely because of a being rather than an action, a thought or a threat. In a certain sense, to which we’ll return, they are deprived of the privilege of real enmity, of standing in a relation to that someone other, a relation often better because rule-bound than standing alone and unprotected.
In a proper sense man’s guilt – and thereby he or she’s role as the enemy – is, according to Arendt, directly derived from its voluntary actions, not its being. Thus she does not reject enmity as a reality but insists upon its derivation from actions not from a quality in the enemy. The opposite of objective enemies are the ‘real enemy’, who correctly or incorrectly is held responsible for a concrete action or as a concrete threat and where the paramount issue is a concrete, detached threat assessment rather than blind hatred. Hatred, Arendt writes wasn’t unknown in the period before the Second World War but now it:
[…] began to play a central role in public affairs everywhere […] Nothing perhaps illustrates the general disintegration of political life better than this vague, pervasive hatred of everybody and everything, without a focus for its passionate attention, with nobody to make responsible for the state of affairs – neither the government nor the bourgeoisie nor an outside power. It consequently turned in all directions, haphazardly and unpredictably, incapable of assuming an air of healthy indifference toward anything under the sun. (Arendt 2004b: 342)
The real enmity and the precisely directed hatred are superseded by the generalised enmity and the ‘pervasive hatred of everybody and everything’. The constraints of the real enmity reside in its making concrete persons or groups responsible for specific actions. Arendt seems to indicate that real enmity is the paramount form of enmity of the modern nation state with its judicial understanding of the relationship between state and citizen. The crime and the criminal is the governing language of the real enmity.
This form of contained enmity is now superseded by a general hatred for everybody and everything just because they happen to be there. A prominent example is obviously anti-Semitism where Arendt discerns a transformation from the crime of Judaism into a vice of Jewishness: “Jews had been able to escape from Judaism into conversion; from Jewishness there was no escape. A crime, moreover, is met with punishment; a vice can only be exterminated.” (Arendt 2004a: 115). The alleged crime of the Jew, a concrete transgression, is transformed into an abominable and inherent vice, an abstract being which can only be eradicated through the eradication of the bearers of the vice.
The real enmity is not spelled out in Arendt’s work but has the form and function as the counter-concept to the post nation state enmities. She remarks for instance that a:
[…] fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient. Terror as we know it today strikes without any preliminary provocation, its victims are innocent even from the point of view of the persecutor. (Arendt 2004a: 14-15)
Totalitarianism, imperialism and statelessness become for Arendt the symbols of the end of the nation state. The important thing is that with the end of the nation state we also witness the decline of the real enmity based on the perception of real provocations and concrete guilt and the manifestation of forms of enmity which dissolve any relation between action and hate, guilt and enmity, obedience and protection. The enemy is no longer he or she that threatens one’s existence, but anybody.
Totalitarian states do not have enemies in the sense of opponents but only in the sense of enemies till death, that is, totalitarian states do not acknowledge the existence of legitimate others and they have a singular way to deal with enemies, hatred and extermination.
She, like Aron, differentiates between different kinds of terrors. The ‘tyrannical terror’ ends when it has paralyzed or abolished all public life and reduced everyone to lonely individuals without any public interest; ‘revolutionary terror’ ends when all opposition has been eliminated or the revolution has lost its energy. It is terror “directed toward an end and [which] find an end”. (Arendt 1993a: 298). But ‘totalitarian terror’ is the kind of terror which starts when all real enemies have fled or have been killed, when the terror turns on those who are in all senses of the term innocent. Totalitarian terror starts where authoritarian or tyrannical forms of violence stops. Totalitarian terror “turns not only against its enemies but against its friends and supporters as well.” (Arendt 2004b: 55). In the last chapter of Totalitarianism entitled ‘Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government’ Arendt characterizes totalitarianism as movement and totalitarian terror as the instrument of that movement:
Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to ‘stabilize’ men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history. It is this movement which singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose, and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the ‘objective enemy’ of History or Nature, or of the class or the race.
Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; ‘guilty’ is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over ‘inferior races’, over individuals ‘unfit to live’, over ‘dying classes and decadent peoples’. Terror executes these judgments, and before its court, all concerned are subjectively innocent: the murdered because they did nothing against the system, and the murderers because they do not really murder but execute a death sentence pronounced by some higher tribunal. (Arendt 2004c: 599)
Totalitarian terror is used to describe a kind of terror leaving absolutely no freedom or autonomy untouched. It is despotic power in a technological age, making what Montesquieu fantasized about the oriental despotism look and feel like reality. The concept of totalitarian terror draws upon the pre-modern conceptual connection to despotism in emphasizing brutal and not least arbitrary power over individuals but also and significantly the French reign of terror in the emphasis on terror not as an aberration but as a system of rule.
Totalitarianism differs from dictatorships and tyrannies by the grand schemes of methodical mass killing done as a routine part of regime policy; not because the exterminated constitutes an actual threat or opposition, not because they stand in the way of anything or possesses something the regime wants. It just wants them dead. George Kateb summarizes an essential element in Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism when he writes that totalitarian rulers are to be understood “in their essence as mass killers of objectively unthreatening populations in an age where mass killing is easily and antiseptically done.” (Kateb 1984: 77).
Totalitarian terror is characterized by a complete indistinction between friends and enemies; it’s a distinction which makes no sense for the ideal typical totalitarian, or rather comes to be meaningless as the totalitarian movement unfolds:
[T]otalitarianism defined its enemies ideologically before it seized power, so that categories of the ‘suspects’ were not established through police information. Thus the Jews in Nazi Germany or the descendants of the former ruling classes in Soviet Russia were not really suspected of any hostile action; they had been declared ‘objective’ enemies of the regime in accordance with its ideology. The chief difference between the despotic and the totalitarian secret police lies in the difference between the “suspect” and the ‘objective enemy’.
The latter is defined by the policy of the government and not by his own desire to overthrow it. He is never an individual whose dangerous thoughts must be provoked or whose past justifies suspicion, but a ‘carrier of tendencies’ like the carrier of a disease […] The introduction of the notion of ‘objective enemy’ is much more decisive for the functioning of totalitarian regimes than the ideological definition of the respective categories. If it were only a matter of hating Jews or bourgeois, the totalitarian regime could, after the commission of one gigantic crime, return, as it were, to the rules of normal life and government. As we know, the opposite is the case. The category of objective enemies outlives the first ideologically determined foes of the movement; new objective enemies are discovered. (Arendt 2004c: 548)
In this last and complete totalitarian stage (which for Arendt presupposes world domination) even the concept of objective enemy is abandoned in favour of a complete arbitrariness in the selection which finally and completely implodes the relation between guilt and enmity.
The credo of totalitarianism: ‘all is possible’ has its parallel in the claim that any crime is possible or rather imaginable – and must therefore be punished, even before it is committed or contemplated. The criminal and the law-abiding become indistinct, or rather again: the distinction itself becomes meaningless. As Primo Levi said upon arriving in Auschwitz: “Here there is no why.” (quoted from Semelin 2007: 2).
This indistinction and systematized randomness abolishes freedom more effectively than any tyranny could ever do, because at least the notion of being guilty of something in order to be persecuted installed some minimal sense of predictability. In a tyranny at least one could become guilty, do something to declare oneself or be declared an enemy of the state.
The suspected offense of the constitutional state is replaced by the ‘possible crime’ of the totalitarian state and the “concept of enmity is replaced by that of conspiracy, and this produces a mentality in which reality – real enmity or real friendship – is no longer experienced and understood in its own terms but is automatically assumed to signify something else.” (Arendt 2004c: 551). In his Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman summarizes the totalitarian logic grounded in the belief that “Man is before he acts; nothing he does may change what he is. This is, roughly, the philosophical essence of racism.” (Bauman 1989: 60, his italics); and, as seen in the quote from the Cheka at the beginning of this article, this was also the Soviet logic, merely pushing the fault from the bodily to the social genealogy of the individual.
Arendt also draws our attention to the different categories of prisoners in the concentration camps, where “out of racial considerations, Scandinavian nationals during the war were quite differently treated by the Germans than the members of other peoples, although the former were outspoken [real] enemies of the Nazis.” (Arendt 2004c: 571). This clearly indicates that actually expressed and acted upon enmity or threat was secondary in the Nazi system of enmity, just as there are important differences between three groups of prisoners whose specific enemy characteristics will be important in the next section: The criminals who “at least know why they are in a concentration camp and therefore have kept a remnant of their judicial person”; the political prisoners for which “this is only subjectively true; their actions, insofar as they were actions and not mere opinions or someone else’s vague suspicions, or accidental membership in a politically disapproved group, are as a rule not covered by the normal legal system of the country and not juridically defined”; and finally the largest group of people “who had done nothing whatsoever that, either in their own consciousness or the consciousness of their tormenters had any rational connection with their arrest” (Arendt 2004c: 578-9); and who before their physical extermination has been obliterated as juridical persons.
Arendt knew, because of totalitarianism, statelessness on her own body (Bernstein 2005), and the parallel between the stateless and the totalitarian enemy becomes evident when she in an article from January 1943, ‘We Refugees’ writes: “A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical political opinion.” (Arendt 1978: 55). Perhaps it is more correct to call the stateless a ‘non-enemy’ and thereby reflect on the paradox that it can be worse not being someone’s (real) enemy than being nobody’s enemy. They are in the juridical sense non-persons because no state takes them seriously as either a responsibility or as a threat:
[T]he first glaring fact was that these people, though persecuted under some political pretext, were no longer, as the persecuted had been throughout history, a liability and an image of shame for the persecutors; that they were not considered and hardly pretended to be active enemies […] but that they were and appeared to be nothing but human beings whose very innocence – from every point of view, and especially that of the persecuting government – was their greatest misfortune. Innocence, in the sense of complete lack of responsibility, was the mark of their rightlessness as it was the seal of their loss of political status. (Arendt 2004b: 374)
Arendt also mentions the importance of the Nazis creating “a condition of complete rightlessness […] before the right to live was challenged.” (Arendt 2004b: 375). More important still is what was earlier referred to as the privilege of enmity which the stateless – in addition to a home and government protection – has been robbed of, meaning the minimum protection that comes from being someone’s enemy and thereby having a relationship with the enemy other, often even a judicially regulated relationship. No one cares about the fate of the stateless, no one even bothers to declare an enmity: “It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.” (Arendt 2004b: 381). It is the “loss of a polity [which] expels him from humanity” (Arendt 2004b: 377) and which makes him or her superfluous, which is the exact relation that totalitarianism has to man. Totalitarianism is production of human waste.
Unlike Schmitt, Arendt’s view of the modern nation state was ambivalent. Sharing with him, on the one side, an understanding of the state as a structure with a demarcated geography constituted by “localized, limited and therefore predictable goals of national interests”; institutionalized in “constitutional restraint”; and “based upon the rule of law as against the rule of arbitrary administration and despotism.” (Arendt 2004b: 160-1, 351). Europe’s national statesmen “played the game of power politics for the sake of the nation but whose aims were clearly defined and clearly limited.” (Arendt 1993b: 108)
This, despite its excesses and crimes of its own, did limit the more sinister effects and goals of politics. On the other hand, the actual state history is characterized by a linkage between state and nation which transformed the state “from an instrument of law into an instrument of the nation.” (Arendt 2004b: 296). State history degenerates into the nation conquering the state in effect dismantling the law’s protection of the individual. The transformation from a law-ruled to a culture-ruled state, which is also observable at present, results in Arendt’s view in the state beginning to relate to its citizens not by their actions and active choices – and thereby the expression of their individuality and political capacity – but by their abstract or collective being. And to Arendt that is no progress.
III. Michel Foucault’s Vital Massacres
In the end Arendt fails to explain the destructive drive of totalitarianism. For her as for Levi there is no why, in the end there is no explanation. It seems the limit of understanding for Arendt is grounded in her conception of the modern state as a guardian of life and that the totalitarian state inverts this into a destroyer of life. Committed to a statist understanding she can ultimately only look at the killing machines with horror. But, as Robert Jay Lifton writes in his The Nazi Doctors: “At the heart of the Nazi enterprise, then, is the destruction of the boundary between healing and killing”, or rather, killing as healing, “killing as a therapeutic imperative”. (Lifton 2000: 14, 15, his italics). This is the bio-political interpretation which Arendt may have sensed but didn’t pursue.
Michel Foucault (and Giorgio Agamben whose work is inspired by Schmitt, Arendt and Foucault) offers an explanation for the black totalitarianisms which seems inspired by Arendt (though without any references) but which also transcends her analysis by offering a bio-political reading of the same transformation of enmity as Arendt observes. Just as enmity changes, he observes a profound transformation in the concept of war. War ceases to be primarily outward and contained and becomes inward and permanent. The line between friends and enemies are doubled inside the territory and is drawn with biological rather than political criteria. It becomes a war not against an armed threat but a pollutant, a degeneracy, an invisible threat coming not from any open enemies but from hidden carriers. Illness rather than opposition becomes the problem; and illness equals social disorder, fluid decomposition of order (Sontag 2002: chap. 9).
This is not the place to rehearse the concept of bio-politics but we can say that it concerns the optimization of life and life processes. It is a politics having life as its goal, object and language and that implodes the differentiation made by Arendt between democratic and totalitarian states. Both have life and its manipulation as their object. Bio-politics is not, as a sovereign power condemning or pardoning this particular person, occupied with the individual but with the population. It wants to intervene in aggregates and it constitutes biological questions of birth, death, age, health, abilities as political problems. Sovereign power is an individualizing power. Bio-politics is a race or species power.
The problem is no longer momentary epidemics and the like but statistical occurrences and general trends. Politics is to intervene in the background conditions of life at population level trying to regulate the patterns of life. Bio-politics governs in the service of life and that also means differentiating within life itself between healthy/unhealthy, young/old, productive/unproductive culminating in the Nazi concept of ‘life unworthy to life’ [Lebensunwerten Lebens] (Lifton 2000: 46); Agamben 1998: 136-43). Bio-politics differentiates between life to be furthered and increased and life to be hindered, reduced, ultimately killed.
In the biopolitical enmity, the enemy is named in biological and psychological terms and the enemy is found within the social body. The line between an inside, the friends, and an outside, the enemies, is no longer meaningful. The enemy lives among us and the biopolitical state takes it upon itself to single out those, who threaten the health of the community. This concept of enmity is also highly discriminatory. It establishes a hierarchy of worthy life and starts to talk about ‘life unworthy of being lived’ and its annihilation (Agamben 1998: 136), most dramatically and tragically executed in the Nazi concentration and euthanasia program but for both Foucault and Agamben a constitutive element in modernity.
This is where health campaigns and extermination programs connects. A connection one shouldn’t exaggerate but also not overlook. The Nazis were the first to implement an anti-smoking campaign and we should see this not as the dark secret behind the present health craze but as the range of bio-policies. When Lifton spoke of ‘the destruction of the boundary between healing and killing’ or the perversion of the Hippocratic Oath into a commitment to killing we can explore it as the displacement of the oath from the individual body to the national body, from the individual life to the life of the nation. This is what bio-politics does. It views life through a statist, economist, nationalist or racist perspective and it measures its worthiness according to collective standards.
The Nazi ’invention’ or radicalization of bio-politics is to declare war on the unworthy life. Rudolf Hess is supposed to have said that Nazism is applied biology and there is the truth in it that modern racism is a biologization of politics, a biologistic way of defining what used to be the inter-state war of survival but which now becomes the internal war of race survival defending against ‘the death of the people’ [Volkstod] (Savage 2007). The bio-political war declares war on one’s own population:
[T]he enemies who have to be done away with are not adversaries in the political sense of the term; they are threats, either external or internal, to the population and for the population. In the biopower system, in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. (Foucault 2003: 256)
The enemy becomes the abnormal threatening the health of the community. What is to be defended are no longer the outer borders but also and more importantly the reproduction of healthy genes, of optimized life. It is “a racism that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products. This is the internal racism of permanent purification.” (Foucault 2003: 62). The enemy is reduced to an obstacle to life’s free flow. Life and killing are no longer each other’s opposites but preconditions:
The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer. (Foucault 2003: 255)
The killing is no longer reduced to war, that is to an exceptional situation of immediate peril, but becomes routine. The heroic battles, looking the enemy in the eye and shooting, get replaced by micro-strategies minimizing the lethality of some while increasing that of others. Killing becomes normal politics, administration. The totalitarian concept of war and enmity implodes the distinction between exception and normalcy, applying the categories and instruments of the exception on everyday life.
Totalitarian bio-politics is a generalized state of exception viewing its own population as the object to be defended against itself. It is a shift from citizen to carrier. Instead of spectacular but singular deaths we get statistical death. Instead of the sovereign manifestation of power in ritualized executions demonstrating omnipotence we get operations of the secret police, cattle wagons transporting people away, death camps far away from public eye. The goal of a biopolitical war is not to reach a modus vivendi with the enemy but to eliminate him. This is a total war:
The enemies who have to be done away with are not adversaries in the political sense of the term; they are threats, either external or internal, to the population and for the population. In the biopower system, in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. (Foucault 2003: 256, my italics)
The totalitarian extermination is a system of what Foucault calls vital massacres. Vital because they destroy life to enhance life (Foucault 1998: 137).
There can be no mutuality in the totalitarian enmity. It is a one-sided declaration of war within the social body itself. What the biopolitical enmity makes clear is the normalization of the exceptional, as the biopolitical state declares war on parts of its own population, not only in form of extermination but also quarantining of the sick, surveillance, exclusions, imprisonments, institutionalization of the abnormal etc. The heroic battles are replaced by micro-technologies that maximize the mortality of some groups and minimize it for others.
Instead of individual killings, we get what Ernst Fraenkel with a very precise expression called ‘civil death’ (1969: 95) or what Foucault called ‘statistical death’. The sovereign does not manifest himself in splendid displays of power, public executions, but in the actions of the secret police, disappearances and extermination camps (Foucault 2003: chap. 11). The biopolitical state emerges, where racism and statism meets.
It is no longer: ‘We have to defend ourselves against society’, but ‘We have to defend society against all the biological threats posed by the other, the sub-race, the counter-race that we are, despite ourselves, bringing into existence’ … we see the appearance of a State racism: a racism that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products. This is the internal racism of permanent purification (Foucault 2003: 61-2)
The generalization of biopolitical technologies marks the breaking point of the difference between norm and exception. In the state of exception, the state can stand in relation of war with its own citizens, the difference between inside (order) and outside (chaos), which informs the norm/exception, law/lawless, friend/enemy of the national/international divide is doubled within the nation state itself. The borderland is reinstated as the exception. Then, the state becomes, in the words of Agamben, ‘a killing machine’ (2005: 86; see also Agamben 2000: part 1). The breakdown of the differentiations is where the state of exception and biopolitics meet and it reaches its ultimate point in Auschwitz where “people did not die; rather, corpses were produced” (Agamben 2002: 72), meaning this was, in the eyes of the killers, not human life but just inferior biological material to dispose of.
In the biopolitical enmity, we can see how arbitrary the dividing line between friend and enemy is. The enemy is not given as enemy, as the many discussions in Nazi circles about who was and who wasn’t a Jew testify to. Biopolitical enmity is another sign of the state’s difficulties with limiting or containing the enemy category. The biopolitical enemy can be everyone – one’s blood, heritage, disease or whatever is not necessarily identifiable. Enmity is generalized. The biopolitical enmity is the perhaps clearest example of the blurring of differentiations, and it’s also where the exception becomes truly permanent. Instead of a war contained in time we get a process of permanent purification, turning ever inwards until self-annihilation; a point on which Foucault and Arendt concurs: the logical end point of totalitarianism is suicide.
The German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky observes a crucial about the enemy logic behind the concentration camps. The purpose of the social persecution is, as Arendt would concur,
expulsion and annihilation. Its victims are not to be conquered and forced to obey, but to be removed from society altogether. The targets of terrorist persecution are not so much enemies as strangers and outsiders. These victims may often be described as enemies: enemies of the state, of society, of the people. But this is a wholly misleading redefinition. Enmity is mutual; each side regards the other as its adversary. The persecuted are seen as enemies only by their persecutors. (Sofsky 2003: 84-5)
It is not only the sheer enormity of the killings which confounds us. It is also the near complete disconnect between danger and enmity which the totalitarian enemy exhibits. This disconnect turns around everything we think we know about enmification processes, the enemy traditionally being thought as the one out to get us.
What the thinkers above may teach us is that enmity may become so unattached to anything concrete that it can turn all the way around and culminate in a self-enmification. What Carl Schmitt has to offer the analysis of the totalitarian enemy is the logic of enemy escalation, the dichotomy between a hedged, goal-oriented enmity and a globalist ‘total enmity’. What he fails to see is that the real carrier of the ‘total enmity’ is not state-less groups, revolutionary guerillas, nor is it liberal internationalist powers like Britain or the US, but it is states engaging themselves in intensive state-building efforts, sort of halved modernization processes, where only the technical domination aspects and none of the emancipator aspects are forcibly pushed through.
What Hannah Arendt teaches us is exactly the inner logic of this ‘modernization’ process, the functional logic of totalitarian systems, but the she ultimately fails to explain the ‘why’. This is where I have argued that we need to turn to a biopolitical reading inspired by Michel Foucault. Unlike Schmitt, and to some degree Arendt, he has no strong theory on enemy forms but he has a very clear grasp of how the totalitarian enmity grew out of state logics developed in the centuries before, which is the telos behind the killings.
It is first through Foucault, I would argue, that we get to see what the totalitarian planners were seeing, how and what made sense to them, how it came to be that one could kill on an industrial scale while singing the praises of the vital life. Through this, going from the logic of enmity as such in Schmitt, through the historical reading of state-building in Arendt and to the configurations of radicalized conceptions of life, we get to learn a lesson, namely that what appears to us as utter destruction was perversely seen by the perpetrators as production.
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