In Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Paul W. Kahn offers a rereading of Carl Schmitt’s main categories: sovereignty, decision, and exception. These categories are not weakened by Kahn, though they are “democratized,” that is, made to serve within the philosophical and political paradigm of popular sovereignty. What Kahn excises from the famous opening of Schmitt’s Political Theology is the “he” who decides. Thus, Schmitt’s motto, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” becomes: “Sovereign power is that of deciding on the exception.”
However, Kahn’s depersonalization of the sovereign does not entail the disappearance of the sovereign subject, which remains, for without a subject there could be no decision, in Kahn’s (or Schmitt’s) sense. Yet, as one realizes later in the text, especially with Kahn’s remarks on the decision of the philosopher—which is, as Kahn would have it, the decision of “every man”—the subject is potentially everyone, and thus not the sovereign as such, or the classic figure of the sovereign. In fact, the true subject, for Kahn, is simply anyone who is free, and this freedom includes, eminently, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the political, which, from the point of view of political theology, means the constitution, security, and freedom of the nation-state. The decision that grounds and sustains the nation-state, just like god’s decision to create the world, or the decision that commences the creative work of the artist, constitutes, in Kahn’s existential reading of Schmitt’s Political Theology, the essence of freedom, by positing itself as a free, yet not arbitrary, act.
Kahn builds his argument on the dichotomy between liberal theory and political theology. In liberal theory, essence is privileged over existence, reason over will, and endless discussion over decision. In political theology, things stand the other way around: existence, will, and decision have primacy over essence, reason, and endless discussion. If Kahn, like Schmitt, is right to criticize liberalism (albeit for the wrong reason), this does not mean that the either/or logic he seems to employ (either liberal theory or political theology) ought to be accepted at face value. An alternative to this either/or comes from the perspective (and practice) of the common, which maintains the decision as singular but rejects it as sovereign. The sovereign decision is a decision of separation, exception, and exclusion; the singular decision of the common is instead a decision geared toward all-inclusiveness and democracy. The possibility of this alternative is made clear today, not only by those theories that reject both the sovereign, autocratic decision of traditional political theology and the contract modality of liberal theory (which are more similar to one another than we tend to think), but also by the wonderful wave of leaderless revolutions and revolts (contra Kahn’s curious claim that we live in a postrevolutionary time) from Tunisia and Egypt to Spain and even the U.S. (notably, Wisconsin), just to mention a few instances of a common situation known to everybody. Both the sovereign decision and the contract operate according to a logic of inclusion and exclusion unacceptable to the singularity of the common, which is univocal and outside of the either/or of inclusion and exclusion. (Who is included? The citizen, the wealthy, the law-abiding, the able-bodied, and so on. Who is excluded? The poor, the migrant, the prisoner, the physically and/or mentally impaired, and so on.)
The perspective of the common is singular and universal: singular because its reality (or individuation) is unalloyed and uncompromising, and universal because it wills all-inclusiveness and is based on the dignity of all life. To say that it is singular, in particular, means that it reconstitutes the whole within itself and self-sufficiently. This is also its uncompromising nature: it does not suggest that deliberation is futile but that it must occur within the reconstituted whole, which opposes the separation between sovereign and non-sovereign. Indeed, it is not the exceptional decision of the sovereign (even when the sovereign is, paradoxically, everyone) but the singular decision of the common that is truly revolutionary. The singular decision does not imply readiness to kill and be killed; rather, it leads to care. It does not propagate, but rather rejects the ideology of sacrifice and brings about the concrete possibilities of joy and of the good life for everyone. In rejecting the paradigm of sovereignty, the singular decision of the common also rejects the solely formal (hence false) truth of the contract, yet it maintains the accord of being with one another, of cooperation, solidarity, friendship, and love.
Nor does the singular decision of the common will the constitution and preservation of the state; rather, it wills the dismantling of the state’s apparatuses of violence (the prison, the army, and so on) and the implementation of new modalities of care. Thus, if the sovereign decision and the contract are two expressions of the same logic, we can suggest an interesting, as well as surprising, moment of identity between liberal theory and political theology. Indeed, the former is often a euphemism, a mask, for the latter, and the latter a pretext for a regime of terror: the police state and the readiness to sacrifice oneself (and others) for abstractions such as the nation, the flag, and so forth. It is telling that the liberals in power in the U.S. today are not very different from the decisionists of the Bush administration; they normalize the exception, making it permanent (consider, for instance, the routinization of drone attacks in Pakistan and other countries). Hobbes’s Leviathan, suggests exactly this identity. We also realize that the paradox in Hobbes whereby we voluntarily decide to defer the decision by transferring our rights (i.e., our freedoms and powers) to the plane of sovereignty (whether of the absolutist or the popular type) always means that the determinant decision is in fact made for us: we don’t decide, we are decided. This becomes apparent toward the end of Political Theology, where Kahn makes an unsettling remark on the notion and reality of conscription. The remark comes after a brief discussion of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham’s experience of the decision—his having been decided by god—is not understood here, with Kierkegaard, as the experience of fear, anxiety, and despair. There is only a leap of faith, the “Here am I” answering a demand that, in turn, the “modern state extended to every citizen: anyone can be called upon to defend the state with his life.” I quote the remark on conscription in its entirety:
We are radically mistaken if we think this moment of conscription is behind us. The contemporary war on terror represents the point at which conscription becomes truly universal, escaping even the formal structures of juridification. Conscription can now occur to anyone at any moment: It is just a matter of finding oneself on the wrong airplane at the wrong time. At that moment, there is no further discussion, there is only the act. We exist, then, inside the Schmittian exception. The question is what we will do, not what arguments will we make. To say that this is unjust is not to explain its political meaning. It is not even to begin to approach the way in which the political imagination constructs the violent act as a moment of sacrifice.
Kahn’s discussion of conscription would seem to complicate what is perhaps the main thesis of his Political Theology: “The decision is the free act.” Kahn, however, understands the dialectic of conscription and freedom in the sense of the Sartrean existential situation. That is, the fact that we decide under circumstances not of our own choosing makes the decision that follows no less “free.” Still, it makes sense to ask whether this is an adequate account of the “free” act. Aristotle, for instance, explains that acting in situations over which we have no power, in which we are “victims,” cannot be called free. And there are also situations of a mixed type, in which we act voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time. How can the decision made in such situations be called sovereign? How can it be the power “of deciding on the exception,” when the exception is entirely fabricated for us? It does not seem to me that Kahn distinguishes between the sovereign decision and any other type of decision—a distinction that must be made, not formally, but contingently and existentially.
As Kahn reminds us, in the decision there is a separation, a cutting off. But in contrast to the sovereign decision, the common decision is a choice to encompass difference in the reconstituted social whole. Thus, knowing the location of the separation is fundamental, for only thus will we know whether the decision is sovereign or not. Is the point of decision reached through the process of deliberation, or is the point of decision attained by virtue of a preexisting (e.g., institutional) separation? In other words, in deciding, do we separate ourselves from a plurality of real possibilities that are thereby not (though they could be) actualized, or is the decision a distortion of the real and an attempt to say that there is no alternative to it? It is only in the latter case that we recognize the sovereign decision. Unlike the sovereign type, the singular decision (or the decision that aspires to the experience of the singular) is not sustained by any preexisting, institutional measures (often amounting to forms of institutional violence). Rather, it is sustained and made possible by a thoroughly contingent, yet careful process of deliberation, whose true value only becomes visible in the light of the decision itself. It is for this reason that Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, first deals with the decision, and only after with deliberation, although the order of their occurrence is the opposite in reality. Yet, without deliberation, one cannot arrive at a proper point of decision, that is, a decision determined by the situation itself in its immanent unfolding and not extrinsically, by the sovereign, which is to say, by a single, transcendental subject abstracted from the immanent multiplicity of the common. Without deliberation, in other words, the decision has already been made in the separateness of the sovereign or transcendental sphere, and the performance of the point of decision is a spectacular and grotesque clip, a mockery of freedom. The two types of decision may well have the same formal appearance, or structure, but their ontological formation is entirely different.
The question of the location of the decision is thus very important. As Tracy B. Strong notes in his foreword to Schmitt’s Political Theology, it belongs to the essence of the sovereign, not simply to make the decision (a task more readily acknowledged and understood), but also, in a less visible yet more foundational way, “to decide what is an exception.” Thus, to decide on the exception is not the same as to decide what to do when one finds oneself within an exceptional situation that is not of one’s own choosing. The sovereign decides on the exception, and that means: the sovereign creates the exception, precisely in virtue of the fact that, like god in Abraham’s tragic experience, the sovereign, as a subject/structure of power and violence, is always-already separated from the everydayness of the simple and common decision.
To conclude, we do not need sovereignty in order to decide, and to decide freely. In truth, sovereignty, itself a paradigm of transcendence and domination, makes the free decision impossible for the vast majority of people. The free decision and the free act cannot be separated from life, nor can they occur without deliberation, which takes place collectively, for the sake of procuring the good life for all. The free decision, namely, the decision that has and wills dignity, cannot be the prerogative of this or that nation-state and its pathology of sacrifice. The genuine decision—like freedom, like democracy—can only be common and universal. And it is precisely because of this all-inclusive participation that what is common and universal remains within the immanent fragility of life. The separation and transcendence inscribed in the concept of sovereignty (powerfully analyzed by Jacques Maritain in Man and the State) must be completely eliminated; sovereignty itself must be abandoned if we are to find the route back to the singularity of the common.