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A Feminist Critique of Carl Schmitt’s “Real Possibility of Physical Killing”

Ethnic clashes between the majority Meitei and the minority Kuki community have engulfed the Indian State of Manipur. In a recent video that went viral on July 19, 2023, two Kuki women were groped, raped, and paraded naked by a mob of Meitei men.

The video sparked outrage across the country about the “real possibility of physical killing”, causing the ruling political elites to acknowledge the situation in India’s northeastern state.

This is not a one-off case. Manipur’s chief minister, N. Biren Singh, acknowledged on live television that there have been “hundreds of similar cases”.

In the face of violence, women are the first victims. Discussing how women’s bodies are exploited in war—and elsewhere, Christina Lamb writes in her book Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women, rape is “the cheapest weapon known to man”. Women and children are the first vulnerable in every war-like, communal situation.

manipur violence
Ethnic violence in Manipur, which has claimed over 50 lives so far.

Against this backdrop, Robyn Marasco, in her recent article “The Real Possibility of Physical Killing: A Feminist Critique of Carl Schmitt”, published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2023, reconceptualises the “real possibility of physical killing” in ways Schmitt himself could not do. Marasco’s critique draws on Schmitt’s quote:

The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.

Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

Carl Schmitt was a German jurist, political theorist, and infamously a prominent member of the Nazi Party. He talked about power—in terms of how it needs to be wielded. He critiqued democracy, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism, as espoused by the then-Western societies.

In his book Political Theology, Schmitt defined “Sovereign [as] he who decides on the exception”. It is a famous quote in the realist reading of politics.

carl schmitt and the real possibility of physical killing
A photograph of Carl Schmitt

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt says politics is essential to one’s identity. While the church is predominant to religion, the state is predominant to politics. He further propounded his friend-enemy distinction as paramount to politics.

He wrote: “The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly…But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger…” While Aristotle’s political was based on friendship as the starting point, Schmitt places the enemy as the basis of his politics.

There are two critical arguments Marasco makes:

First, much of what Schmitt has to offer in terms of existentialist reading of friend-enemy emanates from his masculinist reading of politics. Manhood is an essential aspect of Schmitt’s political thought. Marasco shows the aesthetic ideal of male power that animates his core concepts, which, in some ways, limits his ability to present an androcentric approach to politics.

Second, Schmitt’s own “real possibility of physical killing” could be reenvisioned through a feminist reading of Schmitt in ways Schmitt could not do himself. To do so, she draws on Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminism as rooted in Schmittian feminism of the “real possibility of physical killing”.

While the friend-enemy distinction has received a significant audience, there is barely any focus on the “existentialist” principle that underlies this distinction.

Schmitt describes “the real possibility of physical killing” as a way politics becomes concrete. But, his imagery of politics is engrained in the male perception of battlefield-like scenarios—with tanks, war rooms, and executive decision-making (all places where men are very much at the helm).

What goes missing from his understanding of political is the everyday politics—the role family plays in controlling violence. He also does not render any space for relationships between men and women and adults and children as political.

Liberalism, for Schmitt, represented an “unmanly retreat from the requirements of politics and the state” (p. 8). He says that liberalism treats the question of friendship and enmity as one of economic relationships.

In fact, from a feminist perspective, the theory of dictatorship, as espoused by Schmitt, is a “fantasy of masculine potency and power” (p. 8). His Political Theology is a story of the pathos of masculinity— “the decline of patriarchy, the threat of matriarchal anarchism, the rise of administrative politics, and the loss of legitimacy as a constraint on force” (p. 9).

What counts as a threat for Schmitt is all that he thinks of as a male in a male-dominated society as an existentialist problem. The fact that an enemy (in the other) exists, out there. In the abstraction. The enemy here may be the hostile other threatening people’s way of life. The enemy may be another nation-state, in terms of how Schmitt reads it.

Both enmity and friendship are defined by the real possibility of killing and being killed. Therefore, the existential formula is as much important as the friend-enemy distinction. More importantly, that existential formula could enable feminist scholars to reimagine Schmitt in ways he may not have been able to do so.

Aside from all the friend-enemy distinctions, Marasco writes:

What Schmitt does not see is how this existential concept of the political—not the friend-enemy distinction or the unitary theory of the state, but the real possibility that forces it in the first place—opens to a properly political interpretation of gendered violence and the family structure in which it too often occurs.

(Marasco, 2023: 2)

Therefore, Marasco proposes reading The Concept of the Political through an existential lens. Doing so, one gets a sense that Schmitt’s political thought is replete with polemics, beneath which lie ideals of manhood. The very nature of politics referred to through the lens of “combat concepts” gives a sense of Schmitt’s ideal of manhood—as one of killing and being killed on the battlefield.

Marasco further notes that his concept of the political is “not grounded in any real possibility”—as it merely holds true of how a man looks at the real possibility of killing. It is in the idea of how killing, for a man, is imagined, reflected, and practised. It is here the ideal of manhood serves an important role.

A rhetorical reading of Schmitt reveals “how the deceptive simplicity of his language” elicits the narrative tropes of man—masculine imagery of power idealised as a life worth living.  

Marasco writes:

The Schmittian concept of the political, based on the real possibility of physical killing, harbors a surprising set of insights, and observations that deepen a feminist theory of politics. It clarifies, contrary to Schmitt’s entire outlook, that the family is a political institution, that the intimate relations between men and women (and the bonds between adults and children are properly political, and that the patterns of violence that many women and children suffer in their private lives are—in no small part—how the exception becomes the rule.

(Marasco, 2023: 4)

Drawing from Schmitt’s “real possibility of physical killing”, Marasco argues that women and children live a reality of the possibility of physical killing, not from an enemy out there, but from peers, family, and those who are near and dear ones. This killing is not abstract. It is real. As we looked at the Manipur example, there is killing everywhere. It is not just restricted to the global south.

In the cradle of democracy—the United States—over “1.3 million women are victims of assault by an intimate partner” each year (p. 5). Femicide—and family violence—is a lived reality for millions of women worldwide. With each passing day, there is violence reported.

There are sexual assaults, intimate partner violence, and domestic violence. There has been a steady increase in violence against women in all parts of the world.

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Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

Schmitt’s ideas of the “real possibility of physical killing” become far too real. And therefore, Marasco makes it a point to develop a feminist concept of political that focuses on the real killing and being killed in terms of violence between spouses, parents and children at home, where violence is both visible and invisible.

Family violence is not merely hidden and secret. But this privatisation of violence is also a “form of politics”. Even when Schmitt discusses the role of groups in creating the friend-enemy distinction, one may wonder why barely any women and children’s political groups have ever formed. Perhaps, family as an institution blurs those possibilities.

Schmitt did not imagine that one’s enemy, in his profound existential sense of person trying to kill us, could live in one’s own home; or that a police department could be complicit in that terror; or its perpetrators; or that the concept of the state presupposes a concept of sovereignty as masculine, decisive, and potentially deadly—a form of sovereignty first practised in the family.

(Marasco, 2023: 11)

A feminist encounter with Schmitt will give us a sense of how gendered violence is. Men are supposed to suffer in silence, even when assaulted by women. Because manhood rules deem, you do so. Gendered violence is part of how gender is imagined, reproduced, and performed.

Therefore, Marasco writes: “Men become men through the real possibility of physical killing; women become women by virtue of the real possibility of being killed” (p. 11).

real possibility of physical killing
A photo of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin

Can we, then, reconceptualise feminist existentialism? Marasco draws on Andrea Dworkin’s works to argue the case for an alternative existentialism. Like Schmitt, Dworkin writes about extreme violence and poverty. Her writing is as lucid as that of Schmitt.

In her famous speech “I Want a 24-Hour Truce During Which There is No Rape”, Dworkin evokes rhetoric in a sense of Schmittian political thought. “Rape and war are not so different”, she says.

Feminism, for Dworkin, is a militant self-defence against the real possibility of being killed. A defence against aggression. She treats violence as gendered, unlike Schmitt. She also treats male dominance as a political project, not a natural fact. And she argues that male supremacy itself is a war against women—and violence is its instrument.

This war “makes a genuine solidarity between men and women highly unlikely and political friendship among women a matter of life and death” (p. 11). Using her ideas as a frame of reference, Marasco concludes that “the real possibility of physical killing is today at the centre of feminist uprisings around the world” (pp. 11-12).

Despite this essay’s brilliant argumentation about feminist solidarity, some questions persist. One question I can think of right now is how you deal with women who have been purveyors of patriarchy in today’s society.

For instance, in the Manipur instance—as elsewhere in India, women were party to women’s violence. Several Meitei women partook in pushing Kuki women to violence, directing them towards men who would sexually assault and kill them.

How do we then think of feminist solidarity in the wake of women—older women in my village, those like mine across India—acting as flagbearers of patriarchal practices?

Cover Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash


Reference:

Marasco, R. (2023), The Real Possibility of Physical Killing: A Feminist Critique of Carl Schmitt. American Journal of Political Science. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12803


Suggested Readings:

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The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel by Robyn Marasco.

Buy the book in India or Globally.

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The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt.

Buy the book in India or Globally.

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Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women by Christina Lamb.

Buy the book in India or Globally.


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