Sunday, July 19, 2009

Schmitt and Appropriation

So a few months ago (!), I finished reading Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth (2003 Telos Press), which I have been meaning to do for a long time. As ever, the book has to be read with some caution, as Schmitt’s politics (and even if they aren’t Nazi politics they are massively reactionary politics) inform his argument. Indeed, one of the really interesting things about the book is the way in which (I think) it deals quite a serious blow to the ‘ethical Schmittians’ or those who think we can appropriate Schmitt’s concept of the political for the left.

Anyhow, given that things have been pretty quiet on the blogging front of late (although fear not brave readers, I am finishing work in two weeks, although unfortunately I then need to begin flat hunting – doh!) I thought I might do some posts on Das Nomos, although admittedly looking over my notes I remain uncertain how much of it I actually remember of it. Schmitt’s central and most interesting pre-occupation in Das Nomos is the relationship between ‘space’ (not outer-space but the general kind) and international law. His central contention is that every legal order is based on the appropriation of space.

Although Schmitt’s initial exposition of this claim feels a little mystical, his concrete description of it is pretty interesting. Thus, to take the example of property, Schmitt argues:
But even when the initial land-division establishes purely individualistic private ownership or common clan ownership, this form of property remains dependent on the common land-appropriation and derives legally from the common primeval act. To this extent, every land-appropriation internally creates a kind of supreme ownership of the community as a whole, even if the subsequent distribution of property does not remain purely communal, and recognizes completely “free” private ownership of the individual.
This is a fairly brilliant point (and one which should make libertarians etc. think). Every legal conception of property has to begin with some collective which has ‘collective’ ownership of the land, which can then be parcelled out in whatever way is seen fit. This problem is very obvious in – for example – Locke; who has to rely on religious argument as a background to his stuff about individual appropriation.

This is also useful insofar as it continues and deepens Schmitt’s critique of legal positivism. Schmitt’s classic argument (although I can’t find a reference to hand) is that positivists deny the violence of law’s founding moment by always treating it as pre-supposed, as a fact which has no relevance to the continuing existence of a legal system once it has come into being. But of course, with this perspective here, this ‘founding moment’ is constantly there, always hovering as the essential legitimating ‘fact’ which determines every individual proprietorial dispute.

Later (and this is something I will explore in another post) Schmitt goes further than this, arguing that different spatial configurations produce different types of legal orders. But one thing I want to flag up here, and it’s something I will return to later, is that whilst Schmitt does better than classical legal positivism in pushing forward legal theory, I would argue that he doesn’t go far enough (or if he does, then he goes in the wrong direction).

This is because, for all his posturing, Schmitt treats appropriation as a ‘fact’. Thus, in his appendix to the book, Schmitt attempts to extend his legal theoretical position into one with larger aims, he firstly argues:
Each of these three processes – appropriation, distribution, and production – is part and parcel of the history of legal and social orders. In every stage of social life, in every economic order, in every period of legal history until now, things have been appropriated, distributed, and produced. Prior to every legal, economic and social order, prior [327] to every legal, economic, or social theory are these elementary questions: Where and how was it appropriated? Where and how was it divided? Where and how was it produced?
Immediately, then, we can see that it might be said that Schmitt has succumb to the positivistic temptation. When is there ever a period that is prior to every ‘economic and social order’? Appropriation will always take place in an always already existing set of social and economic circumstances. Although this might not seem that important, it is essential when we consider Schmitt’s move with appropriation. Here Schmitt argues:
The history of peoples, with their migrations, colonizations, and conquests, is a history of land-appropriation. Either this is the appropriation of free land, with no claim to ownership, or it is the conquest of alien land, which has been appropriated under legal titles of foreign-political warfare or by domestic-political means, such as proscription, deprivation, and forfeiture of newly divided territory. Land-appropriation is always the ultimate legal title for all further division and distribution, thus for all further production.
So for Schmitt appropriation always has primacy. He can treat it like this because he isolates appropriation from its social and economic context (which it apparently precedes). As such, he doesn’t have to answer the stunningly obvious question as to why appropriation proceeds in a certain way. Such a move can also be seen in the left attempts to appropriate Schmitt’s legacy. A recent example of this is Susan Buck-Morss’ article ‘Sovereign Right and Global Left’ ((2007), 19 Rethinking Marxism 432-451), in this article she articles that the Marxist conception, placing modes and relations of production in the driving seat, is inferior to the Schmittian conception, which recognises appropriation, and the political as ‘prior’ and determining of these. But of course in actual fact, people don’t just ‘appropriate’ for the hell of it, they are driven by wants, needs, requirements etc.

The only way to avoid this particular recognition (that appropriation is itself driven by social relations of production etc.) is do what I think Schmitt does. This is to adopt what one might call (although I think incorrectly actually) some kind of Hobbesian position, whereby human beings are ‘naturally’ covetous, and so constantly seek to appropriate more and more. To be honest though, Schmitt doesn’t even have the courage of his convictions on this point, adopting instead a boringly liberal position and arguing:
All efforts to abolish war immediately are thrust into the context of three great substantive problems, which are more political than juridical if one chooses to make a distinction between juridical and political: security, disarmament, and peaceful change.
Of course, this would seem to fly in the face of the claims as to the centrality of appropriation in ‘the history of peoples’, given that apparently non-peaceful appropriation can be stopped simply through disarmament, security etc. You may have noticed that when I criticised Schmitt for treating appropriation as somehow ‘prior’ to everything else I didn’t mention law. This was deliberate because it is slightly more problematic. Firstly, I think it’s easy to imagine a point at which there wasn’t law, and specifically, that appropriation could occur in a way that was prior to the existence of a legal system (in a way that simply isn’t possible with the notion of economy or society broadly conceived). Secondly, Schmitt does deal with the way in which appropriation is regulated by law at various points. Indeed this is quite a telling point against him, clearly – especially in the ‘modern age’ – appropriations take place within an already existing framework of law – both national and international – and are usually conceived in legal terms.

So, where does this leave us? I think it is fairly unsustainable to claim that appropriation is some kind of independent, founding moment – given that appropriations always take place within, and are driven by, social, economic and legal relations. Thus, whilst appropriation may well be a vital part of human existence, and have especial relevance for the law it is driven by something else. This also helps us see another flaw in what Schmitt is saying. Once we stop treating appropriation as some kind of independent variable, we also move away from the idea that it is appropriation is in any way a unitary, unchanging ‘act’ that is remains similar across different epochs of human life and modes of production.

Thus, what we might look at is the way that appropriation – an act which is of course structured by the law – changes with different modes of production. So, what is especially relevant for us, is that we can see the specific legal form of appropriation capitalist international law is one centred on capital accumulation. Thus, appropriation is driven by the social relations of capitalism – internationally this is of course imperialism and capital accumulation – (although this is dialectical of course, because appropriation of ‘raw materials’ – as it were – given rise to modes of production) and as such reflects this. This gives us a way into examining the insights of TWAIL, insofar as we can see that the law of appropriation is structured by the core-periphery divide, which is itself produced by the imperatives of capital accumulation.

And what is especially important about capitalist accumulation is its ‘infinite’ character. Because of course, since capital only exists to realise itself, over and over again, capitalist appropriation is of an unlimited and continuing character. It is here that we can properly (following Arendt in particular) situate the Hobbesian depiction of the never-ending appropriation of the war of all against all. As such, we might say that Schmitt’s foregrounding of appropriation acquires some validity when understood as some proper to capitalist imperialism. Yet without understanding the social relations that give rise to this specific form of appropriation Schmitt’s theorisation will always be inadequate.

What we have here is an account of appropriation which sees it as driven by an embedded in the social relationships of its time. Specifically with international law, we can see how the legal argument that constitutes appropriation is shaped by the demands of capital accumulation. In my next post I want to extend this examination into Schmitt’s conception of free space. Hopefully, at the end of this we’ll be able to arrive at a conception that preserves Schmitt’s insistence on the importance of space to legal argument, but moves beyond this insofar as space is seen as a social relation.