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What is the state?

We’ve had a little back-and-forth on the modern state and what to make of it, so I thought I’d put together some notes for whatever anybody can make of them:

  • Most fundamentally, it seems the state is based on itself as a system of power. You’re recognized as the government of a region if you actually have stable control of that region. As the government you have the presumptive right to obedience, for the sake of public peace if nothing else. So in this case might really does make right.
  • In modern times the state has generally been understood as the ultimate and most authoritative social reality. That makes sense. The state is because it is, so it has its own I AM THAT I AM. Also, it has power over life and death, and from a modern this-worldly standpoint there is nothing more important than that. It has therefore been the most important source of social identity. Betray your family or your religion and that’s normal, betray your government and there’s something really wrong with you. That view seems to have declined in Europe but it’s still very much alive in America.
  • The state is said to be based on the popular will, but that’s obviously not so. Elites always rule, except perhaps in special situations, so popular will is trumped by common understandings among those with social and institutional authority, as currently in the case of “human rights” and any number of other things. “Government by consent” means that the people at large must consent to the state and its policies. In the modern state that becomes an obligation of the people and not the state. If the people do not consent to the state it is generally recognized that the government has the right to dissolve the people and form a new one, for example through re-education and transformation of attitudes and institutions or through immigration and multiculturalism.
  • It is difficult to avoid treating the state as absolute. To avoid that view it seems there needs to be some concrete institution (1) that is more universal than any particular state, and so not subject to state domination, (2) that is not a state, and so lacks a general right of physical coercion, and (3) is understood as in principle more authoritative than the state. In Christendom that was the Catholic Church, in present-day Europe it’s the EU or UN.
  • At a minimum, there needs to be someone independent of the state whose right to decide basic political and moral issues is generally accepted among those with influence. The recognized decision-maker might be the World Court and various theoreticians and pundits, the Catholic hierarchy, or the ulema. It’s not clear why one set of such judges is more democratic than another. Tocqueville described the American state as democratic in that the majority decided basic political and moral issues. That’s obviously no longer so. In addition, the arrangement had the unfortunate effect of making society if not the state absolute, since there was nothing even in principle that trumped majority will.
  • A problem with current transnational institutions is that they evidently want to come together in something possessing the means of coercion and thus constituting a universal state. In addition, the principles to which they appeal are secular and so capable of full embodiment in some institution here and now. So in principle they want to be absorbed by the state and don’t solve the problem of relativizing it. A state becomes absolute to the extent it decides its own legitimacy. Communist states that wiped out all elites other than top state and party functionaries became as absolute as a state can be. To the extent a state becomes secular and universal and responsible for social life in general it tends to become absolute, since it is hard to point to anything that is independent and in principle more authoritative to determine legitimacy. A secular world social welfare state would plainly be absolute, a sort of this-worldly divinity.