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.

23 thoughts on “What is the state?”

  1. nation-state
    I noticed you did not use the term “nation-state.”

    Am I reading too much into this, are did you do that deliberately?

    I view the nation as something different from the state. The “nation” is an organic community of presumably like-minded people; the “state” is a system of government with delegated powers constructed to govern that community.

    You seem to describe a state of affairs in which the nation is essentially irrelevant.

    • States and nations
      I don’t think the nation is essential to the state. The two things are just different. In any event the nation state is pretty much a discarded ideal in the West, except in the pickwickian form of “civic nationalism” in which attachment to state institutions and their guiding principles becomes the defining principle of what is still called nationality. How can you have a multicultural nation state?

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • nation state
        Your comment is very suggestive.

        It implies that the state would have an interest in undermining the nation, or at least it would have no interest in preserving the nation.

        This implies that the state would engage in propaganda to identify itself (i.e., the state) with the nation, and transfer the allegiance of the populace from the nation to the state (I don’t think this effort has been particularly effective in the United States, by the way; I think most ordinary people can distinguish very readily between the nation of the United States and the federal state centered in D.C.).

        Wasn’t the USSR a multicultural nation-state, that, quite aside from its governing ideology, was a preposterous creation?

        • China
          And don’t you think the People’s Republic of China has the same problem with the “multicultural thing”?

        • L’État, c’est l’état
          It’s a complicated relationship. Historically states helped create nations. It was 40 kings who made France, or so it was said. Ethnic Chinese are called “Han” after the Han dynasty. I think in South Chinese dialects they are called “Tang” after the dynasty that ruled later when South China was permanently incorporated into the Chinese state. In those times ethnic—linguistic, cultural, historic etc.—connections and loyalties helped support the state, which was small and weak and undeveloped. Today the state has outgrown that sort of thing and views ethnicity and its constituents, family connections, common culture, religion and whatnot, as an interference. As long as such things matter the state won’t be able to control everything, and from the standpoint of the state that’s bad.

          As far as America goes, I think the concept of America as a “proposition nation” has caught on to some extent. If America is multicultural, what else could it be? I don’t think anyone in public life is willing to speak against multiculturalism in principle. The farthest anyone is willing to go is promotion of some sort of common civic culture that amounts to acceptance of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Propositions
            I suppose the question is whether a “proposition nation” is really a nation at all.

            The notion of a “proposition nation,” which in itself is just an empty proposition, serves the interests of the state in emasculating the nation of any substance and embedding the state as a sort of substitute nation. If I can’t be part of a real nation, at least I can believe in a set of propositions.

            I suppose the apex of a “proposition nation” was the USSR, grounded entirely in ideology.

            Just a note: In foreign policy, a state based on propositions starts to peddle those propositions as representative of the state. Then, these propositions are universalized, and become the basis for action. Then, when those propositions are implemented in foreign policy, but result in a state of affairs deleterious to the nation, the state is caught out, and the tension between the national interest and the propositions becomes apparent. Thus, our President and his Secretary of State retreat and backslide when Hamas wins a democratic election (perfectly in accord with our “Universal propostions” but contrary to our national interest).

          • Propositions and nationality
            A proposition nation is totalitarian. You acquire your relation to society only by signing on to an ideology uniquely embodied by the state. It is also imperialistic, since propositions are universal in range. America is said to be based on freedom and equality. If so, then since all men are by nature free and equal then all men by nature are Americans and we should conquer the world so they can achieve their destiny.

            (Incidently, for anyone interested in this discussion, I’ve revised the main entry.)

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Sean Gabb has noticed some of the same general trends
    In regard to “how we are governed nowadays,” the following is an excerpt from Sean Gabb (hat tip to Guessedworker, posting over at the MajorityRights.com Forum):

    “It is possible to see, during the past 25 years in at least this country [the U.K.], a movement towards a new settlement in politics. This movement has continued regardless of who has occupied which office, and regardless of what party has won which election. It is clear that the ruling class—or that loose coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, educators, and media and business people who derive wealth and power and status from an enlarged and active state—wants an end of liberal democracy. The desired new settlement is one in which those at the top or with the right connections can enjoy the most fabulous wealth and status, and in which their enjoyment of these can never again be challenged from below. We, the ordinary people, are to be stripped of our constitutional rights—no freedom of speech, no personal or financial privacy, no procedural safeguards in the criminal law. We are to be taxed and regulated to what counts in our own culture as the edge of the breadline. This is on the one hand to provide incomes for clients of the ruling class, and on the other to deprive us of the leisure that might allow us to understand our situation, and of the confidence that might allow us to challenge it. In any event, every organ of the ruling class is at work on promoting ideologies of boundless submission to the new settlement.

    “At the same time, structures of accountability that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries are to be deactivated. Their forms will continue. There will be assemblies at Westminster. But these will not be sovereign assemblies with the formal authority of life and death over us all. That authority will have been passed to various unelected and transnational agencies. And so far as the Westminster assemblies will remain important, our votes will have little effect on what they enact.

    “We are passing into the sort of world that existed in much of Europe before the French Revolution—a world of diverse and conflicting sources of authority, all equally unaccountable. The great simplification of authority that happened in Europe after 1789, and that had happened over two centuries earlier in England, was a product of nationalism; and simplification was followed by accountability and then by liberalism. This sort of reaction is in future to be made impossible by promoting movements of people so that nations in the old sense disappear, and are replaced by patchworks of nationalities more suspicious of each other than of any ruling class. […]

    “The Election of the Blair Government marked no change of direction—but only of pace. The policies of state we have at present have not been set because they suit the electoral convenience of Tony Blair. Mr Blair became Prime Minister because he seemed at the time best suited to carry forward policies of state set by others. But his usefulness is at an end. He is no longer wanted by those who matter, and his party is no longer wanted.

    “Therefore, the Conservative Party has been brought back from the dead. It has been given a leader who has accepted almost everything done by Labour since 1997, and whose objections are confined to those areas within which the ruling class is itself divided. […] [Link added.]

    “My advice to anyone who likes to gamble is to bet on a Conservative victory at the next election. Do not suppose that this will be a government of conservatives. Just as the Labour victory in 1997 caused no break in continuity, so the replacement of Labour will in turn change nothing fundamental. But there is to be a change of faces at the top. […]

    “So, lucky Mr Cameron. All he has to do now is ensure the ruling class remains disenchanted with the present Government, and hope that enough of the electorate fails to see what is being done to the country and will continue to legitimise a settlement that in its sordid authoritarianism taints the preceding thousand years of English history.”

    [The original Sean Gabb piece is here.]

    Long live free Flanders!

    • The Settlement
      I don’t know much about UK politics, but the notion of a new “settlement” could be helpful in apprehending and dissecting the present trend.

      An interesting aspect of this new settlement is the way in which committed liberals have been co-opted into compromising or surrendering their liberalism to the new order. Can we really call this new order “liberalism,” or is it some new stage?

      Conservatives and traditionalists can see what’s happening, but it seems liberals are marching merrily to their death.

      • See what’s happening? Trads, yes. Conservatives definitely not.
        “Conservatives and traditionalists can see what’s happening” (—MD, 11:15am)

        Establishment Conservatives can’t see what’s happening—either that, or they fully approve. People like George Will, Fred Barnes, Mary Matalin, Peggy Noonan, William F. Buckley, Jr., the Bush family of course, Rush Limbaugh, Rupert Murdoch, David Cameron in the U.K., Stephen Harper in the People’s Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan, and so forth, are to one degree or another part of it. Either they don’t see it, or they do and like it.

        Long live free Flanders!

        • Agreed

          George Will, Fred Barnes, and Rupert Murdoch see what’s happening, and they like it. They want to ride the wave, and call the wave “conservatism” while they ride it.

  3. So many of those influencing bureaucrats are totalitarians
    That the modern state is taking on a totalitarian character is not surprising when one considers the personalities of many of the people who constitute, influence, and lead government bureaucracies. Look at this woman, for example: Prof. Hirshman. She’s a totalitarian at heart. She doesn’t understand the notion of letting people do what brings them the greatest happiness even if it conflicts with her radical egalitarian ideology. She wants there to be societal rules that will force them in a different direction:

    Hirshman believes it is unjust for women to stay at home because it does not accord with liberal views of what it means to be human. There is nothing worse than injustice. Therefore, it does not matter that women are made happy by the motherhood role. Hirshman can write that the ‘privileged brides of the Times – and their husbands – seem happy’ but still judge them to be doing the wrong thing because ‘what they do is bad for them.’ Hirshman is drawing, in a principled way, on an anti-choice logic within feminist theory which was expressed most stridently in 1975 by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir who proclaimed that,

    ” ‘No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.’ ”

    Long live free Flanders!

    • Women
      I suspect Prof. Hirshman is an old liberal, and merely following the logic of liberalism to its extreme conclusions.

      But, if read in conjunction with your other post from Sean Gabb about the new “settlement,” I don’t see that old liberals like her have much relevance in the new order. The new settlement will have no interest in women qua women; nor will it care to make evaluative judgments about what is “good” or “bad” for particular individuals. It will only have an interest in bodies for the workplace, consumers, and taxpayers. As for the composition of society, in families or in some other form, that would seem to be irrelevant. Social order will be maintained, I presume, through consumerism, a good standard of living, public services, propaganda about “progress” and “enlightenment,” detachment of the population from all meaningful political participation, and coercion.

      Do you think I’m reading Gabb correctly?

      • Even New Settlers need ideals
        But Hirschman believes that to be human is to be a fully integrated production/consumption unit in the global economy. Why wouldn’t the New Settlement promote that noble ideal?

        Rem tene, verba sequentur.

        • One of the new noble ideals will be the liberal idea of freedom
          I saw the following little exchange on what “freedom” means to many liberals in the thread at MajorityRights.com:

          Just out of curiosity, does Hirshman give any reasons why the family “allows for fewer opportunities for human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government”? Or are we just to accept this as fact?

          Posted by Marc on Monday, January 30, 2006 at 11:16 PM | #

          Marc, liberals define freedom as flightiness, weightlessness. In other words, the only way to be free is to have an unsettled life. Family, in providing a sense of rootedness milates against this, and hence against “human flourishing”.

          The problem is not the liberal pursuit of freedom. It’s that their idea of freedom is one no sane man would wish to live without enormouse compulsion. Yet another contradiction in liberal thought: no free (i.e. uncoerced) man would ever choose their “freedom”.

          Posted by Alex Zeka on Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 05:43 PM | #

          Nicely put Alex.

          Posted by Mark Richardson on Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 06:28 AM | #

          Mark, do you happen to know any Russian? One quirk of the language is that it has two words for freedom:
          1. Volya. Also means will, used to signify not being tied or connected to anything or anyone.

          2. Svoboda. Means the state of not being coerced or imprisoned.

          Needless to say, the velvet revolutionaries were chanting the later of the two words. Soros et al. seem to think they meant the former.

          Posted by Alex Zeka on Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 10:28 AM | #

          People wouldn’t say of a homeless man’s condition that he was “free”. We would say that he was impoverished or outcast.

          In the same way, we shouldn’t say of a man who has forsaken his ancestry, his ethny, his sense of manhood, or his role as a husband and father within a family that he is free.

          And yet this is what liberalism tends to understand as our emancipation; casting off settled, inherited forms of identity and connectedness, in order to live as a free-floating individual in terms of our own choices.

          Alex, you are right that there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of freedom understood as most men once intuitively understood it. But the word has been captured to such a degree that once you hear the term “individual freedom” you know you are entering the liberal zone.

          It’s a pity we don’t have a linguistic distinction similar to the Russian one you outlined above.

          Posted by Mark Richardson on Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 11:48 AM | #

          Long live free Flanders!

        • Fred and Jim, agreed.The
          Fred and Jim, agreed.

          The more I think about it, this is true: propaganda has peddled these notions. It has become a “noble ideal” to reduce oneself to a commodity in the global economy, and to define oneself as a reflection within that world.

          • No, the New Settlement won’t be lacking in “noble ideals”
            “[…P]ropaganda has peddled these notions. It has become a ‘noble ideal’ to reduce oneself to a commodity in the global economy, and to define oneself as a reflection within that world.” (—MD, 12:51pm)

            Of course. That plus some judiciously-applied coercion ranging anywhere from mild to quite savage (just to make sure the message gets through) does the trick nicely—keeps the lid on, you might say. Why else do you think people in North Korea aren’t all out rioting in the streets?

            Long live free Flanders!

      • There’ll be ideals, just none we’d recognize as healthy ones
        I think Jim makes a good point: the ones who’ve gotten their paws onto the levers of power understand they have to inculcate some sort of idealism to make people imagine they are content to be units of production and consumption with nothing deeper permitted. Where you say, MD, that “Social order will be maintained through (1) consumerism, (2) a good standard of living, (3) public services, (4) propaganda about ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment,’ (5) detachment of the population from all meaningful political participation, and (6) coercion,” I look at a place like North Korea (where you hear not so much as a peep of discontent out of the population yet that population has nothing in the way of consumer products, material goods, public services, standard of living, or meaningful political participation but has been ground down, made into automatons, stripped of its self-respect and dignity, and is actually starving to death) and say to myself the individuals running the New World Order (or the New Settlement, the New Régime, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Brave New World, or whatever name this looming monstrosity goes by) can probably keep the lid on things pretty well with only #4, #5, and #6. Don’t forget the power of propaganda: the propaganda we’ve been immersed in these forty-five years has partly succeeded in its aim of getting white people in North America and Europe to actually wish to go out of existence as a race, because of (supposedly) how mean the white race has been to everybody for three thousand years and all the trouble and pain it has caused everyone, which is of course utter nonsense but it’s caught on. “The white race is the cancer of history,” and so on; Christianity is something “evil and insane.” You’re actually got a whole new generation of young Germans, for example, who want to pass out of existence as a nation and as a people—are almost yearning for it—because of the propaganda that’s been drummed into them about how bad the white race in general and they in particular have been. Look at all the lives ruined by thirty-five years of women’s lib: women’s lives ruined, men’s lives, children’s lives, grandparents’ lives ruined. That was all done by propaganda promoting a sort of mass insanity. What keeps the North Koreans thinking they’re content and the women who’ve been duped by women’s lib likewise has been the inculcation of ideals all right, but false ones. So yes, I agree with Jim’s point that the New Settlement’s Propaganda Directorate (or whatever it’s to be called) will involve itself very much in the inculcation of its own version of “noble ideals” in the people’s brains.

        Long live free Flanders!

  4. Ominous signs pointed out by Juan Mann and Paul Craig Roberts
    Juan Mann warns, in his column up today at Vdare.com,

    “Incredibly, the threat of warrantless arrest for political speech is now real here in the U.S. today.”

    In the column he explains, referring to hypothetical scenarios growing out of alarming provisions in the Patriot Act discussed by Paul Craig Roberts,

    “That couldn’t ever happen in America, you say? Think again. The authorization is right in the new Patriot Act […] Section 605 – Sec. 3056A. […]. It’s all there in black and white. But, for God’s sake, why is it there? Generally, I agree with Paul Craig Roberts that provisions like these are mysteriously popping up in legislation now in order to help quell future dissent.” (Emphasis added.)

    Juan Mann goes on,

    “The ultimate motive here is protecting the global elitist goal of assuring a total and complete integration of the United States into a North American Community through trade agreements and the gradual erosion of American sovereignty. Given the threat of warrantless arrest powers for the new federal police, the DHS/USSS consular guards could quickly be brought in to squash dissent from any pesky but peaceful patriotic protesters who just might happen to show up outside the offices of foreign consulates in the future. With such open-ended authority, the possibilities are endless. As [Paul Craig] Roberts wrote: ‘Like every law in the US, this law also will be expansively interpreted and abused. It has dire implications for freedom of association and First Amendment rights. We can take for granted that the new federal police will be used to suppress dissent and to break up opposition. The Brownshirts are now arming themselves with a Gestapo.’ “

    Long live free Flanders!

    And long live a free United States of America!

  5. What is the State?
    There is an excerpt from the first encyclical by Pope Benedict that says as follows: “The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/encyc/b16deuscaritas.htm
    Last visited 2-2-06.

    It is not certain that the state must guarantee harmony between followers of different religions. The Pope’s idea is consistent with Mr. Kalb’s idea that the state is being treated as absolute. It seems even the Pope treats the state as absolute in the final analysis.

    • the State
      I agree. I think “harmony” is the wrong word. It is the function of the state to assure and maintain order. Harmony is another thing altogether.

      In the first instance, there may be no harmony between a religion and the state itself. The Pope’s declaration (and I haven’t read all of it) seems to assume this kind of conflict won’t arise. He says the Church “is a community that the State must recognize.” I don’t think this is true, at least not in a general sense. The United States, for example, wouldn’t “recognize” the territory of Utah as a state unless and until it renounced polygamy. And, of course, we now live in a time when the State is positioned adversely against a religion, or at least some elements of a religion, i.e., Islam.

      As for harmony among religious groups, I presume the state has no interest, except to keep the various groups from each other’s throats and maintain civil order. A mandate to maintain “harmony” could lead to the kind of “hate speech” prosecutions we now see in England for public comments about Islam.

      The interests of religious freedom, freedom of speech, and harmony between differing religions puts to the test which of these values are paramount, and the Pope should decide. I presume he would maintain that freedom of religious exercise is paramount, but, for a Muslim, freedom of religious exercise may include, to a greater of lesser extent, the practice of jihad.

      The Pope might abandon bland generalities and get down to cases.

  6. the State
    You write:

    “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.”

    In his book “History of Europe,” Norman Davies describes the Soviet state as a giant front organization for the communist party. He says, “The Soviet state was no more than the administrative agency of the party.”

    The analogy in the West, subject to many caveats, is that the State is the administrative agency of Liberalism. It really doesn’t matter who, or what party, holds elective office in the United States or in the West generally; the juggernaut of Liberalism continues and expands, generally without meaningful dissent.

    Our case is worse than that of Russia, because we have no clear target for our discontents. In Russia, once the communist party collapsed, then the State collapsed. In our case, Liberalism is more in the nature of a religion or way of life than a political party, and it is therefore difficult to conceive how it would “collapse.”

    However, I think it might be useful to think of the federal government of the United States simply as the administrative agency for the prevailing ethos, which is Liberalism.

    If this is the case, Presidential elections will have only marginal significance. If a “conservative” is elected, it is merely symbolic. The only elections that could possibly change the fundamental ethos would be Congressional elections; Congress would have the power to re-make the ethos, very quickly if it chose.

  7. Revolution from the top
    You wrote:

    “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.”

    This was of course the methodology of communist regimes, sometimes characterized as “revolution from the top.” The means adopted were propaganda, re-education, deportation, the gulag, and elimination of “objective enemies.”

    Thus, Lincoln’s formulation of political representation (of the people, by the people, for the people) is transformed into “of the state, by the state, for the state.”

    The central constituency in this formulation is the state itself. The “people” are no longer a constituency or a representable body. The people function and exist merely as a reflection of the values and interests of the state.

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