The Narrowing Legitimacy of the State

I have wanted to write this essay for a long, long time, and tried twice to do so for Lew Rockwell, but was never happy with where it went. Some of my “big think” pieces were never as well written as I’d like. But since many of these ideas are central to what I blog elsewhere (on Libya, for example, or my theology of the state), it’s about time I set out and write these down.

I’ve long believed that the legitimacy of the state — that is, the state as seen and judged by those it governs — has been declining. But I’ve come to conclude that decline is not the right word, as we are not heading to an anti-state moment. Rather, the ability of the state to act and justify its actions is getting narrower. People are demanding as much of the state but becoming much harsher in their judgement of the state. And the state can no longer assume that because it acts, it can justify its actions merely because it’s the state. (“It’s the right thing to do because we say so. Nyaaah!”)

Allow me to try and explain.

The modern state — the state birthed in the Protestant Enlightenment — possesses two very important monopolies. The first is on the moral and lawful use of violence and coercion. The state alone can compel human action and punish human beings for actions against the law or for failing to act. This is “moral” because many (perhaps most) human beings through time have viewed state violence (violence done by those who have been appointed agents of the state) as having a moral legitimacy that mere individual violence does not have. And this is a trait of the state for as long as human beings have lived together. This is not new, and it will not go away. This monopoly on lawful and moral violence is what makes the state the state.

The other monopoly the state possesses is that of meaning. The state alone, especially from early 19th century through to about the middle of the 20th, took to itself the sole or primary right to construct the narrative through which human life within (and often outside) the state would be valued and given purpose. The state would author the story and create the ideas that would determine the purpose and meaning of individual and collective human life, what human beings would live for, contribute for, sacrifice for and die for. The state would accept no alternative narratives, no different meanings — all were considered threats to the creation of a state-centered society (society being that community contiguous with the nation-state). The state was the sole creator and sustainer of human purpose, and would accept absolutely no dissent.

This is why even liberal states were, 100 years ago, incredibly intolerant, persecuting and prosecuting those holding alternative narratives.

In the West, this is largely an artifact of the Protestant Reformation, in which the church was effectively made subsidiary to the state while at the same time made contiguous with the state. Protestants, especially Germans and Scandinavians (but also the English to an extent), tend to confuse church, society and state because they all historically had the same boundaries.

All of this, particularly the monopoly on meaning, was necessary for the creation of mass societies, in which there were only individuals standing alone but also collectively as a mass of citizens before the state. The only subsidiary institutions and identities the state could allow in mass society were those that accepted the state as the center of society. Liberal Christianity, fraternal and professional organizations, trade unions, nationalistic and patriotic groups, all accepted not just the moral legitimacy of the state but also if its narrative, and its central place in human organization. They accepted the monopoly. There were degrees of liberal tolerance for non-conformity, but such tolerance was based on the state’s ability to be magnanimous about the “threat” non-conformity posed (or didn’t) to the state.

It was a time when the state could act, claim its justification for acting as “there is a state interest,” and make that claim stick.

But nothing can last forever. The high water mark of this monopoly on meaning was the First World War, in which states — liberal and those less-than-liberal — were able to thoroughly organize societies and mobilize resources to fight the war. In doing so, states had to make promises about why the war was being fought, as mass war requires mass participation (if nowhere else, in the minds of the state’s citizens, which really is the most important real estate a state controls), and had to create narratives in which the state fighting was ever-virtuous and the states being fought were utter evil. There is no way the sacrifice demanded of Europe’s “citizens” (and also of Americans for the two years the United States was mobilized) could ever be justified given what the outcome of the war was to be — death, suffering, destruction and utter defeat for someone.

In a way, Europeans slowly (but only slowly) began to recoil against the reality of state-centered society and state-imposed meaning. Yes, the nation may be united in purpose, but if that purpose could only be realized in mass death and mass destruction and mass suffering, what was the point of it? Where was the promise of a better world? But I say only slowly, as Fascism and Communism sought to give meaning to the suffering, to find a noble a virtuous purpose in the suffering and destruction. A new world out of the old for the masses of humanity.

The Second World War came without the cheering crowds that greeting declarations of war in July and August of 1914. It was the necessary sequel to the first, because the first hadn’t really settled anything. And even though the state was able to mobilize, it did so without the utter brutality and totality the state mobilized for the First World War (save for the Soviet Union). And although the planners in the West had hoped to create a mass global community in and through the UN, the people of the world had other ideas.

Slowly in the West (and eventually elsewhere), people become consumers. This is much derided, mostly on the Left in the United States, who lament the loss of proper politics. After all, a consumer is nothing but a passive actor, taking in what is easily at hand. But consider it this way for a moment — a citizen can be conscripted, mobilized, propagandized, made demands of, forced to sacrifice, so on. But consumers really cannot be. Consumption is a one-way deal — you provide, I consume. My consumption is necessary to your survival, but you live and prosper not by making demands of me or compelling me to sacrifice but by providing me with what I want or what you have convinced me I want. This may have been an accident, the result of post-WWII American industry seeking markets for products, but people became consumers not just of goods and services but also of government. With the same expectation that the state would be a provider of services, and not the active organizer of humanity.

This was a slow change. It did not happen immediately. But the excesses of the state, particularly the monopoly of meaning, were taken to heart by many (though not all) liberals in the West. The total state had never set well with the liberal mindset, always seeming something of a betrayal of liberal ideals of individual freedom and autonomy. This isn’t to say liberalism always wins — it didn’t in the Gettysburg Address, and it didn’t with Woodrow Wilson — but the ideas of liberalism are powerful and compelling.

In the West, in particular, the state began to surrender, slowly, its claims to a monopoly of meaning. And this gave room for new, non-state meanings to arise. Let me be clear what happened and is happening here. People are not opting for new meanings that reject or sideline the state, nor are they creating alternate structures of governance. Rather, they are saying to the state:

The good life, the meaningful life, is not a life of sacrifice for the state, it is not building grand and great monuments for the state, it is not marching together to a bright new future planned and promised by the state, it is having families and loving children and doing satisfying work and worshiping God (or not) in a community of people who have come to care about each other, a community which on some level includes the nation. We will sacrifice for the defense of our homes if we have to, and at times come to the aid of others, but our lives have value outside what someone in a uniform or who leads a political party or who manages a state program tells us they have. And that value we ourselves give our lives comes first.

In Europe, the state became a provider of services to consumers. Monopoly provision of services, yes, but a long way from Bismark’s notion that the state provides welfare as part of its deal in which citizens sacrifice for the state. The state in the West, and increasingly all over the world, can no longer justify its actions by saying “we are the state.” Not in a world of consumerism, liberalism and human rights. The state has to work much harder to do less than it could 100 years ago. At times and in places it is still very illiberal, especially the United States, where the powers the President is accumulating lie more potential than kinetic (mostly at home; it’s plenty kinetic for denizens of non-American nations) but would still make a Caesar blush. But the state is morally accountable to people in ways no one could have imagined in the midst of the First World War. And states, increasingly, cannot hide from that accountability. No matter how hard they try.

The state, in this, is still expected to protect people, and it is still expected that the state will educate, provide health care and a basic level of economic security for the society’s most vulnerable people. The welfare state is the ideal for much of the world. But it is a consumer welfare state, not a citizen welfare state. Welfare exists in order to allow people to define their own lives most successfully, rather than orienting their lives in service to and sacrifice for the state. (Whether this works is another matter.) The state is expected to provide its goods and services professionally, efficiently and at a cost people can afford. Meaning is less and less one of those services.

The Arab revolt of the last few months has been, I think, an interesting example of this. Most Arab states were formed in anti-colonial movements, and were expressions of national unity and greatness as a way of resisting outside domination. Long ago, however, these states failed to be able to deliver any meaningful services to the people they governed, and the meaning they created became anachronistic. The idea of the liberal consumer welfare state (that’s a mouthful) is powerful, and along with dignity and government accountability it was what was being fought for on the streets of Tunis and the streets of Cairo. And possibly even in Tripoli and Banghazi. It is what the Shia of Bahrain are fighting for. That value we ourselves give our lives comes first.

But these revolts also offer a preview of the crisis to come in government in the Western world too. Liberal governance promises accountability, but this is often a difficult promise to keep — what does it mean for government to be accountable? And accountable to consumers? Because you cannot dictate to consumers the terms under which they consume. We no longer live in the world of Phillip Dru: Administrator. The European Union and the United States will face the fact that the elites who rule are not properly accountable to much of anyone, and certainly not in elections. The same ideas that government exists to empower people which were used to topple Hosni Mubarak are also the same ideas animating the Tea Party and the protestors who occupied the Wisconsin state capitol. There is less coherence in the United States, is part because the Left and the Right have constructed ideas of citizenship and consumerism that are utterly at odds with each other. But also because America is a country held together by a confession of credal documents that founded and empower government — without the state, you don’t have a United States of America. (You would still have France without a French state, or Egypt without an Egyptian state.) We don’t share enough culture to be held together by anything other than our ideas of government. And when we don’t share those, we share nothing. You don’t have a United States without the United States government.

However, I’m going to leave this discussion for another time.

We don’t live in a libertarian moment. Or even an anti-state moment. People are protesting to make the state work better, to work for them. But it is an interesting moment, and one that is generally positive for liberty. Consider: no state could fight the First World War today. People would not accept it. Even in the last two states to mass mobilize, Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, such a war would be impossible. I do not believe Iranians and Iraqis would countenance mass mobilization. But the downside is states no longer need to mass mobilize for war or even ensure the loyalty of all citizens. Professional armies and mercenaries (from Qaddafiy’s West Africans to Xe) are significantly more loyal to the state than masses could be at this point. The state still retains that monopoly on force, the willingness to use it, and the ability to justify it.

But we do live in a time in which the state’s authority is growing narrower. It is easier, thanks to technology, for those of us who question the moral legitimacy of the state to speak and be heard. There are more ways for people to listen. There is no longer one overarching narrative of power and meaning in most of the world’s nation-states. States and governments are no longer believed to so embody the ideals they claim to represent. They are now more accountable to those ideals — including freedom — than ever before. And when they fall short, people will challenge them. It will not always be good or easy. And elites who rule will frequently continue to do so with little regard for the people they rule. All of these things are true, always have been and always will be. But it is a good day to believe in freedom.

And it is a good day to say “no” to the state.

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