Is There a “Common Good” in America?

Nichaolas Lemann, in a review of Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is a legislative, administrative and social history of the New Deal, notes something very interesting about America politics:

Political scientists use the term “pluralist” to describe a system in which interest groups compete incessantly for advantage, and there is no overarching, determinative notion of the public interest. The side that wins gets to define the public interest, and the system’s moral commitment is to the procedure, not the outcomes. The final product of the New Deal, Katznelson argues, was a pluralist, “procedural” state in domestic affairs, and a far more expansive and less democratic state—corporatist, committed to planning in the “national interest”—in military affairs. This amounts to a liberal nightmare (and also demonstrates that one should not be confident that reducing interest-group influence in politics would necessarily produce pleasing results): the aspect of government liberals focus on was constrained, the aspect conservatives focus on was unbridled. And it was the South’s doing.

Katznelson deals mostly with how the New Deal was implemented, and why it took the shape it did. I’ve not read the book, but Lemann’s review is fascinating, and it’s why I pulled the above graf out.

One of the political and social arguments I’ve long been most suspicious of is “the common good.” I’ve said before I don’t believe there is any such thing as the common good, and I generally stand by that statement.

But I would like to nuance it a bit. There is no common good in the American context. Not really. The common good is not an abstract statement of fact, but rather an arrived-at social consensus that, in order to be effectively realized politically, must pre-exist politics. A particularly defined community may say to itself “we care for each person in this community” and then express that care in any number of ways.  The American Left much admires very liberal Scandinavia, all the while ignoring most Scandinavian states are small and very homogenous, and have arrived at their welfare states less through deliberate policy than through shared social understanding of obligations to others — others who are an awful lot like themselves. (We also see a fraying of this in Northern Europe as migrants who do not share the social understanding don’t completely assimilate to it.) So a common good requires a common understanding, and that understanding is a communal feeling or sensibility that precedes political action.

Absent that, all you have are assertions. “Every American child should be educated in a state school,” for example, was an assertion of a common good from the late 19th century that was strongly opposed just about everywhere it was asserted (if John Taylor Gatto can be believed). It has become a “common good,” though one widely questioned (and frequently challenged, and a “good” I would suggest we are forever uncomfortable with). And as Lemann notes, “the side that wins gets to define the public interest.” The “common good” is a product of who can bring the most brute force (in political terms) to bear in a struggle.

This is the risk of a pluralistic society. It is my understanding that in history, most pluralistic societies were empires, ruled by a tight but sometimes very open ruling class that very definitely rules. Non-majority communities were subject, but also had some degree of autonomy, to rule themselves according to whatever traditions they had, so long as those traditions did not threaten (or were not seen to threaten) the empire. In trying to build a pluralistic, multicultural democratic society, we are doing something that has never been done before. That may be possible, but I’m something of a conservative when it comes to human organization: there are only so many ways people can organize themselves. If the kind of society we are trying to build doesn’t show up in history, well, there’s probably a reason for that — it cannot be done. It is likely, I think, that such a state will become democratic in procedure only, as any outcome that challenges multicultural pluralism will simply not be allowed. If what you are making is an empire, than empire will eventually out itself.

I’m not sure how asserting a “common good” and then imposing it via political fiat isn’t authoritarianism. (This is why I am deeply mistrustful of progressivism, because of its authoritarian bent.) On the other hand, it has become clear that contentious political impositions in this country have become part some notion of “common good,” although they remain disputed and challenged.

But in the end, I do not believe you can create with politics and ideology the things that need to hold a society and nation together, if those things — language, culture, shared outlook and understanding, shared stories — don’t already exist. Politics can shape all that, and over time, even create it (much of Europe exists because of someone’s say so, whether it be the nation of France or surnames), and those changes can become very stable and durable. But not when they are frequently challenged, even by a tiny but vociferous group. That usually ends in bloodshed.

My personal preference is for bottom-up organizing, not top-down. Which is why I am generally suspicious of most grand attempts to remake the world using political power. Or assertions of the “common good,” especially on a national level. I’m not sure what a “common good” for 300 million people looks like. I’m not sure there can be such a thing.

Businessmen and Entrepreneurs

A confession: I have not actually been listening to the GOP convention live. And I won’t be listening to the Democrat convention either. I am not a partisan politics junkie.

So I get all my stuff second hand, usually filtered through NPR (and knowing that NPR is as annoying as Harry Shearer’s “Continental Public Radio” parodies) or, increasingly from antiwar.com, The American Conservative, and occasionally salon.com (which can be more annoying and self-righteous, though not quite as vacuous, than even NPR). Which leaves me commenting on comments — blogging on blogs. And I always feel slightly fraudulent when I do that.

But *sigh*, today I cannot help myself. Scott Galupo over at The American Conservative was critical of what he saw as the content of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

And this is true. In the way I think Ryan means it — probably in the Randian, lone über-hero against the mediocre world of parasites — your typical laborer is most definitely not a entrepreneur. Samuel Goldman, in his comments on Galupo’s posting (I am blogging about someone’s comment on a blog — what have I come to?), notes that Republicans no longer have room in their understanding of the American dream for “those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement” so that they “can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort.”

But I also remember reading this from the acceptance speech from the 1896 Democrat convention given by party nominee William Jennings Bryan:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

Part of me finds little difference between Galupo’s estimation of Ryan thought and Bryan’s words. What, after all, is the difference between and “entrepreneur” and a “businessman”?
Except there is a great deal of difference here. Bryan is defending the dignity of labor — something I’m not sure Democrat or Republican elites know how to really do anymore. It’s certainly nothing either party would stoop to doing at this point. The man who works only with his muscles is still doing business — leasing his labor to someone who can pay. He still has property he trades on the open market, and deserves as much dignity and respect as any speculator or financier. Bryan is also defending the dignity of smallness in the face of bigness. 
Also, the sense I have is that missing from the Randian admiration of the heroic businessman is context. The reality is, most entrepreneurialism takes places within social networks, in communities, and does so in ways that makes sense to entrepreneur, investor and customer alike. And that seeks to minimize risk. (Because most entrepreneurs cannot get government to hedge risk and cover losses the way investment bankers have.) Entrepreneurialism almost entirely takes place within a web of cooperation and within a community. Bryan’s speech understands that. In effect, Bryan is defending a “property right” where those who most staunchly defended private property saw none to begin with. (It has always been interesting to me that labor is only viewed as property once it is paid for, and then it becomes the property of the one buying it, never the one selling it. I think our default moral model for employment is slavery.)
I suspect if pushed on the matter, Ryan would clearly get that. But the GOP has so bought into the language of heroic individuals — especially heroic capitalists battling the evil forces of predatory, regulatory government — that attempting to acknowledge the social grounding of entrepreneurialism is a form of socialism. Or perhaps even communism. Who ends up buying the goods and services provided by the heroic individual capitalist is then something of a mystery. 

The Real Class Struggle

Anthony Gregory does yoeman’s work in a recent piece for The American Conservative about the Tea Party and class consciousness in America:

The Tea Party’s rhetoric of defending the little guy against the powerful has always seemed discordant to the left, which regards such class consciousness as its own domain. The left has long identified itself with the idea of two classes in society—the common people and the power elite—each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When left-wingers speak this way, conservatives like Limbaugh accuse them of “class warfare.” But neither side grasps the full picture: in fact, it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms.

The piece got me to thinking. One of the reasons class arguments no longer really resonate with the American Left (or with the Western Left, for that matter) is that class no longer really matters. The Left no longer talks about class, and hasn’t done so since the 1960s, when the New Left was ascendant in at least the English-speaking world. Today, the Left speaks of identities — race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation.

I think most of this can be laid at the feet of the Frankfurt School and their Italian friend Antonio Gramsci. These Marxist thinkers focused on the “social discourse,” on language and how language is used by ruling elites to maintain social control and perpetuate certain ideas. This notion of “hegemony,” as I understand it, was Gramsci’s answer in the 1920s to the “persistence of capitalism” (!!!) at a time when, by all rights, at least according to good Marxists, capitalism should have disappeared in a puff of revolutionary smoke. Capture the tools of hegemony — the institutions that control the “social discourse” — and you can change the language of hegemony, and thus change how a society thinks.

No doubt some useful ways of thinking about and critiquing power came out of the Frankfurt School. But mostly, in taking the command to engage in a “long march through the institutions” (Gramsci’s words), the world-be Marxist revolutionaries of the West became convinced — or deluded, depending on how you want to look at things — that the revolution was indeed a dinner party. That capital could be challenged, and defeated, by clever semiotics.

Whether the New Leftists of the 1960s actively believed this or not I do not know. They did, however, live like this. They wrote and published and taught and organized within the institutions they found, hoping to change them. And change them they did.

But you simply cannot be a real revolutionary if you have a mortgage. Of if you have tenure and a pension to protect. Real revolutionaries don’t have health insurance either.

And so something very interesting happened. These cultural revolutionaries, who took up teaching jobs in universities and seminaries (especially Roman Catholic and Liberal Protestant seminaries), who worked in government, think tanks, to a lesser extent in the media, and founded consultancies to help corporations learn another “discourse,” became an incredibly conservative group of revolutionaries. They were not truly challenging power. Instead, they demanded its expansion and the inclusion of the formerly excluded, just as they broadened the “social discourse” to include discussion of many people who had formerly not been talked about in polite on intellectual company (save as the subjects of medical or sociological investigation). And in many ways, I suppose this is a good thing, since it allows people to be honest and true to themselves and yet participate meaningfully in communal life.

But at the same time, the focus on discourse ignored many real things, such as war, economic policies (in particular the deliberate deindustrialization of the United States, a process begun in the early 1950s) and even the elite and popular self-conception of the United States. Eventually (I think sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s), the only question the thing that had once been the Left in the US could ask of a social act, process or institution is “does it discriminate?” or “is it properly inclusive?” That became the breadth and width of its moral judgments. It was as if the actual organization of working people, the actually changing of the state and society became an icky thing, an untouchable thing, something that belonged to another era. Bygone days. Old promises.

(Thankfully, this also means, for the most part, America’s cultural revolutionaries aren’t busy shooting people and setting up internment camps to eradicate class enemies. They may wish to deprive opponents of social space in which to speak and even language in which to think, but that is nowhere near the same thing as organizing firing squads. And yes, organizing firing squads is what real revolutionaries do.)

More importantly, the Left overestimated the power of language. All capital cares much about is profitability, and if it can profit from “diversity” and “inclusion,” if it can produce an acceptable rate of return on a new discourse (and all the ways consumer capitalism markets goods and services), then capital does not ideologically care how it’s bread is buttered. So long as there is always more, or the chance for more. So, in many ways, these dinner party revolutionaries not only failed to challenge capital, they enabled it. This “social discourse” of diversity is so embedded in our culture now that there’s nothing really subversive about it. The long march through the institutions is mostly done, and the marchers have mostly won. Now, they have become a clique of elderly politburo gerontocrats defending their “revolution.” Champaign for everyone!

So back to Gregory’s piece on the Tea Party. In many ways, the cultural conservatism that has, in part, fed the Tea Party is an intellectually hollow mirror-image of this “leftish” cultural marxism. If social discourse and identity matter, then opponents would create their own social discourse and identity politics! And so the ache felt across the country because of industrial and trade policies deeply embedded in elite governance cannot be adequately spoken of anymore because the Left no longer speaks the language of economics and the Right can no longer do so coherently. The Tea Party’s rage in inchoate, like the rioters in the UK several weeks ago. The people who are the Tea Party know something is wrong but they cannot think their way into seeing clearly, and there are almost no elites in the US capable of leading or organizing them well. The Tea Party knows elites when it sees them (looking at the people who successfully long marched through institutions to effectively control them), but it also fails to see the economic elites whose policies continue to contribute to the intense insecurity and unease they feel.

I’m not sure there are answers. I have become increasingly convinced that we are living in a post-ideological and perhaps even post-political age. Politics in Modernity made some huge promise about the ultimate meaning of human existence, promises made most fervently around a century ago and to a great extent promises renewed and somewhat expanded upon in the decade or so following the Second World War. What people seemed to realize, though, is that while the state might promise something akin to earthly salvation, what it delivers best is suffering, deprivation and death. The state might promise to be the ultimate meaning to human existence, but what it delivers best is meaninglessness. I think people seem to realize this. It doesn’t stop conflict, nor does it end trust in government or the state.

But human beings want meaning, as individuals and as a community. We sense the state does a horrible job of that, but we also remember the promises. And they are enticing and beguiling promises. We don’t trust ideologies anymore because we know what they are capable of prompting human beings to do, but without those same ideologies, human beings cannot coherently organize the state in any positive way to accomplish any good. And so, people rage.

This is a dangerous place to put people. They want to state to work to secure their lives, livelihoods and the shot at a decent wellbeing for their children, but people no longer know how to do this. They no longer know how to organize, or even think about organizing, any any models or ideas we have of mass politics can always be logically linked to mass murder at worst, and exactly where we are at best. The liberal democratic state, for its part, is no longer up to the task, and barring a renewal I don’t expect will come, will only get worse at this. Elites in the West increasingly are incapable of governing because they cannot think very well anymore, and they certainly cannot challenge the economic power that is diminishing the lives of so many (but enriching theirs). And I think the people they govern know that. But the governed have no idea what to do either.

I have no answers. I have no proposal for a program. I only have observations. Something is happening. There is no telling what people will do when they hold on to the promises of Modernity in the face of their slow but constant evaporation. God help us all if they suddenly get a language to articulate their real fears and desires.

A Libertarian Confession

It is still Holy Week. And while I have busied myself with trifles (see previous post), I have also been doing the work of the church. So this posting will be short too. I have a song to practice for worship tonight…

In polite company I often times call myself a libertarian. (In impolite company I call myself an anarchist, which is closer to the truth.) But I feel compelled to explain exactly what I mean by this.

The libertarianism I largely espouse is prophetic. It is not law. I believe that involuntary collectivism and communalism is humanity’s inescapable lot. There is much voluntary cooperation between human beings, but there is much that is not. But that said, those who believe in the moral legitimacy of some kind of collective or communal aspirations for human beings often ignore that collectivism and communalism often times demand the unwilling sacrifice of some human beings — their time, their talent, their wealth, their lives. Those who believe in a common good often ignore the very real fact that “common good” they seek is usually seen by an individual or a tiny handful of individuals and it is imposed — with a combination of consent, assent, indifference and begrudging acceptance in the face of raw power — on the community. Most days, I doubt there is even such a thing as the “common good” at all. Just the self-interest of those individuals who have or aspire to power over others.

In fact, all that is left, then, is raw power — the power to coerce, to compel, to control what Gramsci (and, I believe, the Frankfurt School) saw as the language of discourse, so that people have little intellectual choice but to assent or agree to the exercise of power.

And power will ALWAYS — I cannot emphasize this enough — ALWAYS be used on those least able to resist it. Believe in “justice” all you wish, but in the end, the power you use creates and sustains marginalization, impoverishment, and suffering. Any power that can corral the wealthy can annihilate the poor. Any power which can elevate the marginalized can also further push them into the margins. Guess which is easier? Even well-used power will do these things eventually.

I believe libertarianism is, or can be, a prophetic critique. Individual human beings matter. No one should be sacrificed against their will for the alleged wellbeing of all. No order is so important, necessary or righteous that some individuals within that order can be thrown away because their lives are less valuable or are viewed as a threat to the community or collective. And yet, that is what all collectivism and communalism does. It throws human beings away. Regularly. And calls it righteous.

In the end, I believe it is important for those who have been marginalized, abused, and excluded from whatever involuntary community they find themselves in, from political and social power, to have safe places to flee to. Where they can build some kind of community with others like them. This is why I like big cities. And why I’m not keen on civil rights movements. I do not understand — why would anyone demand to part of a community or a society that has clearly rejected them?

That makes absolutely no sense to me.

Redeeming Politics and Redeeming the State

Whew! I have finally finished Peter Leithart’s book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It took me longer than normal because, in my current schedule, reading deeper books is a somewhat sporadic affair. (I renewed this book four time, for example, and at 340 pages, it’s not all that long.) And I have finally figured out what Leithart wants to accomplish.

Leithat wants to redeem politics, and through that redeemed politics, wants a redeemed state. A state which can be a ground for Christians — and individuals and as church — to live out faith in love (to borrow a Lutheran phrase which he does not use). He tears Yoder’s history apart because he wants to preserve the ability of Christians to purposefully use the state to act. Leithart does a reasonably good job of proving John Howard Yoder’s history wrong — there were no “pristine” Christian church that in the two centuries before Constantine swore off violence and statecraft, only to be later seduced by the serpent of power. Yoder’s history is an Anabaptist narrative, and it does not reflect the reality of the pre-Constantinian church. Indeed, I have read several church fathers from the second century AD in which they write two things about persecution:

  1. As Christians, we are willing to suffer persecution and even die as martyrs — witnesses — to the faith at the hands of the Roman state because Jesus Christ our Lord did;
  2. But we shouldn’t have to, because as Christians we are the Empire’s best citizens, praying for the emperor and for peace.
Leithart also writes two very important things: that the church pre-Constantine had no systematic theology about either war or the state. This is true enough. We confess nothing about the state, one way or the other, and from that, it is clear there was little or no theological dispute about the Roman state (even during the persecution of Diocletian). There was also no systematic theological approach to soldiers, the Roman army and war. Leithart states that Tertullian’s and Origen’s opposition to the military has less to with war itself and more to do with the pagan religious rituals central to state worship. If the objection is pagan idolatry, and not war itself, Leithrt asks what then would happen when the state and its agents were stripped of pagan idolatry and need for pagan ritual (such as sacrifice)? Every clue we have suggests that Christians easily accommodated themselves to the Roman state.
There were also regional differences in how Romans view the military:

Opposition to military service was most prevalent in safe “interior of the Pax Romana” and [was] less prevalent in the frontier provinces menaced by the barbarians.” The exception to this generalization was Rome, where the church was more accommodating to military service than elsewhere. The Hellenistic East, with its base in Alexandria, was the most rigidly opposed to military service. (p. 262)

This makes sense. Where military service was seen as a necessity for survival, it was most likely to be theologically accepted. But not to the point of needing to be confessed. The church also early on decided that homicide in war is not “murder” in the sense of the law — νομος — and thus not punishable, though St. Basil did state that soldiers fighting in war needed to abstain from communion for three years, presumably to do some kind of reflection and penance (Leithart, p.276).
Let me state up front that I still agree with Yoder’s theology, even as his history has been shredded. Leithart does not. He was to “re-baptize” the state, set it on a new trajectory, to become a place and ground where the Kingdom of God can be made known:

… only through reevangelization, only through the revival of a purified Constantinianism, only by the formation of a Christically centered politics, only through the fresh confession that Jesus’ city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward and be baptized. (p. 342)

Only that? If Leithart has a partisan political axe to wield, he doesn’t us it in this book. He has no program, confesses no understanding of what a “baptized” politics would include, what the polity’s confession of Christ as Lord would mean. Before I go farther, it’s necessary to quote Leithart at length on his exceptionally accurate description of politics in modern nation-states:

Modern states, first, do not welcome the church, as true city, into their midst. They are happy to welcome the church if it agrees to moderate its claims, if it agrees to reduce itself to religion, or private piety, or aesthetical liturgy, or mystical piety. Modern states are happy to be Diocletian, supporting the priesthoods as a department of the empire. The modern state will not, however, welcome a competitor. It will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city, and it will not honor the Queen unless she is a floozy. [I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that word in print before — CHF] All modern states denounce the Constantinian system; that is what makes them modern states. There are differences, and important ones. Totalitarian states attack the sacrificial city of the church, seeking to turn it into Diocletian’s sacrifice of Christians. Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church, and the Christians of democratic states too often cheer them on. For all their differences, totalitarian and democratic systems are secretly united in their anti-Constantinianism.

Second, because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state. This means that there must be blood. Medieval life was rough and brutish in plenty of ways and had it share of blood. But believing that the Eucharistic blood of Jesus founded the true city provided a brake on the bloodshed. Bishops imposed the peace and truce of God, and monks and others continuously modeled Christ before kings. Modern states have no brakes. Modern nations thus get resacrilized because they are resacrificialized, they demand the “ultimate sacrifice” (pro patria mori), they expel citizens of the wrong color or wrong nationality or religion. In modernity, “Constantinianism” that Yoder deplores becomes a horrific reality, as the church has too often wedded itself to power. 

This is the origin of nihilistic politics. Nihilistic modern politics is not the product of Stoicism or nominalism or any other system of ideas. Nihilistic politics is the product of the history of Western politics, from Constantine’s desacrificialization of Western politics back to modernity’s re-sacrificialization. Nihilistic politics arises when the modern state reassumes the role of sacrificer but then realizes that there are no more gods to receive the sacrifice–no more gods but itself. And there can be no more goats and bulls, since animal sacrifice is cruel and inhumane. Yet there is blood, more blood than ever, more blood than any ancient tyranny would have thought possible, and all of it human. … [W]e might say that modern nations are post-Christian; they benefit from the covenant privilege of handling the sword and the fire but refuse to listen to Jesus when he tells them how to avoid cutting or burning themselves. (pp. 340-341)

I think this is a marvelous description, and Leithart clearly states at the end what he believes: the church as separate sovereign, empowered to advise and restrain the state. He points to many examples (Ambrose upbraiding Emperor Theodosius) of the church acting courageously before power. And it’s true — the church has done so. Also essential to Leithart’s thesis is a kind of dispensationalism (he does not use the term). Under the “new covenant,” humanity are now full-participants in God’s creative work, and waging war is one of those works. (Yes, trust me, this is what he writes.)
Here I have to state, I am still theologically with Yoder and Hauerwas. For Leithart’s thesis to work, there has to be a kind-of high water mark when the church and state functioned best together, and modernity is really a fall from good medievalism. I do not know where Leithart falls politically, whether he would sup gladly with the like of Walter Wink, but clearly Leithart believes the “powers” to be redeemable. And he knows what a redeemed world looks like — building a cathedral as cast in a medieval painting. A world of harmony and order.
But let me suggest something else — nihilistic politics is politics. There is no difference between power wielded today and power wielded in Christendom 1,000 years ago because human beings are no different. The nature of power is no different. Because the powers are born as a result of human sinfulness, did not pre-exist, and thus cannot be redeemed because, once humanity is redeemed, there are no powers. It is my understanding that Christian theology understands essential human institutions — family, state, and church (religious community) — to be things we walked out of Eden with. Thus, they are redeemable, and God uses them to impose God’s good order on the world. I don’t believe this. I see no scriptural evidence that we walked out of Eden with any of these (not even family, which one can assume most easily), and thus all of these human institutions are created in the fall. Nowhere in Eden are human beings ever given dominion over other human beings. Yet outside of Eden, we insist upon having it. Leithart wants to redeem the unredeemable.
Second, in a liberal age — an age of individual freedom and autonomy — anything that even hints at illiberalism is a non-starter. Monarchy, hierarchy, elitism, all of these things are human realities that liberalism effectively denies, and most of the supporters of the above, even if they are principled (I believe in the moral superiority of monarchy to democracy, for example), are still, in the end, advocates of illiberal government. Leithart’s ideas are fundamentally illiberal. In a liberal age, no one will listen.
Finally, I must always hearken back to the political ideas that animate me so — opposition to state violence. Leithart, like all who want to preserve the state’s ground (and the church’s) to act on behalf of justice, seek the possibility of having their faith active in love manifest itself as violence or coercion. The problem is, if love is relational, then it must be experienced or encountered by the other party in the act of love as love. Violence is — how do I say this? — open to significant misunderstanding. You are asking a lot of people you are clobbering (or bombing, or incarcerating) to see what you are doing as an act of love.
If it is not experienced by the other as love, is it really love?
I think Leithart says some very worthwhile things about Constantine, that he was not who we think he was. The early church was complex and faithful and human But until I know exactly what kind of things he thinks a “redeemed” state would do, I have to say no thanks.

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.