The Narrowing Legitimacy of the State
Charles H. Featherstone
by Charles H. Featherstone
by Charles H. Featherstone: Some
Reflections on the Revolution in Libya
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
H. Featherstone [send
him mail] is
an anarchist, seminarian, songwriter, sometime essayist and Jennifer’s
ever-loving husband. He blogs here
[http://thefeatherblog.blogspot.com] and here.
© 2011 Charles H. Featherstone
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