ANARCHY! (or, Why the State Does Too Much And Yet Not Enough)

Nations are ever-present structures in our lives. Their appearance as political entities and actors around the nineteenth century marked an inflection point in how we think about groups of individuals and how power is aggregated. I have outlined before why nations are perennially important, and the enduring popularity of my post on A Hierarchy of National Needs among search engine indices attests to the currency nationalism has in the public sphere.

But I’ve been reading some fascinating criticisms of nationalism (in the form of national structures and governments) lately, which attack nations as ineffective from an ideological standpoint. The attacks come both from below – the position in which I would classify libertarian thinking, in that it desires less state control over aspects of individuals’ lives – and above – those who believe more multi-national or supra-national organizations are necessary to create global solutions to global problems.

(At this point I’ll remark that the root of both of the preceding words is “nation.” If people are going to start thinking differently about the base controlling structures in our lives, they must stop referring to them as, essentially, collections of nations, or at the level above nations.)

Criticisms from Below

A feature on the Pileus political science blog recently discussed Habermas and one of his critics, Hayek, on the issue of public discourse in the nation state. For those unfamiliar with recent political philosophy, Habermas stands as a giant in the area, perhaps most famous for his ideas about the creation of a culture of public interaction within societies in the early eighteenth century, which he termed the “public sphere.” He asserted that humans have the ability to make society more equal and just through rational communication (I can’t help but imagine that he would love erudite and insightful blogs with intelligent commentators for this very reason).

Hayek’s criticism, expanded on Pileus by Mark Pennington (who has just written a book on the subject), is that discussion in a free and protected public sphere is not enough. The actions of individuals can in many cases be better proof than simply the airing of ideas or theories, particularly if such actions are brought about by acting in opposition to the prevailing belief system of the times. As Pennington writes:

The spread of knowledge in markets, the arts and science does not typically proceed via collective deliberation, but advances best when individuals and groups have a ‘private sphere’ that secures the freedom to experiment with projects that do not conform to majority opinions. Then, incrementally, through a process of emulation the prevailing wisdom may change over time. It is not sufficient for people to be able to talk about their ideas. Rather, they must have scope to act on those ideas – and this requires ‘property rights’, not ‘speech rights’.

In a way, this argument can be summed up as advocating free market principles across the board, the ability of people to “vote with their feet” and come to agreement with popular action as well as discussion. Pennington also notes that the independently wealthy have an important role to play as “trail-blazers for new values and ideas.” I think of such individuals as venture capitalists for ideas.

In essence, I see this argument as, broadly, a repeat of one of the key arguments against socialism/communism, which is that it restricts choices and enforces conformity. Pileus clearly has free market, libertarian leanings, and seeks to decrease the role of the state in favour of individual accountability (much like David Cameron does). It’s fascinating to read a defence of this viewpoint from the perspective of the public sphere/political economy.

Shakespeare at the Supranational Level

And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, I see criticisms that the state is not powerful enough. In a discussion from Big Think’s series this month on Shakespeare’s continuing relevance, Kenji Yoshino notes the relationship between the plot of Titus Andronicus and modern statecraft:

Titus is about what happens when the revenge cycles spin out of control. Revenge tragedies represent something that happens when the state is very weak and so the Elizabethans had a very weak state where there wasn’t a standing army.  There wasn’t an effective police force and so when something happened that was horrible like someone kills a member of your family, you had to choose whether to rely on a very weak state that was basically going to do nothing or to take justice into your own hands. It strikes me that we’re at the international level where the Elizabethans were at the national level because we’re stepping onto an international theater in the way that you described and there isn’t a centralized authority that’s going to step in and quash the revenge cycle. So if terrorists fly planes into our buildings what are we going to do, go hat in hand to the UN?  No, we’re not going to do that.  We’re going to engage in vigilante justice, right, but we all know how those stories end.

What a fantastic concept – nations as vigilante justice-inflicting thugs. It speaks eloquently of the toothless nature of the supranational power structures in our world today. One excellent comment on a post I wrote about nations emphasizes the often unworkable nature of supranational bodies: in essence, they are made up of groups of nations that have wildly varying amounts of power, wealth, and desire to change the existing global power structures. The vested interests have no reason to want to give up their advantage – and why would they? The comparison to an early modern land with no police state is apt. Why would a powerful, wealthy family used to settling its own scores want to give up that privilege and pay into a communal system of policing that would essentially render them equal under a higher law to those who would seek to do them ill?

Moreover, surpanational institutions are much more difficult to hold accountable for their actions, because who will hold them to account? Democracy functions well (usually) at the national level because there is always the threat of voters punishing the incumbents for abuse of power or poor decision-making. Such is not the case at the supranational level, where even democratic bodes (such as the EU parliament) are subject to the whims of national leaders and their fears for re-election, which always take precedence.

Considering that empathy is a theme I’ve been working with lately, I can paint this as a picture of its limits, too: while there are certainly many characteristics and loyalties and ideas that are shared among all humans, mostof us can only extend our feelings of “sameness” and empathy so far. Those outside of our national community (or, also quite commonly, race/ethnicity, which often amounts to the same thing as a national community) are easier to ignore because they are not like us. They don’t share our histories, or national institutions, or language, so they are harder to comprehend.

In the longer term, I believe nations will fizzle out, gradually ceasing to hold the importance they do now. With pressure – both practical and ideological – from above and below, power cannot continue to function effectively at the national level forever. The anarchy in the title, however, refers more to the absence of a coherent and consistent “publicly recognized government or enforced political authority,” as Wikipedia puts it, at one level. Perhaps we have a future of shifting loyalties (local, national, supranational) and power brokers vying for our attention as voters and citizens. Sounds like a party.


One Response to ANARCHY! (or, Why the State Does Too Much And Yet Not Enough)

  1. Jeremy says:

    This is your most interesting post so far, because it addresses some of the topics I spend the most time thinking about!

    There’s a lot to digest here so this might take awhile. First, I feel like I have to offer some constructive criticism about your terminology; specifically, your interchangeable use of the terms “nation” and “state”. Because the “nation” is the oft-titled “imagined community”, it is separate from the structures of the state which are what I feel you spend most of this post discussing. It is easy to envision a future where nationalism has eroded or at least lost much of its significance, but where the state remains a powerful force in our lives. One possibility would be that of a world-state wherein all human beings are members of the same polity without national distinctions, but still with some kind of government structure ruling over them. This is the kind of global imperium that is the dream of some and the nightmare of many.

    I realize the kind of conflicting streams of criticism you are trying to discuss here, and I see that you view them as two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we have criticism from libertarian sources that the state can interfere too strongly in the private or economic lives of individuals. On the other hand, we have criticism that the role of the state is not expansive enough. I submit that these two arguments, insofar as you have presented them, are more different than you suggest. The first discusses the interaction between states and citizens, while the second focuses on the ways in which states interact among themselves. While the first is something I could argue about all day, I think the second is more germane to my expertise and not just my opinions so I will confine myself to that.

    Fortunately, a great deal of my research for my dissertation has focused on this issue of international organization. As I have learned, the period between 1943 and 1947 witnessed a profusion of writing on the possibility of global governance, eventually leading to the creation of the UN. To be sure, there was much thinking on this matter before, but as the Allies realized their victory against the Axis was increasingly certain, many Anglo-American thinkers began to seriously consider the future of the world.

    A surprising number of them continued the theme popular among certain prewar internationalists such as Clarence Streit that some kind of world federation would be possible. These writers investigated at length the processes by which the United States and Switzerland evolved from independent entities to well-functioning federations, and how this process could be extended globally, or at least regionally. Very few believed this could be accomplished quickly, but they did view the unity of the Allied powers as the basis for future global cooperation.

    Others, such as Norman Angell, Lord Cecil and James Shotwell continued to emphasize the idea of collective security. These men most strongly focused on the ideas featured in your discussion of Kenji Yoshino’s outlook. To them, the idea that each state should be responsible for its own security, known as the theory of “self-help” had to be replaced with the League idea of collective defense against aggression but with stronger enforcement mechanisms than the League had offered. This would not require a world federation, but merely an organization such as the UN with automatically functioning treaty commitments by members.

    Others asserted that the UN should be equipped with its own armed forces to coerce states. This idea was the least popular.

    Finally, the functionalist paradigm of David Mitrany and others began to emerge during the postwar era. This idea, which I find fascinating, asserts that states can achieve the best results by cooperating on common functions, on the model of the International Postal Union. This would not require any cession of sovereignty to a super-state organization, but might alleviate points of tension and spur development. The ECSC was an early, and highly successful, manifestation of this idea.

    At the basis of all these ideas, with the exception of functionalism, is the idea of a parallel relationship between the society in which we live as individuals in states and that of inter-state relations. Proponents of global organization of all forms argued that true freedom meant giving up certain rights. Just as we have ceded our right to kill each other in order to live in the security of the state, states must give up their aggressive prerogatives in order to achieve peace and security. In this regard, the abrogation of sovereignty would increase, not diminish state independence as they would no longer face the threat of conquest.

    Looking back on all of this, we can see that the realist backlash spearheaded by Hans Morgenthau after the onset of the Cold War has been most accurate. As you pointed out, few states wished to diminish their own sovereignty despite the internationalist security argument. This was particularly true of the great powers who were in the best position for “self help”. To make a long story short, the breakdown occurred in the analogy between municipal and international law, according to the realists. Whereas individuals insist on no “sovereign equality” and envision themselves as below the law and subject to its judgment and that of their peers, states do not. States see themselves as above the law, and equal to one another. Thus they are not willing to make or obey laws binding on them for any reason.

    Returning to the remarks you quoted by Kenji Yoshino, and to move on to my own outlook, I do not see the idea of states as “vigilante justice-inflicting thugs”, as you put it. This is the Hobbesian paradigm. Because we cannot protect ourselves, we rely on the state to protect us from outsiders. This is the basis of modern state organization. This has provided major benefits for humanity which far outweigh its drawbacks, in my opinion. It is the security provided by the state which enables large-scale economic activity, giving us the blessings of mass production, innovation, etc. In this way we can interpret the argument you cite from “Pileus” as favoring the state rather than cautioning against its overreach. While the libertarian argument consistently warns us that the state entity can trample on our individual rights, we must also ask ourselves how we would protect the property rights the libertarians so treasure without the legal, police and security framework provided by the state. To use the oft-cited words of Hobbes, the “Warre of every man against every man”, anarchy, would result in the destruction of everything anti-state theorists seek to protect. While we must always guard against the threat of dictatorship and the destruction of individual liberty and initiative, a drastic weakening of state power is not the answer

    On the other hand, the power of the state when turned against other states has proven extremely destructive. Thus, in order to maximize the protective qualities of the state while restraining the antagonistic propensity for conflict, we see the rise of internationalist ideas such as the League and the UN. This is where the legal breakdown between individuals and states begins to appear, because due to the idea of sovereignty, states are loathe to accept restrictions on their behavior – a fact well appreciated by internationalists of the mid-20th century (many of whom continually argued against sovereignty as “outdated” among other epithets).

    More importantly, the content of your penultimate paragraph contains, I think, the main challenge to internationalism. It is fundamentally difficult for individuals – the building block of society – to envision membership in a community on a global level. Thus, I am confused why you would emphasize this point and immediately proceed to state your belief that states will lose their importance.

    In the raging debate over the current and future significance of the state, it will not surprise you that I have confidence that the state will continue its long run of 350 years. It seems to me that the World War Two era represented the strongest challenge to the state paradigm. Twice in one generation, humanity had stared into the abyss and confronted the self-destructive tendencies of the state in their most concentrated form. Both prior to and after the war, intellectuals were convinced that another war might herald the end of civilization. This did not come to pass. Instead, the flourish of widespread internationalism lasted only a few years, and was immediately replaced by the intense state competition of the Cold War.

    Thus, before we condemn the state and begin contemplating the sunset of nationalism, we should consider the recent past. Even during the height of internationalism, and ever since, the importance of the state has been recognized by those who do not possess their own state. What has been the goal of oppressed groups? Not to destroy the state, certainly. Thus, separatist organizations do not seek the erosion of statism, but simply to create their own state. Those who do not enjoy the protection afforded by their own nation state seem to be the ones who most realize the benefits associated with statehood. Thus, perhaps, the Tamils, Timorese, Kurds and others know something we, who have long enjoyed statehood, do not. Similarly, what has been the goal of Middle Eastern revolutionaries of late? Those who have been victims of state oppression for so long have not sought the destruction of the state or a weakening of its authority. Rather, they seek to capture existing state structures for themselves with the aim of emphasizing the protective rather than the oppressive aspects of the state. We shall see whether they succeed, but we cannot deny that those suffering from the negative features of statism have hardly sought to transcend the state in any significant numbers.

    Thus, I think that putting the recent history of the state in perspective suggests that states will remain robust in the foreseeable future. They weathered the crisis of confidence of the 1930s and 40s, and continue to loom large in the global and individual consciousness. While it would be foolish to argue that the communications revolution and the globalization phenomenon will have *no* impact on the state, I think it equally foolish to argue that these will succeed in eroding the state where the massive, deadly shocks of two world wars failed.

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