August 14, 2008

The Twilight of National Sovereignty

This essay is the final installment in a three-part symposium on the problem of sovereignty. Earlier contributions were made by Thomas E. Woods Jr and John Zmirak.

Unlike at least some of my readers, I find nothing intrinsically offensive about the idea of state sovereignty. That is because I don”€™t see individualism or anarchy as the preferred perspective for understanding political relations. In the fictitious dream world in which some libertarians operate, the state is evil, regardless of whether it’s necessary or not. Only by weakening political institutions, we are told, so that the state could do nothing but defend life and property, with minimal means, would it be possible to preserve our individual identities. Some libertarians I have known also seem to believe that the “€œstate”€™ has existed in opposition to individual self-actualization since ancient times, and whether we are talking about the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt or the Anglo-American welfare state, it is always the same adversary that enterprising individuals have had to face, as best they can.

Needless to say, this view, which I may be guilty of parodying (but not by much), is based on a totally skewed conception of the past. The “€œindividuals,”€ whom the state has supposedly oppressing throughout recorded history, did not exist until recently, at least not in the atomistic form in which self-described individuals are now depicting their true selves. Until the modern period individual members of any established community took on their identities by belonging to classes, genders, prevalent confessions, and ethnic groups. And though New Testament Christianity, prophetic Judaism, Platonic philosophy and Stoicism all prefigured in some sense the possibility of the individual standing outside of his inherited communal associations, what these forces represented were glimpses into an alternative human identity rather than substitutes for the way situated people lived.

It was the state, which came into existence in the late middle ages and early modern period, that created the political precondition for the spread of individual identity. It did this by enacting legal systems that embraced all citizens or royal subjects and by imposing uniform taxation that applied to all classes equally. The growth of the state was accompanied by two forces from which it drew considerable strength. It represented in its European place of origin self-conscious nations; and it found its most enthusiastic promoters in the rising bourgeoisie, which supported the authority of the state and its association with particular nations and national patrimonies. Charles de Gaulle was correct when he described the French motherland as “€œune nation de quarante provinces et de trente rois.”€

It was, however, kings who had subverted the cohesion of French provincial life when they had imposed, along with uniform administration, une langue francaise épurée, a refined and homogenized French tongue that presumably all royal subjects would speak and pass on to their children. The same monarchs took care to provide a standard French literature and a national history that was made to go back to Vercingetorix and the ancient Gauls or to the Roman Empire, whichever the preferred antiquity that rulers wished to stress for expediential reasons. Certainly in some cases nations pre-existed the achievement of national unity, and particularly in Eastern and Central Europe. But it was just as often the case that state leaders enhanced and instilled national consciousness as a means of consolidating political power and administrative unity.

In the nineteenth century, the ascendant professional and commercial class had a special affinity for national cultures and nation-states. And it is also no mystery why the bourgeoisie threw themselves behind these institutions. Their own rise to prominence depended on replacing the feudal aristocracy as the dominant social class. Equally significant, their upward mobility presupposed the kind of national order, in which careers were open to talent and wealth, both of which the bourgeois had in abundance. Moreover, membership in nations was more attractive to these novi hominess than being locked into their once inherited social status, and particularly inasmuch as the older social order had excluded them, unless they were allowed to buy patents of nobility from the aristocracy. This had meant for most of the early bourgeois exclusion from government positions and the indignity of being treated as commoners. Unified national governments also brought expanded opportunities for wealth, by breaking down provincial tariff barriers, by establishing a uniform currency, and by generating a growing pool of credit. Finally national monarchies supported overseas exploration and colonial settlements, both situations from which the bourgeoisie drew disproportionate benefit.

To the extent there existed the political and social world of Western modernity”€”one based on constitutional monarchy, a bourgeois culture, and some kind of a free market economy”€”its origin lay in what had preceded that stage of history. The individualism and libertarianism that some of my colleagues are now celebrating did not come along simply in opposition to the historical state. They are the late modern products of social developments that the prior existence of the state had made possible. And without this earlier sequence of events, a peculiarly late modern libertarian consciousness would not have become as widespread as it is (or used to be).

A certain qualification may be in order here: Not all good states were nation-states, and the Habsburg monarchy, particularly during its last seventy years, exemplified the possibility of a refurbished medieval empire, held together by the dynastic principle, serving the needs of a changed European society. The same might have been possible in a reformed Ottoman Empire, if the First World War had not destroyed its opportunities for further adaptation.

On the whole it was within nation-states that the modern West developed politically, culturally, and economically. And the breakdown of this political system has had a deleterious effect on the survival of a recognizably European civilization”€”especially when it has been replaced by supranational bureaucracies preaching multicultural ideology.

But even before a monstrosity like the EU came on the scene, the institution of the nation-state was becoming a remnant of an obsolete modernity. The “€œdemocratic welfare state”€ that our neoconservative and liberal adversaries glorify is not an extension of an older political structure. It is a dreadful distortion of that structure. How that distortion took place is the central focus of my study After Liberalism and is given further attention in the two books that followed.

What distinguishes the “€œliberal-democratic”€ or “€œsocial-democratic”€ regime from a nineteenth-century Western nation-state is the arrogant, intrusive role assumed by public administration, one that allows it to interfere in a wide range of social relations. In fact the authorized spokespersons for the democratic masses now everywhere in power in “€œthe West”€ have set about reconstructing their subjects, revamping their families, redefining gender relations, and banishing “€œprejudice”€ from the minds and hearts of white male Christians. In the case of the European Union, “€œdemocratic”€ administrators have also set about transferring national sovereignty to supranational organizations, preferably as in the German case without permitting unenlightened national subjects to have any say about who exercises sovereignty over them. Public administrators and their judicial and media allies have also succeeded in de-Christianizing Western Europe, not only through their control of education but also by repopulating Europe with Muslims, many of whom are explicitly hostile to Western Christian civilization.

In this system the re-socialized masses go along for at least two discernible reasons.

1. The organs of the state and their media allies shape and control popular consciousness, and once all intermediate institutions between the individual and public administration have been diluted, partly by being associated with insensitive attitudes and partly by being colonized by the state, it is relatively easy to get uprooted individuals to think and act as they are told.

2. “€œDemocracy”€ itself has been redefined as political correctness, and therefore the demand that people be allowed to act contrary to the wishes of “€œscientific,”€ sensitizing elites has been effectively condemned as “€œfascistic,”€ “€œracist,”€ “€œanti-Semitic,”€ “€œanti-Democratic.”€ Democracy as indoctrination rather than as self-government has won the day throughout the West, and at this point one has reason to doubt whether this process is reversible, outside of small pockets of defiant ethnic minorities, for example in Flanders and Switzerland.

But this is only one side of the totalitarian essence of the ultramodern “€œdemocratic”€ regime. Equally important, at least in its American heartland, is the haughty unwillingness on the part of its journalistic and political elites to recognize the sovereignty of states that don”€™t suit their vision of how the world should look. Wars are launched to “€œmake the world safe for democracy,”€ and as in the bloody case of World War Two, entire civilian populations, belonging to undemocratic enemies, are targeted for destruction. The modern democratic state is an increasingly ideological construct, and the fact that the European Union, following the model of the degenerate nation states of Western Europe, is now imposing on its subjects “€œgay rights”€ codes, “€œhate speech”€ laws, and other features of leftist totalitarianism, without being viewed by our leftist and neocon press as outrageously anti-democratic, speaks volumes about how we now understand “€œdemocracy.”€ It is PC indoctrination to be carried out by elites, who are viewed as the bearers of “€œdemocratic values.”€

Michael L. Desch has made the perceptive observation that the true inspiration for American democratic crusades is not the World War I president who is now celebrated for this dubious achievement. Rather it is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who pointed the way, unintentionally, toward what David Gelernter calls proudly “€œthe American religion.”€ It was Kant who in his tract To Eternal PeaceZum Ewigen Frieden (1795) evokes a world teeming with legislative republics. This situation, Kant insisted, was the necessary basis for global peace, for it was the prerequisite for a universal society in which individuals would act in accordance with their rational wills, in such a way as to treat “€œeveryone as an end rather than as a means toward something else.”€ It was as a moral exhortation rather than as a description of reality that Kant offered the observation that “€œnobody would obey laws to which he has not already given his consent.”€ People of course have done this constantly, in Kant’s time and certainly in ours.

Kant’s republicanism was based on “€œthe pure idea of the authority of the law,”€ a position that leads him to support not only universal republicanism but a “€œworld citizenship right.”€ In his new order, all people who entered a particular society could expect to receive “€œhospitality”€ (Wirtbarkeit), presumably at the expense of the local population. Although Kant does not specify how far rationally-guided citizens would have to go to accommodate the influx of strangers, he indicates that “€œa world citizenship right is not an eccentric conception of some visionaries but basic to world republicanism.”€  

Each individual, as a self-conscious bearer of Reason, had to imagine that what he considered to be moral had universal application. What this added up to was the conceptualization of an individual, who imagined himself liberated from historical contingencies and private sentiments, handing out his supposedly dispassionate, universally valid principles and axioms to the rest of the world.

Let me make clear that this is not the totality of Kant’s complex ethical theories. (I am also unhappy about criticizing a philosopher from whom I continue to learn, and particularly from the 13-volume Cassirer-edition of his work which I hold as a family heirloom.) What has been exposed is only a particular recycling of selective passages from Kant, the ones that directly or indirectly have foreshadowed the American religion of global democracy.  Lurking behind the self-righteous contempt for the principle of sovereignty and the media-generated noise about “€œWestern democratic values”€ is this vulgarization of Kant, or at least those visionary ideas that Wilson and his spiritual descendants have helped inject into our political bloodstream. Kant believed perpetual peace was only feasible if rational individuals forced their leaders to abandon standing armies. What would take their place would be military forces under the command of rational citizens, an arrangement, we are made to believe, which would provide collective security against presumed warmongers. A League of Nations, a United Nations…

The Kantian worldview arises in some surprising places, such as in the writings of the German-Jewish philosopher and supporter of the Kaiserreich Hermann Cohen. It’s now a cliché to lump the German Empire in with Nazism, or at least view it as a backward, authoritarian deviation from the European modernity of the victorious Allies. But in Cohen’s 1915 polemic Deutschtum und Judentum, he intended to convince Jews worldwide to support the Central Powers in the Great War as new version of Kant’s world federation. Presumably after Cohen’s side had won, and the Jews in Eastern Europe had been liberated from tsarist oppression and attended the schools that the German and Austrian occupation forces had already set up for them, they would become the adherents of a Kantian world order. At that point they and others would grasp that the real obstacle to world peace were not standing armies but unsettled social problems: “€œ[T]he social politics of individual states must prepare the way for perpetual peace by advancing the concept of a federation of states. This is the essence of the state’s task, and through the application of its power it was possible to advance the social end for which it exists.”€ The imperfect Europe of the present would give way to a new order that would maintain international fraternity by ensuring the proper distribution of profits and social services. The German government happily distributed Cohen’s tract to those it hoped to influence.

Cohen was a German patriot who believed the Jews had fared well in his homeland. Nevertheless, his claim to having privileged access to universal values, which we are made to think are superior to the historically grounded and particularistic, has consistently been present in the war against national sovereignty. And the values privileged in this struggle point in more than one political philosophical direction, to either international social democracy or libertarianism, two concepts that are equally far removed from the older tradition of nation states and historic nations. Movement in this abstract, universalistic direction has continued to progress, so that today what is mistakenly called “€œconservatism,”€ has abandoned the principle of national and state sovereignty in favor of a periodically updated “€œhuman rights”€ talk. This might be seen as the religious aspect of the political and administrative crusade that has been successfully waged against the idea of nation-states.

The nonstop appeal to a highest “€œhuman”€ value in the matters of immigration, the determination of national interests, and the preservation of historical patrimonies has worked to undermine the politics of a world of independent states, bound together by the making and keeping of treaties.

Barry Alan Shain, in a recent essay in Modern Age (Summer 2007), mocks the idea of defending the West by imposing what are supposedly universal, democratic values. This value-imposition, in Shain’s view, has become the defining element of a creed that has been misleadingly packaged as “€œconservatism.”€ In place of the defense of “€œcultural particularity”€ and established hierarchy, “€œconservative”€ value-merchants are now offering something that is alien to what they claim to be upholding: “€œIt is the creation of an intellectual bulwark against modern egalitarian utopianism, not the suppression of a phantom nihilism, which defines conservatism.”€

One is reminded here of Nietzsche’s mocking characterization of nihilism as the devaluing of what someone else considers his highest value. In the end, it may be impossible to go back to a less ideologically-driven point of reference, but it is foolish to imagine that universalized individual value-preferences, to be imposed internationally, or pronouncements in favor of an imaginary world of self-actualizing individuals are carrying us in the right direction. Such Kantian or neo-Kantian practices belong to the very problem that brought us to our present mess.                             

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