“The Temporary Name” points ((
)) to a few of a series of embedded presumptions in a comment by “Anarcissie,” ((
)) and, naturally, responds on the basis of a few of his or her own, but, rather than try to establish some sort of objective standard for a judgment on a nation’s “doing well,” while instead simply noting that by many standards the USA has done quite obviously and remarkably “well” and especially as of the late 20th C., I’d rather look at the prejudices coloring the last paragraph of the comment in question, not to single out Anarcissie personally, but because I believe they’re illustrative.
Addressing the second of “two arguments… for government and the state,” that “the state is the way to get big, important things done,” Anarcissie expresses a “twofold… dissatisfaction”:
[F]irst, I don’t see any logical upper limit to the possibilities of self-organization. Second, as mentioned before, the government remains credible only as long as it at least occasionally exerts its powers in a sovereign, arbitrary manner, that is, people have to be knocked off now and then to show that it can be done. So these big projects, if they can truly be carried on only by the state, are marked with blood. That raises a moral issue: how many people are we going to kill in order to have really big airplanes, fly to the moon, and so on? We might even be able to compute the necessary ratio of executions to a given size of airplane.
The first fold of A’s dissatisfaction with this second argument is that there is “no logical upper limit to the possibilities of self-organization.” It is unclear to me why the lack of such a “logical upper limit” would be especially problematic in itself. It can’t be that we’re supposed to be greatly troubled by the existence of an unbounded set – can it? Is the idea that organization at higher or ever higher levels or to greater degrees must be taken as intrinsically undesirable? Why? Maybe the basis of dissatisfaction is aversion to big, powerful institutions at all. The sentiment is common enough in democratist thought, and especially in anarchist and libertarian thought, but it is not the only possible sentiment. Contrary attitudes, instincts, and impulses – safety in numbers, pride in belonging, identification with the powerful, and so on – seem at least as common, and quite functional in numerous respects. Who is to say that one set of sentiments is more valid than another? By what compulsory standard?
The second dissatisfaction is more relevant to the original subject of this discussion (and to “john c halasz”‘s/”JCH”‘s unanswered questions, too), since it points to the way that the political-theological seems to invert broadly-speaking-liberal presumptions, which have always encountered a special difficulty administering the concept of sacrifice. The problem, a central problem since Hobbes and for every system haunted by the ghost of “metaphysical individualism,” is that there never can be, strictly from the perspective of the individual, a sensible justification to give up one’s “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness/property” for the good of others or for any other reason. If such rights are truly “inalienable,” then how could we ever go about “alienating” them? The understanding that we must be prepared to do so anyway, and that to possess our liberties we must be willing also to give them up, is the declared foundational paradox of American liberal democracy (and from the perspective of the master-slave dialectic the cognitive pre-condition for the rise of the “common people” and eventually the proletariat against their “betters”). Every re-declaration – the premise is and apparently must be continually re-stated – again poses the impossible argument that there is or might be just such a sensible or rational justification, and is always also implicitly a further argument, again contradictorily, for the pre-eminence, even as a rare and merely potential pre-eminence, of the social and as it were ego-external; for that which is greater than the narrow interest of the individual life and death; for participation or the idea of participation in that which, from the point of view of the individual – the one who knows he or she is immediately, merely presumably identical to all others in that respect – requires a leap of faith or acceptance of fiction or representation, or belief in things unseen, most fundamentally his or her or finally only my simple and necessary assumption of the other’s or your (potentially equally or more important) subjectivity.
This self-contradiction within the real-existing liberal self is also how in Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, even as watered-down by the likes of David Brooks, the lethality of human beings, as the categorical question immediately arising in the question for the individual of his or her own life/death and its potential meaning, determines and uniquely distinguishes the realm of politics from the extremes. …And the next thing you know I’m down on my knees and dipping babies in water and anthropomorphizing the weather…. and calling bloody ground “hallowed” ground.
It is scandalizing and inconceivable for the committed liberal that people still think or come to think such things and believe those things and act on their basis, not just in everyday life, which is bad enough, but to the point of giving up their own lives and taking other people’s lives. It is even more scandalizing that so many people, maybe the vast majority, hold to such views more powerfully and stubbornly than they hold to the self-evident truths of liberalism. It is more scandalizing still for the liberal to recognize that the success of the liberal project depends on the successful mobilization of such utterly non-liberal ways. Possibly the most scandalizing realization of all, the one that must be repressed and ignored, for the liberal – here very much including and especially including the radical, the anarchist, the rationalist, the atheist – is the degree to which the liberal in his or her own mind relies on the same structures of belief.
The people do not experience that same difficulty, as a rule, or perhaps they are less insulated by liberal rationalism from the primordial given-ness of mortality as its own supreme question. They already intuit that “marked by blood” is the most precious marking – for the same reason not to be spread around irresponsibly, and never to be underestimated. Historically, the inability to process the rationalism of such irrationalism as also rational and to approach it as in some instances, potentially the most important ones, as more rational than the rational, has been the most irrational thing about rationalism, a major factor in the political and intellectual failures of leftism and libertarianism, both when barred from power by seemingly irrational opposing and external forces, and, possibly worse, when initially successful but proven unable to cope with where even able to recognize the liberals’ own actual inclinations.
…which observation returns us to JCH’s reiterated questions on the origins of legitimacy and power:
One of the basic questions I’ve been raising here is, just how much “legitimation” of “authority” is required for any state to still “hold power”, operatively function? (Contrary to j.s., I don’t think I’ve made any of the conflations he identifies). Or IOW what happens when the “legitimation” of a state collapses? We’ve seen that happen in any number of circumstances, historically and geo-politically speaking. The case of the Soviet Union and its “satellite” regimes, (communist party-states, in which not even the “nomenklatura” and its apparachniks believed in its reigning ideology or Byzantine “political theology”), is a recent case in point, though none of them, (with the singular exception of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was a much “freer” and developmentally accomplished regime), are much to be mourned. But then what happens in the resulting “void”? TINA? Perhaps bog-standard (neo-)liberals are as clueless as monarchist legitimists once were.
The mystery of sovereignty, as will be gleaned from Schmitt’s political-theological thought, and as is very well explained by Schmitt’s recent interpreters – Paul W. Kahn and Giorgio Agamben I think most prominently – is that one never can know for sure who speaks for sovereignty, or who speaks it into being, until, and to the extent, the voice is obeyed. The power that mostly rules in peacetime is inertia, same as it ever was, today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, until the challenge is made, never exactly in a form to be fully anticipated, and is, or is not, answered. Someone shouts, “Those who love the state, follow me!” – and is followed, or is ridiculed, or is ignored… or maybe no one bothers to shout… and the great nation dissolves, the citizens or former citizens being left to discover whatever other, almost always lower social-organic level at which its successors are able separately to rally.
Experience and the movies say that many skeptics, outsiders, and self-styled rebels, if the call to serve and sacrifice ever comes, will discover new old motives to join the throng, maybe never admitting why even to themselves. In our era still the most effective call, the one that people kill and die for, goes out to “the nation.” The state is generally, in all but the rarest instances, as little interested for that purpose in the particular explanations given or accepted as it is in its foot-soldiers’ strategic advice.