OBL’s Argument (3): Leviathan

Freedom from second thought is also provided by the morally supremely convenient notion (or version of the same notion) that government accountability works in one direction only, or, even better, that we can choose which actions of our government or nation with which to identity, which to attribute to somebody else’s political party or faction, and which to blame strictly on those who “commit” or “partake in” them directly. Picking which laws to follow and which not would rely on a similar concept. According to Bin Laden’s thesis, by contrast, all members of a society, including those who opposed or had nothing directly to do with a policy, down to small children, may be held accountable  – or, we are accountable for the law just as we are accountable to the law. According to Bin Laden’s logic, to strike American civilians for correctly adjudicated evils of American policy would be especially just or anyway more justifiable because American policy can be presumed and is presumed by Americans themselves to express and realize their will.

This aspect of Binladenism suggests a corollary of Clausewitz’s famous dictum: If war is a continuation of politics, then combatant status is a continuation of civilian status, and in that sense there are no permanent civilians – or, as we like to say, “innocents” – there are only comparatively passive or active subjects of war, past and future, all the more clearly within modern liberal-democratic nation-states. Put more concretely, a civilian who dies under “collateral” effects of a militarily “legitimate” air strike, or the effects of a blockade or siege, is obviously just as dead as a victim of a surprise attack, or, to complete the circle, as a civilian-turned-honored-combatant on United 93. Similarly, though the occasional claim that 90% of casualties in war will be civilian is unsupported by the facts, an at least 1:1 ratio of non-combatant to combatant deaths is taken to be normal for wafare in the modern era, and much higher ratios have been typical for civil wars and counterinsurgency operations. Short of open warfare, the favorite mostly non-military (or “non-kinetic”) tool of American and Western policy, economic sanctions, also harms civilians, and in most instances is specifically intended to do so. Such punishment of a nation via its economic processes, which sooner or later are processes of vital necessity, so matters of life and death, and of the well-being of all, is meant to pressure a national leadership to alter its conduct. Without the assumption that such pressure on a populace must be assimilated by decision-makers, whether tyrants or duly elected leaders or anything in between or beyond, a sanctions policy would have no object.

As I suggested in my initial notes on the response to Rosenbaum, the idea of a citizenry accountable for its government’s actions may be finally indispensable to democratic theory, as a necessary, intended, and defining consequence of its application. Such accountability is in some sense the goal of democratism. The unsustainability if not the absurdity of the alternative position, a flagrant contradiction of our most sacred oaths and anthems, becomes even more obvious when we recognize that all warfare implicates the well-being of whatever citizenry in its entirety. Far from sacrosanct, the civilian population is always the true target of war, just as the true facilitators, financiers, recruiters, and commanders, higher than the commander-in-chief, are also, essentially and concretely, that same civilian population – in a liberal democracy explicitly or by formal mechanism, under pre-liberal or natural-legal regimes, more implicitly.

A further underlying moral assumption that might also serve as a Binladenist premise is that “every nation gets the government it deserves,” that peoples and their leaders at some point form a collective individuality: that single personage or artificial man or macro-anthropos or mortal god that Hobbes seems first to have defined philosophically, though it or he long pre-existed Hobbes: a being which or who is both meaningfully addressable and morally accountable as such – the same mortal or perhaps transmortal god among others whom we may have in mind or conjure whenever we describe an intention or sentiment or destiny as, say, America’s, or Germany’s, or Israel’s, or in polemical speech deploy quasi-mythic images and ancient names – the Russian Bear, (perfidious) Albion, and so on.

Hobbes’ archetypal name for that being was, of course, “Leviathan,” a Biblical monster linked to the sea and to Satan, among other things and non-things. ((For an extended genealogy of the word, see The Leviathan in the State Theory of Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, esp. chapter 1.)) As metaphor for the state, Leviathan is often taken to be a power outside or above a cowering people, but, as is made clear in the famous frontispiece and in Hobbes’ introduction, Leviathan stands equally for the collective entirety of the people.

leviathan Hobbes introduces him, this skyscraping being of beings towering over the land, as follows:

For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.

If we cower before Leviathan, this mysterious monster-machine-deity-king as virtually incarnated in our homeland, we cower before ourselves and our own work: “the matter thereof, and the artificer[:] both which is man.”

We should at least consider that the recognition of the state in this way has been for many observers, including diverse critics and adversaries of Hobbes, an advance in the concept of the human: As exiles and stateless people testify, as their fates seem to make clear, as the Diasporetic Jews were taken uniquely to witness for all other nations – in a condition Hegel described as of “infinite grief” ((Elements of the Philosophy of Right §358)) – to be an individual cut off from a community collecting itself as one being is in this sense to remain less than fully human, or less than fully humanizable. The state and the individual are mutually constructing constructs. If the civilian/combatant dichotomy asserted by Rosenbaum’s and Bin Laden’s critics could be absolute, and Leviathan were merely a power apart from and above us, then collective culpability for evils of policy would not trouble us except unjustly, and the life-saving distinction would never be overcome, but to take this position would be to separate civilians or ourselves from the government and armed forces selected by and from amongst them or us for the sole purpose of acting on their or our behalf. This acting on our behalf also includes action on our own behalf against ourselves or our own destructive and self-destructive potentials.

Under the perspective that decomposes the artificial demiurge back into its particles, if our government somehow managed to preserve and protect us despite our disconnection from it, we could perhaps thank our good luck, but it would have nothing to do with our moral character, our identity, or our agency. American policy could be thought separate from American will, a disrelation that we do not attribute even to dictatorships, failed states, and “belligerent sui generis entities,” much less to countries governed under liberal-democratic systems “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Policy would be arbitrary in relation to us, and for the same reason could be expected sooner or later to turn arbitrarily against us. Hegel called this condition of civilization, to which reversion for us – we moderns – would count as regress, the “Roman Realm,” culminating in “universal misfortune” in which “the individualities of nations disappear… and all individuals sink to the level of private person with an equal status and with formal rights, who are accordingly held together only by an abstract and arbitrary will of increasingly monstrous proportions.” ((Elements of the Philosophy of Right §357.)) Choose your monster.

10 comments on “OBL’s Argument (3): Leviathan

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  1. Missing the point entirely, Hamas and AQ, use civilians as shields,
    and target civilians deliberately from schools, hospitals,

  2. The paragraph from Hobbes has its antecedents, comparing the “body politic” to a physical body, as in the speech from “Coriolanus”. But Hobbbes was less an avant-garde 17th century materialist than an inheritor of late-medieval scholastic nominalism, in its decaying form. Hence his program involved reducing everything to the external motions of material bodies in space, including human thoughts or motives, (“endeavors”). (Spinoza’s metaphysical ethics of affects could be thought of as an alternative response and Umfunktionierung of the Hobbesian social contract). So, yes, there must be social bonds that emerge and bind the allegiances of a body-politic together, (though the priority of some such political community to the individual doesn’t necessarily assume, result from, nor require any sovereign form, which itself isn’t unchangeable).

    IOW far from Hobbesian mechanism having defined the sovereign “social contract” once and for all, he could be seen as the precursor of technocratic rule, politics as a “science” of administrative power, which invites the very dissociation of the individual, (as both subject and object of administration), from collective allegiances and communal bonds that you seem to deplore. Vico, as the last remaining exponent of the classical conception of practical reason, of politics as the “practice of prudence”, would have been his opposite number, which is why he initiated the philosophy of history as a “new science”.

    But I just don’t think you’re making any useful argument by citing OBL. Religious nihilism vs. sovereign totalism, if not totalitarianism, isn’t any sort of inviting prospect.

    • As for the “precursor of technocratic rule,” in The Leviathan in the State Theory of Hobbes (see footnote), Schmitt suggests that this realized concept of the state – which can be taken as observed by Hobbes, not created by him – is the true origination of the technological modern, or the invention on which all other inventions of the modern era depend and from which they derive.

      As previously, I again see you as attributing to me a polemical intention that I do not recognize in myself. I would have expected someone to accuse me of celebrating or worshiping the Leviathan, not deploring him/it. I’m trying to understand the concept, in the larger interest of understanding what the re-affirmations of conventional wisdom, or second-thoughtlessness, seem to miss. OBL just stands for the “obviously wrong,” and I’m interested here in the particular argument on civilian accountability, not any of the rest of his philosophy if that’s not too kind a word.

      As for the last observation you make, I don’t know if it matters whether a given prospect in these matters seems inviting or not to any of us in particular, on any given day. There are two more installments (at least) in this series, though this one looks to be the longest one. Maybe the point of the exercise will be clearer to you at the end. (I have been a bit delayed, among other things while I track down a certain passage from another book that I need to quote verbatim.)

      • By citing two other Baroque thinkers on the matter, in contrast to Hobbes, I was trying to bring out that sovereignty is as much a normative as a factical matter, even if it is always a matter of power. It’s more a matter of hegemony than simply the classic couplet of force and fraud, and when hegemonies wear away, increasingly resorting to force and fraud, sovereignties can disintegrate. There is nothing sacred about the matter.

        OBL might be the perfect stalking horse for a Schmittian argument, but Schmitt raised interesting questions, rather than providing satisfying or acceptable answers. And the lords of misrule and their wrecking crew need to be brought to account, precisely in the name of any “acceptable” sovereignty.

        • The comment reminds me to ask if you ever picked up any of Kahn’s work?

          A statement like “there is nothing sacred about the matter” tends to pre-judge the issue. We would need to understand what we can possibly mean by “sacred” before we can judge its absence or presence, or the meaning of it.

          Sovereignty in all of its forms, even its “disenchanted” modern forms, is intimately and necessarily connected with the sacred/sacrifice. The decay of sovereignty or of a type of sovereignty would be simultaneously the decay of its sacralization, always implying a simultaneous search for a replacement for both, suggesting that they are different aspects of the same mechanism or phenomenon, or co-realization of the same necessity. Being alienated from sovereignty and the sacred would be a type of “desperation” (hopelessness), or the essence of desperation even if we tend, materialists that we are, to think first of denial of physical needs.

        • And as a mass sacrificial process, it wouldn’t depend much and might “naturally” contradict any of our individual and rational preferences and expectations. Perhaps the most common and reasonable, inarguable, and frequently and fiercely contradicted preference in the “biopolitical” age has been for the minimum in bloodshed and suffering, whether or not you find the “Better Angels” hypothesis credible.

          • So what exactly is the “sacred”? That which is inviolable and avenges its violation through violence? Thus that which demands the internalization of sacrifice (however barbaric)?

            Consider the case of civil disobedience: is that not precisely an instance of sacrificial citizenship? One which challenges the established power and its “sacred” legitimacy and calls down its vindictive force upon it. But also indicates its mere temporality and changeable nature.

            You might reply that such a case precisely relies on sovereignty and its reconstitution, which is correct. But it also undermines its unchallengeable claim to the “sacred” and its claim to survive all such challenges based simply on its violent factical imposition. “Verwilderte Selbstbehauptung”.

            • So what exactly is the “sacred”?

              I’m resisting a resort to my own collection of sacred texts and commentaries, to avoid the treatise-stuffed-into-a-blog-comment syndrome, though I’ll “go long” anyway, and, when I have more time, or perhaps after further discussion if any, may convert this comment into a separate post.

              What “exactly” the sacred is would vary from collective group to collective group as much, perhaps exactly as much, as collective group varies from collective group, since in the somewhat mechanistic understanding of the sacred we’re exploring, it uniquely defines or identifies the collective. As with any identity issue, self-reflexivity problems arise, since how we know that today’s collective is an older version of yesterday’s rather than a new and different one will in turn depend on the identity-concept that identifies the group to itself and others, but possibly not other groups to themselves and other others, so may not constitute valid identity from the point of view of some other group: I’m a Jew to a Nazi, and to some but not all Jews, simply because my mother was Jewish, regardless of anything else I may have done or not done with my time (i.e., no Hebrew education, no membership in Jewish groups or a synagogue, and so on). Maybe that doesn’t make me a Jew, or much of one, to (other?) Jews. How much of one it makes me to myself seems to vary with context – social context or context of discussion – where not with time of day or the year.

              So, though I think we can use a provisional functional or mechanistic definition of the sacred for this discussion – perhaps “realization of communion as superior to life of particular individuals” – I don’t think it would imply that the sacred in all times and places implies vengeance for violation through (acts of) violence. Every significant term in such a definition remains somewhat unstable due to additional related self-reflexivity problems. So, for example, “vengeance” – its purpose, meaning, justification, substance, etc. – might have a very different character under one moral concept and system, or set of beliefs about the order of things, than under another.

              I was just reading a piece by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on the genocidal persecution of Christians in Iraq – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/07/impotence-shame-disgust-and-bitter-joy/ – that scratches the contradictory surface of a Christian sacrificial response to a particular egregious form of violation/violence. This response or its final intention could be conceived of as a kind of vengeance, a last laugh at the extremists who think they are annihilating Christianity but are instead deepening it or facilitating its ascendancy, by providing it with new martyrs, but it’s hardly the kind of vengeance that we usually have in mind when we use the term.

              On that note, I wouldn’t want to be taken to be belittling civil disobedience, but I think that, say, getting arrested and released the same day (or released after a few days in the nicer part of the county facility) may follow the form of martyrdom, but is obviously not the same as martyrdom, and few of the civilly disobedient would pretend it was. What today’s peace protestors or yesterday’s anti-nuclear activists do have in common with hunger strikers, self-immolants, and those who choose the sword (literally, right now) over the demand to convert, is an insistence on a higher good beyond and truly more important than the comfort or fate of the individual, and more important because without it the comfort or fate of the individual is, or is believed, diminished to the point of meaninglessness.

              The obvious tie to sovereignty is in a willing subordination of the particular fate of the subject/citizen being treated as full realization or most-desirable amplification of that particular fate. So, the sovereign power puts before the individual – a draftee, say – the choice between the death-in-life of banishment from community, whether or not accompanied by physical death or lesser punishment, and the life-greater-than-life that always implies the possible loss of the lesser life, and also puts the taking of the lives of others in the same framework. From the point of view of the sacred community united under the sovereign, the deserters, objectors, or draft resisters – all who refuse the opportunity for sacrifice, the opportunity to demonstrate “no greater love” – put their access to the sacred, in all dimensions as concrete immortality (or transmortality), in danger. They sometimes or perhaps always do so in deference or service to an alternative sovereignty and communion – typically defined by an ideal held to be a greater ideal or comprehension than any offered by the rejected sovereign – but in neither instance is the demand or necessity finally evaded.

              The Socratic and Hegelian view – to comprehend the meaning of one’s own life as a definably socially concrete meaning or to identify one’s identity as derived from and beholden to a particular and indispensably higher social identity, or, in short, “my country right or wrong” – doesn’t need to be persuasive and effective for everyone in order to generate overwhelming force. Where it can’t or simply doesn’t generate sufficient force, then the state will be imperiled, and citizens or former citizens will typically, perhaps universally, seize upon available alternatives, usually primarily at a lower organizational level – tribe, sect, family – with an option of appeal to conceptually higher orders (international community, universal human rights, etc.).

              (As for your last interjection: The sovereign intends or the sovereign order is intended, to return to the Hobbesian construct, to be the opposite of verwildert, and the question is the Selbst that or who is behaupting. It pertains to the founding or finding of a collective self, and its actual(ized) maintenance against the state of Wildnis.)

  3. As is usual for this website, the original post is thoughtful and interesting. Its penultimate sentence, however, might give rise to a perplexity in the gentle reader’s mind. Here is that sentence:

    ‘Hegel called this condition of civilization, to which reversion for us – we moderns – would count as regress, the “Roman Realm,” culminating in “universal misfortune” in which “the individualities of nations disappear… and all individuals sink to the level of private person with an equal status and with formal rights, who are accordingly held together only by an abstract and arbitrary will of increasingly monstrous proportions.”’

    The quotation from Hegel presumably refers to a state of affairs that prevailed in the imperium romanum; which state of affairs–were it to recur in the present age–would constitute a regression to a less desirable, even frightful, political order. Yet the quotation sounds like a perfect description of the state of affairs which exists in the contemporary United States. Though the sentence presumes that “we moderns” haven’t reverted to this condition, it would seem self-evidently true that we–we Americans, that is–have.

    One way to try and resolve the perplexity would be to suppose that, from the standpoint of the sentence and the thinking that informs it, the United States remains a “nation” that possesses “individuality”. But by that same token, one might suppose that the Roman Empire–despite the fact that the “nations”, the ethnoi as traditionally understood, “disappeared” into an amorphous universality–was itself a “nation” possessing distinct “individuality”, albeit reformulated on a higher plane.

    All which seems implausible. Barring that–or an alternative explanation–the perplexity remains. Hegel was no doubt looking out on the world of his own time, on countries like Prussia and France, etc. and perceiving that world to be something quite different from the Roman Empire, as indeed it was. He may even have supposed that the United States was a kind of nation not entirely dissimilar from a European country–rather than the gelatinous multiracial pudding overlaid by a vast grid of administrative districts (called “states”) which it subsequently became.

    • Though I don’t agree with your analysis, as I will explain, I think you put your finger on an interesting problem, a productive challenge, for anyone trying to adapt Hegel for our time.

      Hegel wasn’t in a position to understand the United States, and he openly admitted the fact. There are many ways of trying to address this problem, and to turn the destiny of the USA into a confirmation rather than a contradiction of his ideas about historical change, but, for Hegel to have anticipated the American destiny in detail, he would have had among other things to predict two centuries of technological progress providing the tools necessary for consolidation of the American project on a trans-continental basis. He also would have had to have seen that the “idealization” and “dissolution” of Christianity in “thought and the universal,” realized in the the modern state (a process that he described and that the Young Hegelians developed further) could be effectual working in the other direction, reinforcing a civic religion (or religion of the state) and related quasi-ethnic identity for a new type of “state-nation.”

      There are elements of Hegel’s philosophy that point to both potentials. My first effort to focus on technological progress in this context was in the two posts I wrote on “inventing the world,” and if I made another try I might put even more emphasis on technological progress of this type as bi-conditionally product of as well as necessity for the settlement of North America, the pre-condition for the rise of the US of A as world-historical nation, the state-nation of the global era gradually re-constructing the emergent world states of states in its own image. Put simply, we needed “planes, trains, and automobiles,” as well as telegraphs, telephones, televisions, and other “teles-,” none of which existed in Hegel’s time, in order to produce this time as we know it.

      I see what you mean about the description of the Roman Realm, and we can concede it evokes an idea common to the far left and far right about the American “culture-state,” or perhaps a dangerous tendency, maybe even one possible end point or end state for “the American experiment” coinciding with the realization-as-self-annihilation of the nullity of the same technologism that from another point of view has been a great boon both to America and to the world. I don’t think, however, that it’s “self-evidently true” that America or the Americanized world has entirely and one-sidedly either reached the end point or has reverted to the Roman Realm or has reached a modern version of it. We don’t know what the Roman Empire, but with an internet, would have been like. Our amorphous universality is at least potentially a knit-together, immediately intercommunicating, incipiently self-conscious and complex amorphous universality in a way that the Roman Realm could not be.

      For some of the same reasons, to insist that the Roman Empire or Roman Realm (not quite the same thing) “was itself a ‘nation,” or counts for us as close enough for purposes of this analysis, seems unjustified to me. The Roman Empire was never a nation in the older, ethno-geographical definition. It absorbed nations, and for an extended period gave an obviously special place to a Roman nation, but it never did or could cohere as a modern nation-state in the Hegelian sense, even if, like other empires, it managed to extend elements of its culture and “idea” over large territories. To return to technological and material factors, it was impossible, not even conceivable, for an empire in the ancient world, or for any nation larger than a city-state to think concretely of itself, or concretely to think itself, as a super-massive family or aggregately self-conscious and coherent macro-anthropos or collective organism e pluribus unum. Hobbes’ Leviathan was ahead of its time or right on schedule: As I noted in a comment above, Schmitt regarded Hobbes’ state concept as itself a technological innovation, foundational for the modern age, the invention of inventions.

      As to your last point, though Hegel was not vastly well-informed about America, his moments of pessimism about it were conditioned in part by awareness of its “multi-cultural” constitution. He believed that a nation-state could tolerate dissent and difference, but that it needed an integral cultural core, especially a unitary religious establishment of some kind, to flourish. He didn’t witness the consolidation of Christian Republicanism or Christian Democratic Republicanism of the peculiarly American type, which was the counterpart of the “civic religion” outlined in Hegel’s time or just prior (Rousseau).

      To argue that an American cult of popular sovereignty has taken the place of the old religions in the American state-nation and in other places is not to say that a state religion of religion of the state is the same as other state religions, because every religion (as Hegel knew) corresponds to a different idea of the state. The established religion of the state does not see itself as a religion or an establishment. It sees itself as the permanent disestablishment of religion, and in the process re-defines or deprecates the word “religion.” “Religion” becomes the name for something particular and lower, which is or would be just as self-contradictory from the deprecated point of view as the state religion’s self-presentation as irreligious is contradictory from the transformed point of view. The further complexities, that I’ll have to set aside for now, also provide much of the content (and/as conflict) for the incipiently internetworked collective self-consciousness of the modern state-nation and world state of states, a potential that could at most only be glimpsed previously to our global or global-technological era.

      The last thing I’ll say before setting to making a living or what I call a living is that I understand that this description may read as utopian “globaloney,” and that designating America as “world-historical” may read as “aggressive Americanist” or “exceptionalist.” It is impossible, I think, to develop a proof of the experiment’s worthiness. We can examine how things came to be and try to get a sense of where they might be heading versus which obstacles and in light of which paths of greater and lesser resistance, and even participate in the development, if likely only very rarely and minimally to any identifiable independent effect. I think we have to leave other judgments to a future court whose competence, as you and I have discussed before, we cannot guarantee. We cannot even be sure that there will be a future court at all, but I think we have to think there will be one, sooner or later competent, and in a better position to assess the evidence which we’re still in the process of depositing.

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