Commonplace - Week Beginning 18 August 2019

I haven’t managed to read much this week, but the article that I did get around to reading was extremely helpful. In response to the Edmund Burke Foundation’s first National Conservatism Conference, Andrew Willard Jones, Marc Barnes, and Jacob Fareed Imam have written a clear exposition of, inter alia, the violence of nationalism, the intertwining of nation and state, the inescapably political nature of Christianity (and what that means), and a fuller understanding of what other forms of social organisation were displaced by the nation.

What drives these “National Conservatives”, Jones, Barnes & Imam write, are good things — a love for the local, solidarity, the home, concrete life and the common good. Yet, the fundamental critique that they level against nationalism is this:

As long as they see the centralized nation-state as the focus of these noble aspirations, they remain trapped in a world that has little use for such sentiments. If a person’s primary focus of social identification is to a collection of 350 million people, the unity that he finds there might be rooted in the pursuit of pleasure, or power, or glory, or equality, but it won’t be rooted in the pursuit of the common good. The common good is the end of a common life, and a common life is bound necessarily by limits of scale.

Jones, Barnes & Imam carry on to examine the historical development of the idea of “nation”, with its attendant violence to other forms of social order and its ideological claim to permanence and inevitability.

The unity of nationalism is the unity of a flattened social order. It is the unity of mass politics, of mass media, of mass education, of mass economy. It is the unity of the ununified, of the rootless, of the commodified.

More than just one in a set of ideologies, however, nationalism is also the pre-condition and motivating force for other political forms, specifically, liberalism and socialism: “Nationalism is what makes the modern ideologies work.” Its link to statism is particularly tight: “To be a nationalist is to be a statist, and as the ideologues discovered, to be a statist requires, eventually, that you become a nationalist.”

[More, of course, could be said about how nationalism and statism work in tandem, the specific mechanisms by which one supports or justifies the other.]

I found their critique of liberalism’s statism particularly apt:

[L]iberal states are characterized by police forces, a rational and bureaucratic legal system, and the gradual elimination of all extra-legal and therefore rival sources of authority and order. Below them, this means the steady destruction of the family, the community, the city. Above them, this means the nation’s independence from the natural law, from universal demands of justice, from universal calls to charity and solidarity, ultimately from the universal spiritual power of the Church. Liberalism’s sovereign state is the mechanism for the construction and maintenance of the nation as a sole substitute for these destroyed units of belonging, and the nation is a substitute that requires the state’s existence to function.

Diverging for a moment, this reminds me of the critique of the Swedish welfare state undertaken by Vanessa Barker (“Nordic Exceptionalism revisited: Explaining the paradox of a Janus-faced penal regime” (2012) 17 Theoretical Criminology 5). The problem posed was the “Janus-faced” nature of the penal system in Sweden — on the one hand, many of the techniques of punishment were supposedly the most “enlightened” in the world, yet on the other hand, there were significant issues relating to pre-trial detention, harsh detention regimes for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, compulsory treatment of drug addicts and alcoholics, and punishments for drug users. Barker writes:

The Swedish welfare state is not a reflection of a close-knit community, a Gemeinschaft, with neighbours taking care of one another; it is instead a tool for individual emancipation from precisely this kind of dependency and close community life. […] It freed individuals from dependency: wives from husbands, children from parents, elderly parents from grown children, and to a certain extent, employees from employers.

It is this “freedom from” that is secured by the state. If I can get what I need from the bureaucracy, then my dependence on my neighbours is distinctly reduced. Thus, as these other forms of social order are left in disuse, people begin to see everything in terms of their direct relationship to the state, rather than being aware of these other paths.

If nationalism is not the appropriate response to liberalism, since liberalism itself is predicated on statism and statism is a corollary of nationalism, then what is a truly “postliberal” politics? The rest of the essay goes some way to answering that question.

When we realise that there are bodies other than the nation-state that can make decisions, and perhaps make better decisions than the nation-state, then it follows naturally that each of these bodies should exercise the authority that is appropriate to it. This has a theological grounding in something akin to the chain of being, or, perhaps more accurately, a hierarchy of authority from the one God:

It is not that we think that politics and religion should be dis-integrated. Quite the opposite. It is that we believe that Christianity is a politics, a politics that demands and enables charity and peace. Total states are for the totally fallen, and Christianity is nothing else than humanity moving into its redemption. Catholic Postliberals ought to be opposed to the state because it idolatrously claims for itself a divine attribute, undivided and self-referential sovereignty, and attempts to order our world according to its will. We would order the world according to the will of God, and such an attempt could never claim such seamless power. Rather, each instance of human power must be for the good of what is below it while being subject to that which is above it in a hierarchy that is not quantitative, not a matter of relative or delegated power, but is qualitative, a matter of analogical ascent, wherein each level is fulfilled in its ascent to what is higher. Only God is not situated in such mutual dependence. Only God is, in that sense, sovereign.

The problem with the nation-state is not so much the existence of coercion. Coercion is always a part of politics in the fallen world. The issue is:

It is the national state that would like to isolate individuals from the burden of coercion, hoarding all such political power for itself and applying it anonymously. In contrast, when politics get local, coercion gets personal. Men should face the coercive reality of politics head on, and not cower behind a statist hegemon. We should use coercion as personally as possible and answer for it as universally as possible. Law is particular. Justice is universal.

Where power is no longer exercised personally, in a way that addresses the one exercising the power and the one who is being acted upon as persons rather than merely as roles, the tendency towards tyranny is accelerated. It is the presumption of the nation-state to exercise that monopoly on coercion that has come to define the state. It is this that blinds people to the possibility of other ideas of politics, it is this that reduces “politics” to “government”.

What is important to emphasise here is that the particular is not at the expense of the universal:

The particular can only find its good in the good of the universal, the temporal in the spiritual. The local is where politics is most properly politics; it is also where corruption is most profoundly corrupt. The local must be just and justice is universal.

This means that the smaller, the world of proper politics, can be itself only when it is integrated into the larger. Local politics may be the place where law is most properly made and enforced, but proper local law must be itself an instantiation of larger, more general law; this steady expansion ends only with the natural law, with the human participation in divine reason. This means that the smaller can be judged by the larger. But it does not mean that the smaller is a delegation from the larger.

They end with a salutary warning to Christians, for whom the issue of power has always been a temptation and a trap:

If Christians try to get control of and then use the power of the nationalist state on its own terms, they will find Jesus Christ giving way to the gods of power. Christ is the light of the nations, the King of kings. In him there is no longer Jew nor Greek. The curse of Babel is undone at Pentecost: the renewed unity of the human race does not come through uniformity, or at the expense of local difference. His way is the final fulfillment of politics and it is a way that does not lead through the “governments” of Paris, Berlin, or Washington, but through persons pursuing their final end in real communion, which encompasses the local in the universal. Freedom from Pharaoh is not a matter of becoming Pharaoh ourselves, but of undoing the fragmented, demonic world in which his power functions. Christians may indeed be prudent to take national political power, if possible, but only so that we can dismantle the mechanisms of manipulation; only so we can smash the idols of domination, and never so that we can build our own.

Frankly, there is little more that I can do than to say, Tolle lege. There is much rich fare to be mulled over and digested in this article.

Perhaps these things are clearer to me where I am because the nation that I am a part of is a historical accident and the building of the nation has been a very intentional effort over the past few decades. There is little that otherwise holds all the disparate groups who happened to find themselves in the same territory when the colonials firmed up the administrative barriers, and later, when they left.

It seems almost obvious that there is a significant degree of violence in the process of nation-building — both in terms of flattening out social structures, but also in terms of defining “enemies” and boundaries against those enemies which justify the use of coercive force, and the identification of “existential threats”, giving rise to an anxiety that is only assuaged at a great cost.

There is, of course, much to praise about the nation I am in. There is a great deal that has been accomplished that could not have been done otherwise. In any case, it would be ungrateful of me not to acknowledge the truth of the progress that has been made. But, one wonders whether we have bowed down too much to the nation, whether we have allowed the nation to define the boundaries of our politics, whether we have succumbed to a flattened view because that is what has always been offered, and because that is what apparently gives us prosperity and comfort. It is easy to hear the voices of moderation cry out in response, “But these thoughts are luxuries! We must protect ourselves, we must protect our interests.”

We must be concerned about these things because God is concerned with justice, with goodness, with truth. There is no neutral ground, in this or any sphere. May the scales fall from our eyes and may we never be tamed.