U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Solidarity and the State

the stateI’ve been wrestling with the conjunction of two unrelated events–the death of Hugo Chavez and the confirmation of John Brennan–and what they might reveal about ways we presently understand the state.  For what do the death of a charismatic and controversial leader of Venezuela and the confirmation hearings of a man who coordinated the Obama’s administration’s use of unmanned drones have in common?  I see Corey Robin has some thoughts on this combination.

I’ve been thinking about these two events while reading William Cavanaugh’s collection of essays, Migrations of the Holy, for a class I am teaching on religion and globalization.  The first essay in the book is entitled, “Killing for the Telephone Company.”  The title comes from an observation made by Alasdair MacIntyre:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on it’s behalf…It is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” (36-37)

Cavanaugh employs MacIntyre to suggest that violence has been central to the creation and continuation of state power.  The state creates solidarity with it by projecting its power as the protector of its people.  However, according to Cavanaugh, the state becomes a protector through the violence it introduces into the world, thus forging popular solidarity with it because it must protect its people from the violence it has perpetuated. Cavanaugh critiques the coercive power of the state by imagining that there are other “spaces” in which meaning can be found, developed, and acted upon.  In short, he contends, the state cannot have primary claim on how we “ought” to order our lives.  “The development of the nation-state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” he writes, “can be summed up as the completion of the contradictory process of alienation from local community and simultaneous parochialization of what is common to the borders of the nation-state.  Neither movement facilitates the pursuit of a genuine common good.” (39)

Has the Obama administration attempted to make a case for serving the common good in its justifications of its drone policy?  The New York Times reported the disclosure of the Justice Department memo on this policy, stating: “It adopts an elastic definition of an “imminent” threat, saying it is not necessary for a specific attack to be in process when a target is found if the target is generally engaged in terrorist activities aimed at the United States. And it asserts that courts should not play a role in reviewing or restraining such decisions.” I understand that neither military nor legal arguments for using drones need to be crystal clear, nor are drones remarkably different than using bombing raids as Clinton did during the Kosovo War.  But on both points made by the Times above, there is a drift away from an understanding that a drone policy will have implications for the way Americans conceive of their allegiance to the state.

Greg Grandin has written an interesting reflection of Hugo Chavez’s legacy in the Nation.  The line from that piece that is getting perhaps the greatest play is Grandin’s rumination on whether Chavez, a strongman to many observers, had been strong enough:

He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.

My point in bringing up this comparison is not to equate Obama and Chavez or to needle us into seeing that the United States is as despicable as many people seemingly think Chavez’s Venezuela was, but consider by what terms we have come to measure the effectiveness and power of the state.  What tests to do we apply to understand the level and limits of coercion involved in state power?  Where as Cavanaugh is disturbed by the idea of “killing for the telephone company,” how do we account for the state’s power to kill by joystick without any need for self-sacrifice on the part of its citizens?  Is it coercion when the state kills remotely without judicial oversight in a battle that, it seems to me, the same state has done something to manufacture?

And when we consider the legacy of Chavez, should we imagine that the “telephone company” he created came closer to operating in a way different from the kind of state MacIntyre had in mind?  Was violence part of Chavez’s plan to consolidate and validate his power through the state?  If not, was Chavez’s coercion through state power somehow more transparent and, ultimately, more consistent with the development away from the use of violence to forge popular solidarity with the state?

It appears in light of these two cases we might get a chance to discuss the emergence of new forms of state authority and how best to test the abuse of that power.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wonderful reflections and questions, Ray!

    I’m wondering, how is the allegiance citizens develop and pay to the state (maybe this is exclusive to America) like the allegiance fans develop and pay to their sports teams? As an Eagles fan, are the feelings I harbor toward the Cowboys akin to the feelings Americans develop toward “other” people? In other words, how much do the expectations, hopes, and fears of “the people” themselves either legitimate or outright determine the actions of their leaders? I’ve been reading through Christopher Chapp’s new book on civil religion and trying to understand his subjects (i. e, Presidential candidates) are constrained by popular expectations.

    • It’s funny Mark, I think your analogy to sports teams is frighteningly apt: if we think about politics like a sport, what do we really expect to take away from the results of our political contests? If my beloved Yankees or Knicks win or lose is not of much genuine consequence to my life because I have invested so little of my life to their fates.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on the implication you make near the end that killing by the state is somehow more morally sound if it entails some measure of “self-sacrifice on the part of the citizens.” I find this perplexing. It seems to me that the need on the part of the authorities to ask for “sacrifice” by the citizens (an interesting theological choice of word, as opposed to say, economically, “a price”) may inhibit the authorities from acting, but it wouldn’t have any significance on the morality of that state’s actions per se.

    The killing in Vietnam, for example, certainly entailed the sacrifice on the part of many (disproportionately poor, nonwhite) Americans, but I don’t see how that sacrifice renders Rostow or McNamara more moral figures than Brennan. In general, I worry that discussing these matters in terms of national “sacrifice” may distract us from the raw immediacies of state killing, and the vast disproportions of power that are involved.

    • I think the choice of sacrifice has an interesting genealogy all its own and is certainly part of the point. If the state is involved in a fundamental pursuit of the common good and an expression of that is violence, how do we account for the cumulative effect of violence on the definition of the good? While individual actors such as McNamara and Rostow do not become more moral because of war, they (or more likely their theologically-minded associates) are able to wrap state violence in terms of sacrifice. While both were technocrats they also understood that whatever war they were involved in went well beyond the mere strategic ends of a bombing campaign or a supply chain. What I find interesting about the Obama drone policy is the disengagement from a greater context of the common good that almost always follows any kind of concerted use of violence by the state. The policy strikes me as technocratic killing, and might suggest a shift in how Americans consider the implications of war.

  3. About that quote from MacIntyre:

    1. From which of his works is it pulled?

    2. That vision of the state is one who sees the world and its institution’s through the glasses of corporate religion. To people like MacIntyre, all institutions take on a quasi-religious character because they think about all things in religious terms (note I do not say Godly). People create lesser institutions, self consciously, to serve practical functions: schools, bridge clubs, states, military forces, bureaus for environmental protection, food coops, etc. Can people deify those institutions? Of course—happens all the time. No. I can’t off-hand name the fallacy MacIntyre has committed (e.g. category?), but the fact that a state may, from time-to-time, ask you to defend it is of course a serious matter. But a person may do that, and die doing it, without thereby deifying that state. Dying for an institution does not make it sacred. One can “die for a state” because they’re defending it from a great evil (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, etc.).

    Now I’m going to go out on a limb with another analogy: I could also die defending my car from a car-jacking. In that case, it’s less about the car than feeling violated as a person—that someone is stealing the blood, sweat, and tears you shed in earning the money to buy that car. You’re defending the self from perceived evil. It ain’t about the car. And, moving back, it’s not about the state as much as it might be about your family and your effort on this planet. The state is the context in which that work was performed, but you don’t give two cents about the flag, the White House, or the telephone company. You care about human dignity and seek to defend it.

    I might even be willing to extend this kind of defense to what is called by some the body politic (ala Maritain), but we can’t just reduce that special entity to its practical expression (i.e. bureaucracy). People fight and die both for and against things; sometimes larger things (i.e. states) are accidentally attached to those greater goods. – TL

    • Errata:
      1. Line 1 of point #2: “That vision of the state is FROM one who…”
      2. middle para of same para: “…Of course—happens all the time. I can’t off-hand…” (strike the “No”).
      3. Right after. I wrote: “I can’t off-hand name the fallacy MacIntyre has committed (e.g. category?), but the fact that a state may, from time-to-time, ask you to defend it is of course a serious matter.” I should’ve wrote: “I can’t off-hand name the fallacy MacIntyre has committed (e.g. category?), but his vision is clouded. It is true that a state may, from time-to-time, ask you to defend it. This is of course a serious matter. But…”

      • The MacIntyre line comes from “After MacIntyre.”
        As for the role defense and sacrifice play in sacrilizing the state, I think the effect comes from the language we use to describe those willing to make sacrifices–willing to kill or die for the state. As I mentioned in my response to Nils, technocrats don’t become more moral but the endeavor they are involved in does as we accept a moral language to describe the actions and effects of state-sanctioned violence.

      • I believe MacIntyre is writing here as a Thomist, and worse, a Catholic. His beef is with the modern nation-state of the past few centuries, and its aspiration to be “value-free,” merely scientific in its conception of “the good.” But such a “neutrality” is impossible of course, in the least, because the pursuit of “neutrality” itself–“freedom”– itself becomes the definition of the good.

        In the end, the citizen of the modern nation-state is asked to die for Social Security, Planned Parenthood, Dow Jones and Piss Christ, for despite modernity’s claim to agnosticism, these are its gods.

        As for Hugo Chavez, I understand he’s to be stuffed like Lenin and Evita and displayed in some sort of Temple of the Revolución. I expect ex-Marxist MacIntyre will be similarly unimpressed.

  4. Well done, Ray. I agree that the question is not just about the abuse of state power, but what kind of state power. That said, Grandin’s reflections are off-base, perhaps offensive. Chavez destroyed countless lives for his own personal vanity.

    • Thanks Jeremi. Could you expand a bit on your view of Chavez’s abuse of power? I am especially curious about how you would describe the way Chavez chose winners and losers, if in fact that was what happened or if the destruction you note was a consequence of collateral damage.

    • Chavez was a complex character, and his overall record in power very mixed. Grandin and Suri are equally off-base. “Chavez destroyed countless lives for his own personal vanity,” as an overall summary judgment, is grossly misleading.

  5. What of the powerful notion, popular in the 1990s, that political ideology today hinges on an ironic distance between the subject and the State, and the argument (made by Žižek, Jodi Dean, and others) that it is this irony that actually does the hegemonic suturing in postmodernity? Or, in other words, that this ironic distance is today the “moral equivalent of war” as a source of political solidarity?

    This ironic distance seems to describe well many of the people I know before 1980 but after 1945; much less well those born before or after. I think it’s over, and that this the failure to process the transition from irony to sincerity is at work in the confusion re: Chavez, and, in a different way, drones.

    Chavez presents the spectacle of a Peron or Huey Long who is terrifying because he generates authentic loyalty on the part of the Venezuelan subalterns who, we all know, are supposed to be voiceless and screwed over in the process of globalization. But we apprehend this figure in the context of our own transition out of irony–when no politician or pundit may express infidelity to a rather crude form of US nationalism, and when, for example, MSNBC devotes time to serious discussion of whether the president’s visage should be carved into Mount Rushmore.

    We are no longer ironic sophisticates; we are true believers. This explains, I think, the incoherence and lack of detail, the metonymic pollution (Chavez was friends with Cuba! with Iran! etc) in the mainstream press’s post-mortems of Chavez. It’s not really about Venezuela’s failure to cooperate with neoliberalism; it’s about our own uneasiness at having somehow lost a moral high ground (however fictitious) vis-a-vis cultic nationalism.

    Drones, on the other hand, cause problems for the status quo because we were used to dealing with CIA wet work, lawless interventions, etc., as the excess we cynically ignore (but secretly suspect we need), the obscene machinations supervised by shadowy figures like Dick Cheney supervises while we identify with the happy paterfamilias George Bush who, like us, likes dogs, baseball, cowboys (I believe this example is Žižek’s, as well). In other words, if we disavow the state’s violence as part of the ironic work of postmodern patriotism, we don’t really need to think about drones. Drones are the normal, horrific, underside of US foreign policy.

    The question now is, as Haberski indicates: why do we suddenly care? This is not a lark: it is causing enormous, authentic, confusion among liberals and Obama loyalists. Under ordinary circumstances, Glenn Greenwald would care, Amy Goodman would care, Code Pink would care, I would care, maybe you would care. That tends not to provide sufficient tinder. The answer, I think, (aside from the contradictions of a figure like Rand Paul, and the once-a-generation alignment of right and left wing libertarians, not seen since the aftermath of Waco) is that we have both a new sense of collective authorship of US actions, because of the elimination of distance between ourselves and the State, and a new sense of danger. On what grounds could we contest the sovereignty of the executive? On what basis could we suspect that such power might be abused? With the evaporation of ironic citizenship, we have become accustomed to a kind of generalized credulity that we have not seen since Watergate. It’s the anxiety produced by the meeting of this daylight-less mass identification with the State, and generalized credulity, with the specter of a pre-Feudal model of sovereignty, that makes this moment so traumatic for so many. And perhaps pregnant with some possibility for changing course.

    • Kurt, I apologize for taking so long to reply to your comment. Part of me thinks there is no justice I can do to such a excellent statement, especially one that has a kind of tension that builds as you reach your conclusion. So permit a response that asks you to contextualize the idea of irony.

      Do we accept that irony became the prevailing description of our collective relationship to power? I get that the postmodern stance was the dual emotion of horror and avoidance thus canceling any need to take physical action because we no longer had a physical reaction. But were there not many movements under the gloss of the ironic umbrella that kept authenticity alive? I ask this question because I never bought the Putnam thesis about the fading of social solidarity or the Charley Murray outlook on social collapse. And, after all, I am the guy who continues to think that Nirvana’s rise to popularity reflected a genuine, popular alternative to the kind of irony of the NYC postmodern lit crowd.

  6. Ray, thanks for this stimulating discussion.

    I agree, by the way, re: Nirvana and irony. Like so many artists of the 1980s and 1990s, Nirvana engaged irony in an elegiac, rather than celebratory mode: mourning a lost potential for sincerity, and as such affirming a certain commitment to sincerity–this is the tragic thematic core of Cobain’s suicide note. This was also the message of Slacker, Reality Bites, Coupland’s Generation X, the comedy of Janeane Garofalo and Marc Maron, etc. (Often this frustration was voiced as a critique of the postmodern audience: as a fringe lurker around some of the cultural production of the 1990s, I recall discussions by very hip and edgy artists about how The Simpsons had ruined audiences’ ability to process anything seriously). The real committed ironists of the 1980s and 1990s: filmmakers like John Waters and Greg Araki, groups like Kraftwerk, Laibach, Negativeland, and The Residents, or post-Warholian artists like Jeff Koons, had a kind of gleeful, often queer, negativity and perversity about them–I think this is what Peter Sloterdijk means by “kynicism”– that was totally missing from mainstream culture.

    But, like David W. Noble observes about William Appleman Williams, there was still within projects like Nirvana a sense of entrapment within the frame that was ostensibly being challenged: that the dream of a certain American landscape still permeated the lamentation of its disappearance (even of its never-having-existed-in-the-first-place). Kenneth Burke made similar observations re: the left-wing “debunkers” of the 1930s: they were in fact the true believers in the fantasies of Grant Wood.

    But I believe that the transition out of irony is a real structural event in US history. My proclivities lead me to see it in psychoanalytic terms, but I think it can be plotted coherently without getting on the couch.

    Since you are the “civil religion” expert, I wonder what you would make of this analogy: within my own religious tradition, had I not made several life choices that put me squarely in the apostate camp, I would be a self-described “three-day-a-year-Jew.” I am led to understand that there are equivalent formulations in most modern religious traditions.

    To my mind, this is the archetypal form of ironic subjectivity: it is not that I lack the faith or time to be more committed, nor that I lack the will to renounce the whole thing and just be done with it (really, there is nothing dumber than avoiding cheeseburgers on three specific days of the calendar year, at least from a rabbinic perspective), but rather that this arm’s length, ritualized, purely formal engagement is my preferred and avowed mode of religious participation/identification. It’s how I (well, not I, but many of my friends and relatives) prefer it.

    My hypothesis is that prior to the Bush era, a kind of “three-day-a-year” citizenship was exceedingly common, if not universal, and that a much more intense, passionate, affective, credulous, invested, naturalized form of identification has now become standard, especially among the young and the old, who seem to be very politically influential.

    A final example: Tim O’Brien writes, I think in The Things They Carried, several pages to the reader whom he expects to ask, automatically: if you were not a true believer in the war, why didn’t you run away, why didn’t you go to Canada, or to prison as a conscientious objector, etc. Now, certain kinds of people read the kinds of Vietnam memoirs written by writers like Tim O’Brien, and perhaps this tone is geared towards this mundane reality.

    But I think that a previous generation might really have “required” these pages, and that it is likely that younger readers do not; that they may in fact be confused by them. This is not to say that they are dupes; just that the nation-state or “homeland” has been reinscribed as a legitimate cause for which to be sacrificed, and that one would have to be atypically critical to question this cathexis (oops, could not avoid Freudian lingo–but I tried!)

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