I’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.