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Frank van Dun


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Philosophical Statism and the Illusion of Citizenship:

Reflections on the Neutral State

Frank van Dun


The Philosophy of Statism

A. Statism: War and Scepticism

The idea that the state is a form of organised lawlessness is a recurrent theme in liberal thought.  It underlies the many attempts to civilise or tame what Hobbes aptly called the “Leviathan.”  The aim is to institutionalise constitutional checks and balances that mimic the principles and well-tested practices of law.  In other words, the liberal idea implies that, at least in times of peace, the state should be controlled according to law.  In many ways, this constitutional approach was very successful.  The implementation of constitutionalist strategies significantly altered the aspect and behaviour of the state.  Nevertheless, constitutionalism was more effective as a source of legitimacy than as a check on the powers of the state.  Liberals all too easily acquiesced in the state’s claim to represent or embody the law, in its usurpation and monopolisation of legislative, judicial and executive powers.  In the end, few people were able to understand that law should be seen as the restraining condition of legislation rather than as its product.  The state, the institutionalised form of (preparedness for) lawless war, came to be regarded as a necessary institution of lawful peace.

To the extent that liberals subscribed to this view—and they did so en masse—they conceded the main point of political ontology to the apologists of statism: that war, not peace, is the normal or natural condition of human life. This is perhaps the most basic axiom of statism.  It implies that there can be peace only inside an organisation designed to fight and win wars.  It implies that there is no natural society, no “spontaneous order” (as Hayek would say).  Man plus man equals war.  The whole of the statist philosophy is contained in that simple statement.

Liberals may have tried to convince themselves of the lawful character of the state, statists have always denied that there is such a thing as an open inclusive society.  Society, for them, is not integrated by lawful action, but by organisation and command (whether lawful or not).  Thus, to the statist, the idea of civilising the Leviathan is incongruous with its very nature: the Leviathan is the source and mainstay of civilisation; to shackle him19 is to condemn the world to everlasting war and chaotic confusion.

Statism is an ideology, a theory of humanity as bent on self-destruction.  According to this theory, personal morality is not a value at all, but a curse.  Modern statism was launched from a platform of profound scepticism.  Its philosophical premises were that there is no reason for believing what we believe, no matter with how much conviction, and no reason for believing that what we want or desire, no matter how passionately and sincerely, will do us any good.  Consequently the belief that by acting on one’s own judgement one does what is right, must be groundless.  The individual human person is a source of error; human interaction is error raised to a power that equals the number of those involved in the interaction.  The first requirement of wisdom, then, is that we do not act on the basis of our own beliefs and passions.


B. Hobbes: the Moral Alchemy of Absolute Power

Hobbes, arguably the most daring architect of modem statism, translated the sceptical position into a “science of politics.”  He did so by equating a condition in which every man acts on his own judgement—what he called “the natural condition of mankind”—with a universal war of all against all in which life is nasty, brutish and short.  This allowed him to define peace among many as a condition in which one judgement directs the actions of all of them.  For Hobbes, this one judgement had to be the judgement of one (whether one man, or one body of men acting in concert). Once we grant the initial equation we can no longer deny the need for an absolute monarchy. It emerges as a mathematical truth from its axiomatic base. Thus, although acting on our own judgement is our “right by nature,” it cannot be right in any moral sense, because it stands in the way of our getting what we want, hence of what is “good.” Reason cannot but conclude that it is better that we all renounce our natural right to act by the light of our own judgement and submit to the judgement of a single authority, a single ruler or sovereign agent. However, submission to a single authority does not change our nature, and so war always looms just around the corner. It is, then, a requirement of lasting peace that the sovereign take every precaution to prevent people from acting on their own judgement, from following their own conscience or living according to a personal morality.20 A state can succeed in its pacifying mission only by keeping the scope for personal morality as small as possible.

Hobbes did not pluck his political theory out of thin air. He drew inspiration from a great tradition of humanist scepticism, associated in his age primarily with such figures as Montaigne and Justus Lipsius.21  Its roots were the epistemological skepsis of the Greek and Hellenistic schools of Antiquity, and the stoic insistence that happiness requires detachment from the passions and affections. The dissociation of action and judgement encouraged a retreat to “the inner citadel,” where one could indulge in games of the intellect and the passions without assuming any real responsibility.22  The inner citadel might be in the mind only, in the enclosed space of one’s home, or it might be a blessed circle of intellectual or artistic friends.  In any case it offered the occasion for enjoying liberty, but at the price of renouncing all claims to independent action in the public world or, what amounts to the same thing: at the price of accepting, and siding with, whatever power ruled the world outside.  The ancient Stoics had already discovered how easy it is to claim a quasi-divine omnipotence for the wise man: having rejected the light of his own merely subjective reason as well as the motive force of his affections, he accepts, indeed wants, what is necessary and inevitable, and so, by an impeccable logic, it follows that everything happens according to his will.  In this he is, as far as any mortal can be, the equal of Zeus, the ruler of the universe: free, even if his social status is that of a slave, rich, even if without a dime, and completely happy.  In a like manner, Hobbes taught his contemporaries to accept and side with the powers that be, and to resolve to make every action a ruler might undertake their own.  Think of the ruler as your agent, a mere actor; think of yourself as the author of all he does; and you’ll find that you have no injustice to fear from his strength, only from his weakness.  Whatever he does to you, you do to yourself: and what you do to yourself cannot be unjust. But when his enemies get you, you suffer injustice: they are not your agents.

This Stoic formula stands as a triumph of moral alchemy: it holds the promise of turning a lowly creature into a god, a poor man into a tycoon, a slave into a master, a subject into a sovereign legislator.  However, its application to worldly politics was contestable.  Pascal stated the problem clearly in one of his Pensées:  “Unable to fortify justice, people have justified force.”  It was inevitable that the Hobbesian application of the Stoic formula should be seen as proof that the state is without virtue, an amalgam of force, intimidation and cowardice, with no redeeming value, except, perhaps, that it permits people to go about their private business (to the extent that the rulers allow them to do so) as long as they turn a blind eye to what the rulers do to others. 

Hobbes’ theory has continued to enjoy considerable prestige in academic circles.  There is good reason for this: modern statism owes a lot to Hobbes, because in the course of adapting the Stoic formula to the phenomenon of political rule he laid the foundation of the modern conception of citizenship.  Citizenship, at least since the days of Aristotle, refers to the problem of reconciling freedom and political rule.  Aristotle’s proposal for solving this problem had been rather simplistic: free men will take turns at ruling and being ruled, so that in the long run the equality of the free is preserved.  According to the modern conception, “the citizen” also refers indiscriminately to the ruler and the ruled, but in a stronger sense.  It seeks to identify the rulers with the ruled, and so to rid the concept of rule of all traces of subordination and oppression.  The Hobbesian “social contract” indicates the way to realise this ambition: the ruler commands the ruled, but the ruled authorise the ruler, and therefore indirectly rule themselves.  According to this conception, the state is the medium through which people rule themselves.  To this day, the thesis of collective self-government remains the general form of “the legitimacy of the state.”  In Hobbes’ theory, however, the form had been all too transparent; at every point the contours of naked power were visible beneath the legal veneer of a common principal-agent relationship.


C. Plato: State and Civil Service

To infuse the state with substantial, as against merely formal, legitimacy, modem statism could appeal to another venerable tradition of political thought. Its fountainhead was Plato, and again the philosophical base was an extreme form of scepticism.  Although Plato made extraordinary claims about the power of philosophy to pierce the veil of ignorance and error and to arrive at certain truth, he was equally insistent that the vast majority of people were condemned to remain forever captive in a morass of fleeting illusions and irrational impulses.  That there was any certifiable truth in mere opinion was as unacceptable to Plato as the sceptical sophists’ claim that the grand theories of the philosophers were also mere opinions.  He did not share the sophists’ scepticism concerning philosophy, but his scepticism concerning the theoretical and practical knowledge of ordinary people was if anything more radical than theirs.  After all, the sophists made it clear that the lack of epistemological certainty and unshakeable moral foundations does not prevent people from finding viable solutions to the problems of the day, day after day.  For Plato, on the other hand, these “solutions” are likely to be accumulations of mere folly.  They are part of the problem, if not its main cause: ad hoc responses to unanalysed difficulties, they provide no fixed rule or measure of action; uninformed by reason, they can only be irrational; and irrational social practices breed irrational human beings.  Unless we can organise human life on fixed and true foundations, irrationality will continue to grow like a cancer and engulf everybody in a hopeless war of all against all.23  Plato’s scepticism, as a reflection on the deplorable morass of ignorance and folly in which most individuals are stuck, serves to vindicate his claim that war is the natural condition of mankind.

It is not surprising, then, that Plato’s political theory, like Hobbes,” ends up endorsing monarchy as the only true solution of the human predicament.  Plato finds nothing to commend in the idea of a personal morality that is not formed and selected by the state.  Long before Hobbes presented his ideal monarchy as one in which “all movement proceeds from the Sovereign,” Plato rhapsodised about perfect unity under the supreme authority of a Philosopher-King or a Nocturnal Council.24  The main distinction with Hobbes is that the Platonic ruler supposedly derives his title to rule from his eminent knowledge or wisdom, whereas the Hobbesian sovereign derives it from his eminent power (or rather: from his subjects’ wisdom in resigning themselves to it).

In some ways Plato was a far more astute political thinker than Hobbes, who tended to assume that absolute power was an original gift to the sovereign.  The sovereign might subsequently squander it by his foolishness, but how he got it in the first place was not, for Hobbes, a political problem at all.  Hobbes was well aware that in a large “commonwealth” there would always be any number of rival centres of power: popular men, large cities, corporations, churches, universities, independent judges, fiscal officers, monopolists.  These, Hobbes insisted, the sovereign would have to keep under tight control, lest they destroy the unity of rule that is the essence of a commonwealth.  However, he had very little to say about how the sovereign could make and keep his power absolute.  Given Hobbes’ naturalistic approach to human interaction, the only plausible method would appear to be the time-honoured practice of making and breaking alliances (divide et impera).  However, Hobbes could not admit this method, because it presupposes that the sovereign’s power is far from absolute, that it depends on the support of others, and is therefore conditional on its being used to their advantage and in accordance with their wishes.  The Hobbesian sovereign, it seems, has to buy support: he must be a power-broker, skilled in the art of wheeling-and-dealing.  There is no way in which he can stop his potential rivals and powerful subjects from acting on their own judgement in trying to get the most out of a given situation.  This rules out that “all movement proceeds from the sovereign.”  When the sovereign is no more than a conduit through which particular interests or personal moralities assert themselves, the fiction that what the sovereign does to a subject is never unjust is destroyed.

Plato on the other hand, met the problem of absolute power head-on.  He had to: his ruler was to be a philosopher, almost by definition a powerless, lonely figure, with no popular support, no inclination for swift and decisive action, no guts for a ruthless pre-emptive strike.  Moreover, as the champion of “principle,” the philosopher is totally averse to wheeling-and-dealing, to becoming a leader by jumping on every passing band-wagon.  A philosopher can be king only by force of the non-mercenary loyalty of his subjects.  The key to a well-ordered society, for Plato, is the construction of an absolute power-base, the breeding, through eugenic manipulation, education and training, of a new kind of men, unconditionally loyal to their ruler, devoid of any inclination to act on their own judgement, to hold beliefs of their own or to be moved by personal passions and affections.  They, the guardians of the city, the prototypes of what we now call civil servants, have no individual personality, hence no use for a personal morality.  The price of having a state is the renunciation of humanity on the part of its members.  Man and state don’t mix.  This is a direct implication of the axiom that war is the natural condition of mankind.  Because Hobbes failed, or refused, to draw this implication, his theory of the state remained incomplete and ultimately incoherent.  On the other hand, Plato’s theory gave us the notion of the civil servant, but not that of the citizen.  His guardians of the city and their helpers were merely servants of the ruler; they served him, and only because he aimed his policies at the common good, did they also serve the general interest of the rest of the population.  The farmers, traders, and workers are no more than subjects; they are not in any meaningful sense members of the state.


D. Rousseau: State and Citizen

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who pointed the way to a modern synthesis of statism.  It consisted of an infusion of Platonic substance into the Hobbesian form.  The synthesis proceeded by a radicalisation of both elements.  Rousseau’s “social contract” required an unconditional surrender sans réserve of each, with all his rights, to all, because otherwise there can be no perfect union or unity.  The contract transfers all rights to the collective person of the Community or State or People.   This collective person is not a pre-existing entity; it is formally created in and by the contract itself.  It is one person, but a fictitious one.  Therefore it is nonsense, or a mistake of categories, to apply the logic of human interaction, of plurality, diversity, scarcity, to the relations that constitute the state.   They are relations between a whole and itself, a whole and its parts, or between parts of the same whole.  Moreover, because the whole, as it is constituted by the original contract, is completely undifferentiated, there is a perfect correspondence between the whole and each of its parts.  Therein lies its perfect unity.  Of course, this unity refers only to the whole constituted by the contract, i.e., to the rights of many combined into the rights of one.  The unity of the state is a legal fiction.  In physical terms there is no unity: the contract does not change the natural facts of human existence, in particular: the separateness of persons.  That is why it is nonsensical to think, as Hobbes apparently did, that natural human beings can make up a state.  On the contrary, the social contract signifies the total and radical renunciation of all claims based on one’s individual human nature.  In the state no individual as such has any right whatsoever.  Only the state has rights; and because the state is by definition a perfect unity, each and every part of the state has the same right as the whole.  Only as a citizen does a person have the same rights as the state itself, but these rights are not his in any proprietary sense: they belong to the whole, and to him only because he is a part of the whole; he can claim them only in so far as he identifies with his role as a citizen.  This highly theoretical and abstract construction has but one rationale: to provide a formal solution to the problem of reconciling freedom and rule.  That solution is collective self-rule, realised when a People rules itself.

However, a formal solution is not a political solution.  In real (as against merely logical) terms, the social contract has no causal impact.  It does not make a People out of a mass of men.  It does not turn a man (a separate, independent physical being) into a citizen (a fictional person with no independent existence or motive force, defined as a part of an as yet unrealised whole).  Men continue to be independently active, fallible, passionate creatures, each with an overriding interest in his own preservation and advancement.  Each man has his own particular individual “will.”  A citizen, on the other hand, is by definition congruent with the state as a whole; therefore he has no other interest than the interest of the whole of which he is a part.  Consequently, all citizens have, again by definition, the same general will.  That they have this will is not a psychological fact, but a logical implication of their being citizens.

Regardless of the consistency and adequacy of the formal solution, the political problem remains:  how to make a People, how to transform man into citizen?  In his attempt to answer this question, Rousseau resurrected Plato’s guardians of the city, again in a far more radical form.  Rousseau “democratised” the guardians by insisting 1) that their loyalty was to be to the public interest rather than to the philosopher-king (or, equivalently, that they should be moved only by the General Will), 2) that all persons in the state, and not just those in its governmental apparatus, should conform to the requirements of civil service (so that civil service would be the characteristic business of every citizen), and 3) that the philosopher-king (Rousseau’s législateur) should be placed outside the power-structure of the state, where he may enjoy an exalted, quasi-divine “moral authority,” but no “political power” whatsoever.  The latter requirement must ensure that the People retain the legislative power, i.e., the power to give formal legal force to the rules proposed by the wise legislator.  These emendations of Plato’s theory serve to make it fit the formal requirement of collective self-government.  They annihilate its hierarchical class-structure, yet retain its central insight: that in order to make the state work, it is necessary to transform human nature through skilful indoctrination (education, myth, religion) and training.  The success of the political project depends, then, on “the secret work” of the législateur: on his ability to get people, without their knowing it, and if necessary against their will, to change their mode of existence.  If successful, the outcome of this project will be that people are citizens, living according to the laws (expressions of the General Will), freed from the need to survive on the strength of their own personal judgements.

The one drawback of Rousseau’s theory, from a statist point a view, was that it ruled out an optimistic assessment of the chances for a successful conclusion of the political project.  Everything in it turns on the presence of a succession of wise législateurs.  Rousseau liked to say that the whole of human history had not produced more than ten such men.  All of their great constitutions had perished after a relatively short time, even though they had worked under far more propitious circumstances than one could hope for in the present day and age.  It was as if Rousseau wished to stress that the legitimate state is, indeed, a theoretical, but by no means a practical possibility.  During the nineteenth century, some schools attempted to by-pass the contingent element of the legislateur, and to present the coming of a legitimate state as a sort of historical necessity (philosophy or dialectics of history, e.g. in Hegelian or Marxian form).


E. Marx: the Citizen as the New Man

Marx arguably pushed the concepts of the state and of citizenship to their outermost limits.  From Plato to Rousseau the state was viewed primarily, if not exclusively in military and political terms.   Plato’s guardians assisted the ruler in war and peace, but there is little indication that Plato intended them to “run to economy,” except perhaps in times of war.  He made it perfectly clear that the economy (or natural society, what he called: the elementary state) has no need for guardians.  In his logical reconstruction of the state, the phase of the elementary state covers the whole spectrum from a simple subsistence economy involving a very small number of people (five or six) to a global market economy with a highly developed division and specialisation of labour, extensive trade and sophisticated financial and monetary arrangements.  The guardians appear on the scene only when the desire for luxury begins to seek satisfaction through robbery and war.  However, the guardians do not displace the natural men that inhabit the elementary state; the state of the guardians sits on top of the natural society.  Under the rule of the guardians, the ordinary people continue to live as they always had and always will.  The Platonic state divides society in a political class and an economic class.  The main concern of political theory is the transformation of predatory warriors into socially useful guardians.  Rousseau’s state obviously could not have this hierarchical class-structure.  Nevertheless, Rousseau presupposed a distinction between economic and political activities.  Like Plato’s, his theory was concerned with the use of political means (violence, force, coercion), not with economic means (labour and exchange).  Consequently, his concept of the citizen applied to men only in so far as they participate in political activity.  The economy as such, i.e., the modus vivendi through which people seek to satisfy their needs and to reach their goals without political means, takes care of itself: when politics is under control, economics is no problem.  With respect to the economic dimension of life, men could continue to live according to their own nature: there was no need to transform them into citizens.  This dualistic view soon became a sort of orthodoxy, enshrined, in France, in the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.  Each person is at once a human being (holder of natural rights) and a citizen (a member of a state, holder of political rights).  Marx stood this classical time-honoured view on its head.  According to the Marxian analysis, when the economy is under control, politics ceases to be a problem.  Marx differentiated actions by the end they aimed at, not by the means they employed.  In his “scientific” view, every end justifies the means necessary or useful to its attainment.  Because apportioning means to end is an economic function, every means is economic.  Thus, he could represent slavery and robbery and the state as economic forms and practices.  The political is a subset of the economic.25  For him, political emancipation was only a half-way house.  Its principles of citizenship were basically correct, but it was a mistake to apply them only to those economic functions traditional usage identifies as political.  One should extend them across the board to all social activities.  The idea that “particular” man and state don’t mix was no more than a half-truth.  The full truth, for Marx, was that “particular” man and society don’t mix.  Consequently, one should jettison the natural rights of men, as they are no more than licences to disregard the common good.  Citizenship, on the other hand, signified the concrete realisation of community; but the community would not be perfect unless it found expression in every social activity—in one’s daily work no less than in one’s occasional political roles as a voter, representative or civil servant.26  If there was any place in a well-ordered society for the autonomous individual, it would have to be outside the vital circuits of social organisation, during moments of leisure, in games and plays.27


Next: Statism and the State

Posted November 8, 2007

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