Thursday , April 25 2024
The war on terror and the resulting "state of exception" are quickly becoming regular features of everyday life. The question is, have we reached the end of history or are we about to enter another chapter?

In Defense of Anarchism, Part III: A Recap

In parts I and II, I highlighted some of the theoretical and practical limitations of the State, by far the most dominant political institution to date, defining the overall context for the entire gamut of political relations, foreign and domestic, as well as the limits of what’s politically feasible. On the theoretical side, the concept is flawed on account of its sovereignty component, the necessary condition of statehood, or so it seems, and the source of all its ailments (but more on that later). In practice, those ailments are only exacerbated in the sphere of foreign relations where every state is required to stand its own ground and hold on to its sovereignty as if for dear life.

The predictable result is that nation-states tend to act like bullies, loose cannons if you will, irrational to the core, and that’s regardless of whether they’re able to back up their threats or not. In their dealings with one another, the repercussions may be said to be more or less tolerable because controllable by other, more powerful states: open warfare is the worst case scenario, the state of tension and general unrest the usual one. It’s in its domestic affairs, however, that a state, any state, I contend, gravitates toward despotism; and the lesser its status in the realm of international relations, the more tyrannical it’s likely to become when dealing with its own subjects.

Again, sovereignty is the key, and if it can’t be secured one way, you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll resurface elsewhere (which is why the least prestigious states – Liberia, Somalia, Sudan – have the worst record of human rights violations). Even the good ole US exhibits the same trend: its recent, albeit relative decline as a superpower – due to terrorism, public opinion, inconclusive wars, what have you – is accompanied by ever-tightening restrictions on the rights of its own citizens. (The People’s Republic is an exception: for all the emphasis on the newly-found economic freedoms, presumably guaranteed for having adopted a hybrid capitalist system, it’s a totalitarian regime through-and-through, a state with an agenda.)

Lest you think these limitations are of little practical importance and that nation-states the world over will continue on their merry ole way and conduct their business as usual, think again.

The institution has been under virtual siege since 9/11, both from within and without, and the strains are beginning to show. Terrorism and acts of terrorism still represent the most direct and frontal attack against the State, be it US or Saudi Arabia; but we’ve also seen more subtle examples of subversive action of late – Julian Assange and WikiLeaks come to mind – actions which are no less effective if judging by the range of responses.

One way or another, nation-states, especially Western states, are on the defensive. As regards terrorism, just consider: the thrust of US foreign and domestic policy for the past ten years or so has been defined, indeed driven, by the anti-terrorist agenda. (“Counter-insurgency” is the term in vogue.) The two wars still in progress, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, TSA’s recent tactics and NSA’s surveillance powers – each in its own way testifies to the extent a state is willing to go in order to protect its sovereignty, its integrity as an institution. The sense of outrage evoked by WikiLeaks disclosures signifies the same mindset.

Some may want to argue that terrorism and all likeminded actions of subversive kind are crude and ineffective; that loss of civilian life is inexcusable; that more reasonable, “gentler” methods and tactics would be far more desirable since ends never justify the means. To which is say, I’m not here to pronounce on the morality of such acts, only on the fact: people tend to do what they think they must. As to the efficiency aspect, however, I beg to disagree. The inordinate amount of time, energy and resources (over $14 billion a month is one estimate) expanded by the State to repel all real or imaginary threats to its legitimacy as an institution is proof au contraire. If not de facto then at least de jure, the State is forever committed to protecting its perpetual legacy: if and when push comes to shove, it’ll stop at nothing.

There is a well-founded precedent, indeed, a quasi-legal justification for this course of action, the so-called “state of exception.” In American political tradition and parlance, the concept translates (roughly) to a state of emergency – Martial Law being the most familiar application – but in European politics and history the ramifications are far more extensive. According to Carl Schmitt, one of the founders, every government capable of decisive action must include a dictatorial element within its constitution, and that element is captured by the “state of exception” proviso – a tacit one, to be sure, but no less real for the fact because again, according to Schmitt, the state of exception, and the powers implicit therein, form an integral part of the core-concept of sovereignty. (Schmitt defines sovereignty as the power to decide the instauration of state of exception, for the greater public good, naturally.)

“Der Führer schützt das Recht” – the leader defends the law – is Schmitt’s most radical statement of the principle involved. But as Giorgio Agamben pointed out,

this kind of violence [by the State], which necessarily bears a juridical value, is another example of the fusion of right to “bare life” (It. vita nuda, Grk. zoe) that transforms the juridical system into a “death machine,” able to perform acts of pure violence as needed for self-legitimation, creating Homo sacer, a being that cannot be “murdered” or “sacrificed” but only killed

Consequently, Agamben argues that as a result of the state-of-exception proviso serving as the proverbial ace in the hole, ever-ready to be played whenever the chips are down, the difference between dictatorship and democracy is thin indeed, as rule by decree became more and more common, starting from World War I and the reorganization of constitutional balance.

For an overview of the concept and its many applications in recent European and American histories, the reader is referred to Mr. Agamben’s “A Brief History of the State of Exception,” an excerpt from the featured reading selection. It’s not our past, however, but the unfolding present which ought to be cause for concern, because the state of exception promises to become a regular feature of modern political reality. In particular, and I’m citing here from the Wikipedia entry on Giorgio Agamben (see the link above):

Agamben’s State of Exception investigates how the suspension of laws within a state of emergency or crisis can become a prolonged state of being. More specifically, Agamben addresses how this prolonged state of exception operates to remove individuals of their citizenship. When speaking about the military order issued by President George W. Bush on 13 November 2001, Agamben writes, “What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POW’s as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws” (Agamben, pg 3). Many of the individuals captured in Afghanistan were taken to be held at Guantánamo Bay without trial. These individuals were termed as “enemy combatants.” Until 7 July 2006, these individuals had been treated outside of the Geneva Conventions by the United States administration.

As to the usual suspects, draw up your own list, but such notables as Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo et al., all the President’s men, for short, whose legal opinions invoked the unitary executive theory to justify highly controversial policies in the war on terror – such as introducing unlawful combatant status which purportedly would eliminate protection by the Geneva Convention, enhanced interrogation techniques, NSA electronic surveillance program – will do for starters; it’s arguable they all mimic Schmitt’s writings (see Wikipedia, “Carl Schmitt” entry). Lest you imagine, however, it’s all behind us, like a bad dream perhaps or a nasty hangover from the evil Bush era, you have another think coming: the war on terror under Obama is no less intense and it shows no signs of dissipating. Let’s face it, we’re in it for the long haul, and the state of exception is about to become a permanent one. Some prospects!

Once again, the notion of sovereignty, surely an integral part of the modern conception of statehood, proves to be the latter’s undoing; it’s therefore fitting that selfsame notion should serve as a convenient point of departure. To that end, in the long-belated conclusion, I propose to examine emergent geopolitical configurations which, however minimally or imperceptibly, are beginning to make inroads into, and seriously undermine, the institution of statehood traditionally understood. Thereafter, I’ll take off from these, what I regards as, promising developments to arrive at a model of an ideal political community operating under some such geopolitical configuration – a community with a measure of autonomy and self-determination that’s not predicated on conditions of sovereignty and statehood, a community that is structured, organized and self-managed, too, in the absence of anything we’ve come to associate with the proper role and function of what we call government, lastly, a community that’s not tyrannical but tolerant of the dissenting views and which in fact celebrates the difference if for no other reason that every single voice counts as input toward communal decision-making. Let’s call it “anarchistic community” for short.

Granted, much of what’s to follow, especially the projection part extrapolating from the present into the not-too-distant future, – a blueprint, if you like – may well fall under the rubric of utopian literature, but so what? In my summary dismissal of this objection, I’m guided by the main thrust of R. G. Collingwood’s seminal work, The Idea of History, another reading selection. Simply put, the underlying idea is that solutions, human solutions, develop on the ground and are nothing but particular and concrete responses to equally particular and concrete contemporary problems. And this is to say not only that such solutions are highly contextualized – meaning, historically-conditioned and geared to specific sets of conditions and circumstances – but also that, for the very same reasons and in their initial stages at least, they’re far from being ideal or perfect in any way. A representative citation follows:

The Republic of Plato is an account not of the unchanging ideal of political life, but the Greek ideal as Plato received it and re-interpreted it. The Ethics of Aristotle describes not an eternal morality but the morality of the Greek gentleman. Hobbes’s Leviathan expounds the political ideas of seventeenth-century absolutism in their English form… [and so on] (p. 229).

One would be remiss at this point not to draw attention to the hidden assumption underpinning Collingwood’s master thesis, namely, that perfecting the response takes place over time, an assumption to which I’d like to append one of Martin Luther King’s own – that “the moral arch of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.” To translate, just as feudalism was an improvement over the system of outright slavery, so it was with capitalism when compared to feudalism proper. Likewise with our political systems and institutions: as we’ve seen them evolve time and again throughout history, we’ve also seen a progression of sorts, an upward movement always for the better, never for the worse.

Question my logic or chain of reasoning if you like, even my assumptions if you must: at least we’ll know where we disagree. My contention though is that in some such manner, and for no different reasons than those we’ve found to have been operating in the past, our thus-far venerable institution of statehood will soon give way to more enlightened, anarchistic forms of political organization. It’s only a matter of time, and the key – again, I can’t help being overemphatic here – is the notion of sovereignty. Do away with that notion, I say, and you’ll have effectively obliterated the very raison d’être of statehood.

As far as I am concerned, this upward movement is already afoot.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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