state authoritarianism

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Tue Jul 4 15:31:49 MDT 1995

Let me see if I can reply to John Walker's thoughtful comments on the issue
of state authoritarianism in a way which, if nothing else, makes the general
structure of my argument clear. (Having struggled with the issue for a long
time and having dedicated several hundreds of pages to it, I am keenly aware
of the limits of cyberspace in introducing a complex analysis of this <or any
other similarly dense> issue. Since we entered this discussion tangentially,
from a minor and very condensed point I made in a debate concerning ontology,
the argument has developed in a somewhat jumbled fashion. The least I can do
is try to present it in a more logical manner.

1. I contend that the modern state, unlike pre-modern variants, has innate
tendencies toward authoritarianism. This contention is based on an analysis
of the logic of the political in modernity. It is thus largely foreign to the
Marxist tradition, which insofar as it has dealt with the issues of the
political, has insisted upon conceptualizing them in terms of an underlying
economic dynamic. The one exception to this rule which comes immediately to
mind is Poulantzas' last (and by far best) text, _State, Power, Socialism._
And this is the text in which Poulantzas engages in a serious dialogue with
some of the theoretical traditions one has to look to for the beginnings of
an analysis of the logic of the political on its own terms -- (left)
Weberianism, Foucault, Annales historiography of Western feudalism and its
distinctivenss vis-a-vis Western modernity.

2. In the modern West, the political acquires its own internal logic for the
first time. In the pre-modern, fedual West (I will limit myself to a social
system about which I know something), the political is immersed in a logic of
sacred legitimation, and this logic put certain intrinsic limits on the power
of those who exercise it. In the disenchanted world of modernity, the
political acquires its legitimation from within itself, and thus is freed of
intrinsic limits. One sequence of historical changes can be seen as
illustrative here -- the Carolingian era monarch was king "by the grace of
God," and clearly limited by the terms of that Christian discourse; the
monarch of the absolutist era was king by "divine right", the term itself
being an admixture of  traditional and modern discourse, with less and less
restrictions on his power, and the modern republican state rules by the
consent of 'the people,' an entirely secular and modern system of
legitimation in which there are no intrinsic limits to its power. (I have
outlined this same development elsewhere in rich detail by engaging in a
genealogical analysis of the idea of the body politic, and its relation to
changing notions of the body in the West.)

3. If this case is to be put with any analytical precision, it must make some
reference to the analytical argument put forward by Poulantzas. The crux of
the argument rests in the way in which the state shapes and constructs the
'people' and popular will which is the source of its legitimation. "The
problem of modern totalitarianism," he wrote, involves "the dual movement
whereby the modern State creates individualizations and privatizations by
constituting itself as their unity and homogenization -- a movement, that is
to say, both of creating modes of isolation (of which the people-nation is
composed) and of representing their unity (in the modern national-popular
State). I also understand that in this dual movement, for the first time in
history, there can be no limit de jure or in principle to the State's
activity and encroachment in the realm of the individual-private. The
individual-private sphere is created by the State concomitantly with its
relative separation from the public space of society. Therefore, not only is
this separation but one specific form of the State's presence in
socio-economic relations, but it also involves an unprecedented state
presence in those relations."

Poulantzas' argument has the virtue of showing how this question of the
legitimation of the modern state is not a question of ideology in the
traditional Marxist sense, but of the material practices and institutions of
the state (what I would call state discourses), and how these practices and
institutions are bound up in the very creation of the private sphere and the
modern "individual." It is also useful in pointing out that what defines
modern totalitarianism is not its horrific crimes (modernity has no monopoly
on evil), but the capacity of the modern state to intervene, without
intrinsic limit, in the sphere of the private-individual. The discursive
construct of the 'soul' (understood as the product of the material
institutions and practices of the Church, among other forces) was a limit to
power in a system of sacred legitimation; as Foucault has shown, modern power
shapes that 'soul' itself.

4. Liberal political theory -- let us take Locke as the paradigmatic example
-- starts out with the clear _intention_ of restricting and limiting the
power of the modern state. Much can be learned from this effort, and many
concepts it elaborated -- the rule of law, individual rights, separation of
powers -- can be useful in resisting state authoritarianism, although they
need to be rethought in some important ways. Nonetheless, liberal political
thought is clearly inadequate to the ultimate task here, for it takes as its
point of reference, and as its standpoint for limiting the state, the
individual and the private sphere, and understands the individual as a
natural, pre-political phenomenon. The idea of the social contract which
establishes the legitimate state and place limits on that state is based upon
the primordial action of this natural, pre-political individual. (Therein
lies the source of the concepts of the state of nature,  the individual in
that state and the 'human nature' which defines the individual in that

Liberalism thus fails to understand the ways in which the modern individual
subject is the effect (as well as the author) of the state, and despite its
intentions, is unable to adequately conceptualize the question of state
authoritarianism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the section of Locke (and a
number of other liberal social contract theorists) which attempts to divide
the social contract into two pacts -- the pact of civil association and the
pact of political domination. By creating a convenant which creates the
people prior to the people establishing the state, this two pact theory
attempts to make the people a prior and independent check on the power of the
state. This two pact solution is also the basis for the later liberal
separation of civil society and the state (Smith, Kant, Hegel and others),
another ultimately inadequate attempt to achieve the same ends. Note that
those modern social contract theorists _not_ concerned with limiting the
power of the state -- Hobbes and Rousseau are the two most prominent examples
-- reject the two pact theory in favor of a single social contract with
combines association and domination. (In an interesting article in
_Constellations _, Seyla Benhabib attempts to use a variation of the two pact
theory to defend Habermasian communicative ethics against post-modern
conceptions of the origins of the state in violence and domination. Yet
insofar as the state is "the compulsory association which organizes
domination" <Weber's pithy defintion>, the two moments are inseparable.)

The ultimate failure of liberalism at this task is evident in the theory
itself. This was my point in introducing the following quotation of Locke.
The individual subject, Locke declares in Chapter IX of the Second Treatise,
must "part also with as much of his natural liberty in providing for himself
as the good, prosperity and safety of the
Society shall require..."  Given everything I have outlined above, is it not
now clear that this is a tacit acknowledgement that there are no intrinsic
limits to state power over and state intervention in the liberty of the
individual? Foucault recognized this problematic, but within the terms of his
own post-structuralism in which the individual subject is simply the effect
of discourse, he saw no way out of it: for him, therefore, individual rights
are simply illusory, a mechanism for the furtherance of state power.

5. There is no need to retrod the ground I have already presented with
respect to Marxism and state authoritarianism. Let me simply summarize. Marx
was heavily indebted to the liberal tradition, and he shared many of its
strengths and weaknesses. His _intention_ was also clearly democratic and for
the restriction of state power. But, he never grappled in any direct way with
the problem of state authoritarianism as presented here, and the Marxist
tradition was clearly unprepared for the rise of twentieth century
totalitarianism, both within its own ranks (Stalinism) and as the extremus of
reaction (fascism). It remains for us to take on that issue, and to analyze
the rise of totalitarianism within the Marxist tradition itself.

6. The nature of the tendency towards state authoritarianism in modernity is
such that there is no 'outside' to it. There is no theory, no vantage point,
which will make us and our  theoretical and practical political traditions
immune to its dangers. But certainly we can muster a little more insight than
those who preceded us in order to avoid a replication of their errors. You
know -- Minerva's owl  flies at dusk and all of that. It just won't do -- for
myself, at least -- to treat state authoritarianism as a product of evil
subjects who abuse, misuse, vulgarize, and betray (take your pick; they are
all pretty much equivalent) the traditions in which we locate ourselves. Nor
will it do to point out that other traditions share the same problems. There
is no way, I am afraid, around the need for a searching and persistent
interrogation of our own traditions.

7. What is the logic of the political in modernity, and how does it relate to
state authoritarianism? Let me offer a few ideas here without pretending that
this is an area I feel confident that I have fully thought through; it is
perhaps the very nature of the question here, and the relative lack of
consideration of it on its own terms, that make any formulation tentative and
preliminary at this point. I stumble forward, however, because I can figure
out no other path to walk. If Laclau and Mouffe are correct that the nature
of the social lies in its openness and fluidity, then one can say that the
logic of the modern state lies in a constant attempt to counter this logic,
to fix and close the social in order to establish a solid foundation for
itself. For is not the logic of the central political concept of hegemony,
that of a provisional closure in which a certain array of political forces
come together to establish a particular regime and rule? The processes of
normalization and homogenization which define modern (especially state)
institutions which shape the individual subject, from the school and factory
to the social welfare and police/juridical apparatuses, are discourses of
closure, establishing -- if only for an historical moment -- a fixed norm and
deviations from that norm. It is from these processes, and not from any
metaphysics of post-modernism, that relations of social and cultural
difference of a particularly modern type are engendered. Different modalities
of modern state will organize these relations in different ways -- there are
very real differences between the ghetto and the concentration camp -- but
they will all organize them.

8. Utopianism as a political project (distinguished here from utopianism as a
social imaginary, as in a science fiction novel) rests on the notion that it
is possible to escape the conditions of modernity, and to find an 'outside'
to these power relations. It is my view that such a political project is at
best a diversion from the real political tasks before us, and at worst, a
potentially unwitting accomplice to a new, more inclusive normalization. If
one posits the elimination of the state or the eradication of the division of
labor, to cite two of the more common examples, as real political projects
and not just a horizon of the social imaginary which challenges us to think
in different and new ways, one should have some sense of responsibility to
inquire into the results of prior attempts to actualize them. Intellectual
honesty will force us to admit that the Khymer Rouge's project was not simply
a depopulation of the cities to prevent starvation, or the work of evil men
who perverted decent principles, but also an attempt to eliminate the
division of labor between the countryside and the city, between manual and
intellectual labor. Our task, as I conceive it, is to begin to define
democratic concepts of authority, concepts which both accept its
inevitability and think through the terms of its accountability, thus
allowing us to identify guideposts on a path which will lead us through the
ever present thickets of state authoritarianism.

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