The romantic conception of the state reached its pinnacle in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. No other political theorist since, except for Hegel perhaps, held the state so highly, alas, with a religious kind of reverence. It was for him the end-all and be-all. It trumped all other interests and concerns.
David Runciman (see “Why Not Eat an Eclair?”) says it best: Rousseau envisaged “political life as a quintessentially collective endeavor, in which the claims of the state as a vehicle of human co-operation had to be asserted against the claims of other more partial groups, which would otherwise distort our co-operative impulses to their own ends.”
I’ll return to this all-important vision of political life as a quintessentially collective endeavor. It’s an aspect all-too-often ignored by the apologists for the liberal state because of “the[ir] assumptions and models of an individualist politics” (see Wolff, p 2). Meanwhile, we can surely appreciate Rousseau’s insight in positing the state as the ultimate vehicle of human co-operation, especially when compared to “other more partial groups” and their presumably self-serving interests and claims.
Granted, Rousseau had bought here, lock, stock, and barrel, into a pluralistic, conflict-ridden model of factional politics, according to Wolff, the best that the liberal-democratic state can offer: see, for example, his chapter on “Tolerance” in The Poverty of Liberalism. Besides, Rousseau was unduly suspicious — with a suspicion that bordered on paranoia — of voluntary associations’ stifling effects. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” was his statement.
Even so, Rousseau’s vision of politics as an activity, and of the overarching political community as the primary focus and site of that activity, reminds one of Aristotle. And for Aristotle, politics, and engagement in politics, the life of a citizen, in other words, represented the pinnacle of human development (the term “human” functioning here in a generic, undifferentiated sense); the final realization of our potential as social beings. Hence Aristotle’s motto that man is a political animal.
It is arguable, therefore, that for both Aristotle and Rousseau, the ultimate political community, envisaged by either of them as “the state,” commanded a kind of loyalty that transcended all other allegiances, be they to other institutions, groups of individuals, or individual persons.
As an aside, one can’t help but think here of the biblical injunction, “… let no man put asunder,” to establish the importance of marital relations over the familial ones, except that for Rousseau, and to an extent Aristotle as well, the relationship of a citizen to the state trumped all other relationships and alliances, all other loyalties.
Again, we shall have to hold in abeyance, for now, the hard question of whether, and under what circumstances, an institution can command the same kind of respect and loyalty we usually reserve for persons. I suppose part of the answer has got to do with how we happen to regard the institution in question: it must, in some sense, transcend the real and approximate the ideal; and Rousseau’s vision of the state as the end-all and be-all, enabling the individual to sever the chains imposed on him or her by custom, tradition, what else have you, to become free at last through and by total identification with the state, certainly qualifies.
By way of preliminaries, let me suggest two likely responses. The first may be termed “Socratic’” — as exemplified by Socrates’ willful submission to Athens’s laws and his opting for drinking hemlock rather than trying to save himself by seeking life in exile. The second can be associated with Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War) or with Euripides (The Trojan Women), both latter-day contemporaries of Socrates and super-patriots in their own right.
In the first instance, the laws and the constitution of Athens are left intact despite an occasional miscarriage of justice. In the second, the state’s very edifice is being questioned, along with a host of related concerns regarding its legitimacy, the kind of loyalty it may properly command, etc.
In Socrates’ defense, we must note he hadn’t tasted the full unraveling of the Athenian empire, sanctified as it had become by forming the Delos League with Athens in charge. Athens was but a city-state in his time, a powerful city-state and the most enterprising one, a city-state definitely to be reckoned with, but no one could foresee the rise of her imperialistic ambitions, the underlying hubris, and her eventual demise.
The Melos massacre, the pinnacle of that hubris, an event which Thucydides so memorably records in his first-hand accounts (see the Melian dialogue, for instance, if we wish to appreciate the full impact), was still far off in the ever-seeing mind of Socrates. And so were the heroic acts of the Greeks epitomized in Homer’s immortal epic if only because they were a myth, a glorious and breathtaking myth, but a myth nonetheless.
It took a prolonged, first-hand exposure to what Athens had become, the experience of an eyewitness, to see her ruthless and unabashed exercise of raw power, unapologetically and matter-of-factly, her flagrant misuse of the position of leadership in which she had assumed. Her meteoric rise to greatness and her equally rapid disintegration and fall, to be able to see her clearly and in the light, cast contemporary and mythical or ancient events with an unprecedented tour de force.
That’s the benefit of hindsight that Thucydides and Euripides have brought into play but which Socrates had lacked. Hence the different visions of the Athenian state and the attendant judgments.
Where did we go wrong? How come the state, once thought of as “the [ultimate] vehicle of human co-operation,” and the rightful locus of all human (once again, read: collective) endeavor, ceased to function in its intended capacity?
In essence, that is the gist of the anarchistic thesis: The state had failed to deliver on its promise, it couldn’t deliver on on its promise and stay true to its original conception, for the simple reason that the state itself was bound to remain insecure.
Since it always had to tend to its security as a matter of ever-present and overriding concern, the state was precluded thus from ever discharging its sovereign-related duties without prejudice, with only justice and fairness in mind. It is for that reason alone that the Rousseauian conception was a myth. I was always a myth, an idea that was flawed to start with, beyond the possibility of redemption.
Thucydides and Euripides, so it seems, were on the right side of history. Socrates was not.
Since the state is bound to remain imperfect – a fatal flaw, if you ask me, considering the centrality of the concept! – then under what circumstances can it still command a measure of loyalty before being deemed illegitimate? What is the litmus test for what counts as legitimate or illegitimate in this context? Can we spell out the relevant criteria to everyone’s satisfaction?
As we turn to these questions, let’s keep it in mind that we cannot do without loyalty. It serves as the bedrock of all our relationships, political, social, and familial. In its absence, there’d be no such a thing as politics; there’d be no family and no voluntary associations either, no bowling league or a rotary club, not even friendship. As I understand it, its essence is always to look up rather than down, despite the old saw that there is honor among thieves. And politics, and our engagement in politics, may well represent the high point of our predisposition to be loyal in practice.
And so, just as we cannot dispense with loyalty, neither can we dispense with politics, one of the most understandable of human activities and concerns. One way or another, with or without the state, politics will go on. We may question the quality of loyalty the next political configuration may rightfully command, whether it will be total and undivided or merely partial — and I’d certainly hope for the former, or we’d be back to square one! — but not the eventual replacement of the state by a polity that would be more responsive to human concerns, more realigned with them, more capable of seeing to justice and justice only.
As the predominant political institution of our time, the days of the state demanding our undivided loyalty are over.