Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics
Montreal
Archive
 

***

STATES OF WAR

***

By David William Bates

***

The Montréal Review, January 2012

***

"States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political" by David William Bates (Columbia University Press, 2011)

***

Available at Amazon US and Amazon Canada

***

"Bates's own position is supremely original and perfectly and clearly articulated. He shows that the political does not have to lead to fascism and violence and exclusion (clearly it has not prevented these things from taking place) but can have a more progressive, individualist, and anti-exclusionary form."

- James Martel, San Francisco State University

"In this breakthrough rereading of early-modern thought, David William Bates discovers the origins of liberal norms in and through the creation of a fully autonomous political domain. As Bates shows, it was no accident that construction of internal constitutionalist restraints on the state occurred just as the modern state emerged to its full external potential for global violence. Bates's argument is at the cutting edge in the history of political thought, and his interpretations of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau renovate the study of each author."

- Samuel Moyn, Columbia University

***

States of War addresses one of the most pressing concerns of modern democratic states: how to reconcile the foundational drive to defend the nation with the principles of law and civic rights? Conceptually and historically, these two important dimensions of the modern state-sovereignty and the rule of law-have distinct roots. Sovereignty emerged in the seventeenth-century as the idea and practice of absolutism, where the final decision rested with the monarch. In the eighteenth century, new ideas of the state emphasized the constitutive role of individuals with natural rights in the formation of a legitimate political community. Of course, these Enlightenment ideas had immense influence on the development of constitutional states in the revolutionary period and beyond.

The two logics of the state (one purely political, the other purely legal) seem to interfere with one another in moments of crisis. Doctrines of emergency rule within constitutional theory have attempted to paper over the gap between existential forms of power and the constraints of law, however new crises and new forms of warfare always offer new challenges that disrupt established emergency institutions, as we have seen in the wake of 9/11.

My book approaches this conceptual dilemma at the heart of the constitutional state by looking carefully at the history of modern political thought. My argument is that the Enlightenment is not simply the moment when intellectuals developed origin stories of political organization as a way of highlighting the fundamental rights of individuals. Instead, I show that in the eighteenth century, intellectuals were the first to develop a thorough conceptualization of political power as an autonomous sphere of activity that was legitimated by its existential responsibilities. However, the great achievement of this period was the development of a theory of legality and civic rights that was not in opposition to this existential logic, but in fact derived from it directly.

I open the book with an analysis of some modern notions of what is called "the political," a concept that can identify what it is that makes something political as opposed to merely instrumental or in the service of some other goals. The most famous definition comes from Carl Schmitt, a German thinker who developed his influential ideas in the Weimar period, when the German state was constantly in crisis. He argued that the political could be reduced to the decision between friend and enemy. Legal concepts of the state that privileged constitutional order above decision were, he believed, naïve and dangerous concepts.

I then historicize Schmitt's ideas by showing that only in the era of modern absolutism did the problem of the political even emerge. Prior to this period, political ideas were always dependent on other concepts-religious, moral, economic, and so on. The rise of the neutral, absolutist state raised a new question: what was the logic of this novel form of power? What made it legitimate? The natural law theory of this period (exemplified by thinkers like Grotius and Hobbes) attempted to "build" the state from its constituent parts, the individuals in a state of nature, to show that political power was dependent on the existential desire for peace and security.

The major thinkers of the Enlightenment took up the challenge of natural law theory by analyzing carefully the transition from natural to political communities in their conjectural histories of the state. As I demonstrate, figures such as Locke and Montesqueiu believed that the emergence of the state marked an important move, when a society acquired a new logic of defense in conditions of war. The unity of the state was a new form of being, not at all derived from individuals. Therefore the legal structure of the state was not something dependent on prior natural rights, but instead produced something altogether new-political rights. I end the book with an analysis of Rousseau, who most brilliantly captured the important autonomy of the political community, understood as conceptually distinct from any particular historical form of sociability, in order to develop the most radical democratic theory of equality and rights.

I think that this Enlightenment theory of political rights, a theory founded on a recognition that political communities are born in times of intense crisis and violent conflict, is particularly relevant today. First, because our constitutional orders are still very much modeled on Enlightenment concepts, such as the division of powers, natural rights of the individual, and so on. Second, the challenge facing us today is how to think through the relationship between existential decisions for "security" and the foundational legal values that animate constitutional regimes. While I do not pretend that the answer is an easy one, I do think that my intellectual history of the relationship between these two logics provides us with a space to see new connections and possibilities that go beyond the stark oppositions usually drawn. Finally, I think that the legacy of these ideas concerning the intimate relation between existential, indeed militarized, rule and political rights goes far beyond the borders of the traditional nation-state as we know it. Modern concepts of human rights might best be understood in this context, so that we at once recognize that rights will always need to be defended with military power and "political" decisions, and that rights are derived from membership within this particular community of violence. The Enlightenment teaches us that the foundational and repeated violence of any political community does not taint the rights within that community. On the contrary, they depend upon it both in practice and in theory.

***

David William Bates is professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Center for New Media. He is the author of Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France, and, alongside his work on the history of political and legal thought, his research focuses on the intersections between technology and cognition since the Scientific Revolution.

***

 
 

Subscribe
Submissions Guide
pdf
RSS

 
 
 
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry |
Copyright © 2016, T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy