Dictating Freedom V: The Image of the Nation, Research Time, 31/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . So much has been written over the centuries about what sovereignty is, what it implies, its legitimacy, its nature. Philosophical thought is a method of figuring out the nature of phenomena too complex to describe in simple terms. 

It’s a mistake to enter a philosophical debate with the preconception that your purpose is to settle it. As I hope yesterday’s post made clear, big, complex institutions are at their most dangerous when we’ve settled debate about their nature, function, and existence. When we’ve accepted their existence and taken them for granted. 

When they become so invisible to us that we look right through them, even as we can’t imagine a world without them. Like a glass window through which I see my neighbourhood.

A protestor raises a banner against immigration
restrictions. A little context here.
Think about how complicated real communities of people are, especially in our globalized world of easy planetary travel and frequent migration. But it’s always been the case that any economic centre becomes a culturally diverse, plural community. Once diversity sets in and you leave people alone to get on with life, it compounds as people create whole new identities and cultures.

Human communities tend toward creating more social and cultural complexity. So why do we all take for granted this idea that a peculiar patch of territory controlled by a government institution needs total ethnic-cultural unity, homogeneity, and conformity to be a stable political entity?

How did the nation-state become the default political institution for the entire world?* The answer is in the philosophy of the modern period – attempts to work out a way of thinking that would shut down the violence of Western Europe’s religious wars.

* You can’t just answer “colonialism.” Yes, that’s technically correct. But that only accounts for the spread of that political form. Not its genesis. Europe (mostly Britain) had conquered about half the Earth by the 1930s, and Westerners equated political freedom with having your own nation-state. So decolonization was the institution of 100 or so sovereign states where there were once imperial possessions. It had become the default already.

Etienne Balibar draws from Jean Bodin’s ideas – as he tried to find a common image of France that would prevent Catholics and Protestants from killing each other. His solution – to describe it in very simple terms – was a state whose law was officially secular, unifying all people as subjects to a common crown.

That was fine for monarchies, but things got complicated when Western culture began developing democracy as a political ideal. Democracy means that we can’t be subject to a crown, so can’t rely on that subjection to produce social unity and peace. How can a community of diverse people be free without conflict? 

The West's most important innovator in the
philosophy of what a nation is.
The idea that millions (and now billions) of people could live together in mutual love and respect wasn't really getting much traction at the time. It was the 1700s, and people weren’t really taking Spinoza mainstream yet. 

Instead, we get the man Balibar regards as the principal innovator of the concept of the nation – Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I’m going to try to explain his conception of the nation in the shortest and most direct form I can here. I want to explain the idea to my readers, but I always want to articulate it in very direct and simple forms myself.

Rousseau took a book to explain a concept whose meaning is still being debated today. Balibar took a few pages of an essay to articulate one particular interpretation. I’ll take a few paragraphs of a blog post to explain my take on Rousseau’s ideas after reading Balibar.

The traditional objection to democracy is that it inevitably falls into discord and chaos that facilities an even worse tyranny to return stability. These objections are still at the heart of notable anti-democratic philosophers today. So peace and freedom requires reconciling the difference between rulers and ruled.

A social movement for democratic government expresses in material action the desire for peace and freedom. That desire is what Rousseau calls the “general will.” This is distinct from the “will of all,” which is his term for the collection of all the conflicting, niggling particulars that every individual in a society wants. 

The general will in its pure expression can only ever be vague – “Peace! Freedom!” Quite general, actually. But it’s still a material desire. That material desire constitutes the unity of the nation. 

Representative institutions channel that desire. In the name of peace and freedom, parliaments and congresses permit the reconciliation of all those individual wills into a more concrete expression – the rule of law, of a state’s legislation and institutions. 

Pictured: The last sovereign of Western culture.
So the law of a state is no longer the expression of a single person’s will – that of the king. It’s the mediated expression of the general will of the people for peace and freedom. 

What prevents cultural pluralism from seeming legitimate in a single state is that mediation in the expression. Only those who can participate in building the parliament – representatives and voters – can materially express their will for peace and freedom in state institutions. If the law excludes someone from participation, they’re excluded from membership in the nation.

But the law is still legitimate because it was produced through institutions mediating the general will of all who participate. That expression can desire the exclusion of others who may want to participate, by whatever quality offends the people and the representatives enough that they’re excluded. So we've solved the problem of unity, but only worsened the problem of exclusion.

The solutions of the present become the problems of the future. . . . To Be Continued

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