The Metaphysics of the Bureaucratic Nation-State

11 June 2014


Appearance, Reality, and

Escher Tower of Babel

Maintaining the Illusion of Order

Most philosophical attempts to come to grips with politics consists in examining political systems in an attempt to determine whether or not they can deliver in practice the ideals that they promise in theory, and whether these ideals are worthy ideals to maintain, and not somehow deceptive. Thus the distinction between theory and practice is central to political philosophy, and we tend to think of politics as an exercise in applied ethics and not as an exercise in applied metaphysics, even though we are bringing into being a new kind of entity, a political entity.

I would like instead to consider the nation-state from the perspective of appearance and reality, that central distinction of western metaphysics that I recently discussed in The Recrudescence of Metaphysics. The distinction between political theory and political practice can itself be assimilated to the distinction between appearance and reality, if we frame the worthiness of political ideas as a matter of the appearance and reality of the ideals themselves. If some political ideal is presented as a noble and worthwhile political aim, but this is mere illusory appearance, and we discover in the practice of politics that our ideal is a sham, then theory and practice reveal themselves as appearance and reality.

In earlier eras of history, different political entities were at stake — tribes and chiefdoms, kingdoms, empires, city-states, confederations, and early republics — but the principle of creating a political entity that is distinct from any individual or family remains consistent, and this distinction has widened over time. Today, it is the nation-state that is, as I have said many times, the central political fact of our our age. I have repeatedly discussed the nature of the nation-state in several posts (its tribalism, as well as its links to genocide), and opened my book Political Economy of Globalization with a discussion of the nation-state.

What does the nation-state appear to be, and how does this appearance differ from the reality of what the nation-state is? The central tension of the nation-state, and the fundamental divide between its appearance and its reality is that the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of ethnic cohesion — supposedly being the expression of Wilsonian self-determination on the part of a particular people — but in fact is defined by geographical boundaries and the assertion of the territorial principle of law within these boundaries. Given this glaring chasm between ideal ethnicity and real geography, nation-states frequently responded by attempting to enforce an ideological conformity that would appear to coincide with authentic ethnic cohesion.

In the past, state structures sought to enforce ideological conformity through brutal means, not excluding massacres, atrocities, and mass population transfers, but these methods are no longer approved in their explicit form (whereas in the past the explicit character of the action would have been accounted a virtue, and any attempt to conceal official actions would be thought base and ignoble). In the pre-modern world, then, a violent effort was made to close the gap between political appearance and political reality. Given the role of the weaponization of eliminationism in maintaining depredations below the threshold of atrocity, such brutal methods are no longer countenanced, but there is more than a single means to the same end.

The means employed today are precisely the opposite of the means employed in the past: instead of seeking to close the gap between appearance and reality, the contemporary nation-state exploits the gap between appearance and reality to its fullest, creating an unbridgeable chasm between appearance and reality as the gap is rent ever wider. The kinder, gentler methods of persuasion and social imposition (if not imposture) are entirely consistent with the most flagrant contradiction between appearance and reality, and the fact that there is any gap between the two can be attributed to precisely the humane methods employed by the contemporary nation-state to achieve the perennial ends of state power.

The nation-state can no longer force its citizens to be virtuous and good with the ruthless brutality employed in the past, but it can pass a plethora of laws that attempt to control behavior, both employing distributive justice to favor those who place the needs of the nation-state before their own, and retributive justice to penalize those to have advanced their interests before those of the nation-state. The nation-state cannot force its citizens to be safe, but it can create an endless stream of rules and regulations that give the appearance that something proactive is being done to ensure safety of its citizens. The nation-state cannot force its citizens to be obedient to any principle, but it can supplement its byzantine code of laws with elaborately detailed rules and regulations that effectively box in the agency of the individual until one is effectively hamstrung and one’s freedom dies the death of a thousand cuts, none of which taken in isolation is fatal.

The need to cooperate with democratic forms of governance, when politically powerful individuals run up against the limits of engineering consent, requires that democratic forms be respected as far — and only as far — as is necessary to maintain the machinery of state power intact. This may entail saying things to the masses that one patently does not believe, giving “red meat” speeches in order to get elected, placating powerful constituencies with symbolic yet impotent legislation, all of which must be entered on the “appearance” side of the ledger of political authority. There is, in all of these efforts, something of plausible deniability (which is just another way of saying, “lying with a straight face and a good conscience”). We only require plausible deniability when we have already determined our hypocrisy in advance and want to ensure its success to the greatest extent possible.

Any glaring gap between appearance and reality, although sustainable and consistent with the ongoing existence of the nation-state, can become an invitation to charges of hypocrisy — and have we not been witness to spectacular hypocrisy? In a world in which authenticity has intrinsic value, hypocrisy is among the greatest of sins. People today seek authenticity not out of any sense of duty or obedience to a higher moral standard; people seek authenticity to satisfy a visceral need. This visceral need for authenticity is expressed in relation to political authority as it is in all dimensions of life, and it is the “higher truth” to which appeal is made in explaining away the very hypocrisy that is an insult to the feeling of authenticity. Hypocrisy must be transformed into a sacrament of political theology, and this is the function of representative institutions. Political representatives believe nothing on their own account, according to this account of popular sovereignty; they are mere instruments in the hands of their constituents, who are the source of the authenticity that the political authority invokes.

The idea that truth is to be found at the source was for classical antiquity and the medieval world what authenticity is for the modern world. Indeed, authenticity is the modern permutation of the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, and that the later accretions of time and history only obscure the purity to be found at the source. But authenticity has about it an ineliminable sense of loss and nostaligia, and while the ideas of loss and nostalgia were not absent in ancient and medieval civilization, the character was different. Authenticity is the knowledge of loss, and of its irreparability; truth found at the fons et origo of the world is coupled with a belief that this source is still accessible. We know better now. Even if truth is to be found at the source being, we know ourselves to the alienated from this source, and that there is no going back.

Knowing that we cannot have the reality from which we are alienated, we accept the substitute realities that are, for us, as close as we are going to get to source of being. For true political authority that can trace its legitimacy and justification to the same source of the world from which all things derive, we accept the best that we can do in terms of political authority. What remains, when we have stripped away all vestiges of political authority that relied upon the legitimacy and justification traced back to an ultimate but now alienated source, is the political order of the state for its own sake. The practical implementation of the state for its own sake is the state bureaucracy that continues the state in existence from day to day by its unimaginative but implacable methods.

The bureaucratic expression of the nation-state is the permanent nation-state — it is the reality of the nation-state, the truth of the nation-state — because the bureaucratic structures, and, more often than not, the particular individuals who staff these bureaucratic structures, remain and continuously shape the life of the nation-state even while executive administrations come and go. We all know, of course, that in democratic nation-states there is virtually no difference between the political parties and candidates who vie to fill the temporary positions of the revolving executive power; their identity is a function of their derivation from the permanent bureaucratic nation-state.

Given the revolving door that shuffles individuals between elective office, appointed positions, and bureaucratic employment, the temporary administrations that come and go are largely drawn from the bureaucratic positions within the permanent government, and appointed members of various government commissions often remain across changing administrations, with the result being that the attempt to limit governmental authority through the separation of powers has simply multiplied the forms of the bureaucratic state, and made the permanent bureaucracy the center of gravity in the system of government.

That the truth of the bureaucratic nation-state is no enchanting vision, but rather a petty and grubbing careerism undertaken in the name of the people is disappointing but not necessarily hypocritical. One might even stretch one’s conception careerism so far that it transforms vile and base motives into legitimacy and justification, like the philosopher’s stone, which was supposed to have the power to transmute base metals into gold. This is metaphor, in case you didn’t notice.

But what, asked Pilate, is truth? And what is the truth of the nation-state? Another perennial theme of western metaphysics, besides that of appearance and reality, is that of Veritas est adæquatio intellectus et rei (a venerable piece of Thomist Scholasticism). This is the closest thing to consensus in the history of philosophy as to what constitutes truth. Here is Saint Thomas’ exposition of this definition of truth — the mutual adequacy of mind and thing — in its locus classicus:

Consequently, truth or the true has been defined in three ways. First of all, it is defined according to that which precedes truth and is the basis of truth. This is why Augustine writes: “The true is that which is”; and Avicenna: “The truth of each thing is a property of the act of being which has been established for it.” Still others say: “The true is the undividedness of the act of existence from that which is.” Truth is also defined in another way—according to that in which its intelligible determination is formally completed. Thus, Isaac writes: “Truth is the conformity of thing and intellect”; and Anselm: “Truth is a rectitude perceptible only by the mind.” This rectitude, of course, is said to be based on some conformity. The Philosopher says that in defining truth we say that truth is had when one affirms that “to be which is, and that not to be which is not.”

Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, Question 1, Article I

Note the the first definition given is the idea of truth as the fons et origo. And the same again more briefly…

“Truth is ‘the conformity of thing and intellect.’ But since this conformity can be only in the intellect, truth is only in the intellect.”

Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, Article II

The truth of the nation-state is the conformity of the nation-state to the intellect — but to what intellect? Obviously, the mind of mass man.

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