The Case for a New State Consciousness

NASA/Washington, D.C.

The state looms extraordinarily large in the way of life of the modern West. Its presence and reach is not just a conspicuous, but definitive, feature of that way of life. It has become conventional to characterize our societies simply as liberal democracies, in terms of their state form alone. Individual rights, legal equality, representative government, church-state separation, the rule of law, and above all, political independence have come to replace shared culture and descent as hallmarks of national identity and national pride. Suggestively, the origin of the nation is always dated to the founding of the state, with all prior past relegated to the status of a colonial period or other pre-history of a nation awaiting an independence day, which is also its birthday.

This way of life is entirely organized by and around the state, presumes the state as a given and as its condition of possibility, and is lived by citizens dependent on the state. These citizens are intolerant of violence, danger, and disorder, and mostly helpless to provide for their own protection or settle their own quarrels; they make their living in pacified market economies in which force and fraud are excluded, property rights are guaranteed, contracts are enforced, legal redress for wrongs are made universally available, and most industries are deeply regulated—all by the state. They recognize no other source of authority, and aggressively claim equality of standing and individual rights against one another—chief among which is the right of each individual to do as he pleases, subject only to the public power, and unencumbered by religious, moral, patriarchal, or other extra-state authority.

In exercising their right to do what the state does not prohibit, the citizens expect, as an absolute given, that somebody will take decisive action to keep the streets free of crime, ban unsafe consumer products, warn them of the presence of genetically modified foods, and protect them from a vast panoply of real and imagined dangers. External security against conquest is taken for granted, to the point where any discussion of the evils of imperialism or slavery takes it as self-evident that Westerners always deal these things out and never take them. Likewise, it is simply assumed that somebody will always be there to provide public education, health care, and infrastructure, to subsidize their industries, to guarantee a stable money supply, etc.

And yet, consciousness in the liberal democratic order is in a strange and deep state of denial about the state. Liberalism at once defines the good life in terms of the very criteria that define state sovereignty and the foundations of public law—and then, much like the patient in denial, who denies what he previously said the moment he is confronted with it, turns around and denies the legitimacy of the state when it is explicitly identified as such.

In polite discourse on politics today, the state has become a dirty word. Explicitly invoking “the state” by name is considered poor taste, and raison d’État—the idea that political decision-making should be guided by the higher ends and interests of the state—is only paid lip service at best.

Under this morality of power, the state and statecraft can only be alluded to indirectly, through vague proxies and nebulous euphemisms: “the country” or “our democracy,” the promotion of “freedom” and “prosperity” at home or “democracy” and “human rights” abroad, etc. The state must take great care never to appear as an actor with ends all its own. Its actions must always refer to ends and interests outside itself—“social justice,” “economic freedom,” or something else—and preferably be authored by non-state actors: moral entrepreneurs, industry lobbyists, professional NGOs, journalists and academics, and other back-seat drivers who purport to “speak truth to power” on behalf of “civil society,” “public opinion,” and the “will of the people.”

The state as such, considered as the self-aware subject of its own proper ends and interests, and the author of its own acts, figures in political discourse today only as a pejorative. It is a negative point of reference against the ideals of liberty, justice, and government by and for the people: the vehicle of an insatiable will to power that can only be realized at the expense of society and individual freedom.

The ideological left decries the state as an engine for the reproduction of exploitation and domination, a combine through which the rich oppress the poor, whites oppress blacks, and men oppress women. It is a repressive apparatus that stands against progressive forces in their historical march towards human liberation. Conservatives, on the other hand, draw on a canon with such suggestive titles as Our Enemy, the State, which refers to the state as an engine of despotic paternalism and collectivism. In the American conservative imagination, the state is an alliance of state functionaries and non-productive social classes conspiring to expropriate hard-earned wealth, distort the market, retard economic growth, and enthrall the individual to the collective.

All sides, notwithstanding their ideological anti-statism, advocate pet programs that presume a state powerful enough to extensively order social affairs and relations. The left pursues varying degrees of economic socialization and policing of speech and individual conduct; the right demands strict enforcement of contracts and property rights. Simultaneously, they insist that the state is superfluous to, when not actually corrosive of, spontaneous social self-organization. When not viewed as a necessary evil, they agree that perfection of government by the people and for the people will entail the eventual abolition of the state, and that, once its corrosive influence is removed, social order will naturally emerge. This view presumes an unconscious teleology of an impersonal mechanism, as deterministic in its workings as the laws of physics, that will automatically harmonize individual interests and coordinate social action without any conscious human effort or planning.

The socialists look forward to an end of history where, as Marx had it, the state will wither away before self-administering the means of production, while each individual does as he likes; meanwhile, the conservatives dream of a revival of the original Constitution, with the triumphant restoration of an economy policed only by its own invisible hand.

Despite this, all these ideologies depend upon the state apparatus to achieve power. It is the locus of political continuity. This points to a disconnect between the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the dominant ideological narratives and the fact of the state.

But social order does not magically emanate in a passive and deterministic process from metaphysical pure reason, nor from the unthinking properties of brute physical matter, and neither is it an unintended consequence of divergent self-seeking desires and interests. It is the product of consciousness, will, and active effort. In particular, it is won by the institutionalization of social means—through mobilizing the diversity of individual-level action into a single, higher-order unit. This collective actor is sociologically analogous to the biological organism: a self-reproducing whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and capable of purposive action oriented towards its own existential preservation (integration and coordination of its internal parts, adaptation to its external environments, etc.).

Modern societies supply their institutional capacity for collective action as a solidary social unit, through the formal incorporation of a governing body, the state. This institution came to replace a diversity of traditional forms of authority and social organization in the form of kinship ties, the personal authority of kings, feudal lords, and other patrons, and above all, the church, as the master unifying factor of all the estates of medieval society.

The modern state is a res publica or commonwealth: a legal corporation created by its members to advance the purposes and administer the goods and affairs they share in common on their behalf. To this end, it is endowed with a legal personality of its own, distinct from those of its individual members, thus consolidating and embodying the commonality of the individual members in a public entity that comprises an individual and an actor in its own right. A community thus formally acquires existence as a unitary social organism in the person of the state, where only a set of like-minded individuals existed before. The several individual actors now comprise so many constituent units of a single higher-order social unit capable of acting as one.

Through this collective personification and embodiment, individual-level actors can come to consciousness of their unity in their shared identity as citizens of the same nation-state, and acquire the social solidarity that the likes of religion, kinship, and local allegiances can no longer provide by themselves in highly urbanized, diverse, and mobile societies.

The state, at modern law, is a person and actor in its own right; as the embodiment of the unity of its members, it is also the subject of its own distinct public interest, which is irreducible to the heterogeneity of immediate private interests of those members. The state acts for itself. However, it cannot act by itself. Since its corporate personality is entirely abstract, actualized only in and through the actions of its members, it befalls those members to act as agents on its behalf, to identify the interests of their principal on a day-by-day basis and make appropriate executive-level decisions. Obviously, any type of corporation succeeds only to the extent that its agents are self-conscious of their role and duties and committed to realizing these interests.

The formal institutional personality of the state, then, supplies its members with a body and brain. However, it is incomplete until its members actualize the state by supplying it with a will and a mind of its own. Consciousness on the part of citizens with respect to the nature and ends of the state—what needs to be done in order to keep the ship of state afloat, what the role and duties of public officers are, etc.—is thus exactly analogous to psychological self-awareness in the natural person: the master regulatory and coordinating principle of behavioral functions that formulates conscious ends, selects appropriate means, and then directs the whole organism towards the attainment of what it needs for self-preservation.

The mind and will of the state thus exists only in and through the minds and wills of its individual-level constituent members, and only to the extent that each individual mind and will is appropriately oriented to the public good of the state as the ultimate end of individual-level social action. This civic consciousness and orientation, which gives the state the self-aware mind and will it cannot supply by itself as a wholly abstract and fictive legal entity, is the truly precise and meaningful signification of the much-abused term, statism.

The Machiavellians famously posed a central problem facing any society that meets its collective action needs by means of a self-governing state: the state is only as good as its citizenry, which in turn is only as good as its level of civic consciousness. If the members of the state don’t have a clear, distinct, and self-conscious sense of what their duties and priorities are, if they aren’t zealously and jealously committed to the res publica, if they don’t take governing seriously, if they confound and muddle private and public interests together—in short, if they lack a soundly statist orientation—then the state itself is lost. The degradation of state-oriented consciousness has exactly the same consequences for state and society as those of dementia for the biological organism, namely functional disintegration, and a consecutive level of impairment ranging from the sub-optimal to the fatal.

The dementia of the state is making its effects felt. Most Western nations sit on an enormous apparatus of power upon which the entirety of the nation’s affairs depends. But it dares not speak its name, and nobody really seems to know just what to do with it. The ideological diatribes of assorted malcontents who purport to “speak truth to power” blare out continuously from the academy, the press, the parties of the left and right, and the Internet, drowning out and forestalling sober and serious reflection of the nature of the state and what must be done to preserve it. Government today has lost sight of its ultimate aim and become rudderless. The state is severely hampered and impeded from doing what it was instituted to do by its own members, who no longer even know or care.

Public policy-making today takes place in an environment infested with the covert interests of self-expanding bureaucratic fiefdoms and their private sector clients. Every interest and social agenda is represented: single-issue activists, paper lakes of far-from-disinterested academic studies, politically weaponized lawfare, partisan strife, opinion polls, and a legion of self-promoting charlatans. What is missing? The state as such.

The result is the familiar clamor that has come to define our politics: we must raise taxes, lower them, promote this industry but not that one, remove all trade barriers, put up even more, etc. ad infinitum. There is no overarching common goal to serve as an impartial selective standard for deciding between these competing claims. The “public interest,” to be sure, is sometimes still a rhetorically potent trope. But it has become a joke, since the term now signifies, not any higher-order interest of state that transcends the clamor of immediate particular interests, but that of the “general public”—i.e. the sum total of the clamoring interests it is supposed to transcend. In practice, invoking the public interest can amount only to the promotion of one set of those interests at the expense of another, on the basis of either raw majoritarianism, or plain partiality and favoritism.

Truly “statesmanlike” solutions to these bitter clashes of competing interests are becoming impossible. Since elected officials today are expected to serve, first and foremost, as agents of their supporters, not the state, any compromise solution is effectively illegitimate. It is taken as evidence of elitist disdain, or, more commonly, of irresolute spinelessness that seeks to please everybody. Either way, it is seen as a dereliction of the duties of representative to constituent, and rejected accordingly.

Public administration is carried out with no definite end serving as a master organizing principle for its diversity of specialized functions and as a compass for its overall orientation. It thus deconstructs into an irrational mess of its own details: a jumble of tactics without a master strategy, with no unifying purpose, and no formula for prioritizing them. What should top the agenda? Health care? The projection of power abroad? GDP growth? Climate change? Something else? Why? There is no way to answer decisively or even heuristically once these things are no longer explicitly seen as so many particular aspects of the health and strength of the state.

The forest having been missed for the trees, each specialized detail of public administration thus becomes a self-sufficient end in and for itself. Each has its own dedicated agents, above all in the form of relevant administrative-bureaucratic divisions competing over resources and jurisdiction. These agents are diligently self-conscious of their duty with respect to their principal—namely, their department, which they do not see as a vehicle for realizing ends of state. In fact, the reality becomes precisely the other way around; the state becomes a vehicle for particular interests to realize their particular ends.

This inversion of priorities is not impugned as a conflict of interest and can’t be, since there is no supervening interest that can be clearly defined or named. The state as a whole has no such devoted agents looking after it. So, the only thing stopping any one of them from making the tail wag the dog, and leveraging the entirety of public resources for the benefit of their division, is the host of rival divisions seeking to do the exact same thing. The same goes for the more purely private interests, each of which scrambles to present itself as a public policy priority more urgent than every other. Politically savvy private interests implicitly pay lip service to state interests like national security when advocating for state spoils, so as to not appear nakedly cancerous, and to invoke the authority of the state. But in almost all cases of political advocacy, the link between private interest and state interest is non-existent, and there is no dedicated class of the state to judge such claims.

We are left to hope that, out of the feeding frenzy that attends the deconstruction of the unity of government, an invisible hand, emergent property, or some other metaphysical gazoo will spontaneously take shape. Moreover, we must hope that this occurs without anybody consciously planning or intending for it to happen. Otherwise, who or what will take charge to prevent the swarm of piranhas from devouring the carcass of a state left helpless to act for itself?

It is not an a priori impossibility for competing interests and forces to lock themselves into a more or less stable equilibrium. But an invisible hand is no substitute for a conscious mind to guide and bound it; and any facile belief that it could possibly be a substitute produces unintended consequences of its own.

Exhortations against the evils of statism have not made government small and beautiful. In fact, the contrary is true. Since the state per se has no advocates for its interests, runaway expansion of bureaucracy and public debt proceeds unhampered by its only real mitigating factor, namely the urgent interest of the state in not racking up bills it cannot hope to pay. It has proven useless to appeal to the public interest understood as the immediate interests of We the People. After all, fat-cat mandarins and their cronies are people, too, and moreover, useful friends and formidable foes for elected officials. In any case, the most congenial thing to do from the point of view of anybody’s immediate interest is to just keep kicking the can down the road; the interests of natural persons, unlike those of perpetual corporations like the state, are guaranteed to expire on a brief timeline, following which the consequences of public debt become someone else’s problem.

More generally, various wish-fulfillment beliefs that deterministic and automatic mechanisms, operating independently of the will, can be counted on to eventually solve all public problems fuel a spirit of fecklessness and frivolity. A child-like faith that the ship of state will somehow steer itself through every storm as though on auto-pilot underpins rampant abuse of public discourse. The most grave and urgent issues of our times are exploited for purposes of late-night entertainment, aesthetic gratification, mercenary self-promotion, and puerile trolling.

A self-governing res publica can’t run itself, and such a culture is hardly conducive to getting its participants to take themselves seriously as members with a duty to do so. The state is capable of making executive-level decisions, decisively settling disputes, and unifying heterogeneous interests into one body politic only to the extent that those individuals are self-conscious members of that body politic, and committed to acting the part.

The dementia of the state is presently making itself felt in the unfolding crisis of civic unity known as tribalism. The populations of the developed nations are internally segmented into a heterogeneous collection of social and economic classes, regional, ethnic, and racialized groupings, lifestyles, etc. There is no question of such a population finding its higher-order unity as a functioning society in such traditional sources of social solidarity as kinship, religion, or tradition. There is also no prospect of relying on an autocrat with self-sufficient authority to moderate the fractious relations between the various segments from an impartial and disinterested position above the fray.

This leaves civic unity as the only possible means of social integration and organization. Civic unity means what it says: conscious awareness of citizenship, membership in the state, as the only thing everybody really shares in common, and devout commitment to the only truly common political good they share—the good of the state. That good is irreducible to that of any particular faction or segment of a society whose unity exists only in and as the corporate personality of the state. This state-oriented consciousness and ethical orientation is the only way for a self-governing community to act as one person, and to assume the role of impartial moderator in disputes and controversies involving the very members who make up that community.

If there is to be any realistic chance of these members acting impartially in matters where they have a direct interest in doing otherwise, then the preservation of the state as a whole must become the highest personal priority of its members and command their undivided personal allegiance. This includes respect for the rule of law and the spoken and unspoken conventions that make orderly politics and impartial public administration possible. Every person acting on behalf of the state must be personally committed to his public duties strongly enough to voluntarily put the good of the state first, to the point where it can be taken for granted that there are lines nobody, no matter how otherwise partial to themselves, is prepared to cross.

The preservation of the state as a goal of political life—one both able to act beyond factions and to reconcile them—has been blotted out of public consciousness, replaced by community activism and party politics.

On the one hand, individuals are exhorted, in the name of public spirit, to get involved in philanthropic works at the community level, which over time has increasingly come to mean some kind of specialized single-issue or factional advocacy. This activism, by definition, is parochial and particularistic; its participants are committed, not to the greater good of the state or for that matter, anything else, but exclusively to “the cause.” The activist is a counter-citizen who sees the state not as an end, but as an instrumental means to service the cause, in a complete inversion of the historical sense of the idea of public spirit. Meanwhile, traditional liberal democratic values of citizen engagement in public affairs assume the form of allegiance to an ideology: a loose secular surrogate for traditional religious doctrine and the hope of eventual salvation, here to be realized in this life through political action via mass parties. The parties and their ideological pet programs command the fervent, jealously exclusive devotion once enjoyed by traditional religious sects and hometown sports teams.

The public good of the state means little to the partisan and ideologue, though they may appropriate its language. The former seeks to win state power for the party as an end in itself, and to distribute public resources as spoils to party functionaries and supporters; the latter sees the public power as the instrument for realizing some utopian ideological program. Virtually all modern Western ideologies look forward to the eventual extinction or drastic curtailment of the state, whose legitimacy they recognize to the extent that it prepares the conditions of its own extinction. The second the party loses control of the state, or actions are taken by the state that do not conform to ideological precept, this provisional legitimacy is categorically withdrawn, and the state decried as despotism. The partisans and ideologues then do whatever is in their power to obstruct and manipulate the workings of government by legal and extra-legal means.

Further, all these ideologies, since they are substantively embodied in the single-issue advocacy group and party the same way the nation is in the personality of the state, are prone to see civic unity as a problem to be overcome. Ideologies see civic unity as an intrinsically asymmetric and oppressive equilibrium of social forces obtained through state violence and false consciousness induced by state propaganda. Victory, therefore, must be prefaced by a seizure of the state and the use of the public power to expel those opposition forces which had previously occupied it. This reasoning runs through Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, right-populist rhetoric against urban elites, and progressive intersectionalism.

Social identity devolves downwards into particular segments, with the formation of group identities based on the shared political interests of individual members, which are articulated in terms of oppression and freedom. These groupings embody their unity in dedicated advocacy groups which pursue the interests of their constituents under the banner of a struggle for justice against putative oppressors in out-group segments. These identities, then, are always defined against some other segment identified as the enemy in a struggle in which one gains only at the other’s expense.

Compatible identities and interests assemble into blocs under the higher-order unifying umbrella of ideology and party. All sides then wage civil war by political means on the terrain of the state. Capture of the state is the supreme prize. It serves both as spoils for plunder and the means with which to punish the enemy. As in any war, the overweening object is to win, and the only ethical obligation towards an opponent is to see him defeated.

Ethical action in politics based on an honor system with an expectation of reciprocal fair play makes no sense outside of a self-consciously statist frame of reference, in which an opponent is also a fellow member of the state and seeker of its good. Indeed, adherence to such ethics could amount to nothing more than cowardice and dereliction of duty to one’s own side in what, in this disintegrated state of politics, is understood as war. The result is something very much like the “state of nature” that haunted the nightmares of Hobbes—here, and ironically, waged in the very heart of the civil state itself.

In this respect, the real-life state of nature that has obtained within the state, and under its legal monopoly on violence, is potentially much more threatening than anything in Hobbes’ speculative musings. Hobbes’ Leviathan is left helpless to bring this state of nature to order, and indeed forced to participate in its own dismemberment as the state and the law are weaponized by its own members against one another.

The inhabitants of Hobbes’ fictitious pre-social state of nature would need only to found a state to put an end to anarchy. Experience proves that the state can endure serious civil disorder and prevail against it. But when the fighting takes place inside the state itself, and is carried out by means of weaponized law and public power as opposed to private violence, the social organism ceases to function and the state undergoes something very much like biological death. What survives intact, though, is its terrible apparatus of organized physical coercion, whose destructive capacity vastly dwarfs that of unorganized and semi-organized street brawlers, militias, and terrorists, and which awaits free deployment by the winners of the political war against the losers. History gives numerous examples: China’s Cultural Revolution, Germany and Russia post-World War I, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and Venezuela in recent years.

This machinery is not available to the isolated combatants of Hobbes’ imaginary state of nature, nor to ordinary rioters or insurgents. The dismemberment and death of the state thus entails the subsequent dismemberment of society as the state apparatus is put to work by faction against faction. In different scenarios, this can range from systematic exclusion, to agitation and violence, all the way to mass graves. Marx’s infamous teaching that the state must be pressed into the service of a class dictatorship before it withers away is but one example of a generic feature of all modern ideology. Every modern political ideology is the formal consciousness of its party, which in turn is the formal embodiment and self-consciousness of some particular segment of society against the others, a potential state in its own right within a larger state marked out as the enemy.

We can passively wish for Providence, or its secular cognate in the form of spontaneous order, to save us from the post-mortem aftermath of the state’s dementia—which stage our states seem to be well into already. Or we can try to find the will to save the state while it still has only one foot in its grave. To do so will involve a renaissance of state consciousness. Leveraging a general transformation of social consciousness is an ambitious undertaking to say the very least, but there are a few modest practical first steps that can help get the ball rolling.

The state must become an explicit and irreducible category of analysis and a sociological variable in its own right, alongside the commonplace likes of class, nation, party, race, etc. Instead of taking the state for granted as an immutable fact of life, naively failing to notice or pretending not to notice it, or uncritically accepting ideological strawman attacks against the state as received knowledge, we ought to consciously reflect on it. Political thinkers ought to again study the state’s nature and history, compare it to other historical arrangements, and debate what it’s supposed to be there for, what it’s supposed to do, and what it takes to keep one.

We should strive to discard the euphemisms through which we force the state to think and speak in ideological languages not made for it. If the state has a strategic interest in projecting power abroad somewhere, we should call things by their proper names instead of saying and pretending—or actually believing—that we are promoting freedom and democracy, or some other supposedly higher interest. Both ideologues and statists should be able to agree that muddling together incommensurate ends and interests in a single plan of action serves none of them, e.g. the interventionist misadventures in Iraq and elsewhere in which reasons of state and ideological diktat were slurred together to the benefit of neither.

Statecraft, as a highly specialized and technically complicated enterprise, should be accorded at least the same type of deference and the same space of independent action that we accord to STEM and other specialized technical fields of endeavor. Even the most fanatical partisan does not expect his electrician to save humanity or do something other than fix his wiring, or try to prescribe a politically correct method for doing it. Likewise, the state is a legal entity like any other; its officers are duty-bound to administer it so as to benefit the whole organization, not to immediately gratify every wish of each individual shareholder.

An overlooked aspect of administering the state is the preservation of its power—that which enables it to actually govern. This is a prerequisite for all other ends which the state pursues. Few, if any, states consider power to be the only goal of their existence. By virtue of making decisions and pursuing goals, they embody a particular value system and substantive worldview. One might pursue socialist construction. Another, a religious mission. Yet another, an economic humanitarian mission. But all must have the ability to realize their decisions—else, they are no state at all.

This power cannot be individually cashed out and must be held collectively. There is nonetheless an immediate payout for the citizen: the individual share in the power held and exercised in common by a sovereign state amounts to a quantum far greater than anything they could ever wield personally, and secures the peace against disruption. Nobody today, no matter how wealthy, could possibly project power abroad with their own resources.

Additionally, the components that define the health and strength of the state—respect and influence abroad, law and order at home, economic growth, and the moral and physical health of the population—are all conducive to the satisfaction of individual-level wants. When the state prospers, the individual members do, and vice-versa.

Patriotism is incomplete and absurd without the highest reverence for the state and its welfare—national freedom and independence are only synonyms for the political sovereignty that, by definition, exists only in and through the state. Likewise, the Constitution is but the legal formalization and actualization of the state; the rule of law the codification and instrument of state power; and democracy but the formal procedure by which the state appoints its officers. To put these traditional objects of American patriotic sentiment in opposition to the state makes about as much sense as putting steel, glass, and concrete in opposition to the building they add up to. The whole may legitimately find that the part works at cross-purposes to its interests, but the opposite is absurd. The same goes for the opposition of state and society drawn by liberalism—as though the state were some kind of ontologically separate occupation force, or existed as anything other than the organization of society. This type of thinking should be regarded the way we would regard the assertion that the human body exists separately from its physiology.

Finally, the partisans and ideologues, identity groups, special interests, and other divided loyalties and particularisms should be criticized for anti-social behavior and ridiculed for the parochial narrow-mindedness of their horizons.

The hope is to rouse a better caliber of political actor, but for now, we need a better caliber of political thinker, who can articulate the perspective and needs of the state as such independent from the distortions introduced by so many particular interests.

K. Christopher Dahlke is a writer based in Montreal.