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Justice, Traditions

Democratic revolutions and gun rights – forging a more global perspective on the current controversy

Everyone is familliar with Mao Tse-Tung’s famous dictum, first formulated during the Long March in the 1930s, that “all power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

The saying often has gushily romantic overtones for even the most gun-abhorring political progressive while setting off paroxysms of indignation perhaps among American conservatives solely because of the source, even though it is the latter who in their fanatical defense of the Second Amendment probably have more in common with Mao than they care to admit.

But few would be inclined to view the precept as a fundamental formulation of modern political philosophy, let alone take it as a cipher for decoding somehow the current debate and growing political nastiness in the United States over gun control. Furthermore, few would dare to ponder the “gun” itself as the master signifier for globalization as a whole today – not the benign neo-liberal “world is flat” version but the darker sort of implosive, “de-colonial”, post-Eurocentric vision we find, whether implicitly or explicitly, in such writers as Walter Mignolo, Slavoy Zizek, or Alain Badiou.

It is Badiou’s analysis in particular on which I want here to zero in eventually. But first I need to offer a few warnings and disclaimers.

First, what I am about to say will probably shock and enrage many conventional academics, conditioned as we all are to viewing guns and weaponry, particularly when mobilized for “military” purposes, as instrumentalities of political reaction or unrestrained violence.

Second, the automatic assumption within most contemporary politico-theological discourse of a certain summum bonum that might be best described as a “Christian liberal state pacificism” need to be assertively challenged – not because it is false as a normative teleology of human societies, or that it must be zealously sought, but because it fatefully misreads history and human nature.

The current controversy over the Second Amendment is often misplaced, because it usually comes down to rather trivial questions of whether individual citizens should be armed, whether and to what degree there are constitutionally sanctioned limits on the type and quantity of weapons individuals can possess, and so forth.

Furthermore, regardless of what the Second Amendment actually means, or was “intended” to mean, the polemics nowadays tend to be framed – at least from the side of gun control advocates – in terms of the “prevention” of violence, which conjecturally flows from the profusion of deadly weapons throughout society.

As a fallback, partisans in both camps have their own competing preferred, albeit dogmatic, theories about the explanation for armed mayhem. Whether indeed it is truly “guns” or “people” that cause violence, the acrimony turns out to be rather superfluous, because the obvious answer is both. Empirical comparisons between societies, or demographic groups, or historical eras to prove particular points are trotted out endlessly, all of which miss the essential point, namely, that the issue is really the role of the state and whether the state should – normatively speaking – play a critical role in the shaping the life of homo politicus.

The Second Amendment, which is unique in many ways for modern constitutional republics, was of course inserted at the instigation mainly of Jefferson into the Bill of Rights to complement the First Amendment.

Both amendments can be understood not merely in light of Jefferson’s concern and determination in preserving for the future of the new democracy “the spirit of 1776” that recognized both the right and the obligation of the colonists to revolt against state tyranny. Revolution without arms is like a motorcyle without wheels, and it is the “revolutionary” principle – which implies the utter contingency and frail legitimacy of state power – that Jefferson feared would disappear once the Constitution was established as the sacred font of future legislation and the people became comfortable, if not complacent, with the blessings of their New World experiment in democracy.

Jefferson’s anti-statist sympathies – sometimes bordering on what today we would would regard as “anarchical” – are well-documented. It is only recently that gun rights advocates have begun routinely citing him, leading to even more silly controversies over whether certain quotes attributed to him are authentic or “spurious”. Whether Jefferson said it that particular way or not in his voluminous letters and correspondence, it is evident that he was in favor of an armed citizenry as a counterbalance to state power.

Jefferson’s principle of “permanent revolution” is in truth not that much different from Trotsky’s, although the Marxist/materialist matrix of the latter’s theorizing departs substantively from the Jeffersonian Enlightenment-based (almost Rousseauean) belief in the moral “virtues” of the people. Jefferson was convinced in principle that the more powerful and far-reaching the state, the better armed should be the people. Call it the “ammunitional” rendering of Montesquieu’s separation of powers.

“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms”, Jefferson wrote in his letter to James Madison on December 20, 1787.

The current political context in which it is impossible any longer to look at the issue apart from reflexive political prejudices that blind us to the context in which Second Amendment rights were originally formulated needs to be set aside, and what we need to consider seriously is the way in which guns as a signifier of political power (a la Mao) compel us to examine the fundamental question behind all modern political economy, the very question which the age of revolution starting in the 17th century first brought to the fore.

That question amounts, as we have seen, to the authority and legitimacy of the state overall. The familiar nineteenth century insistence on “limited government” was not originally a defense of laissez-faire economics, but a cautionary tale against the expansion of despotical prerogatives with the resulting arbitrary exercise of state power that had been historically witnessed by absolute monarchies since the seventeenth century onward.

It was the co-optation of the limited government principle by the infamous “robber barons”, especially in America, in the second half of the nineteenth century to create a de facto poliitcal aristocracy based on predatory accumulation of wealth that changed the equation. The creation of corporate empires as mini-states, operating as corrupt political hegemons, within the legitimate, but feckless democratic res publica of that day and age which transformed the general social valuation of the state apparatus in general from oppressor to savior.

But this valuation has been gradually eroding since the end of World War II, largely because of what is perceived as the increasingly ineffective role of the state in mobilizing the productive interests of the general population against predatory economic power. Instead the state is seen as allied with that predatory power, as can be seen in the populist disgust with the alliance between Wall Street and Washington DC following the worldwide financial collapse of 2008.

In the developing world it has taken the form of indigenous socialist and grass-roots collectivist movements that have won democratic elections, such as we see in South America, which resist ideologically the neo-liberal fantasy of an economically integrated global superstate pursuing broader secular goals (e.g., the charter of the International Monetary Fund). The Arab Spring with its armed anti-authoritarian passions and insurrections has been the manifestation within the Islamic world of the same tendencies.

The gun, therefore, has become the token of both resistance and insurgency against the neo-liberal state in all its cultural and regional guises. The familiar adage about firearms as the “great equalizer” reflects the original Jeffersonian insight that democracy to be sustainable must somehow be permanently weaponized.

But let us get to Badiou, who has “axiomatized” as a political thought operation (Badiou’s own phrasing is “truth procedure”) the intuitions of a Jefferson. In his Metapolitics (trans. Joan Copjec, Verso, 2005), first published in French in 1998 and translated into English about seven years ago, Badiou builds out the theoretical – and by extension the nascently theological – latticework for the assertion of the quintessentially political in opposition to the claims of the state. Every state – even a putatively “democratic” one – is inimical to the political.

The political, which Badiou identifies with the concept of “democracy”, arises from a “fidelity” to an “evental singularity” made known epochally in the resistance to state power. But it is only in this resistance that the state discloses itself for what it is, i.e, anti-human and anti-political. The notion of a benevolent state is just as hypocritical and self-contradictory as the oxymoron of an “enlightened despotism.”

“Whenever there is a genuinely political event, the State reveals itself. It reveals its excess of power, its repressive dimension.” Consequently, we have, according to Badiou, in the “political prescription the post-evental establishment of a fixed measure for the power of the state.”(Metapolitics, 145).

Although Badiou does not say it outright, the fixing of the “measure” is of course the equilibration of the previously unequal power between the state and the people through the “barrel of a gun.” As an unrepentant Maoist, Badiou clearly has something like this analysis in mind.

Without the “equalizer” of weaponry the state’s power is unlimited, crushing the political virtues of its citizenry that a Jefferson so prized. “It is not the simple power of the state of the situation that prohibits egalitarian politics. It is the obscurity and measureless in which this power is enveloped.” (149)

The division of armaments apportions this erstwhile “measureless” in such a way that what Nietzsche’s Zarathustra termed the “pale monster” that is the state is slain, butchered, divided up, and consumed as the nutrient power of the politically awakened demos.

As we have already suggested, therefore, the gun becomes the projective symbol of the empowered demos rather than of an anti-democratic lawlessness, or of some sort of vicious reactionary, nativist, anti-cosmopolitan cabal.

The debate over gun rights, which has taken on its own strange, idiosyncratic overtones in the current American context, needs to be further contextualized in terms of its meaning for the democratic revolutions that continue to percolate everywhere on the planet.

It is not insignificant than when Secretary of State John Kerry met with the leaders of the Syrian rebels in Italy recently and offered them humanitarian aid, he was angrily rebuked. Kerry was told, in effect, by the leadership that all gestures of assistance were meaningless without the offering of the primary weapons materiele for democratic empowerment that would allow the rebels to level the playing field with the ruthless Assad regime, which initially triggered the uprising by mowing down unarmed demonstrators with tanks and machine guns.

If one is against arming the democratic citizenry under any circumstances, one must have the justifiable conviction that the state that preserves the imbalance of firepower cannot be presumed to run the risk of ever becoming “tyrannical.”

History itself continually gives the lie to that presumption.

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