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History, States of Exception

Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence

Debates over the virtue or vice of modern liberal political arrangements often boil down to narratives about violence, whether we are speaking of violence in its literal sense, or in the more metaphorical use made so fashionable by postmodernism, namely, the attempt to erase or neutralize difference. According to the eulogists of liberalism, it rescued us from the darker ages of religious tyranny, in which zealots of orthodoxy used political power to enforce uniformity, and even to violently persecute dissenters.

Debates over the virtue or vice of modern liberal political arrangements often boil down to narratives about violence, whether we are speaking of violence in its literal sense, or in the more metaphorical use made so fashionable by postmodernism, namely, the attempt to erase or neutralize difference.  According to the eulogists of liberalism, it rescued us from the darker ages of religious tyranny, in which zealots of orthodoxy used political power to enforce uniformity, and even to violently persecute dissenters.  Similarly, the apologia for the centralization characteristic of modern nation-states takes its cue from Hobbes’s concept of government as that which ends the “war of all against all”—the rise of nation-state has helped minimize violence and maximize security, even while simultaneously increasingly liberty.

Conversely, modernity critics anxious to dispute the current hegemony of the liberal nation-state attempt to turn around the charge, showing that the liberal state is born of violence, and survives by violence.  Its apparent toleration of difference is in fact an underhanded way of fostering a homogeneous apathy that is intolerant to genuine religious conviction or allegiance to ends that transcend the nation-state.  Indeed, the exclusive orthodoxy of the true faith has been replaced by the exclusive loyalty demanded by the state, in which treason has replaced heresy as the greatest of crimes; liberal toleration, on this narrative, is merely a device to focus attention no longer on internal enemies, but on external ones; difference between nations is maximized, and violence between nations escalates.  Likewise, the Hobbesian reduction of internal violence via a monopolization of coercive power is re-narrated as an attempt to maximize the state’s war-making capabilities, redirecting violence against newly-defined “external” enemies.

William Cavanaugh, throughout his extensive writings over the past 15 years, has been perhaps the most insistent and forceful articulator of the arguments in the previous paragraph, which appear repeatedly in his Torture and Eucharist (1998), Theopolitical Imagination (2003), The Myth of Religious Violence (2008), and Migrations of the Holy (2011), as well as many articles.  His work has been particularly successful in puncturing the liberal myth of the modern state as savior from the hell of premodern religious violence.  In The Myth of Religious Violence, he effectively deconstructs this narrative both at a historical level and a theoretical one.  Historically, he demonstrates that the “religious violence” from which the rising nation-state saved us was often as much, or more, about the nascent project of the nation-state than it was about religion; the nation-state, in other words, created the very threat that it then claimed to save us from.  Theoretically, he shows that attempts to identify a stable essence to “religion,” so that it can be identified as the source of violence, fail dismally, as all definitions offered would seem to have to include nationalism, the source of most violence in the modern era.

While Cavanaugh is fairly successful in redirecting the focus from so-called “religion” to nationalism as a source of violence, he is less successful in his attempt to blame this problem on modernity, liberalism, or the nation-state per se.  Indeed, if anything, treason is a much more forgivable offense today, in the heyday of the liberal nation-state, than it ever was in early modern or pre-modern times.  Today, we debate over whether Edward Snowden is not, in fact, a hero, and even if captured and prosecuted, the worst he will face is a long time behind bars; in an earlier era, he would have been hung, drawn, and quartered, with his various body parts sent around the country as a warning.   Yes, modern states often demand a kind of idolatrous loyalty and sacrifice on the part of their citizens, but the same could be said of city-states, kingdoms, and empires at any point in world history (a point effectively demonstrated in Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast).


If the matter at hand is modernity-criticism, and the virtue, or vice, of the liberal state, then the question must be not whether the modern state was born out of violence (political institutions usually are), or whether it continues to practice, and feed on, violence (political institutions usually do), but whether it has been effective in minimizing violence relative to earlier eras of human history and previous socio-political arrangements.  Indeed, given that Christian political thought has almost always distinguished between private acts of violence and the judicial “violence” of legitimate political authorities, the monopolization of violence ought to be seen as an improvement even if it did not effect an overall minimization of total violence.

In his 2004 essay “Killing for the Telephone Company” (Modern Theology 20:2, reprinted in Migrations of the Holy) Cavanaugh seems equally uninterested in both the theoretical (and very theological) issue of legitimacy, and in the empirical history of violence in pre-modern and early modern times.  The rise of the early modern state is described in terms of an escalation of military violence, and, following the work of Charles Tilly, Cavanaugh goes so far as to say, “The claim that emerging states offered their citizens protection against violence ignores the fact that the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.  What separated state violence from other kinds of violence was the concept of legitimacy, but legitimacy was based on the ability of state-makers to approximate a monopoly on violence within a given geographical territory” (p. 249).   Cavanaugh’s dismissive attitude toward the concept of legitimacy is a topic for another day; what I am interested in here is the breathtaking historical claim that “the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.”

No doubt there were individual cases where something like this was the case, but to verify the accuracy of such a claim, considered as a general description of the rise of the early-modern state, all we would need to do is to consider rates of violence before, during, and after such state-making processes.  Cavanaugh makes no attempt to do so, but Steven Pinker has in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature (see précis essay here), in which he traces the dramatic decline of violence in human history.  Pinker notes that “the reduction of homicide by government control is so obvious to anthropologists that they seldom document it with numbers” (55), but since it clearly has not been obvious to modernity critics, Pinker does document it with numbers, which are consistently staggering (although certainly tendentious and needing to be taken with a grain of salt).  In pre-state societies, the tribalist societies with porous borders and overlapping loyalties that Cavanaugh eulogizes, Pinker argues that violence, whether homicide or war (the distinction, naturally, would have been blurrier in such an era) accounted for 15% of all deaths on average, sometimes much more; in state societies, just 3% (this number holds even for the extremely violent—as it seemed to us—20th century, and in the 17th century, the era of “state-making” that Cavanaugh demonizes, it was just 2%).  The centralization of early modern European states seems to have involved a decline in war deaths from the medieval era, and unmistakably saw a precipitous decline in homicides, to the extent that modern European homicide rates are, claims Pinker, more than 95% lower than in late medieval times, with much of that decline occurring during the state-making period of the 16th and 17th centuries, and much of the rest occurring as liberal ideas took hold in the 18th century.   In light of such statistics, it appears that the early modern state did not “create the threat” of violence, but could reasonably present itself as a savior from a genuine problem of violence in society.  Indeed, Pinker makes use of Tilly’s thesis about state-making as a process of centralizing war-making and taxation for purposes of war-making, as Cavanaugh does, but notes that this genuinely entailed a process of peace-making: “And once they got into the peace business—‘the king’s peace,’ as it was called—they had an incentive to do it right. . . . The state had to keep up its end of the bargain, lest everyone lose faith in its peacekeeping powers and resume their raids and vendettas” (74).

Of course, one can grant all this and still complain that this very real increase in security was gained at the cost of liberty, or community, or some other important ideal.  Indeed, Pinker admits that “When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another.  People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumb of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats.  This gives us the more sinister meaning of the word pacification: not just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a coercive government” (58).  There is a very important conversation to be had between modernity critics and modernity defenders about whether liberal states really encourage liberty.  Indeed, although Pinker apparently considers the “imposition of absolute control” to be something that persists only in less-developed countries, we might ask to what extent freedom can be repressed under the more subtle thumb of bureaucratic democracies.  But to have an intelligent conversation about this, we should be willing to at least first grant the evidence that, in the grand scheme of history, the liberal nation-state has played much more the role of the peacemaker than the fomenter of violence.

11 thoughts on “Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence

  1. This is a very important challenge to Cavanaugh’s work, which – as an Anabaptist pacifist – I’ve found extremely helpful. Quick, someone get Bill to write a response! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Brian. I should add that I have found much of Cavanaugh’s work extremely helpful over the years as well, and would love to hear him offer a persuasive rebuttal.

  2. Thanks for this.

    I think you have demonstrated the need for an important nuance to Cavanaugh’s work but your reliance on Pinker seems misguided. The reason I suggest that is Pinker’s book is utterly lacking nuance of any kind, is sloppy with figure, based on a patchwork of sources and rests an argument on counting things. I suspect it isn’t robust enough to serve as a theological aid. In fact, I suspect a Cavanaugh review of The Better Angels of Our Nature would be a fantastic read… 🙂

    (I found this review to be a great summation of the ways in which I think Pinker’s book would come to pieces when used in a theological argument: http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/16880-the-case-of-the-brutal-savage-poirot-or-clouseau-or-why-steven-pinker-like-jared-diamond-is-wrong)

    1. Thanks Kevin. You’re right that Pinker’s book is ridiculously one-sided and no doubt very sloppy in places. I should perhaps have introduced more qualifications in my use of him, and in how much we can and can’t prove with arguments like his (e.g., it’s never good to have a sentence like, “It appears undeniable that…”). But here’s my main point: at least Pinker is working with numbers, albeit tendentious ones at points. Cavanaugh does not make any attempt (that I have seen) to empirically ground his claims about the nation-state “creating violence” and only pretending to end it. If Cavanaugh is going to appeal to history, then to history he must go—by which I mean not just the grand narrative histories so beloved of modernity critics, but the detailed, facts-and-figures historiography that modern research has made possible.

      I am no expert on the details behind the kinds of statistics that Pinker tries to gather, so I can’t pronounce for certain. However, my suspicion in favor of the greater accuracy of Pinker’s narrative (for all its flaws) on violence in the early modern era comes from my immersion in 16th-century political theologians. Now, perhaps they were all just wicked and complicit in the wicked business of state-building, and so their testimony should be discounted. But if we don’t assume that, then we will be struck with how uniformly positive they were about the process of centralizing political authority, and the resulting extension and regularization of police powers (among other things). They clearly thought the magistrates of their time were doing the Lord’s work in helping to establish peace. Cavanaugh and Co. have a high burden of proof to meet in overturning this testimony, and it doesn’t appear to me that they’ve done enough to try and meet it.

      1. (I’ve gone ahead and reworded a couple bits in the post so as to make some of these qualifications to how much one can rely on Pinker’s numbers.)

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