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The revolution against the state – something to celebrate this Fourth of July

As the Fourth of July, the 237th anniversary of America’s famous epoch-staging revolution against Britain arrives, the world is gripped by the strangest of ironies in this strangest of times. The “sweet land of liberty” is increasingly viewed by those who after centuries of world wars and collapsed despotisms finally began hymning the insurrectionary anthem as the new cradle of tyranny to be resisted with a renewed fervor.

The ever burgeoning scandal over NSA spying on people around the world, especially presumed European “allies”, has become the overwhelmingly central factor in the sudden change in perception about the global role of the US in fostering democratic rights and values.

In Egypt, where British writer Stephen Gardiner once quipped “the living were subordinate to the dead”, revolution in the name of “freedom” is constantly and suddenly and constantly erupting, as it did in France from 1789 to 1830.

At the same time, the vast armies of protesters occupying once again Tahir Square have openly sneered at the United States, which they see as always siding with the oppressors over the oppressed – in the most recent case the increasingly despised Islamist regime of President Morsi.

The US ambassador to Egypt has been the special target of withering criticism of the Obama administration’s recent tendency to be on the wrong side of history. Yesterday’s military intervention and the deposing of Morsi has solidified anti-American sentiment, which runs deeply through the Egyptian masses.

Germany, a country whose name has been a stock metaphor in the rhetoric of politicos for over a century for Ordnung at the expense of personal freedom, has become the most vocal and persistent critic of the NSA’s recently revealed, omnibus surveillance program. German legislators, along with the president of France, have called for suspension of vital US-European trade talks, and some have even suggested Chancellor Merkel should grant fugitive Edward Snowden political asylum.

So much of the outrage have focused not just on American policy, but on the person of President Barack Obama, who when elected in 2008 became the rallying point for global expectations about democratic change and the hope that America would assume a bold leadership role in promoting a a new kind of world order that was enforced with grand ideas and aspirations rather than armies of occupation and smart bombs.

As Financial Times columnist Gideo Rachman puts it, “it has taken a long time, but the world’s fantasies about Barack Obama are finally crumbling. In Europe, once the headquarters of the global cult of Obama, the disillusionment is particularly bitter.”

Rachman goes on the emphasize, however, that the disillusionment was inevitable, because no American chief executive could truly embody or carry out the messianic expectations heaped upon him, as if he were not a simple mortal. The failure has been with the liberal imagination itself.

As I point out in my forthcoming book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy, not to mention elsewhere in prevous blogs, we still suffer from the grand fantasy that our noblest ideas can be engineered through the power of the benign and omnicompent state. The the state is like any wild predatory beast. It can seems friendly and tame when it is still small, but as it growth it inevitably becomes ravenous and turns on even its masters.

The surveillance state was inevitable after the shock of September 11, and we are only slowly beginning to comprehend its massive intrusive effects. The American Revolution was all about limiting state power. The current revolution in Egypt has the same motivations behind it. Morsi’s efforts to use the growing power of the state apparatus to impose political Islam parallels the various political efforts in America to legislate various forms of religious or moral convictions from both the right and the left.

The dysfunctions of the global economy in recent years has been the direct result of both incompetence and overreach on the part of the world’s governing elites, particularly its various academic ideologues and political symbol-manufacturers, who have used the mechanisms of the state to mobilize and deploy non-productive corporate capital as well as media persuasion.

As Alain Badiou notes in his introduction to The Rebirth of History, “under the interchangeable rubrics of ‘modernization’, ‘reform’, ‘democracy’, ‘the West’, ‘the international community’, ‘human rights’, , ‘secularism’, ‘globalization’, and various others, we find nothing but at an unprecedented attempt at a historical regression.”

But the bubble is bursting. There is a revolution against the “soft power”, but phony moral pretensions, of the postmodern social benevolence state, which is now revealed in its bowels as the surveillance state.

It is ironic that Egyptians need to remind Americans what the Fourth of July means. In Tahir Square fireworks have been going off for days, whereas in the United States they are widely banned.

3 thoughts on “The revolution against the state – something to celebrate this Fourth of July

  1. Thanks for this, Carl. I’ve been following your critique of the “omnicompetent” state. Am I correct in thinking here that your worry is about a security-state or empire? I can see aspects of this, though I’m probably less worried about certain security measures — such as the NSA. My bigger worry is IF your critique is or might be heard as a critique of the welfare state as such. I worry that “omnicompetent state” is or is heard as further reason to be cynical of the federal government, aid to the poor, public education, etc. ???

  2. Dave,

    Both empire and the surveillance/security state go hand in hand. As Marx and other earlier political economists understood, the mobilization of productive resources requires the power of the state, and global corporate capitalism is unfortunately inseparable from the distribution of “welfare” benefits, though these benefits invariably serve corporate interests far more than the people’s welfare. It is a fundamental fallacy that welfare requires the “state” in its expansionary and predatory capacity. “Welfare state” is a contradiction in terms.” “To each…from each.” That formula is not a “utopian” gesture. It is the principle of the revolutionary-insurrectionist inversion of the power of the state as the power of the people. As a Biblical scholar like Richard Horsley understands it, it was the basis of the early Christian “insurrection” against empire and state. Of course, the real insurrection/resurrection is a spiritual one, not a political one.

    When I say this, I am not at all dismissing your concern about cynicism regarding the state. If by “state” we mean the administrative apparatus of government, including the power of coercion, including taxation, then I don’t think we can do without the “state”, which means the Hobbesean status naturae. I’m not at all a great fan of social contract theory, but it is that principle of Western political economy that has regulated in theory, if not in practice, the excesses of state power. The notion of the “omnicompetent” state has its genesis in the twentieth century, not so much as the consequence of the failure of laissez faire economics (Russia, for example, did not have a laissez faire economy in 1917) but of the excesses of the political imagination, which goes back to Auguste Comte. It is also a function of the “rational is real” principle in Hegel, which justified the Prussian state, which invented both militarism and the “welfare state” at the same time. My great great grandfather was a conscientious objector and refugee from the Prussian state of 1870. And, of course, the Third Reich was the welfare state par excellence. Even Roosevelt was envious of it.

    Contemporary anti-statism that we see on the right, which we always seem to associate instinctively with the critique of the state, is quite comfortable with the surveillance state, as we have seen in the reactions to the Snowden revelations. Radical libertarianism, like Christian reconstructionism, neo-conservatism, etc. reject the idea of the social compact (other than the trivial belief in elections), which Marx Lilla points out derives indirectly from the Christian ideal of the corpus Christi. The corpus Christi historiclally was a revolutionary inversion of the corpus Caseri, the linchpin of the “theory” of the Roman imperium. Every true Christian political theology needs to be a radical critique of both the notion of an omnicompetent secular state as well as laissez faire political economy, which is unmasked as requiring the excess of state power to enforce the discipline of the disfigured body politic by global capital. The financial crisis of 2007 was no accident for this very reason.

    A “state” – and in traditional liberal theory the word is “government”, since “state” implies some form of Hobbes “artificial man’ – that is responsive to the welfare of the people is only possible when the state is limited by the constraints of the compact (“we the people”). That is what Jefferson, the architect of the revolution of 1776 understood. It is not accidental that Badiou’s next book, I understand, will be on Jefferson.

    All true American militancy is always a Jeffersonian militancy. I hope this helps. Thanks for forcing me to elaborate and thus clarify.

    1. Thanks, Carl. That is helpful. That’s helpful. I agree with the project as suggested by the line: “Every true Christian political theology needs to be a radical critique of both the notion of an omnicompetent secular state as well as laissez faire political economy.” The US is interesting in that our govt seems to combine both of these.

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