The modern state, from 30,000 feet

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for these comments, Mark. I’m grateful for your kind words, and at the same time I appreciate the frustration you felt from your perspective. In writing The Rule of the Clan, I made a set of aesthetic and intellectual choices that are different from those I’ve made in other works, and I, too, think that my exchange with Orin is revealing of those choices. The book isn’t a traditional work of scholarship, and it’s macro in orientation rather than a focused case study. This was intentional, cutting against some academic conventions (though I’d never call your academic preferences curmudgeonly!). I don’t provide an account of the state and the substantive values it ought to embody other than–or, at least, largely other than—in contrast to the rule of the clan.

    This response won’t rise to your implicit challenge of providing more “character and friction” to my description—to provide a “more fully grounded account of the liberal state in its administrative actuality”—but at present what I can say is “stay tuned.” I’ve saved the task of characterizing the liberal state in more specific terms for a future book, one that I imagine as essentially the mirror image of The Rule of the Clan, about legal individuation. Whether I pursue it may depend in part on the good people reviewing a fellowship application I wrote a couple months ago.

    We could go around about this, but I would contest the idea that the book draws lines that don’t reflect lived experience. While it’s true that many overheated conversations in the political arena are in fact debates that assume a common commitment to government and then argue around the edges about relative preferences, I think the anarcho-libertarian critique of government is more widespread than you imply, and that in any event its rhetorical influence across our political discourse is quite strong. And to the extent that the meaning of the state is contested (I absolutely agree), and that many people challenge it as a basis for progress and modernity, my book seeks to clarify both the stakes at issue and the broad, substantive goals of liberal modernity the state ought to achieve. Still, I like your injunction to think about “precisely why and especially how it is that (some) people are disillusioned, as some people always are, with how state power is exercised”—and I take the injunction as consistent with the spirit of your own work.

    A small clarification: the comment I make about ignorance of familial descent specifically concerns the Bedouin, and it reframes in American terms a comment by Jibrail Jabbur.

  2. Mark Fenster says:

    Thanks for the comments and for the clarification, Mark. While I agree that elements of the anarcho-libertarian critique may be widespread, it’s unclear to me whether they are any more widespread today than at other times in US history. In its inchoate form, it’s a rhetoric that sounds on the left, right, and middle, and has long been a part of the mixed-up bag of ideas that constitute the liberal state, as well as of the core American ideal of popular sovereignty.

    I also disagree about the extent to which a programmatic, normative, and coherent vision of the liberal state’s disappearance has a significant hold on large-scale civil and political institutions. Taxes are unpopular, as are regulatory intrusions into what we do; but having other people fund our preferences and keeping other people from engaging in behaviors that we don’t like remain quite popular. The state is a bit like lawyers — people hate it until they need it, then they like the one that helps them. Absent major catastrophic environmental, “terrorist,” or military events which might prompt large numbers of people to question the state’s legitimacy, I don’t see that changing. But even then, 9/11 largely prompted a strengthening of the liberal state and a rallying around it, albeit with some illiberal impulses — even clannish ones. We are at bottom ambivalent about the state that enables and imprisons us. As ever, Max was right.

    I’m now far afield from your wonderful book, revealing my comments to fall within the Lazy Reviewer Syndrome, wherein I complain that your book isn’t the one I would have written….

  3. Max is always right, no doubt. More in response to your anticipated second post, to which I greatly look forward.