Centripetal Politics

An oldie from Chronicles Magazine

Why is a modern state disposed to destroy the corporate liberty of independent social authorities and concentrate power to the center? And why is this destruction perceived as morally legitimate? The answer was given in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, which frames the first and most profound theory of the modern state. Hobbes pictures mankind as an aggregate of egoists in a state of nature without government, each pursuing his own power and glory without restraint. Since this is a self-defeating condition of constant conflict, rational egoists compact with one another to form a government for the sake of peace and stability. The sole end of the Hobbesian state is to maximize the individual’s autonomy.

All modern political theorizing takes its bearing from the Hobbesian vision of autonomy or choice-making as the end of the state. This is as true of Marxism as of liberalism. Liberals hold that private property and the rule of law are sufficient to maximize autonomy. Marxists deny this, pointing out that liberalism yields inequalities in the form of class domination, which maximizes autonomy for the few at the expense of the workers. And Marx did Hobbes one better by declaring that, in a classless society, there would be no class conflict, and so no need for government at all. The elevation of autonomy would come to be known as the Enlightenment. There would, of course, be disagreements about the precise character of autonomy and its conditions, quarrels about “positive” and “negative” liberty. Locke, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Godwin, Nietzsche, and Sartre would theorize it differently, but all agreed that autonomy is the purpose of the modern state. Marx was right when he called Hobbes the father of us all.

No one can fail to feel the pull of this philosophical defense of the individual’s autonomy. But is choice-making the highest good? To think so is to overlook the social nature of man — the disposition of human beings to pursue some vision of the human good in community with others across generations. It ignores the importance of culture as a framework for autonomy. As T.S. Eliot said, culture is that which makes life worth living. Autonomy presupposes a cultural background without which choice-making is meaningless. A culture links generations together and is structured not by autonomy but by involuntary subordination and deference to authority. I did not choose my parents, nor my native language, nor the loyalties and duties within my culture. These forms of involuntary subordination constitute the framework, if not the whole substance, of what I am. Autonomy, to be sure, is a good to be pursued, but it is a good constrained by the prior good of a whole way of life binding generations.

Since all forms of Enlightenment theorizing are hostile to the idea of involuntary subordination, they either ignore the priority of culture to autonomy or, in more radical forms, positively deny it. John Rawls teaches that the state must be neutral in respect to the good. Its sole task is to enforce those rights necessary for the individual’s autonomy. The corporate liberties and rights of social authorities which are necessary to protect and cultivate a valuable way of life are entirely eliminated. The result is that any substantial morality comprehending a whole way of life is legally disestablished from the public realm and placed in the private feelings of individuals, who eventually become an aggregate of strangers. The moral nihilism prevalent in America today is not the triumph of philosophical arguments subverting moral standards, to be countered by reading The Book of Virtues; it is a social condition created by the legal disestablishment of morality by liberalism.

Just how firmly established this cultural and moral nihilism is can be measured by considering the popular dictum that America is not like other countries: It is an idea; a set of abstract rights; the first universal nation; or, as Lincoln put it, an association of people dedicated to a “proposition.” This dictum is proudly but foolishly celebrated as showing the rationalist superiority of an American rights-based polity over other countries. It is boldly proclaimed by leaders of both parties, and it is taught in the public schools as a kind of American wisdom.

The ideal of individual autonomy as the end of the state, if consistently pursued, drives out culture because it drives out all forms of involuntary- subordination and, consequently, undermines the authority necessary to protect and cultivate a valuable way of life. Eviscerating its own cultural inheritance as an embarrassing and oppressive tangle of prejudice and historical contingency, the modern state replaces culture with an ideological style of politics: liberalism, socialism, Nazism, Marxism, feminism, etc. The republic of the French Revolution and the former Soviet Union were also said to be regimes grounded in an idea, not a culture. They failed because no polity could be grounded in an ideology, which is nothing more than an aspect of a cultural inheritance about which one has become obsessive. Philosophical theorizing transmutes this aspect into the whole of experience: All history is the story of class struggle, or gender struggle, or race struggle, or a struggle for individual autonomy. In a country in the grip of an ideological style of politics, as the former Soviet Union was and America is today, a protracted cold war is necessarily waged against its own cultural inheritance. As an ideology eats away at a polity’s moral substance, people gradually lose the knowledge of how to behave and begin down the path to Hobbes’s war of all against all.

What does all of this have to do with states’ rights? Hobbes rightly called the modern state Leviathan, and the mass of millions over which it rules was the result of crushing small states and consolidating them into larger units. Throughout history-, human beings have lived in small polities. Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, as well as contemporary experts from a variety of fields, have agreed that a polity has an optimal size beyond which it becomes dysfunctional. A city of 50,000 to 200,000 can produce all that human culture can afford: great art, music, architecture, literature, science, etc. Below this size, some activities cannot emerge; beyond it, crime and coordination problems increase geometrically; moral consensus breaks down; public spirit withers; bureaucracy appears; more and more time and energy is spent, not on cultivating the luxuries of a valuable way of life, but in working on the mere instrumentalities necessary to maintain a bloated and monstrous growth. With a population of 50,000, Athens produced such a depth of culture that we still take some of our bearings from it. Florence, the center of the Italian Renaissance (itself the work of small city-states) had only around 40,000. Monster cities such as New York (eight million) or Sao Paulo (19 million) cannot produce the quality of culture of the small city-states of Greece or Italy. These are not places where a way of life is communicated across generations, enjoyed, and critically explored. They are vast encampments of Hobbesian nomads, each in pursuit of his own power and glory. Indeed they are not cities at all but Leviathans, at the service of even larger political galaxies. They have earned the new barbarous names of “conurbation,” “metropolis,” and “megalopolis.”

What we call “states’ rights” is usually thought of as a concept internal to American constitutionalism, but it may also be viewed as a symbol of all of those small polities and social authorities that have resisted being obliterated by the centripetal forces of modernity. The Bill of Rights was introduced to protect the corporate liberty of the states from encroachment by the center. The states delegated to the central government the power to regulate commerce, make foreign treaties, and provide for defense. All powers needed to protect a valuable wav of life were retained by the states, including the right to establish a state religion. Congress was prohibited from establishing a religion, but the states were not. Indeed, Massachusetts maintained a religious establishment until 1833.

The Civil War and two world wars dealt a severe blow to state sovereignty and concentrated enormous power to the center. By the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court had ruled that the 14th Amendment “incorporates” the Bill of Rights something that Raoul Berger, in Government by Judiciary has shown the framers of the amendment most emphatically did not intend. This arbitrary ruling overturned a century and a half of precedent and turned the Constitution upside down. Instead of protecting the corporate liberty of the states from the central government, the Bill of Rights is now understood to protect the autonomy of the individual from the states.


The whole thing is worth reading.




3 thoughts on “Centripetal Politics

  1. Pingback: Weaponised Freedom | NC Links

  2. A thought-provoking article. All of these problems that we’ve had since the Enlightenment stem from the modern notion of ideological individualism as opposed to natural group identities, like family and tribal nation. And it takes ever growing and more distant centralized authority to protect this individualism from threats by group identities. This process ultimately leads to world government rule over a disjointed population of nihilists and relativists. Hadn’t thought of that, but it is intriguing.

    I’m not sure that the writer’s recommendations about what to do against these forces can accomplish very much. He proposes that people reject individualism and the modern state and embrace our more local, organic identities.

    I’m all for rejecting idealogical individualism and centralized power in the long run, but in the short run this won’t work. Right now, our collective identities are under constant and effective attack by cultural Marxism and immigration. We will have to first remove those two forces if we want to ultimately restore our collective local identities.

    To remove these forces before they destroy us, we will have to use a strong and centralized hand, one that rejects the destruction of our traditions and our peoples. We need the power of the modern state to defeat the forces of invasion and subversion. Then, when and if we defeat the forces of cultural Marxism and foreign displacement, we can try to restore collective local identities and decentralization to achive greater long-term stability and natural order.

    • ‘Conservatives such as George Will and William F. Buckley wish to control the central government in order to do good.’

      Getting rid of cultural marxism or modernist individualism entirely isn’t possible, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. These forces do need to be contended with and I think the best way is too dismiss them. Of course, these days you can’t dismiss them since they’re everywhere. I think we’re screwed as long as the economy allows every economic class access to mass media and the internet. If the the economy tanks and people can’t afford these things, you’ll see a quick return to organic local communities and ideology will lose it’s power. Ideology only has power as long as people think abstractly; in a second Great Depression the world will get small and life will get personal.

      Its getting late and I’m tired so I appologise if this comment is disjointed.

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