Anarchy and the Will of God
Peter Leeson's shocking argument at Cato Unbound, that "contrary to conventional wisdom, it is simply not true that any government is always superior to no government" meets its immediate match in the unconventional beginning of Mark Lilla's NYT article, The Politics of God, which begins by characterizing the civilizational crisis of the West in terms of a religious faith -- and insisting that both are inseparable.
The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
What both articles have in common, apart from their startling thesis, is the request that the reader put aside any preconceived notions that European political development in the late 20th century represented anything like the highest development of civilization. Both imply that we are not at the End of History and the sooner we disabuse ourselves of that idea, the greater our chances at survival. Here's how Lilla describes the implicit conceit of late 20th century political theory:
A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. ... When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. ...
And yet Lilla goes on to show that Western politics is in fact based on theological developments, broadly understood, and he attempts to describe how they have developed.
The history of political theology in the West is an instructive story, and it did not end with the birth of modern science, or the Enlightenment, or the American and French Revolutions, or any other definitive historical moment. Political theology was a presence in Western intellectual life well into the 20th century ... in the aftermath of the First World War it took an apocalyptic turn, and “new men” eager to embrace the future began generating theological justifications for the most repugnant — and godless — ideologies of the age, Nazism and Communism.
This juncture in Lilla's argument provides a good opportunity to circle around to Leeson. Leeson re-examines anarchy or "self-government" not only as an historical phenomenon whose role and function is poorly understood but also in terms of sources authority. The world of anarchy is one in which man acts without the intermediation of the State. It is a world in which "what works", where "common sense" and the natural order -- not State-sanctioned law -- are the basis for organizing and action. It is a world in which the "hidden hand" of self-interest provides the ground for self-organization. It is a world where Man is alone with God ... and other men; where the State stands in the distant periphery. Like Lilla, Leeson forces us to revisit questions of political legitimacy that were taken as settled. In his defense of the role of anarchy (or "self-government"as he puts it) Leeson reminds us that, conventional wisdom to the contrary, States are not always good; and in many cases they are demonstrably bad. And why should this surprise us, he asks? For much of human history most of daily existence actually takes place under self-government rather than State regulation.
Most of the world, for most of its history, has existed without effective governments. As noted economic historian Joel Mokyr points out, “In England,” for example, “there was not even a professional police force to protect private property” until the 19th century.
Large arenas of economic activity in the world remain anarchic, or nearly so, to this day. For example, there is no supranational sovereign with the authority to create formal international laws to regulate countries or to enforce such laws if they existed. ... In large parts of the developing world governments are too weak or dysfunctional to perform even the most basic tasks, like securing the property rights of their citizens. According to the 2007 Failed States Index, governments in 129 countries are on or nearing the brink of collapse. Somalia has no central government at all.
Leeson argues that states are not ipso facto good; their desirability depends on their actual and empirical effect. Where a State does not explicitly contribute positively to society it may often be an instrument of organized oppression. He cites Somalia to prove he point. "Somalia has no central government at all." But once it did; and Leeson devotes the next paragraphs to citing statistics showing how Somalia was better off both before and after it enjoyed the dubious benefits of a predatory socialist State under "Mohamed Siad Barre ... [which] ... looked a lot like the wealth-destroying, wildly corrupt, and highly predatory policies and behavior we observe in many other Sub-Saharan African countries today." Given a choice between a bad State and a state of nature, go with nature. And the implication of his argument is that some traditional societies have suffered by subjection to the forms of European nation-statehood which is sometimes nothing but looting by another name. States are desirably only if they work. "If state predation goes unchecked, government may not only fail to add to social welfare, but can actually reduce welfare below its level under statelessness. Such was the case with Somalia’s government, which did more harm to its citizens than good."
Having arrived at the question of the State we can return our attentions to Lilla and the Politics of God. At one time, Lilla argues, the State was nothing but an extension of society's conception of God. The State tooks its ideal from its understanding of the Divine order. Humanity, cast into a world of unknown origin yet apparently ordered, found it easy to imagine itself in a Universe made "with some end in mind. They stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for them to assume that the cosmic order was constructed for a purpose, reflecting its maker’s will. By following this analogy, they begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions and therefore about his personality." Thus human governance is imitative of the divine order. Indeed human governance is initially believed to be subordinate to a Divine Plan; a smaller cog in the larger wheels of the Cosmos; and human authority in itself is insufficient to select righteous ends.
But after many centuries of attempting to interpreting the Divine plan led to unending religious wars, the West finally tried another tack. Since every attempt to authoritatively discern the Will of God seemed to multiply the sects, complicate the arguments and make societies rather less divine and more corrupt, might not the answer be to leave God out of active government?
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes tried to find a way out of this labyrinth. Traditionally, political theology had interpreted a set of revealed divine commands and applied them to social life. In his great treatise “Leviathan” (1651), Hobbes simply ignored the substance of those commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believed God revealed them. He did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do — he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs. If we do that, Hobbes reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts and then perhaps find a way to contain the potential for violence. ...
Fresh from the Wars of Religion, Hobbes’s readers knew all about fear. Their lives had become, as he put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And when he announced that a new political philosophy could release them from fear, they listened. ... The new political thinking would no longer concern itself with God’s politics; it would concentrate on men as believers in God and try to keep them from harming one another. It would set its sights lower than Christian political theology had, but secure what mattered most, which was peace.
The key to Hobbes' approach was to create a new Prime Directive. In place of the Will of God, Hobbes substituted the Rights of Man. The ultimate sin was no longer to transgress upon the Divine Will but to trammel the rights of man. God in general was temporarily left in place, but the specifics of His commandments were banished from the books. "This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation." This Separation was to provoke another type of crisis.
By the light of Hobbes' candle Western civilization left one dungeon only to blunder into another. The essential problem is that Hobbes' candle also blazed forth a dark light; an actual shadow which as the centuries lengthened slowly grew into a malevolent form. The shadow of separation from God -- the Hobbes problem, as Lilla puts it -- haunted Rosseau who felt that while it was necessary to banish God from political life it was simultaneously necessary not to completely forget Him. For if man was left completely alone by himself then in that night what demons might come?
Among modern thinkers, Rousseau was the first to declare that there is no shame in saying that faith in God is humanly necessary. Religion has its roots in needs that are rational and moral, even noble; once we see that, we can start satisfying them rationally, morally and nobly. In the abstract, this thought did not contradict the principles of the Great Separation, which gave reasons for protecting the private exercise of religion. But it did raise doubts about whether the new political thinking could really do without reference to the nexus of God, man and world. If Rousseau was right about our moral needs, a rigid separation between political and theological principles might not be psychologically sustainable. When a question is important, we want an answer to it: as the Savoyard vicar remarks, “The mind decides in one way or another, despite itself, and prefers being mistaken to believing in nothing.” Rousseau had grave doubts about whether human beings could be happy or good if they did not understand how their actions related to something higher. Religion is simply too entwined with our moral experience ever to be disentangled from it, and morality is inseparable from politics.
At first humanity's traditional habituation to God provided assurance that man would never be left wholly alone with his inner temptations. Some guideposts would surely remain. "Religion is simply too entwined with our moral experience ever to be disentangled from it, and morality is inseparable from politics." But that underrated the ambition of the ideologues. Once God had left the room the stakes went too high: and God's vacant throne glittered irresistibly before them. The natural impulse of demagogues was not, as Rousseau might have thought, to retain God as an absent, but beneficent Constitutional Monarch in whose extended absence Parliament ruled. For ambitious men the goal was to supplant the Creator altogether the better to rule on earth as gods. God's death not only became politically expedient, but necessary for the attainment of unlimited power -- the ground on which the 20th century unfolded as it did. But in the beginning this danger was imperceptible. At first liberal theologians were content to preserve the moral core of Christianity as a kind of cultural artifact, while maintaining it aloof from involvement in political questions. And for a while things worked but:
By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.
But they did not turn to Hobbes, or to Rousseau. They craved a more robust faith, based on a new revelation that would shake the foundations of the whole modern order. It was a thirst for redemption. Ever since the liberal theologians had revived the idea of biblical politics, the stage had been set for just this sort of development. When faith in redemption through bourgeois propriety and cultural accommodation withered after the Great War, the most daring thinkers of the day transformed it into hope for a messianic apocalypse — one that would again place the Jewish people, or the individual Christian believer, or the German nation, or the world proletariat in direct relation with the divine.
A Europe shattered and disillusioned by the Great War turned again to religion; but not to the Christianity they had recently rejected; but instead to the new European world-faiths of the 20th century. Nazism and Communism were the proudest creations of post-Christian Europe. They were faiths whose missionaries would proselytize everywhere and make converts as far afield as Vietnam and China. Faiths under whose banners structures greater than cathedrals would be filled with chanting adherents; faiths whose patriarchs greater than Popes would rule; pitiless religions where not thousands, but hundreds of millions would be burned at the proverbial stake. The shadows of Hobbes' candle had taken form and their names, bright with blood, were written across the pages of the Second World and Cold Wars. In the end, Europe emerged exhausted from the carnage wrought by her intellectual products; faithless, and incredulous to see Islam glaring at it from the Other Shore; full of the very certitudes they had recently forsaken. Lilla says Westerners do not understand Muslims; but only because they have forgotten what it is like to be them: to slay or be slain for one's belief. Lilla does not guess whether Islam will itself undergo its own version of a Great Separation. The question for him is where a faithless West, needing a reason to exist, must go from here:
Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.
But Leeson, I think, must have the last word. He reminds us that man, at least in his ordinary existence, is free to live without political theory. That man needs no State or State religion to carry out the normal functions of life. And strangely enough, Lilla almost stumbles on the same conclusion, though he doesn't realize it. Lilla finds America different though he can't explain why. He believes it is due to a simultaneous commitment to both God and the Great Separation. But maybe the real answer is because America never forced the final choice between God and Politics and both profited thereby.
As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions.
I'm tempted to argue, without much textual justification, that the same balancing act between anarchy and State power, which is the political counterpart of the uneasy theological coexistence of the Creator within the Declaration of Independence and the framework of the Republic, accounts for America's strange stability. As Europe desired a final showdown with idols so did America understand that it is sometimes better to live with God; not against Him or in place of Him. America has wisely learned that some debates are better left unresolved; that imperfection is sometimes a virtue; and that all faith is dangerous unless accompanied by a large bucket of fried chicken and six-pack of beer; and the tabloid the necessary antidote to the intellectual political journal.One of the great founding principles of America was that nobody had the answers; that a frontier was needful as a place where you could hide both from the busybodies in town and from the idea of God Himself; because too perfect an order was a dangerous thing: a touch of anarchy as the Will of God because it is freedom by another name.