What would you advocate doing if a criminal organization took control of an American city or state by force, imposed their own illiberal laws brutally, and suspended or made a sham of elections? Well first, of course, the courts and the police would battle this organization throughout it's rise to power - but let's say it ended up taking power anyway. The federal government would come down on it with overwhelming physical force. Not only would this organization inevitably stumble into some sort of inter-state or otherwise federal crime justifying federal involvement, but any sort of dictatorial power-grab would be a violation of the Constitution which guarantees a republican form of government at the state level. This sort of thing seems and probably is inconceivable for the time being, but if it came to that we would see overwhelming force from the federal government. And rightly so.
When I read things like Matt Yglesias's post sharing evidence that Dick Cheney wanted to invade Syria after Iraq, my first reaction is further revulsion at the man I already found repulsive. I did support the war in Afghanistan, but I was strongly opposed to the Iraq war from day one, so needless to say I would have been opposed to a Syrian war too. But why? Why is this sort of neo-conservative "empire of liberty" mindset so problematic for us? It is for one reason: nationalism. The concept of the nation-state. If we had what H.G. Wells called a World State, adventures like a Syrian war would be considered entirely justifiable - as readily supported as a campaign against a crime syndicate taking over New York or Los Angeles would be supported. The only thing standing in the way of this sort of thing is the perseverance of the nation-state and the conceptualizations of sovereignty that come with it. When you think about it, this is an extremely unsettling realization. There's something deeply unsatisfying and arcane about the very idea of "national sovereignty". At one time, one must admit, nation-states, sovereignty, and self-determination served a valuable purpose in the struggle against autocracy and imperial oppression. But now national sovereignty seems to also conceal great evils. We acknowledge what we call "universal" and "human" rights - mostly standard civil liberties that are recognized in the U.S. - but although we nominally recognize their universality, these rights are easily discarded if a nation-state makes it its business to ignore them. Such rights, then, aren't in practice universal at all. I think it's plausible and perhaps even good that we are moving towards a World State and away from national sovereignty. It will be slow, and it will probably evolve from some sort of confederacy and collection of international institutions that already exist or that will be created. But because it is in all likelihood coming, I don't think we can just dismiss these neo-conservative wars. They are here to stay, I think they will increase, and I think they will become more palatable. We have a framework for acknowledging universal rights, and within that framework military action to stop genocide or terrorism has already become palatable - again, as it should be probably. As the universality of these rights is accepted more broadly, and as it is formalized, it will be harder and harder to justify intervening in the case of genocide but not, say, dictatorship. Many neo-conservatives lament the criminalization of terrorism in the sense of terrorists being treated as criminals rather than enemy combatants. Ironically, though, it is this very process of criminalization that is going to make it possible to forcefully pursue a broader and broader array of international bad guys. At first glance this is very troubling. I haven't abandoned my opposition to the Iraq war, after all, so its unsettling to think about it in these terms. But if I think about what we would do if someone like Saddam set himself up with a similar outfit in a U.S. state, what I would consider to be the appropriate reaction would be entirely justified by the most basic understanding of domestic law enforcement. An easy-out might be rejection of the idea of a World State that would make this change of perspective possible (because it would essentially turn all acts of military and state aggression into criminal acts). It's not quite as much of an easy-out for me because I actually embrace the idea of an eventual World State. But even if I were to use a rejection of the idea of a World State to assuage my opposition to the Iraq war, I would still have to accept that all of this opposition to the invasion of Iraq is predicated on an embrace of the abstraction that is nationalism.
And that's not very satisfying either.
So where do we go with this? Anarchism seems like the only way to consistently avoid such wars and avoid the World State or nationalism. But anarchism isn't personally satisfying to me. Libertarianism won't do the trick - libertarians certainly support the protection of civil liberties by law and basic policing powers. So a libertarian that wants to reject both pure anarchism and these neo-conservative wars (and most do) would have to be a pacifist nationalist (because as I said, libertarian principles applied in a World State would accept the necessity of using the force of law to guarantee civil liberties). But I don't think a pacifist nationalist libertarianism really works. Any libertarian principled enough to be a pacifist is unlikely to be a nationalist.
So, unless we embrace anarchism we seem to be stuck with either neo-conservatism or nationalism (or, if we elect neo-conservatives before we institute a World State, both). This is troubling to me. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. Man is a violent and divisive species. This is not news. And if we want a liberal society we may need more than sugar and spice and dreams and hopes to get it. As you all know - I'm not a libertarian or an idealist and I don't mind it when things are ambiguous, messy, or indeterminate - so I can accept this. But it's still all fairly depressing.
Friday Night Music: Rodrigo y Gabriela
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