September 14, 2013


Is the Nation-State Dying? (Alan Wolfe, Chronicle of Higher Education)

[P]ierre Manent, a political philosopher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, and Benjamin R. Barber, a political theorist and senior research scholar at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The leading Straussian of our time, Manent, a conservative, is pessimistic to the point of despair, while Barber, a man of the left, believes that a solution to our problems lies just around the corner. Manent writes in dense prose, Barber with breathless earnestness. The former dwells in the past, while the latter speculates about the future. One is deeply read in theology and the history of religion, while the other praises a pragmatism unmoved by larger questions about human meaning.

Manent's interpretation of how we got where we are runs something like this: The Greek city-state taught that people are capable of directed action toward a telos, or higher end, such as justice. Actions require words to justify them, and as the West developed, that task was fulfilled by, among others, the church. The discrepancy between a state that acted and a church that held actions to a higher standard was resolved by Machiavelli, who advised leaders to do what was necessary rather than what was good.

The modern state inherited that task by giving authoritative meaning to words, and it did so by claiming to represent the society for which it speaks. In our time, however, the representative regime, the nation-state, is losing its authoritative character. The ideal to which modern nations strive is a sense of humanity itself, leaving them lacking any higher goals. As a result, Manent writes, "the necessity to articulate words and actions politically has been lost from view. The technological norm and juridical rule are supposed to be enough for organizing common life." [...]

Manent has chosen an odd time to proclaim the "self-destruction of Europe." Since the end of World War II, Europe has carried out the single most impressive political feat since the creation of the Roman Empire: more than half a century of peace, accompanied by astonishing prosperity. That system, or, as Straussians like to say, regime, is fraying and could even unravel as demands for austerity clash with popular public programs. But it takes an especially gloomy perspective to ignore all of the benefits that ordinary European cities have obtained--children no longer sent off to die in war, extensive vacation time and travel, guaranteed health care--and to focus instead on the state's inability to find words that satisfactorily justify its actions. [...]

If both authors fail to persuade, they do not do so equally. My political views are closer to Barber's than to Manent's, yet the latter's book is by far the more impressive. I cannot do justice to Manent's close readings of classic and modern texts. His vision of a political science that joins experience and reflections on experience is far richer than nearly all of what appears in the American Political Science Review. When so much emphasis is placed on the importance of technology, it is refreshing to be reminded of the purpose of politics.

Odd time?  Mr. Wolfe seems curiously oblivious to Europe's reality.  And it is, of course, precisely because secularized Europe has no higher purpose that it is dying so rapidly.

Posted by at September 14, 2013 7:38 AM

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