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Amor Mundi: The Decline of the Nation-State

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Decline of the Nation-State

At the very center of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of The Origins of Totalitarianism is her insight into the decline of European nation-states. Nation-states were always based on a fiction so that the equality of citizens demanded by liberal states was held to be compatible with the national homogeneity of the nation. But as different ethnic groups demanded recognition and rights and as refugees advocated for rights within traditional nation-states, the tension between legal equality and national recognition set the nations of Europe against the states and led to the rise of Fascism in Italy and totalitarianism in Germany.

Today there are similar indications that nation-states are once again failing. Rana Dasgupta argues that the rise of populist nationalist movements around the world is a response to the widespread failure of nation-states to address 21st century problems.

“Yes, there is awareness that similar varieties of populism are erupting in many countries. Several have noted the parallels in style and substance between leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There is a sense that something is in the air – some coincidence of feeling between places. But this does not get close enough. For there is no coincidence. All countries are today embedded in the same system, which subjects them all to the same pressures: and it is these that are squeezing and warping national political life everywhere. And their effect is quite the opposite – despite the desperate flag-waving – of the oft-remarked “resurgence of the nation state”.

The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue. But the current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration – these are not cures, but symptoms of what is slowly revealing itself to all: nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves.

Why is this happening? In brief, 20th-century political structures are drowning in a 21st-century ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great-power rivalry. Meanwhile, the suppressed consequences of 20th-century recklessness in the once-colonised world are erupting, cracking nations into fragments and forcing populations into post-national solidarities: roving tribal militias, ethnic and religious sub-states and super-states. Finally, the old superpowers’ demolition of old ideas of international society – ideas of the “society of nations” that were essential to the way the new world order was envisioned after 1918 – has turned the nation-state system into a lawless gangland; and this is now producing a nihilistic backlash from the ones who have been most terrorised and despoiled.

The result? For increasing numbers of people, our nations and the system of which they are a part now appear unable to offer a plausible, viable future. This is particularly the case as they watch financial elites – and their wealth – increasingly escaping national allegiances altogether. Today’s failure of national political authority, after all, derives in large part from the loss of control over money flows. At the most obvious level, money is being transferred out of national space altogether, into a booming “offshore” zone. These fleeing trillions undermine national communities in real and symbolic ways. They are a cause of national decay, but they are also a result: for nation states have lost their moral aura, which is one of the reasons tax evasion has become an accepted fundament of 21st-century commerce.”

A Failure of Training

Writing in the National Review, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran David French argues police violence and shootings of unarmed black Americans is in part reflective of a failure of police training and in part a misunderstanding of the commitment to excellence that should come with wearing a uniform.

“First, it’s important to understand that the mission must come before personal safety. When you sign up to wear the uniform, you’re tacitly acknowledging as much. This doesn’t mean you’re required to be reckless with your own life, of course: Prudence and self-protection still matter. But they come behind the purpose of the police force itself. If you have any doubt about this fact, ask the Broward County Sheriff’s office. The armed deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School certainly succeeded in protecting himself during Nikolas Cruz’s massacre. But he failed to do his job, placing his own safety above the safety of the innocent kids he was sworn to protect, and he rightly had to face the consequences afterward.

Second, it’s important to fully understand the mission. When your job is to preserve the safety, security, and — crucially — liberty of a community, each individual encounter is conducted against the backdrop of those broader, overarching goals. So, a call to pursue a suspected vandal and trespasser (like in the Clark case) presents a multi-faceted challenge: Apprehend the suspect, protect his civil liberties, understand the community you’re policing, and protect the liberties and security of those others who live there, as well. Every confrontation is potentially dangerous, sure, but every confrontation is also complicated by the multifaceted balancing act we ask of our cops. One may argue that we ask too much of our cops, but I don’t think so; younger soldiers perform the same balancing act in more dangerous circumstances for less pay every day.

Third, the prudent rules of engagement should vary by the nature of the encounter. As I wrote in my initial piece about the Clark shooting, situational awareness demands different kinds of risk tolerance. Pursuit of an armed robber is different from pursuit of a vandal, and both are dramatically different from rolling up on an actual firefight, like the incident that claimed the life of a Sacramento sheriff’s deputy in 2017. While each situation can potentially turn deadly, it’s a simple fact that some kinds of encounters are more fraught with peril than others, and greater inherent peril demands greater latitude for police use of force.

Fourth, fear must be subject to reason. Public defenses of police shootings tend to revolve around questions of fear. Officers consistently escape conviction, prosecution, and sometimes even discipline altogether because they are able to effectively articulate why they were afraid for their lives the moment they fired the fateful shot. The legal standard to escape conviction, however, is that they must prove not just that they were afraid but also that their fear was “reasonable.” Articulating reasons for your fear is not the same thing as articulating “reasonable fear.”

Forgotten Voices

Writing for The New York Review of Books, Judith Shulevitz has begun a new series on forgotten feminisms, early and late. In her first installment, she takes on the writings of activists Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson. Written in 1825, Thompson and Wheeler published a book-length piece entitled, “Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against Pretension of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery.”

Shulevitz draws out the historical and contemporary relevance of the work, highlighting its perspicuity and perspicacious arguments:

The Appeal is so far ahead of its time that our own is just barely catching up to it. The insight that makes it feel most of our moment has to do with what we now call the “motherhood penalty,” which Thompson and Wheeler see as a—perhaps, the—primary cause of women’s social inferiority. They had a precocious critique of equality feminism. Even in a society in which women had access to all the same educational and professional opportunities as men—a society that had never existed when they were writing and is today only partially realized—women would still fall behind, they said. Mothers performing unremunerated reproductive labor would inevitably incur a pecuniary loss: “Were all partial restraints, were unequal laws and unequal morals removed, were all the means and careers of all species of knowledge and exertion equally open to both sexes; still the barriers of physical organization must, under the system of individual competition, keep depressed the average station of women beneath that of men.” (Here, “physical organization” means “reproductive capacity” and “competition” means “capitalism.”)

In taking up this series Shulevitz has set before her a monumental task. Feminism as a word isn’t even a century old, which she notes at the outset. And so the enterprise of feminist studies, the writing of Introductory syllabi has been beset by historical circumstances. Part of what she hopes to do is discover and draw out voices lost to time that we might add to our contemporary cannons. Most of us know who Elizabeth Cady Stanton is, but most of us probably have not read her writings on poverty, and perhaps this is something that ought to be remedies. Shulevitz ends her piece noting:

But as the world of opportunity that Thompson and Wheeler were able so remarkably to imagine continues to materialize for women, then slip out of their reach, people are catching on as to why. It is becoming ever more evident that the market economy and the unpaid labor of love and care dovetail with each other to “keep depressed,” in Thompson and Wheeler’s excellent phrase, “the average station of women beneath that of men.” Today, Thompson and Wheeler deserve the credit they’re due for their prescience on that score, and on all the others, too.

Poetry and Power

Ann Lauterbach curated a series for the Brooklyn Rail on “Why Poetry Now” for their Critics Page during April (National Poetry Month). Responding to the prompt Lauterbach writes:

I think one reason I decided to become a poet is because I knew, even then, as the moment of modernism waned, that poetry in America would not be included in calculations of perceived power, as part of ongoing public discourse. It would be ephemeral at best, decorative at worst; it would be given lip service. Maybe I had an inkling that the original definition of power was ability, and that if one were to become a poet whose work had some conviction, one would need to get some know-how. Power in poetry might be linked to an incremental life-long process of discovery, rather than to force. Receptivity over assertion. Care for language over authority in its use. This comparison game begins to sound a bit prideful and defensive, like the spoils of the wounded heart. I never really loved him, she tells herself, after he goes off with the famous young novelist. Power. Powerlessness. Could one choose to be not powerful, to turn away from this signal value, deliberately, and not feel bewildered, omitted from the animated conversation of the world? So many astonishingly gifted persons writing and publishing (see above), and a few rare books of poetry rising into public consciousness. And then, there is the pageless, limitless screen.

As we see now every day, the abuse and misuse of language corrupts and corrodes the complex syntax of our mutual human enterprise, our good will conscripted into episodes of polemical screed and critique, our democratic imagination impoverished by the vocabulary of commerce and strategic self-interest. Poems are not strategies, but ways to discover how language might think what we feel and feel what we think, possibly knit together objective and subjective realms into articulate forms, in the hopes of discovering harmonic (or dissonant) integrities among the reckless noise and rubble of our times.

Posted on 8 April 2018 | 8:00 am

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