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A short history of the democracy and the state

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So I was trying to have a discussion/argument with Henry Farrell on twitter, which was primarily useful for reminding me how much I dislike twitter.  I’m still trying to make sense of where he’s coming from in the current cross-blog disagreement; I continue to feel as though I must be missing something  because, well, I’m used to quite a bit more from him; I’ve long admired him has a blogger and scholar, and my general advice would be that if he and I disagree about something, you should probably stick with him.

To reproduce tweets that, more or less, get at the heart of the disagreement, here’s Farrell:

As noted, I will probably end up voting for Obama, but with some reluctance and respect for the autonomy of other people who abstain as a reasonable choice.

Here’s me:

…there’s a fundamental responsibility to take available affirmative steps to limit gov’t harm

It’s hard to read Henry any other way than suggesting that a withdrawal from electoral politics on moral grounds is, if done for the right reasons, an honorable choice that deserves significant moral respect. This is rather different than his initial claim, that overall Romney might not be much worse than Obama. Scott’s dealt with the initial claim thoroughly enough that there’s nothing left for me to say, but I’m not at all convinced Farrell’s argument following his surprisingly Kantian turn fares much better. My disagreement couldn’t be much more thorough, actually. The noble withdrawal takes the form and shape of an honorable position at first glance, but it’s an illusion; it’s an incoherent position rooted in a deep denial regarding our present condition.

I tried to lay out some of my reasons for this view in my post earlier this week, but it obviously wasn’t persuasive for many. I’m going to try again from a slightly different angle.

Five hundred-odd years ago, give or take, in Europe, the configuration of social power changed. A kind of entity called the state began to emerge as victorious in struggle for social power. This power grab wasn’t at all noble or particularly justifiable in normative terms, indeed, war making and state building were intimately connected developments. The quasi-monopoly this kind of entity was able to create on the exercise of legitimate violence created extraordinary new opportunities for exploitation but also contributed to an environment that allowed for extended periods of peace and prosperity, at least for certain lucky segments of the population. To state the obvious, the arrival of the state as the dominant form of social and political power was both wonderful and horrible: the state created new opportunities for wealth and security, and perpetrated brutal, oppressive crimes against humanity with staggering efficiency.

(Democracy is) the single greatest technology humankind has developed to  restrict at least some of the tremendous negatives associated with the state, while retaining access to most of the benefits. (Democracy, of course, is more than elections, but they remain central to the constraining power of democracy.) Even in the best and most effective democracies, the state remains a terrifying force for violent, abusive, and arbitrary power, at least some of the time. But it also becomes, oddly enough, an occasional force against other forms of abusive power–sometimes for selfish, monopoly-oriented reasons, but sometimes because it gets all mixed up with democratic values.

But the terrifying, deadly origins of the state never go away. The state kills people, and it does so for indefensible reasons and in indefensible ways, contrary to its purported values. Democracy can mitigate this, sometimes considerably, but it does not appear to be a technology capable of eliminating this fundamental feature of the state (and it occasionally goes awry and makes it worse).

When I said this:

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world.

I was signalling my allegiance with what I call the “democracy against domination” school of thought in political theory (This is a good overview). It’s not much of a school of thought, really, because its main adherents (Shapiro, Pettit, Young, Walzer) have very little in common with each other. As I read it, the suggestion is that democracy potentially subverts domination in two ways: first, as a procedural roadblock against domination of citizens by the state; second, as a mechanism by which citizens can attempt to harness the power of the state to curtail private domination. Other conceptions of democracy (as deliberation or as common-good seeking community) are best understood as instances of democracy against domination; those secondary democratic values have democratic value to the extent that they contribute to the cause of anti-domination in a particular circumstance.

In terms of killing people, Obama is not particularly unusual among American presidents. If he is “beyond the pale” for the purposes of whatever endorsement you believe a vote implies, so to is pretty much all of American politics at the federal level. Identifying yourself as “better” than the American federal state in some important moral way is just fine; you probably are. So am I! I don’t kill people, either. But to move from that banal observation to abdicating the duty to use the primary tool we’ve got to constrain its abusive power is to badly miss democracy’s point. It’s the most dangerous power in our midst, and we have one noteworthy tool to shape and constrain its power; to attempt to make it more deadly. Farrell thinks I should honor and respect the decision to not pick up this tool and use it, because it brings them too close to that deadly power for their taste to do so. But that would involve indulging the fiction that that deadly power is something they can separate themselves from in a meaningful sense. I just don’t see it. It’s our state. There’s nothing we can do about *that*. It’s ours, and it’s incredibly dangerous. We absolutely have an affirmative duty to minimize the harm it can do, where we can, and to not let our wish it did even less harm and more good to get in the way of that. If there were good reasons to believe that short term harm minimization was extremely likely to cut against more significant medium to long term harm minimization, then we’d have a difficult decision on our hands, but the case for such a proposition has, to put it mildly, not been made. As long as that case hasn’t been made, refusing to engage in harm minimization when necessary is a betrayal of democracy’s central purpose; I can’t agree that it’s a reasonable or honorable choice.

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