The modern state, from 30,000 feet

Thanks to Deven and Mark for the invitation to participate. I concede preliminarily that readers should discount my comments both because Mark is a dear friend from law school and after, and because the book falls far outside my own areas of expertise. I’m neither a comparatavist nor an anthropologist, and my knowledge of the vast expanse of world history Mark covers pales in comparison to the pool of scholarship and literature from which he expertly draws. So the best I can provide is some gut-level reactions — and, more specifically, an account of why I enjoyed the book but also why I wanted a bit more from it.

I’ll have two basic comments: the first, which I’ll post now, regarding its description of “the state,” and the second regarding my resistance to the book’s normative thrust. Both come from my response to what Deven rightly characterized in his introductory post as the “bold” nature of the book and its argument. It is scholarship and prescription from 30,000 feet, summarizing and marshaling knowledge (sometimes contested) and ideas about the entirety of human history in the quite masterful categories of liberalism v. clan. This makes for a great read, as well as a powerful narrative and set of conclusions, but it can also frustrate someone who, like me, prefers the smaller story, the more complex and thicker description, and the contingent, trembling conclusion to the comprehensive, confident one.

Mine is, at bottom, an aesthetic preference. It comes from the kinds of writerly and institutional choices Mark has made. Rule of the Clan is a scholarly, intellectual book, but it isn’t a traditional work of scholarship. It is intended for a non-specialist but curious and engaged readership, and its publication by an excellent trade press publisher, emphasis on accessible narrative, and interjections of Thomas Friedman- and Malcolm Gladwell-like insightful conversations with interesting people make the book a much easier read than your typical academic tome. Mark’s back-and-forth with Orin Kerr in the comments to the initial post were telling. Orin’s request for greater definitional clarity, like my own comments below, want a complexity and situational precision that Mark’s archetypes resist, even as he sensitively notes that the archetypes are not as absolute or normatively good and bad as they might at times appear in his argument. 

So while I was in thrall to Mark’s vast knowledge and storytelling (from Iceland to the early history of the English to the contemporary Philippines and Libya, and that ain’t close to half of it!), the curmudgeonly academic in me talked back to my tablet when ROC drifted towards stuff I felt like I knew something about. One such thing is Mark’s account of the state. It serves as the modern foil to the clan, but it is present only as a distant figure in the book. It lacks character and friction. Mark might like the contemporary state, mostly, but he doesn’t do much beyond offer homilies of its goodness, in the same way that a simplistic libertarian account provides homilies of its badness. (Libertarian interest in the book thus doesn’t surprise me.) The state need not be defended — or, for that matter, chided — except in relatively bland ways for providing us with public goods that enhance liberty, with the caveat that it occasionally overreaches and threatens liberty.

The book is of course about the clan rather than the modern state, but its narrative drive and normative bite (which are the subject of my second set of comments) demand that the modern state play a hero’s role. And yet the book draws lines in ways that don’t reflect lived experience. Few Americans and moderns — and certainly not the median Tea Party activist, whose hoary, blurred vision of smashing the federal state looms in ROC as a harbinger of the clan’s return — fully reject the state; rather, most have their preferences for what the state should and should not do, and for which state entities (those engaging in redistribution and social and environmental public goods provision versus those engaging in security provision of various sorts; federal government versus state government versus local government) should be more or less pervasive. Mark’s nightmare vision in his final chapter of the liberal state’s possible end has the feel of science fiction imperfectly rendered in large part because he has not adequately described the stakes of modern liberal state power, and precisely why and especially how it is that (some) people are disillusioned, as some people always are, with how state power is exercised. This descriptive absence is especially evident in Mark’s casual analogy between an Arab’s ignorance of his or her familial descent (presumably quite rare in his telling) and American ignorance of basic civic and political knowledge (which is in fact quite widespread, see, e.g.). American ideals of the state, like the American state itself, are rife with contradiction, confusion, and incomprehensibility. They challenge an effort to posit “the state” as an essential model for progress and modernity.

From the 30,000 feet that political theory and the popular imagination view it, “the state” makes sense as an ideal and concept. It needs neither description nor, in some company at least, defense. Up close, however, its progressive (and Leviathanic) qualities seem much more difficult to pinpoint as a model. It is deeply contested in practice, as well as mercurial and even in many respects unknown, even to its own administrators. For this relatively ignorant reader, ROC presents an excellent introduction to the clan as a political model and pervasive historical structure. But the book’s implicit contrast of the clan with the modern state could have used a better, more fully grounded account of the liberal state in its administrative actuality to help illustrate the stakes in the book’s underlying argument and persuade me of its descriptive as well as normative truth.

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for these comments, Mark. I’m grateful for your kind words, and at the same time I appreciate the frustration you felt from your perspective. In writing The Rule of the Clan, I made a set of aesthetic and intellectual choices that are different from those I’ve made in other works, and I, too, think that my exchange with Orin is revealing of those choices. The book isn’t a traditional work of scholarship, and it’s macro in orientation rather than a focused case study. This was intentional, cutting against some academic conventions (though I’d never call your academic preferences curmudgeonly!). I don’t provide an account of the state and the substantive values it ought to embody other than–or, at least, largely other than—in contrast to the rule of the clan.

    This response won’t rise to your implicit challenge of providing more “character and friction” to my description—to provide a “more fully grounded account of the liberal state in its administrative actuality”—but at present what I can say is “stay tuned.” I’ve saved the task of characterizing the liberal state in more specific terms for a future book, one that I imagine as essentially the mirror image of The Rule of the Clan, about legal individuation. Whether I pursue it may depend in part on the good people reviewing a fellowship application I wrote a couple months ago.

    We could go around about this, but I would contest the idea that the book draws lines that don’t reflect lived experience. While it’s true that many overheated conversations in the political arena are in fact debates that assume a common commitment to government and then argue around the edges about relative preferences, I think the anarcho-libertarian critique of government is more widespread than you imply, and that in any event its rhetorical influence across our political discourse is quite strong. And to the extent that the meaning of the state is contested (I absolutely agree), and that many people challenge it as a basis for progress and modernity, my book seeks to clarify both the stakes at issue and the broad, substantive goals of liberal modernity the state ought to achieve. Still, I like your injunction to think about “precisely why and especially how it is that (some) people are disillusioned, as some people always are, with how state power is exercised”—and I take the injunction as consistent with the spirit of your own work.

    A small clarification: the comment I make about ignorance of familial descent specifically concerns the Bedouin, and it reframes in American terms a comment by Jibrail Jabbur.

  2. Mark Fenster says:

    Thanks for the comments and for the clarification, Mark. While I agree that elements of the anarcho-libertarian critique may be widespread, it’s unclear to me whether they are any more widespread today than at other times in US history. In its inchoate form, it’s a rhetoric that sounds on the left, right, and middle, and has long been a part of the mixed-up bag of ideas that constitute the liberal state, as well as of the core American ideal of popular sovereignty.

    I also disagree about the extent to which a programmatic, normative, and coherent vision of the liberal state’s disappearance has a significant hold on large-scale civil and political institutions. Taxes are unpopular, as are regulatory intrusions into what we do; but having other people fund our preferences and keeping other people from engaging in behaviors that we don’t like remain quite popular. The state is a bit like lawyers — people hate it until they need it, then they like the one that helps them. Absent major catastrophic environmental, “terrorist,” or military events which might prompt large numbers of people to question the state’s legitimacy, I don’t see that changing. But even then, 9/11 largely prompted a strengthening of the liberal state and a rallying around it, albeit with some illiberal impulses — even clannish ones. We are at bottom ambivalent about the state that enables and imprisons us. As ever, Max was right.

    I’m now far afield from your wonderful book, revealing my comments to fall within the Lazy Reviewer Syndrome, wherein I complain that your book isn’t the one I would have written….

  3. Max is always right, no doubt. More in response to your anticipated second post, to which I greatly look forward.