This essay is Part I of “Authority and Action in the Digital State”. Read Part II, here.
Authority and Action in the Digital State, Part I
In 2020, we saw the very grave political sickness that now afflicts our nation in the controversies over lockdowns and masks, and the lack of public response to the destruction of our cities, which was justified by the media as just “mostly peaceful” protests. This was a new demonstration of the profound crisis of authority of which Trump’s election was the first important political demonstration, a full — if temporary — rejection of the elite consensus. The elite claim to rule by expertise was shattered by the incompetence of government in 2020, but the popular claim to democracy was also weakened by a shocking absence of deliberation, politics being reduced to executive rule.
As a result, public science is now openly and shamelessly politicized in pursuit of the partisan goals of the elites while the people obey out of fear of death by disease. Attending church was forbidden, but protesting and rioting in the streets were deemed consistent with public health. Masks are mandated, and anyone too proud to don one, contemptuous of the slavish concern for health, is shamed. Elites pride themselves on their cowardly fears, even though they are better positioned to escape disease than most people. Pride and love of liberty now compel us to question by what authority scientific expertise would rule us.
The pretensions of our technocrats to rule — to restrict our liberty and dictate how we must live our lives — come from the peculiar character of the modern liberal state. Technocrats are unelected, but they are appointed to bureaucracies that wield power without accountability. This is tolerated because the state promises us ever better health and ever more commodious living through the confluence of commerce and progress in science and technology. In the fulfillment of these promises, however, modernity has threatened its own ground. Over the last century we have developed the scientific power to exterminate human life with nuclear weapons, even as we’ve threatened to make our planet uninhabitable through pollution and climate change. Newer scientists warn us about the threats older scientists made possible — but they lack any self-awareness, so they don’t tolerate our questioning their capacity for prophecy. Similarly, the ruling class signed off on the decimation of our industrial economy and the offshoring of jobs through globalization. One of the many notable effects of globalization is this pandemic. Now, that same ruling class wants us to trust its expert handling of the catastrophes it has created or failed to prevent. The result is shutting down the jobs through which we make a living, support our families, and provide for our future. Millions of people have realized that we have been promised heaven but delivered into hell.
Any middle-class American who reflects on his life and that of his father, on what’s come of this country, might wonder how we all ended up buried in debt and with little to show for it. He might wonder at his own limited opportunities to make something of himself through action. And justly despair that a future better than his father’s has become impossible for him. Worse still, this is owing in no small part to the organization of our collective future by distant and malign forces. I will defend in this essay the common sense of the proud American citizen against the demands and the contempt of the technocrats and explore the basis and implications of this antagonism. This is the political question of our time. It touches all aspects of modern life. Indeed, it is inseparable from what it means to be modern. If the pandemic has had any redeeming value, it is in revealing for all to see the hitherto hidden assumptions of those with power and prestige along with the fundamentally precarious character of their authority. We can see clearly now that nothing less than the possibility of self-government is at stake. The last best hope of earth could be meanly lost — and with barely a whimper.
If we mean to get out of this mess, we need some clarity on how we got into it. We need to examine the origins and the character of the ideas that structure our lives even without our awareness. We need to escape jargon and fashionable playing with words for something more serious, philosophical, and deep. Our institutions, passions, and opinions, after all, did not emerge ex nihilo. They do not exist without reason. We are where we are, for better or worse, in no small part because an ambitious and industrious band of political philosophers embarked on an unprecedented political project a half-millennium ago. We can recognize our situation if we study political philosophy. The screen on which you’re reading this would not have been possible without the innovations of the modern philosophers. They invented much, from algebra to rights theory. It is indeed hard to find anything in our lives that is untouched by their designs. To understand ourselves we must understand the history of the modern project. Only then can we see how the anti-political abstractions on which our world is built and that animate it lead to the degradation of isolation and helplessness, of which the mania for masks is but one symptom. Only then can we begin to recover the conditions for meaningful human action — both individually and together.
The Propaganda of Progress
Modernity was constructed to challenge authority. The great political philosopher Leo Strauss famously pinpointed the origin of the modern project in the “anti-theological ire” of Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was compelled by the evils and cruelty of Christian persecution, along with the political impotence engendered by the Christian imperative to turn the other cheek, to begin a grand and unprecedented project to set politics on a new, more stable foundation. The instrument would be a campaign of philosophical propaganda — the purpose, to control Fortuna and thus the future. The “imagined principalities” of the ancients, from the best regimes of Plato and Aristotle to the kingdom of God, had aimed too high, Machiavelli thought, and expected too much of human beings, even as they promised perfection would follow the practice of virtue. The new politics assumes it is better and safer to lower the goal: More can be achieved by focusing on man as he actually is than on man as he ought to be. Perhaps chance can be conquered and the right social order brought into being through a coordinated project to construct institutions with teeth, which would control men by appealing to their lowest passions or drives.
In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights, Pierre Manent — a qualified follower of Strauss’ history of political philosophy — offers further insight into the character and consequences of Machiavelli’s innovation. Manent is concerned with the contraction of the horizon of thought that accompanies Machiavelli’s lowering of the goal of political activity. The new politics encourages an amoral reliance on necessity, on telling ugly truths and getting hands dirty, to prevent concern with impossible moral standards from compelling political leaders to neglect vital interests. Less idealism, more realism. So far, Machiavelli seems to be on the side of action: Men cannot maintain power with paternosters in their hands. But Manent shows that by banishing morality as a legitimate concern, Machiavelli in fact puts theory above action — he creates an abstraction to replace reality, since in reality all human action, properly understood, is necessarily moral. We are, each of us, particular agents, human, and therefore limited by our characters or dispositions — our virtues and vices — which develop in relation to the moral horizon of our community and its implicit rules. Machiavelli nonetheless proceeds to treat the possibilities inherent in any given situation in themselves, that is, separate from you and I, our beliefs and duties, our relations to others, separate from everything that preoccupies us. His project is possible, according to Manent, “only if one can posit circumstances independently of any action envisaged by a definite agent, thus only if the circumstances can be the object of a purely theoretical regard.” He thus initiates the modern turn to theory as the best way of understanding and ordering human things. But with the arrival of theory and abstractions, a new possibility dawns — some stranger might rule us better than we can rule ourselves through the power of science, since our own concerns aren’t even taken into consideration anymore. Already Machiavelli heralds our utilitarian technocrats, who, in their oblivion of human pride, don’t care if we want to decide for ourselves how to live — they know better, after all.
After Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes advanced the new politics in his Leviathan, laying out the theoretical foundation of the modern state. Hobbes’ concern with the obedience and duties of subjects takes morality more seriously than Machiavelli did, but Manent shows that Hobbes follows Machiavelli in the fundamental preference for theory over action in politics. Hobbes denudes human life of its concrete, practical significance when he founds the modern state on the social contract. Hobbes imagines the merely living human individual consumed by the fear of violent death in the state of nature, which is a chaotic war of ‘all against all’. Consenting to the social contract in this condition, men affirm they are radically equal in the passions aroused by harsh necessity. Thus, men relinquish any claim to rule directly that may follow from their opinions about what is good or bad. They make the sovereign their representative, authorizing it to do what they themselves can no longer do — giving it full authority to rule. And so authority shift from a source that might claim divine approval to a human source, equality: Henceforth, men are to obey only themselves when they obey the sovereign.
The new politics founded on social contract is a theoretical abstraction from life as we know and live it. It is, moreover, an exaggeration intended to reverse our temporal orientation, to make us despise the past and desperately long for the future. The past is transformed from a heroic and divine origin for which we are grateful and which we revere — to the locus of barbarity. We come to imagine the past as dominated by prejudices and madness. We are to look henceforth to the future for guidance, and put our faith in Progress. The rational, enlightened self-interest through which we consent to leave the state of nature is to become the organizing principle of society. One obeys the law, to the extent one is aware of it, precisely because it frees one up to compete among others in the contest of self-creation — into the future. The social contract is the propaganda of Progress, promising us that we will be able to chase after all our fantasies in safety and comfort, but strangely silent about what it means to be human and what our deepest longings are.
But to make a future for ourselves, we need something more than the new politics — we need technology. Thus, far from causing the skepticism it did in traditional societies, technological innovation becomes fundamental in modernity. Only with the constant expansion of the economy through technological innovation, and the progressive mastery and possession of nature, can the modern state promise self-interested individuals a future. Scientists, on whose knowledge we all come to depend, therefore become our authorities. They are a new class that makes the new politics work even if they’re unelected — the propagandists of Progress. They do a new kind of charitable work, they secure us better health and more comfort, and thus they justify modern modes against traditional authority — especially that of the Church. Instead of priests, we have scientists.
The Organization of Separations
Traditional society maintained its authority through myths that appealed explicitly to providential gods. Prior to Machiavelli’s blasphemy, philosophers thought that the truth about our common humanity along with the foundational violence at the origin of the city had to be concealed if men were to accept the authority of the past, through which their lives were ritualized, and patriotically fulfill their duties to their fellow citizens and the city as a whole. The arbitrary divisions of traditional society were in the service of its unity. It divided itself and its citizens from others so that it might unite better with itself. Social unity and concord were paramount — despite, nay because of the transparently partisan claims to justice of the different regimes. The ruling offices (archai) imparted a distinctive character — be it democratic, oligarchic, tyrannical, etc. — to the entire society. There was in fact no separation in antiquity between society and the state. Each regime ruled the whole city in its own interest, and claimed against its rivals that it did so justly.
The modern state, by contrast, was designed to be — or at least appear — impartial and impersonal. The state’s impersonality is accomplished or reflected in its exploitation of division and separation — in its rejection of the partisan unity of the ancient regime. Where Greek democrats alternated between commanding and obeying, ruling directly and being ruled, and ultimately assembled publicly to deliberate and make political decisions, modern citizens go to the solitude of the voting booth to elect their representatives. Modern representation sidesteps the ancient command-obedience relation. Instead, the public authorizes its government to give it commands, so that the public, in theory, only obeys itself. This creates the separation between civil society and government.
Since this separation of represented from representative opens up the possibility of the oppression of the represented, Locke and Montesquieu instituted the separation of powers. The new politics designed by Machiavelli and institutionalized in the state by Hobbes thus achieved the key mechanism intended to ensure modern liberty, as it theoretically prevents any one group of citizens from becoming powerful enough to do much harm to others. More precisely, it even tends to make citizens and the divided power that represents them impotent when it comes to oppressing others. In A World Beyond Politics? Manent explains: “Since men in such a system cannot act by commanding one another, they have no other perspective for their activity and ambition than to ‘assert their independence as they please,’… to turn their desires and their efforts to domains that are foreign to power or to politics strictly speaking.” Thus does technological commerce come to assume its central role, attracting those human types who wish to make their ambition effective by playing with Fortuna in the markets.
In this organization of separations we see again the modern emphasis on theory at the expense of political action. The rationally constructed mechanisms of the state — rooted in a theoretical vision of human nature, abstracted from the moral agent and his reasons for action — are supposed to lead to peace and prevent oppression. As a consequence, it becomes nearly impossible to ask and act on the question What is to be done? Thus begins the oblivion of the overtly political command that structured ancient politics. Though we like to think we obey only ourselves by consenting to representation, this is an illusion. Our governments do not come into being through our consent. While we are supposed to see ourselves in our representatives, this equality is only symbolic, since they, and not we, make the rules that govern us. The distinction between rulers and ruled necessarily persists. While our rulers may be held accountable through elections, this very fact reveals the fickleness and instability of democratic consent and the impossibility of perfect representation. The inevitability of some party distantly ruling to the dissatisfaction of many consequently disillusions: “Such a system,” Manent writes, “nurtures a will that wants to be partisan and knows that it is powerless, and perhaps wants to be more partisan the more it knows it is powerless.” Meaningful political action and choice thus come to seem impossible.
But the theoretical world of the state has deeper implications for our understanding of action. As we pursue our interests, protected by the state from harming one another, we come to see ourselves at the end of history. As scientists — the representatives par excellence of the theoretical perspective — uncover more and more facts about what we are and where we’re going, we are relieved of making any significant choices about our common future. It increasingly comes to seem to many moderns that, in Manent’s words, “we are rights-bearing individuals who have nothing left to do in this world or in the next but claim our rights.” Science and politics alike are separate from our lives and we therefore are ever less involved in the most important things human beings can know or do. The ever-expanding list of identities demanding public recognition in the form of rights can be seen, at least partially, as a symptom of the eclipse of meaningful moral action. Freed from the traditional constraints of families and communities — in which one used to take pride and be habituated to reciprocal moral acts and feeling a shared stake in a common future — we see atomized actors seeking unconditional public approval for their performative navel-gazing.
Representation and its Discontents
This kind of performance is facilitated by the prevalence of abstractions in our discourse, which is connected to the fact that modern democracy is representative. Representation, as a concept, is ambiguous and indeterminate. We can see this from our contemporary debates. Is the Electoral College to be abolished because it does not represent the will of the simple majority? Or is it to be preserved because it represents the country in its diversity? And what is being represented in either case: the common good, interests, opinions, identities? We do not have persuasive answers to these questions, but merely expect that partisan passions will either be satisfied by victory or silenced by defeat, so that the system can be preserved.
Of course, the issue of representation extends beyond the structural connection between the represented and their representatives in government. We hear, for instance, ever more numerous and strident demands for “inclusiveness” in the public sphere — be it in popular culture, the boardroom, or the workplace. On the assumption that any sign of a less than perfect representation of the statistical constitution of society is a sign of injustice. Thus we get the enduring cant about the gender pay gap. That is, we see an obsession with and outrage over statistics — numbers, which replaces any concern with human nature. One need not have been discriminated against oneself, know personally or even indirectly someone who has (though social media has greatly facilitated this last possibility). Merely seeing that men are disproportionately represented in some fields compared to women is enough to incite the outraged demand for equality now.
We need not explain here how biological differences between the sexes account for any disparity. What is fundamental is the oblivion of choice, whatever its individual roots. The rage for equal statistical representation ignores the complex diversity of human action and individuality. No consideration is given to the differences in individual dispositions or characters — and how they affect our choices. Indeed, Progress toward this abstraction of representative statistical equality itself implies an emphasis on theory at the expense of action properly understood. If we are all to be swept along into this resplendent future, no practical choices are necessary for individuals. We are one with Progress. And if you do make a real choice against this current, it is considered benighted or downright incomprehensible.
Modern philosophers put far too much faith in institutions and mechanisms — in technology and commerce for the construction of a new politics that would almost always guarantee social peace. Their great successes lay in teaching people what to think about and how to think about it — to avoid questions of morality and authority, but this came at the price of increasingly paralyzing action. Which actions by citizens are legitimate is harder to know and summoning the moral conviction necessary for action harder to do. And yet we do not have civil peace in this system that encourages a politically passive population, largely satisfied to obey anonymous strangers who make up the rules of our lives. We don’t love the experts, the bureaucrats, and the other parts of our elites. We hardly even trust them. We even suspect they hate us.
We live in an age of conspiracy theories because our rulers are anonymous strangers who might turn into tyrants at any moment, and we don’t even know what to do about it. Isn’t modern philosophy one big conspiracy, too? But so is every bureaucracy today. So is the corporate decision-making which issues in sudden professions of faith in woke capital. There is no democracy in this decision-making, and as public institutions lose the people’s trust, we inevitably begin to suspect that all the genius for mechanisms and abstractions of modern philosophy might be an attack on what makes us human — our souls, our moral convictions, and our powers of action.