Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 98: Imagine No Countries

The dream is expressed as follows:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people living life in peace.

To review, my ongoing philosophic analysis of John Lennon’s “Imagine” found that the two other big things Lennon asks us to imagine humanity getting beyond are possessions, i.e., private property, and religion.  So far, I’ve only addressed the first of these, and we saw there were reasons for Lennon thinking that the imagining of no possessions was the harder of the three.  Next time, I will be arguing that it’s just as hard to conceive of humanity getting past its inclination for religion, despite certain contemporary signs that suggest the contrary. 

But Lennon was correct to suggest that imagining humanity unified into one political community has become easier than ever.  I do not see anything in human nature that makes it impossible.  And the EU, despite its growing difficulties, is the primary sign of this.  (A better-designed EU capable of expanding over the course of a century into a WU is quite imaginable.) So here, our objections against “Imagine” must be less against its naïve hope in what is in fact utopian, that is, impossible, but more against its naïve hope in what would prove dystopian, that is, disastrous for humanity.

Since the hope of a world government or confederation begins with modern political thinkers and philosophers, it is best to begin with them.  Paul Seaton would likely say that the philosopher to consult first is the contemporary French thinker Pierre Manent, particularly the key chapters in his A World beyond Politics? or his shorter (Seaton-translated) book Democracy without Nations? For this post, however, we will mainly consider the “no countries” dream via another contemporary French (and Catholic) thinker, the great Chantal Delsol, and via yet another(!) book translated by Paul Seaton, Unjust Justice:  Against the Tyranny of International Law. If Manent gets us closer to understanding the root tendency at work, Delsol helps us to see its above-ground intellectual history more clearly. There are quite a few thinkers who have called for or predicted world government, ranging from various Hegelians to a Thomist like Mortimer Adler, but Delsol focuses us on several key strains of cosmopolitan political thought. 

Its first obvious manifestation occurs with several thinkers of the French Revolution, such as Anarchis Cloots.  I’ll call this republican cosmopolitanism. Americans can get a sense of this creed by recalling the actions of Citizen Genet, and of how those actions assumed that the Revolution would properly sweep the globe up in its cause, melding in the meantime French and American foreign policy into one.

Its second is in the communist cosmopolitanism of  Karl Marx and his more Hegelian(and flexible) follower Alexandre Kojeve.  Its third is the liberal cosmopolitanism of Immanuel Kant’s first position on this question, and perhaps thinkers of the Fukuyaman mode. Kant is not quite as simple as this, however, for the fourth strain is the pacifistic cosmopolitanism of the later Kant which would have, in his phrase, the “sole aim” of “avoiding war.”  Champions of a League of Nations arrangement like Woodrow Wilson, or believers in the “trading liberal democracies never go to war against one another” theory (that Hamilton attacks in Federalist No. 6), should be seen as belonging to this strain. 

John Rawls’s theory offered in The Law of Peoples might belong here as well, as it seems to envision only a world federation (or tight treaty-law) the way the later Kant did, but I think it teeters on the edge of and falls right into the fifth and most significant strain of our day, the progressive cosmopolitanism of the EU’s most unrestrained champions.  Jurgen Habermas is a good example of this fifth strain, where contrary to the later Kant, he says we must go beyond the bare goal of avoiding war—as Delsol recounts his argument, he says it is “…time to oblige states to respect human rights…which implies that we must sketch the project of a ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ with a world parliament and endowed with permanent International Court of Justice. This state would have own armed force.”

All Rawls’s theory effectually would do differently is to get to this destination of a world state via more negotiations over time that eventually bring all peoples to recognize its mutually beneficial character.  That is, in terms of world government, followers of Rawls are “Articles of Confederation men” who will eventually be pushed by the logic of events into seeking “a more perfect union.”  And of course, there are many, particularly at Brussels and in the NGOs, acting as if an “EU for the world,” this Habermasian cosmopolitan democracy, is just around the corner.  Their typical agenda and actions were well-described in a seminal essay penned a decade ago by John Fonte about “Transnational Progressivism.”  They are the ones you’d most likely find embracing “Imagine” as a poetic condensation of their creed.

Obviously, all five of these strains of political cosmopolitanism overlap with and blend with one another, especially the third and the fifth, which can be thought of as simply the right-leaning and left-leaning versions of the “rights and democracy for everyone!” idea.  The only strain that partakes of moderation, that backs away from the idea of a world state in preference for a world confederation is the fourth, the one espoused by the later Kant and purportedly (but not convincingly so) by Rawls.  Only it preserves “countries” and thus in the long run, “peoples.”

There are two important moves that Delsol describes in loosely laying out the above taxonomy of world-government projects.  The first is from the naïvely cosmopolitan Kant, to the somewhat moderate Kant.  The second is from the advocacy of world government for either simple peace between peoples or the deeper peace of communism to what initially seems a more moderate goal—that of international justice.

Here is Delsol on Kant’s shift of cosmopolitan emphasis:  the earlier Kant advocated  “The world state capable of assuring justice between and among the many states, which until then will conduct themselves like individuals in the state of nature…”

Kant invoked this idea in works published in the 1780s [particularly in The Idea of Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View ]…But beginning with the 1790s his thinking changed.  In the third part of Theory and Practice, which is devoted to the law of nations, the cosmopolitan constitution capable of bringing universal peace becomes more dangerous than war itself, because “it brings with it the most frightening despotism.”  …it is henceforth a question of a “a state, to be sure, but one which is not a cosmopolitan community subject to a leader, it is a federated state subject to a law of nations to which all the member-states have agreed.”

This change in perspective find its completion in a text of 1795, Project of a Universal Peace.  In it Kant clearly replaces the project…for a world state with the project or hope for a federation of free states that together would be capable of promoting justice and peace in the world…Kant saw the price of world government would be liberty.  “A federation of states having as its sole aim the avoidance of war is the only lawful state compatible with the liberty of all of them.”

Now, I won’t review here the usual “realist” criticisms of this idea, perhaps nowhere better articulated than in the foreign policy writings of Raymond Aron (another Frenchman, do note!), as I think most of Postmodern Conservative’s readers know them already.  We should remember, however, that in our own history it wasn’t just men like Woodrow Wilson who fought for the peace-protecting world federation idea, but also some like Dwight Eisenhower.  And Delsol is right that we should appreciate Kant’s coming to partially correct his earlier error, and the determination to preserve nations present in the League of Nations ideal.

The second move is this: there has been a liberal and progressive backing away from the League’s goal of a world that outlaws war in favor of trying to build piecemeal a body of nearly-universally accepted international law; while this seems to be a sage moderation of the utopian instinct, it is actually proving to have rather despotic implications.  Similarly, while in the name of resolving all social contradictions the communist cosmopolitans sought what Kojéve called the universal homogenous state, those who talk of a human-rights-based and atrocity-preventing international law typically offer assurances that they intend no internal transformations.  But actually, logic of their thinking actually promises to take the “right to protect” imperative into the innards of every society.  Here are Delsol’s words on this:

…The world government now being sought therefore has changed its nature…it is no longer thought of as the result or expression of real universal equality…  Rather, it is presented as a means of establishing justice at the level of the entire globe, aimed especially against states that oppress their peoples. …Our contemporaries no longer seek a “socially homogenous universal state,” as Kojeve put it…, but rather a morally homogenous state. …world government clearly is possible, indeed has begun to be realized through international criminal justice  …What more noble aim can there be than to battle and defeat Evil wherever it may be found on earth?  Why therefore, should one oppose this beautiful generous idea, that of cosmopolitan justice?  It should be opposed because it undermines politics and more generally, human diversity…

That’s Chantal Delsol.  She models her stance specifically on what she describes as the way Montesquieu advocated a great deal of respect for each particular people’s laws and political decisions while still believing in a universal law; thus, she wants each nation to have its own discussion about justice, and its own politics to decide how to apply its notion of justice case-by-case.  The real human diversity is found in the often slightly different, but sometimes starkly different, answers people adopt toward questions of justice internal and external.  Each people is any case responsible for those tentative answers embodied in actual decisions—they are not in the future irresponsible position of saying, “Well, whatever the World Supreme Court decides,” nor in the present irresponsible position (rejected by American conservatives) of nations loudly touting obedience to international law while in fact in every kind of pinch doing whatever is convenient for them.

As Delsol says, “…By definition encompassing all earthly societies, it [world government] would have to be despotic, because all diversity—the condition for the continued existence of politics as we understand it, would be extinguished.”  So, to wish for a world of “no countries” is to wish for a world of no participatory politics.  It is to oppose oneself against the Aristotelian teaching that we are naturally political beings, and against the related classic republican teaching that opposes Empire.  As Pierre Manent so powerfully teaches, the present EU and the especially the envisioned “EU for the World” are new manifestations of the perennial political form Empire.  Lennon-ists are Imperialists. 

Further, to wish for a world of “no countries” is to oppose oneself against the Biblical teaching that it in humanity’s fallen state, it is not good for it to be unified as one people.  In the Christian version of this, the event of Pentecost answers the story of Babel, and points to the heavenly city where a unity, one that still acknowledges the national and ethnic diversity woven into our minds and bodies, becomes possible.  On earth, this unity can be achieved to some degree by the Church, and some Christian political thinkers have felt it could be mimicked by a Christian Empire, but all Christians have held it is heretical to hope for more prior to heaven.

Regardless of whether one regards the story of Babel as something that really happened since it is recounted in the Bible, or as a divinely-endorsed myth since it is recounted in the Bible, or an entirely human-invented story that simply reflects deep truths about the human condition, one would have to regard Lennon’s “Imagine” as a hubristic defiance of the story’s truths.  Here’s Delsol on one of those truths:

The biblical God could not have dispersed men except in view of a positive good (for them)  …What good?  …traditionally for all cultures, evil mean separation—dia-bolos –while unity always declared itself as a good.  …There is an anthropology detectable in the biblical text, an anthropology that through the centuries remained that of Christian civilization.  An answer to the question can be drawn from it.  In this anthropology man is viewed as a being who becomes, who is never fully completed but is always coming to be.  In other words, he is a being with a beginning and a finality.  …His true dream is not directed toward that which is here below.  In this earthly realm, therefore, a “perfect” unity could only be a false unity.

And it would be a unity that would grossly stunt our political nature and vilely flatten our diversity.  A despotism stronger and perhaps more pervasive than any previous one, would be necessary to maintain it.

Reading Delsol, perhaps alongside the scholar of international law Jeremy Rabkin, could lead one to see what we can and must try to do with international law, lest we simply accept Hobbesianism between nations.  Delsol is emphatic that we do have to try to eliminate war and tyranny, but with the knowledge that we ultimately cannot, and with the knowledge that the present project of international justice is in fact dangerous.  A commitment to achieving what kinds of confederations or treaties designed to minimize war we can in our era, without the expectation that these will blossom into “getting beyond independent political entities,” and thus beyond the lessons imparted by the likes of Thucydides, Montesquieu, and Aron, is what she would recommend.

Adopting as John did an avant-garde Parisian hairstyle, marrying a Japanese woman, living in Manhattan rather than Liverpool, or, chatting as we do on Skype with international friends, sharing with them rock songs sung in English–or if not, easily translated by computers–, signing up to aid famished Africans or to trade with newly consumerist Chinese or to study abroad anywhere convenient enough, all this may make it seem that the world is now one, or as Blur put it, that the universal’s here.  But the political remains stubborn—the murderers mainly saw Americans when the World Trade Center came into their sites, half of the Scots are bizarrely toying with leaving the UK, and in many countries, nationalism seems on the rise, even in France and Japan.

Still, we have to admit with Delsol that even if very difficult, the world state is possible.  The lure of that possibility, even as a very long-term goal, is going to tempt many of our friends American and international, particularly the ones seduced by poetic cosmopolitan progressivism such as Lennon’s, into supporting policies that are ultimately despotism-fostering. We have to show them that the land of no countries will not look like Lennon and a crowd of loving hippies at a peace concert, but rather like a slick crew of “nowhere man” Euro-bureaucrats of Brussels emailing their latest fine-print rules-update to every lawyer, cop, and inhabitant on the planet, although perhaps, the new order might try to make itself sound like Lennon’s soothing “Imagine,” albeit amplified through some air-piercing loudspeaker perched atop a peculiarly high Tower.

Most Popular

Media

‘Anonymous’ Falls Flat

On the menu today: The op-ed page of the New York Times made the deliberate decision to hoodwink America about the identity of “Anonymous”; the sense of guilt that pervades legacy media -- a very apt label; and wondering whether or not we will even see long lines on Election Day with early voting being so ... Read More
Media

‘Anonymous’ Falls Flat

On the menu today: The op-ed page of the New York Times made the deliberate decision to hoodwink America about the identity of “Anonymous”; the sense of guilt that pervades legacy media -- a very apt label; and wondering whether or not we will even see long lines on Election Day with early voting being so ... Read More

Hunter Biden on Tape?

In a newly released recording, a man purported to be Hunter Biden is heard rambling about (a) his legal representation of Patrick Ho, a convicted former Hong Kong official he refers to as “the f***ing spy chief of China”; (b) his business dealings with Ye Jianming, the corrupt Chinese high roller, whom Hunter ... Read More

Hunter Biden on Tape?

In a newly released recording, a man purported to be Hunter Biden is heard rambling about (a) his legal representation of Patrick Ho, a convicted former Hong Kong official he refers to as “the f***ing spy chief of China”; (b) his business dealings with Ye Jianming, the corrupt Chinese high roller, whom Hunter ... Read More
Elections

Hell, No

Editor’s Note: If you would like to read more pros and cons on voting for President Trump, further essays on the subject, each from a different perspective, can be found here, here, and here. These articles, and the one below, reflect the views of the individual authors, not of the National Review editorial ... Read More
Elections

Hell, No

Editor’s Note: If you would like to read more pros and cons on voting for President Trump, further essays on the subject, each from a different perspective, can be found here, here, and here. These articles, and the one below, reflect the views of the individual authors, not of the National Review editorial ... Read More
Music

Stevie Nicks, Like Springsteen, Preaches and Preens

In the 1970s, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen made impressions on pop-music culture with romantic rock landmarks, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But their new 2020 releases, Nicks’s single “Show Them the Way” and Springsteen’s Letter to You film and album, make the ... Read More
Music

Stevie Nicks, Like Springsteen, Preaches and Preens

In the 1970s, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen made impressions on pop-music culture with romantic rock landmarks, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But their new 2020 releases, Nicks’s single “Show Them the Way” and Springsteen’s Letter to You film and album, make the ... Read More