George Kateb wishes me to be more serious — or at least to take the state more seriously. Well, the most serious thing a philosopher can do is make distinctions, so let me begin with one. It is one thing to take the state seriously as a force in the world, and quite another to take it seriously as an ethical entity.
I find it hard not to take the state seriously as an agent that is capable of exercising great power. When it goes to war, there is no alternative but to take the state very seriously indeed. I take North Korea very seriously as a nuclear-armed power, and Equatorial Guinea no less seriously as a state that exercises its power through the machete. To take the state seriously here means to be wary of its presence in the world. Taking it seriously in this sense will not lead to patriotism, only prudence.
I find it impossible, however, to take the state seriously as an ethical construct, and cannot take seriously those who see in it something to be celebrated or who view membership in it as something to be treasured. The state is a form of social organization that reflects the human desire to have power over others. It has its origins in war. Camps are the mothers of cities, as Hume so neatly put it. Because rule by force alone is difficult, most states try to rule by gaining approval — enough at least to make it difficult for the state to be overturned — but the use of force remains a vital resource. There is little to be gained by decrying this fact, for it remains true that we haven’t come up with alternative forms of social organization that will better keep those who love power in check. To be sure, there are better and worse states; and I’m all for doing what it takes to stop our own states from becoming worse — more ambitious, more tyrannical, and more warlike. But it’s not a form of human association for which I hold out great hopes. Happily, however, I am rarely disappointed by the state, for my expectations are not high.
None of this is inconsistent with taking seriously the erosion of civil liberties, or with working to prevent or to end destructive military adventures. It is not inconsistent with taking politics seriously, if limiting harm and suffering are best served by political efforts. But it is inconsistent with seeing the state as an important moral good. States matter; but really, states just don’t matter.
That said, I will invoke a third sense of the word when I admit that I find it very hard to take George Kateb’s analysis of the causes of war seriously. It is his thesis that patriotic sentiment, along with weapons, is one of the principal underlying causes of war. Unless it is sustained by patriotic sentiment at home, the state cannot act abroad. I can’t take this proposition seriously because I think it’s simply false. It’s not that I can’t see what Professor Kateb is driving at. It’s true that the state cannot act unless it enjoys some minimal level of support. But states go to war all the time without the approval of their subjects or citizens, who are all-too-frequently duped into granting that approval after the fact.
The causes of war, I submit, lie not in the explosive power of untapped reserves of patriotism but in the fact that political and economic elites with political and economic interests compete for political and economic power. No less importantly, the origins of war lie in the fact that when states grow they develop interests of their own, and will pursue them regardless of the interests of their members, or of human beings more generally. That interest is, above all, an interest in an expansion of the state’s power. We are, to that extent, the plaything of alien powers — to coin a phrase — for it is difficult to control great institutions.
So I’m all for criticizing patriotism and chiding patriots. But I remain unconvinced that patriotism, unlike the state, is a serious force in the world.