The Pathological nation state and the European Project

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“Things of this world  are in so constant a flux that nothing remains long in the same state.”–(John Locke).  This was written 300 years ago and  could be  an accurate description of our current states of  political affairs. Philosophically, this suggests that Political theory ought to be at the very least a  theory of  social and political change which of course will require some kind of relation to historical knowledge. Historical knowledge manifests our  more significant social and political memories. Such memories and the narratives embodying them are a key not just to the identity of individuals  but also to the identity of peoples.

The Problem of personal identity presupposes continuity of our memory which is  one of the criteria of personal identity along with secondly, the criteria of the continuity of our physical body, and Aristotle would add two further criteria, namely,  the continuity of our social institutions(such as language) and the continuity of our political institutions and processes. Aristotle claimed in this context that  a good man needs a good state to be good and this echoes a Platonic assumption that the personality of the good man requires living in a society with just institutions. In the Republic Socrates attempts to define justice by reference to the harmonious relations of the parts of the soul of a good man. His interlocutors think this psychological or anthropological approach is inadequate and Socrates is forced to appeal to  a Platonic Kallipolis or fully functioning  just state in order for his argument to have any chance of achieving what it set out to do. The Socrates of Plato’s Republic  is well aware, however, of the fragility of even a perfect state and the risk of its degeneration  into the pathological  forms of  a military style Spartan state, and the even worse pathological forms of oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. For each of these forms of state there is a corresponding type of personality. For Plato and Aristotle, in other words, there is a fundamental logical relation between  our descriptions of personal identity and our descriptions of state identity.

Plato  would not have agreed with Churchill in his judgment that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other kinds, principally because the democracy that Churchill was referring to was a form of government very different to the direct democracy that the Greeks founded and tried to perfect, and in the process testing the scope and limits of personal freedom to their utmost. The Greeks discovered that direct democracy does not work because there needed to be a representative and  constitutional structure which translates the power of the people into something which benefits everybody, or something which benefits what they referred to as the common good. Aristotle saw clearly that the essential nature of this power of the people embodied a pluralism which logically could not be transformed into the perfect unity which Plato was seeking . The only form of government which could deal with the problems posed by pluralistic forms of life in the State was what Aristotle  called the constitutional form that  evolved naturally from families forming villages and villages forming cities. The idea of a nation state may have been  a pathological idea for Aristotle. He must have been more than surprized when one of his pupils, Alexander the Great embarked on his Empire building project.

Our modern ears are not tuned to the chords of Aristotle’s thought but it is interesting to note that at least three other major Philosophers  of different periods, may have seen the fundamental limitations of the nation state: Kant. Hannah Arendt and Paul Ricouer. Kant’s  enlightenment ideas on this issue are to be found in his political/historical writings in which he prophetically at the end of the 1700’s sketches out the blueprint for a United Nations as a means of dealing with the pathological war like  nature  of  empire builders and nation -like conglomerations. The reasoning we find in these writings follows directly the revolution in ethical theory that his categorical imperative brought about. Maxims of action could be universalized, he argued, thereby reversing a philosophical prejudice in favour of theoretical reasoning that had prevailed since Aristotle’s philosophy had lost  its influence in the  cultures of the world. Kant’s ethical theory  also restored freedom in the social and political worlds and demanded as a consequence respect for  an individuals human rights which we all know is one of the major supporting columns of the United Nations along with a desire for universal peace. As suggested  nations states as such  did not exist during the Kantian period. When they did come into existence they bore all the characteristics of the nation-like conglomerates which Kant found to be pathological formations. Nation states  were largely a creation of the 19th century and  their pathological nature only became evident after the second world war for most of us(Freud saw this much earlier with his eagle eyes).

Hannah Arendt discusses this phenomenon at length in her work “the “Origins of Totalitarianism” but for the purposes of this essay her work on the trial of Eichmann is more pertinent reading. She refers to Eichmann’s personality as “banal”: his speech peppered with clichés and superficial description. He was, she suggests a product of a “scientific” education and a populist culture which believed that it was capable of everything it set its mind to do with a race of supermen at its disposal  determined to put Germany first and make Germany great again. Eichmann referred to Kant in his defense and I suppose this puts him in a league above some of the contemporary populists presently strutting on the world stage. Arendt died in 1975 and was spared the details of the current resurrection of populism but her writings suggest that she would not have been particularly surprized by the phenomenon.

Paul Ricouer died in 2005 and also missed the current American anti-globalisation and British anti-European brand of populism.  He did, however,  witness the problems with the nation state in the context of anti-European movements and he did address this very interesting philosophical question of the  identity of the nation state. He, like Arendt, points to the problems nationalist movements pose for the natural pluralistic diversity of  conglomerations of populations  and suggests that history and tradition in itself is not sufficient to constitute a state. Ricouer was more critical of Kant than Arendt  and would probably have been prepared to accept a Hegelian teleological interpretation of  tradition and history: an interpretation which characterises the flow of history dialectically in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: capitalism, communism and humanistic liberalism. More importantly Ricouer  implicitly embraces an Aristotelian model of state identity when he proposes his philosophical response to the globalizing forces  of public and political life: forces which  involve commerce, technology, ecology and national security  He too believes that state identity has a similar structure to  an individual’s  personal identity.

Ricouer  claims that the globalization forces referred to above  in the political system produces fragility. Counteracting   forces  are therefore needed to create a new form of  European political  authority. He suggests that religious institutions, institutions concerned with knowledge and learning , including schools and universities, should engage with this problem by trying to build opinion for a new political authority. He also suggests three mechanisms or models that can be culturally used in this process  of cultural evolution.  Firstly, a model of linguistic hospitality involving the translation of texts and discourse from other European  cultures, secondly  the exchange of cultural memories of norms, perspectives, customs and traditions of other European nations and thirdly a mechanism or model of  secular forgiveness which is seen in the operation of the law in its intention to heal the injured and compensate the victim of selfishness or aggression.   This third  model or mechanism is more than an echo of the Socratic appeal not to return evil for the evil done to one by outsiders.. This category transcends that of individual rights and the law and resembles a Buddhist gift which one can ask for but cannot demand.

Ricouer has also written one of the greatest  books written on Freud, in which he points out the  strength and limitations of psychoanalytic categories in the explanation of cultural phenomena. Freud, who was asked by the League of Nations to write a discourse on War well before the second world war began, reasoned himself into a position in which the discontents of civilization should adopt a stoical attitude of resignation to the imperfections of their societies. This, according to Freud is the only wise avenue of approach to the question relating to how the individual “bears the burden of existence” and bears the burden of our imperfectly constructed States.

Culture, in Freud’s view is the battleground of two mighty instincts, the life instinct of an individual  which unites people  into families, villages and cities, and the death instinct  which   can only be deciphered at the level of   the  relation between people where forces work  conservatively to repeat the patterns of the past obsessively. These same forces work to  prevent wider and wider associations, sometimes  by destructively  dissolving existing constructed relations on a limited scale, or on a global scale in a world war. The life instinct, Eros, Freud argues , ought  in a perfect world, to triumph over the death instinct, Thanatos. The stoical attitude  appears to be an attitude one adopts whilst one observes the battle of the giants on the cultural scene. Freud  does not presume to even guess the outcome and stands in the shadow of Kant who was absolutely certain on moral grounds that Reason would prevail and a cosmopolitan kingdom of ends would be created as a consequence. Ricouer stands either in between these two positions or alternately to the right of Kant if one  believes the mechanism of forgiveness to have religious connotations. Freud has been mentioned in this context  in spite of Ricouers criticism that the Freudian archaeological theory of mind and society lacks a Hegelian teleological dimension (or Aristotelian dimension:the telos of the common good).

Freudian theory  is particularly valuable in the explanation of pathological phenomena. If the assumption of Plato and Aristotle  relating to the logical identity of personal identity and social or political identity is philosophically defensable then, even if Freudian theory might lack an important teleological dimension this might not be of decisive significance when it comes to the characterisation of pathological phenomena whether it be of a personal or political nature. Take the phenomenon of group identity which Freud wrote a paper about(Group Psychology and the Ego). The stronger the bond of identification with the group, the stronger the reaction to  “outsiders” however minimal the factual differences between the outsiders and the members of the group might be. This reasoning can be used to ground an  objection to the project of globalization, namely,  that the only alternative to the current concept of the nation state is some kind of world government. Now Kant particularly rejected the concept of world government on the grounds that this would  be tyrannical. If we connect this Kantian point to the Freudian reflection, the consequence would seem to be the kind of middle position suggested by Ricouer  in which a European project dilutes national identity and nationalism on the road  to the global project of further dilution of  the identification mechanisms involved in Euro-politanism. Freud clearly described the pathological consequences of identification mechanisms in relation to the mobilization of aggression against the Jews, but he  did not see the full consequences of this particular battle between Eros and Thanatos. He died in 1939. Had he been alive he would probably have observed that a German Jew was just as much a German as any non- Jewish German. His analysis of   the leader of the Germans at the time of his suicide would have been very cool and technical. Terms such as “pathological  or chronic narcissism”, “paranoia”  “delusional”for him were descriptive and explanatory and embedded in a network of concepts and principles rather than emotionally laden as they seem to be for us when taken out of their medical context. Hannah Arendt points out the banality of the way in which the everyday family German participated  in atrocities  during the day whilst going home in the evening to be fathers to their families. In doing so, she argues, this phenomenon  bears witness to the Freudian battle of  the giants on the cultural stage. The same mechanism, if not same instincts, binding a child to his parents binds a citizen to his leader: one can identify out of love or as a consequence of exposure to aggression.

With all the Freud bashing going on in the name of “science” it is  not so difficult to believe that we have not learned very much about the pathological  mechanisms and phenomena operating at the social and political levels.  If one believes in the logical relation of the individual and the political,  and one understands how Freudian mechanisms are operating at the political level, then the idea of the nation state being  driven into nationalistic isolationist  anti-immigration policies  and thereby manifesting itself as a pathological  obsessive compulsion, becomes understandable. History has taught us about the causes of social and political pathology but the understanding of the mechanisms of the identity  formation of groups need further  philosophical investigation. Until that happens we will not be able to judge whether the counteracting mechanisms of the translation of cultures, the exchange of  cultural memories relating to traditions customs and mores, and the secular concept of forgiveness suggested by Ricouer, will  heal the wounds inflicted by globalization upon the pathological nation state.

Until  we understand the mechanisms of political identity we risk embracing the pathological elements of our politics  and blaming all our woes on Globalisation.