Friday, September 04, 2020

Civilizational State

Bruno Maçães has interesting comments on the relation between nation states and civilisational states. He explains that in a civilization-state, cultural ties are potentially more important than the mere legal status of citizenship. A civilization-state is organized around culture rather than politics. Linked to a civilization, the state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition. Its reach encompasses all the regions where that culture is dominant.

The world of the civilization-state is the natural political world. Think of how states are built and how they expand. If a state has developed a successful formula to organize social relations and collective power, it will tend to absorb its neighbors. As it expands and concentrates new forms of wealth, social life will become increasingly complex. Myths will be created, the arts and sciences will prosper. Within its dominion, some possibilities will be opened while others are irredeemably closed. A way of life — a way to see the world and interpret the human condition — will develop. Outside the realm, other states will offer alternatives, but because these alternatives are in turn different ways to think and to live, states are coextensive with civilizations and subordinate to the civilizational form.

The modern West broke with this mold. From the perspective of what had come before, Western political societies had oddly misplaced scientific ambitions. They wanted their political values to be accepted universally, much like a scientific theory enjoys universal validity. In order to achieve this — we shall have occasion to doubt whether it was ever achieved — a monumental effort of abstraction and simplification was needed.

Western civilization was to be a civilization like no other. Properly speaking, it was not to be a civilization at all but something closer to an operating system. It would not embody a rich tapestry of traditions and customs or pursue a religious doctrine or vision. Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework within which different cultural possibilities could be explored. By being rooted in tolerance and democracy, Western values were not to stand for one particular way of life against another. Tolerance and democracy do not tell you how to live — they establish procedures, according to which those big questions may later be decided.

Since that is the very definition of a civilization-state — to promote and defend one way of life against all alternatives — modern Western political societies had to invent a new political form. The values being defended were meant to become universal, but in practice, the idea of a world-state was never very popular. After all, these universal values were sufficiently universal to leave ample room for differences of implementation. And they were so abstract that many questions were left open, needing to be decided in different ways according to local circumstances.

The concept of a nation-state allowed for some level of diversity, but universal values were still meant to provide the constitutional framework under which each individual nation ruled itself. These universal values stood for the negation of the civilization-state and affirmed the freedom to experiment with different ways of life. But if widely accepted, they could help build global institutions and rules, reducing the likelihood of state conflict. Over the last few decades, a world-state remained a utopia, but a world society seemed to advance.

But then the civilization-state struck back...

The return of the civilization-state poses a delicate problem for the West. Remember that to a great extent, Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project. One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies. Their values tell us what we can do but are silent on what we should do. And then there is this question, particularly acute in Europe: Now that we have sacrificed our own cultural traditions to create a universal framework for the whole planet, are we now supposed to be the only ones to adopt it?

Responses vary. There are those in Europe — the populists, to use a catchy term — who want to turn the clock back and recover the wholesome content of a traditional Christian society. But many more believe that the core of a modern, secular European civilization will remain valid even if the rest of the world takes a different path. The European Union is in the process of being reconfigured as a civilization-state, a political entity aggregating all those who live by a specific value system and using political tools to protect European civilization from the attacks of its enemies.

Europe may have been convinced that it was building a universal civilization. As it turned out, it was merely building its own. The recognition of this fact will be difficult and painful, but it seems inevitable. I first noticed this transformation when European politicians started to claim that Europe is the best place in the world to live in. Rather than defending universal values such as democracy or human rights, they increasingly defend one way of life against every alternative — a competition with winners and losers. The continent that hoped to move beyond the logic of civilization is very close to converting to it, as is America. When that happens, the triumph of the civilization-state will be complete.

The irony is that Europe and the United States were Christian civilisation-states before they embarked on the elusive pursuit of universal democracy, tolerance and human rights. Unfortunately, these values do not provide a unifying drive, so these cultures are actually flying apart.

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