Sovereignty & Its Discontents: Blade runner or H.G. Wells?

its evolution & future.  Blade runner or H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come?

The idea of sovereignty has been the prevailing theory of the state for at least a thousand years. It is the idea that the power of government was entrusted by God to kings and then, in the view of seventeenth century political theorists, the locus of power was shifted to officeholders responsible, in some sense, to the will of the people. In all of these cases, government was what the early twentieth century sociologist Max Weber defined it to be: a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence that could be exercised on any matters that came to concern the imagination of the government. First, there was the control of warfare, in that everything else was ruled by custom; then, ever more intrusion into the economy, violence used to enforce economic reforms such as collectivization or the regulation of the sale of bread; then, into ever more intrusion into social structure, so that violence or the threat of violence influences changes in the class structure and even the caste structure of the Jim Crow American South; and then into culture, strictly speaking, as journalists are swept off to gulags or killed. As Hugo Grotius, another seventeenth century savant, elaborated, the relation of nations to one another was one of perpetual war or potential war. Order existed only within the individual nation state. This is a long way from Kant’s Enlightenment vision of a state of perpetual peace ushered in by the gradual consolidation of nations into a giant single state.

The alternative to a state of perpetual war of nation upon nation and violence enforced social change within a state is the notion that the monopoly over violence can atrophy and become antiquated as other institutions take over the functions of government with regard to the economy, social structure and culture, there no longer being a need for government unless there is an invasion from Mars or elsewhere or to serve as a standby institution to intrude when natural disasters strike. These changes are in fact coming about or in prospect and that this century might be one of the diminishment of government intrusion in life rather than, as was the last century, a period when government intruded in life to an unprecedented extent in terms of the carnage that raged between nations and the destruction of personal freedoms that states unleashed upon their own citizenry and the citizenry of the other populations they could reach, that wave of violence and even of thought control put aside only because of the efforts of those nation states that carried the banner of democracy and human rights. Mankind will always be grateful to Churchill and FDR and even admire the Cold War Presidents, from Truman to Reagan, who did not lose heart or nerve and saw it through.

The theory of sovereignty seems dated because of a long term evolution in the sense of  what government is to accomplish. The question for governments today is what is owed to people, what government can do for them, rather than what it can ask of them. Although that idea is latent in the U. S. Constitution, it is not spelled out there. Rather, the premise of the Constitution is to restrict government from overreaching itself by having one or another part of government act as a check upon the other. The idea that government had obligations to people other than to secure their liberty can be traced, as a full throated philosophy, to the New Deal, with some reference back to TR’s Square Deal, he also having recognized that the intrusion of government into many matters concerning the welfare of the people, such as collective bargaining or child labor laws or the regulation of the food supply, was what justified government to the people, this doctrine itself resting on the regulation of economic activity that had always been part of government activity since Rome provided bread and circuses and Joseph controlled the storing and distribution of harvests. It was just that this was now the reason for government rather than something that government could also do in addition to managing a military and using taxes to fund itself. People had come to want smaller government so long as it protected their Social Security and Medicare. Ideology had outrun reality and still does, but there are enough signs that things are changing.

It is now clear, in the international sphere, that not only liberal democracies do not go to war with one another, but that no economically developed nation goes to war with another economically developed nation except for minor skirmishes on the fringe, as when Putin fought back against the Western takeover of Ukraine by supporting forces to hold the very pro Russian parts of eastern Ukraine. China and the United States have avoided a Cold War like confrontation partly because they are economically dependant on one another and partly because they both learned the lesson of the Cold War, which is not to isolate the other side. The only places that allow for wars are Africa and the Middle East, the latter of the two having been in unceasing conflict for millenia. North Korea is an atavism, a left-over of the Cold War, more like Japanese soldiers holding out on Pacific Islands well into the Fifties than like anything else. Even Cuba is shedding its Cold War coat. For the moment, military exercises replace military operations, but even that might become a thing of the past.

Think also about what is happening in the domestic sphere. Corporations, universities and hospitals become the economic backbone of political communities. Yale University makes payments in lieu of taxes that account for a large part of the New Haven budget. Universities become the hub of the development of communities into retirement centers, as is the case in North Carolina, where Asheville offers a university as well as blue grass music and great food. And if Amazon decides to build its new fifty thousand employee campus on Staten Island or in a Northern New Jersey community rather than in downtown Philadelphia, it will have to create a school system for its employees and also undertake significant infrastructure rebuilding so that its employees have an easy trip into Manhattan for both work and entertainment.

More and more government functions are to be undertaken by giant corporations simply because they have the resources to do so and the need to get it done while governments dither, which has been the case in Puerto Rico since the hurricane, partly because there are no large corporations there that would not be happy to locate elsewhere. Rich people don’t just buy basketball franchises; they alter the social dynamics of regions. This is the promise held by Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara: he would build villages where workers could live and prosper. Pullman had tried that with his workers a bit before Shaw made his prophecy, but that was undermined by Pullman’s very narrow understanding of what was in his own self interest and so he came in conflict with what his workers needed, which was also to exercise their rights as citizens. Corporate creativity does not do away with the rights of citizens; it just enhances them so that government can become more of a technocracy, doing what obviously has to be done, which is to build a third rail tunnel under the Hudson. Then government will become a meritocracy, political office open to visionaries and doers rather than to the clowns who are good only at attending rubber chicken banquets to raise money for their congressional campaigns.

What I am predicting is not that government will disappear. Rather, it will resume its function of protecting the rights of citizens insofar as those universal rights are intruded upon by universities and other corporations which will be the main purveyors of jobs and infrastructure. University and other towns will have to keep their towns attractive so as not to scare of their employees to other towns. Then government, in the far future, can get out of its present business of providing these things out of the common coffers so as to prime the pump or to carry the cost of infrastructure projects such as a new national railroad system, which will be very expensive and completely change the geography of the various coast lines of the United States and which has to be constructed in the next fifty years. The main difference is that, whatever balance is struck between projects carried out by government and projects carried out by corporations, government will no longer have to use the threat of violence to get things done because regulatory mechanisms and zoning commissions will be in place to police non-discrimination policies and other matters of political concern. Crime rates will continue to go down because of enlightened police tactics and because of programs that will dissuade even relatively poor people from taking to a life of violent crime. You won’t abolish crimes of passion or a larcenous heart, at least for a very long time to come. What I am looking forward to is the image provided by H. G. Wells in his The Shape of Things to Come: a central square in which opposing points of view on topics of public concern are argued by speakers who orate from holograms while adventurous sorts will get shot out to a cannon so that they can explore the moon. It is the opposite of the Blade Runner vision, where law enforcement is central to keeping a depleted and corporatist society going.