Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Postmodern Corporate State

In the medieval corporate state, groups negotiated for political and economic advantage. In the liberal state, individuals negotiated for the right to live as they chose so long as they did no harm to others. In the postmodern state, groups negotiate for something never before held to be the business of politics; recognition, regard, self-esteem. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together pg. 55)

Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has a line that I often use with my own students: "In the pre-modern State there was no such thing as rights; there were privileges that you paid for." The common perception of the Middle Ages was that it was hierarchical and oppressive, with women, peasants, Jews and heretics being trodden underfoot by the nobility and the Church. The hierarchical part of medieval politics was certainly true, though I am hardly convinced that hierarchy, in of itself as an abstract model of the universe, is necessarily bad. Certainly, its replacement by an egalitarian model had far more to do with changes in the natural sciences than any sudden "enlightenment" as to the unjustness of hierarchy. The notion of the medieval State as oppressive misses the point. Knights were not treated better than peasants because of any assumption of their superiority (beyond the usual sense, common to all people in all times, that they are somehow better than other people). Knights performed a valuable service as professional soldiers; hence their services bought them special privileges. As with the changes in the natural sciences, the shift to mass "citizen's" armies did far more to bring down feudal hierarchy than any realization that it was "wrong." In highly militarized societies, where the dominant issue is not suffering sudden violent death, value is going to be predominantly determined based on military usefulness. Hence knights would be "better" than peasants and men "better" than women. The demilitarization of society (where we can now worry about social security because we expect to live long enough to receive it without suffering sudden violent death) did far more to bring down patriarchal hierarchy than any realization that there was anything "wrong" with it. Jews were tolerated sometimes in Christendom and sometimes persecuted not because Christians were "tolerant" or "intolerant," but because Jews were useful and therefore capable of directly or indirectly paying for their protection. With the economic revolutions of the late Middle Ages, Jews stopped being useful and could no longer pay for their protection; hence their expulsion from Western Europe. If there is an underlying mission to what I teach about the Middle Ages and the rise of the Modern World, it is to get students out of their modern moralism, that we are somehow "better," than those living in the Middle Ages because we are "tolerant" and believe in "equality."

While I have no desire to return to a medieval feudal hierarchy (there are certainly good reasons why this form of government disappeared), I do believe that there is something very healthy about the model of privileges as opposed to rights. To be clear, I believe, and the medieval political tradition would agree with me, that there is such a thing as rights, in the sense of right and wrong and that one should not seek to persecute others simply because they are weaker than you. That being said, while I am morally obligated to support the "rights" of others, I can have no expectation that my "rights" will be respected in turn. All I can do is attempt to negotiate for my ability to live in peace by offering something, likely similar guarantees to others of my willingness to allow them to live in peace, in return. One of the fundamental weaknesses of modern liberalism is that it sees rights simply as givens, not something to be bartered for. This creates a situation where rights become a matter of groups demanding their "rights" and holding the rest of society up for blackmail. Now many of these things, whether gay marriage, equal pay for women or protection for illegal immigrants, may be perfectly legitimate. That being said, if there is no sense of negotiating and paying, then there can be no discussion, just the stomping of one's foot, demanding what you want and insisting that anyone who does not give you what you want is "intolerant" and an "enemy of the free society." The moment we stop thinking about rights and instead start talking about privileges, privileges that we pay for, then we might come to decide that certain "rights" might be too expensive and that we can do without them.


Lauren Sheil said...

When people start demanding their rights I often point them to Thomas Hobbes who said "The cure of anarchy is government under which all men agree to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself."

Izgad said...

As you can tell, I identify very strongly with Hobbes and ask very Hobbesian questions like will my neighbor slit my throat to get my sneakers. For all my defense of government, I do not desire it and fear it mainly because I see all government in Hobbesian terms, as an instrument of violence that I put up with because it is likely to be less murderous than my neighbors.

I often use Hobbes in class also as an example to my students of how secularism does not equal free societies. Of all the important Early Modern thinkers, Hobbes was most certainly an atheist, at the very least a materialist, and it is precisely his materialism that led him to support absolutist monarchy. Because I am a person of faith I believe that man can eventually transcend his materialism and its implicit Hobbesian implications. But first we need a functional State that protects us from sudden violent death in order to serve as a foundation. So I guess that makes me a Jewish Augustinian by way of Hobbes. :p