VI. IDEAL AND REALITY

As I indicated at the outset, this sketch is preliminary and raises more questions than it answers. But I find it generally appealing, and thus, the questions it raises worth pursuing, both for the unitary conception it offers of what otherwise are often treated as disparate phenomena, and for the link to what seems to me an independently attractive conception of self. These gains, if such they are, were yielded to a large degree by the starting point: conceiving of law (and the political) as intermediate between morality and prudence, and correlatively, conceiving of citizenship as intermediate between (universal) personhood and individuality. But this starting point, despite its appealing theoretical yield, is troublesome. I conclude this chapter by airing some doubts in this respect.

The preceding account of citizenship, and relatedly of law and the state, is highly idealized, in two senses. The first is in the Weberian sense of an ideal type. By highlighting certain salient features of a segment of our experience, we get a schematic representation that exhibits what is arguably an inner logic that connects various aspects of that experience. Such a model can serve as a methodological baseline or template in light of which the relevant range of real-l ife phenomena can be studied and assessed. But the proposed account also presents an ideal in a more substantive sense, as something attractive and appealing. It does so in two related ways. One is by showing that some conflicts and tradeoffs we experience among various normative claims made on us are not necessary; in an ideal world, we might eat some cakes and have them too. The other is by holding out a vision of a harmony within the self in the form of a narrative unity among various levels of abstraction that merges the demands of humanity, community, and individuality into a coherent whole.

Such ruminations, however, are too utopian to guide our aspirations, and are better seen as reminders of how far we fall short. Clarifying an ideal, and so increasing awareness of how remote it is, may rather serve as a caveat against delusion and as a bulwark against wishful thinking. Given the human propensity to mix reality with fantasy, we should remain ever vigilant in drawing the line between the two. One way of doing so is to retain a robust grasp on reality, but another is to spell out the fantasy. In either way we improve our capacity to tell which is which. In this concluding section I accordingly indicate some of the idealizations the previous account indulges, and the ways they affect where we stand relative to this account.

To begin with, in posing the political question I have followed a common usage by associating it with talk of a political community. But such talk is not innocuous. As indicated in Chapter 1, the term community, no matter how broadly and loosely used, does not designate the entire array of social formations, and contrasts with other collective terms such as bureaucracy and organization.9 Formulating the political question in the idiom of community accordingly loads the dice from the start in favor of certain values and ideas—concerning bonds of culture, tradition, history, and language among citizens—that do not apply in the case of many states. It is in light of such “thick” bonds that citizenship can plausibly designate a comprehensive identity. When such factors are missing or fractured, citizenship is no longer a sufficiently significant source of meaning to unify the citizens and secure their solidarity. But even relatively homogenous countries do not entirely fit the image of community. We often encounter the state as a vast bureaucracy or, perhaps more accurately, as a conglomerate of bureaucracies—formal, impersonal, and instrumental. Such social formations exhibit a mechanical, functional unity that is a far cry from the enactment of shared communal meanings. Even when governmental organizations are harnessed in the service of communal goals, they have well-documented tendencies to depart from those goals, develop their own interests, and become self-aggrandizing and self-perpetuating. They create a very different environment, and call for a different set of attitudes, than those suggested by the idiom of community.

These aspects of states bear directly on another cardinal idealization in the account I have proposed. It concerns our supposed identification with our role as citizens. Identification labels the integration of the role within the self, and so is crucial to the location of the norms governing the role as internal to us and so as constituents of our autonomy. But as we have noted earlier (in Chapter 1), not all social roles are integrated in this way. Some are enacted in a detached, impersonal, and strategic manner; we engage in them only due to some external inducement, a threat or a reward, but otherwise maintain them outside the scope of our identifications and on the periphery of the self. When citizenship is conceived in the context of the state’s bureaucratic persona, it becomes such a detached role; we enact it in interaction with alien, impersonal forces, and we respond in kind.

This finally brings us to the most radical idealization in my account. I have formulated the political question as an inquiry into the state’s nor- mativity, leaving coercion aside. The state’s normativity consists in part in an appeal to its citizens that they obey its laws. Some believe that this appeal must always be resisted; autonomy requires no less.10 I have tried to show that under some conditions, allegiance to the state and a disposition to obey its laws may be an expression of political autonomy, on a par with one’s personal and moral autonomy. But the state is a quintessentially coercive agency. Its normative appeal is backed by sanctions. This fact too militates against identification with the citizen role, and introduces a rift between obedience and autonomy. The real enemy of autonomy is not the state’s demand for loyalty, nor the law’s demand for obedience, but the enforcement of these demands by coercive means.11

Two aspects of coercive enforcement are of critical importance here, its logic and its scope. The logic of coercion is somewhat disguised by the fact that enforcement is never fully effective, and so leaves room for people’s discretionary behavior. But this state of affairs counts as an imperfection and a failure, or else the product of various exogenous constraints on the exercise of coercion, such as the retributive considerations that ordinarily limit the permissible severity of criminal sanctions. The logic of coercion does not by itself allow for such leeway. By using coercive threats, government does not merely seek to provide its subjects with an additional reason for compliance. To be coercive, the avowed purpose of the threat must be to bring about the commanded behavior independently of the agent’s own values and desires. The scope of coercion may also mislead, by appearing more limited than it is: after all, are not only those who violate the law actually put in jail? But this impression also misses the point. The main strategy of legal enforcement is deterrence, that is, coercive threats. And these are not selective; they address everyone, the good and the bad, with the same invidious message: obey, or else.

These features of coercion bear directly on the nature of citizenship. Inviting someone’s voluntary obedience, as the normative face of law purportedly does, only to back up this invitation with coercive threats designed to secure compliance irrespective, renders the initial appeal disingenuous. Relatedly, the state’s pretense to respect its citizens’ autonomy is to this extent a sham. By supplying a wholesale, decisive, external motivation for carrying out citizenship’s obligations, a motivation that bypasses or overrides the agent’s own will (informed as her will may be by this very same role’s script), coercion acts as an alienating factor, disrupts identification, and casts the citizen’s role as pro tanto distant and detached. The result is to sunder full identification with the citizen role, and render a certain ideal of citizenship and its location within the self practically unattainable.

This is for the most part a negative conclusion; but we can also glimpse its more positive, if somewhat paradoxical, complement. When state coercion crosses a certain threshold and registers as oppression, it may provoke the subversive display of a community spirit, a common enactment of a suitably abstract self, guided by what is sometimes referred to as “higher law.” Such public reaction is designed to drain the existing government’s pronouncements of their putative authority, and instead expose or perhaps rather constitute them as mere “positive law” exclusively sustained by brute force. Counterpoised to the detached citizenship of ordinary times, we find at such moments the realization of a kind of citizenship that comes closer to unifying loyalty to the political community with loyalty to oneself, and gives fuller expression to an ideal of political autonomy than is otherwise the case. This is possibly one reason why despite great individual hardships, such times of upheaval can present their protagonists with some of their finer moments.

Two further conclusions follow. One is to somewhat chill enthusiasm toward an idea, favored by some, of world citizenship supposedly tied to a global government. Since such a government is bound to be both bureaucratic and coercive, the previous considerations alert us to the danger that it would tend to fracture our humanity and alienate us from it, and so from morality. A similar conclusion applies to the other end of the spectrum of abstraction where individuality is at stake. At issue are paternalistic laws, such as those seeking to regiment people’s dietary or sexual practices for, say, health-related reasons. These laws amount to the enforcement of prudence, and so pose the corresponding danger of fracturing our individuality and distancing or alienating us from segments of it as well.

 
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