The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe (part 1)
Pierre Manent - 04/16/08

We must then ask why we have of late turned against this precious instrument. What animates this deep hostility toward what is, after all, conceptually and politically the necessary means to equality, the end we find most desirable? I will limit myself to three of the principal reasons.

From the conceptual and practical beginnings of the modern state it was clear that this otherwise irreplaceable instrument of our equal liberty could be turned against liberty; after all, the state retained all political legitimacy. We needed to protect ourselves against our protector. This was achieved by establishing distinctively liberal arrangements, whereby pride of place was given to the separation of powers. In this context, the current widespread hostility to power can be understood as a prolongation and radicalization of the “liberal” distrust, which fortunately has accompanied the modern state since its birth.

I just called the sovereign state “the instrument of our equal liberty.” But one can do away with an instrument once it has done its work. One takes down the scaffolding once the building is finished. The sovereign state compelled our ancestors to acquire the mores of equality. For several generations, these democratic mores have been incorporated and assimilated. They have become our second nature, so to speak. Since we are “governed by mores”—to cite the expression Montesquieu used to characterize the Europe of his day—we no longer have any need for this outsized instrument, the sovereign state. Or so we think.

The third reason is the most relevant to us today. Contemporary democracy does not simply want to abandon this instrument, one it formerly used and found useful; nor does it want to turn away from it as though simply disgusted and ungrateful. Today democracy turns actively and aggressively against the state. One can generalize the comment I made earlier in reference to the democratic rejection of Gaullist “hauteur” and the reduction or effacement of distance since 1968. Democracy, as the sentiment of human resemblance, a sentiment that today grows ever more powerful and aggressive, turns against this final Difference—the superiority of the state vis-à-vis society. This final Difference, as I said, was also the first Difference, since it was the condition of equality and of human resemblance. An earlier critique of the state, put forth by conservative-minded liberals, saw the state as the instrument of democratic “leveling.” We have now reached a time when the leveler is to be leveled in turn! We seem to believe that no eminence, or only of the most modest sort, should disturb the horizon, the peaceful monotony of the plains that appears to be our destiny.

The delegitimating of the sovereign state can be documented in any number of ways. The most revealing indicator is a massively significant contemporary fact that should occasion more reflection than it typically does: the abolition of the death penalty in all European states.

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