America — What’s in a Name?

Reading up today on the controversy surrounding the revelations made by Edward Snowden concerning the NSA “total” surveillance system, I came across Glenn Greenwald’s article questioning the espionage charges being brought against Mr. Snowden for causing “injury to America”. Greenwald responds with the sensible question: who actually is causing “injury to America”?

But what is “America”?

Recall that, in an earlier post, I suggested that what we call “society” is the public conversation. And it is in the examining the condition of the public conversation that we can diagnose the state of health or sickness of a society. If speech is “the life-blood of society”, as Rosenstock-Huessy gave, then any hindrance or obstruction to the free circulation of speech can induce in society something akin to cardiac arrest. It does not have to be direct repression or censorship. There are other ways in which the circulation of the public discourse can be obstructed.

The case in question is a prime example of an obstruction in the circulation of speech. Both Snowden’s defenders and his pursuers agree that there has been “injury to America”. That’s the limit of their agreement. What they don’t agree on is the meaning of “America”. This is the obstacle. But here we come to an interesting index into the condition of American society itself. “America” does not mean the same thing within the public conversation — in fact it can be said to have a polarised meaning that not only makes agreement difficult to achieve, but also indicates an accelerating disintegrate and polarised condition of American society (as is true for many other societies in Late Modernity).

This is, again, a question of consciousness, and of the crisis of consciousness that is really the implicit issue in all the important critical and controversial events of the day. Let’s see how this name “America” and its usage in the public conversation reveals this underlying crisis of the day as being part of a world-historic crisis of consciousness and identity.

The Modern Era is also known as the era of “the Nation-State”. Note how these two terms are hyphenated, in a kind of “separate but equal” arrangement. The unity of nation and state is assumed. The Nation-State is the assumed unity of the masses and their government, their ruling classes, or governing institutions. “Government of the people, for the people, by the people” expresses this unity of the Nation and the State. Even the dictatorships of the Modern Era, left or right, have all had to justify themselves as “democratic” in the sense, at least, of being of the people, and as having derived their legitimacy from “the masses” or “the nation”. The term “Nation-State” assumes a consensus or contract between the people and their governments — the consent of the governed. This unity or integration of nation and state is what is expressed in the slogan “my country right or wrong”.

If the secular Nation-State is the chief institutional innovation of the Modern Era, and its defining political achievement, the condition of this institution of consent and consensus, should tell us a great deal about the continuity or end of the Modern Age itself, and of its particular Weltanschauung, the Zeitgeist, or, equivalently, its unique “structure of consciousness”. In fact, the institution called “Nation-State” is dissolving and disintegrating, and this also reflects a crisis in the structure of consciousness — of “the mental-rational consciousness structure” in Gebser’s terms. It also reflects a loss of discernment.

For Snowden’s pursuers, “America” is used in a specific way. America is the State. It is the State that has suffered injury from Snowden’s disclosures. Those who use the name “America” in these terms simply assume that the State and the Nation are identical. Here we have a monological understanding of the meaning “Nation-State”.

For Snowden’s defenders, such as Greenwald, “America” is the Nation, not the State. There is no equivalence of Nation and State. The State exists by the consent of the Nation, not the Nation by the consent of the State. Here, you have a dialogical understanding the meaning “Nation-State”.

In other words, the hyphenated arrangement which expressed the unity of people and their government (representative or electoral democracy in this case) no longer obtains. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” to invoke Yeats once again, Yeats’ “centre” being this hyphen in the semantic construction “Nation-State”. The powers of Nation and those of the State are polarising, and this is revealed in the public discourse. It is equally reflected in the tendency, today, to treat civics (and civil rights) and politics as separate spheres of public activity. This was impossible to classical thinkers and writers. They never made a distinction between civics and politics.

This polarisation means the State has become a private power, not a public one. It no longer identifies with the “nation” in the true meaning of that word. It merely assumes that it is this “Nation”. It is no longer identified with the Nation in the sense of “people”. An “Ego” and “It”, a radical subject-object relation, exists between State and Nation.

This cynical dis-identification or estrangement of State power vis-a-vis the Nation is the attitude exemplified in another article from The Guardian by George Monbiot entitled “How can we invest our trust in a government that spies on us?” I quote,

“Talking to Sunday’s Observer, a senior intelligence source expressed his or her concerns about mass surveillance. “If there was the wrong political change, it could be very dangerous. All you need is to have the wrong government in place.” But it seems to me that any government prepared to subject its citizens to mass surveillance is by definition the wrong one. No one can be trusted with powers as wide and inscrutable as these.”

The polarisation of “State” and “Nation” reflects the dis-integrate condition of Late Modernity. I have suggested that it more fundamentally reflects a crisis of consciousness, a crisis in the modern structure of consciousness and identity. Those who have read Rosenstock-Huessy’s great essay “Farewell to Descartes” may also gain some greater degree of insight into how this crisis in consciousness has come about.

Finally, we have Nietzsche’s interpretation of the relationship of State to Nation as being a false relation, and of the State as being what he calls “the coldest of all cold monsters” in “The New Idol”

“A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears unto me, for now will I say unto you my word concerning the death of peoples.
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life.
Destroyers, are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them.
Where there is still a people, there the state is not understood, but hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs.
This sign I give unto you: every people speaketh its language of good and evil: this its neighbour understandeth not. Its language hath it devised for itself in laws and customs.
But the state lieth in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it saith it lieth; and whatever it hath it hath stolen.”

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3 responses to “America — What’s in a Name?”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Just as post-script: this isn’t an argument for libertarianism. Nor is Nietzsche’s attack on the State an argument for libertarianism.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Obama may have committed a big blunder by going after Snowden the way he has. Snowden is already becoming a legendary figure, like Robin Hood — stealing from the data rich, giving to the data poor. Obama and John Kerry are beginning to look like Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, respectively. The US government appears to have backed itself into an embarrassing corner as even its allies are apparently impeding its attempts to capture Snowden or playing dumb about Snowden or providing cover for him.

    I don’t think Mr. Obama or Mr. Kerry would want to be cast in the roles of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. But that’s where they’re going to end up being cast.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”

      The Nation and the State, each of them, can survive as long as they are not always on the offensive. When one, or the other, or both adopt the path of being always on the offensive, then and inevitably, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”

      I am completely in agreement that “Obama may have committed a big blunder by going after Snowden the way he has.” and “The US government appears to have backed itself into an embarrassing corner.” To be honest, it’s amazing to see how gathering so much “intelligence” has actually made them so dumb.

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