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What I’ll be writing about on and off for a while

September 26, 2011

I’ve received multiple requests that I write about multi-ethnic empires: both about their historical successes and failings and about the theoretical reasons why they might present solutions to some of our more intractable problems. But this is a big subject, so I’m going to broach it by talking about the other side — in particular about why the various doctrines of popular or democratic sovereignty are intrinsically dangerous.

The key word here is ‘intrinsic’. It doesn’t take a lot of insight to observe that nations are very old while nationalism is comparably recent, nor to observe that the idea of the state as nation and of the nation as state has always and everywhere followed on the heels of the idea of the sovereign people, and has never come before. But correlation is not causation, and a lot of other things have happened in the past four hundred years. My search is for fundamental reasons why this should be so, reasons internal to the very structure of the idea of governments being constituted via the legitimate delegation of the rights to self-rulership of a hypothesized prepolitical community. In this, I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of Bernard Yack, among others.

Full disclosure: I already despise popular sovereignty and social contract theories of legitimacy for mostly unrelated reasons. In particular, I tend to see them as the political analogues of what Marx described as “fairy tale legends about the origins of capitalism”. Both by obscuring the violence from which all political authority flows with a pleasant, plausible genealogy and by implicitly turning the citizens of a state into its accomplices, theories of popular sovereignty have the effect of increasing the threshold of brutality beyond which a regime begins to lose legitimacy.

But I’m grounded enough in reality to recognize that I won’t get very far on that reactionary attitude alone. My secret hope is that by demonstrating good reasons to expect illiberal consequences from popular and democratic rhetoric, I can broaden the group of people interested in moving beyond our global hangover from the French Revolution.

So that’s the project. Once I’ve either succeeded or failed at it, I’ll circle back around to the reasons why I tend to think that multi-ethnic empires, while vastly imperfect, nevertheless have the potential to control, channel, and liberalize our nationalisms in ways that democratic states never can.

As always, please punch back.

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