The Long View 2007-07-04: The Declaration of Independence & The Imperial Contract

This is one of the rare blog posts of the Long View that gets into something more interesting than just the controversies of the day.

If you were to do a network analysis [which I have considered doing] of John’s internal hyperlinks, the essays and reviews he cites here would probably be in the top most cited. The idea of a universal state, and how that idea interacts with the events of the early twenty-first century was probably one of the most fruitful avenues of analysis John had.

Even if you interpret the idea of cycles of history cautiously, as John tried to, the conclusion that our world is headed towards a polity of at least theoretically universal jurisdiction seems likely. Even if you discount the formalism of cycles of history as mystical woo, there are plenty of other threads to follow. For example, political systems have a tendency to follow where markets have already blazed a trail. Since we are in the second major period of economic globalization, the likelihood for some system that will attempt to regulate and enforce across the breadth of current flows of goods, people, and money also seems likely.

John’s assertion that the Founding Fathers were closer to the Imperialists, as he defines that term, than their successors such as Andrew Jackson is bold. For example, one of the things that occupied the minds of the Founders of the United States was how to prevent precisely the cycle of forms of government that we talking about here. The Republic, a mixed form of government that combined aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy together, was their best attempt at staving off the seemingly inevitable turn that seems to be looming over us.

Just how strong that inevitability was can now be seen by anyone with eyes to see. However, I am nonetheless sympathetic to John’s argument, that the Founders implicitly assented to the Imperial Contract, by means of the terms in which they coached their arguments. Whether you see this as a feature or a bug is probably dependent on what form you think the coming Empire will take.


The Declaration of Independence & The Imperial Contract

Patrick Kennon's Tribe & Empire was reviewed some years ago on these pages. His thesis is that there are two pure political types, the tribe and the the empire of the title. The tribe is atomic, violent, and personal; it recognizes moral claims only within the group, and even that morality is not subject to reflection or improvement. The political form of the tribe is the hunting band or street gang. The empire is syncretic, peaceful, and procedural; its spirit is an ethics that in principle applies to everyone and is capable of philosophical elaboration. Its form is the universal state, a class of polity that several entities have claimed to embody. However, as the author notes, most polities have been compromises between these forms. The nation-state in particular is the rational empire to its citizens and the tribe to the world. In my review of Tribe & Empire I take exception to several points in the book, but I note:

[T]he author is onto something when he asserts that the Founding Fathers, with their international perspective and their pre-nationalist political theory, were on the side of the empire, at least in comparison to the true nationalists of the Age of Jackson.

Actually, the Founding Fathers were closer to the empire than Mr. Kennon's analytical model will let him see. He employs a kind of social-contract theory; his basic point is that a population that signs the Social Contract has implicitly signed the Imperial Contract; there are practical but no theoretical limits to the sphere of law and peace. There is something to this. However, as I was reminded this morning when I heard the Declaration of Independence read on National Public Radio (a happy annual custom), the political theory of the Founders was implicitly Thomistic. Men are transcendentally endowed with inalienable rights, we are told, on which they may insist both domestically and in the society of nations. Wherever the universal state has incarnated, from Han China to the Caliphate to the Holy Roman Empire, it has claimed some link to Heaven, even in contexts were there was no strongly held presumption of a personal God.

The Founding Fathers, famously, did not base their case for independence on the universal rights of man, but on their accustomed rights as Englishmen. Nonetheless, their appeal to the decent opinion of mankind implicitly assumed that once these customary rights were established, they had to be respected for reasons prior to them. Respect for property, due process, and fair play are transcendentally founded. Perhaps that do imply the Imperial Contract. However, the Social and the Imperial Contracts imply a law that they did not create.

The author is well aware that societies often recoil from the full implications of the Imperial Contract. One such implication has been much in the news lately. To quote again from my review:

According to Mr. Kennon, the Imperial Contract is the perfect form of the Social Contract. It is the basis for the only form of society in which we become entirely human, because it makes everyone else human. For the empire, in principle, there are no foreigners. We are given a short wish-list of characteristics that a modern version of the empire should have. The author is at pains to emphasize that the empire exists to make international law enforceable, and not to govern states internally. Thus, the only “human right” in the Imperial Contract is freedom of movement: the remedy for tyranny seems to be emigration.

We may contrast this with Kant's ideal model of Perpetual Peace, to be embodied in a universal confederation of liberal republics. In such a world, Kant said, a right of visitation would be logically necessary, but not a right to settlement: that would undermine the integrity of the members of the confederation. We may contrast Kennon's view further with Hardt & Negri's Empire. Those authors imagined themselves to be plotting the destruction of the empire in Patrick Kennon's sense, but they nonetheless reiterate what seems to be a recurring theme of the theory of universal states. I quote from my review of that book, whose authors tell us:

The multitude should demand global citizenship, in the sense of the unfettered right to travel. Thus, through migration and miscegenation, they can break down the ethnic categories that the Empire cultivates. The multitude should have free, unfettered access to the means of communication, which one might take to mean Internet and cable access as a right.

In the long term, history does favor networks and non-zero-sum interactions. However, the notion that everyone will be present and aware of each other in the final future seems to be a feature of eschatological narrative. Certainly we see it in Scripture:

"Thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."
—Daniel 12:4

However, as we have seen, this idea arises as easily from philosophical reflection as from revelation. The sense of closure here is related to the need in some detective stories to gather all the surviving suspects into the study of the manor house so that the detective can identify the killer.

One wonders whether it would be prudent for the US and the EU to defer in their immigration policies to the imperatives of narrative drive. Robert Kaplan, in Warrior Politics, presents us with a paradoxical model in which the United States is to be seed-crystal around which an international order will form, but an order to whose seductions the US must not succumb. As I noted in my review:

The United States, then, is to oversee the crystallization of a global civilization we would want to live in. However, Americans must be quite literally the last people in the world to eschew ordinary patriotism for internationalism. Americans must cultivate Flag Day and the Fourth of July in order to maintain the national integrity needed for their global role. Kaplan's model here is the myth-making patriotism of Livy, though one may note that Livy idealized the ancient Republic after it was over, in the first generation of the Empire.

It is difficult to argue with the proposition that the United States needs an immigration holiday if it is going to maintain its internal integrity, much less its ability to function as a serious international actor. On the other hand, we should note that the USSR, which was born with the mark of the Marxist eschaton, could never really have been "the future" precisely because its rulers dreaded nothing so much as the movement of their subjects. They did not restrict only movement into and out of the country; people needed a passport even to travel internally.

Whatever else we do, we must, with Kant, distinguish the right to refuge from a right to settlement, and ordinary immigration from a Völkerwanderung. We should remember that we are dealing with a problem of the whole West; the solutions and justifications that are applied in one region of it are going to affect what happens in the others. Nonetheless, I think that, when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, the Imperial Contract was written on the other side. As with so much else in history, the question is how best to go about the inevitable.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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