The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.

Journalism Should Embody Anarchist Ideals

Bill Keller‘s lengthy online exchange with Glenn Greenwald makes for very interesting reading. It illuminates a great deal, especially the modern ‘mainstream’ understanding of journalism–as ‘objective’ reporter of ‘facts’–and its supposed ‘responsibilities’ and the ‘alternative’ view of journalism as fundamentally adversarial, beholden to no nation or state, dedicated to exposing the machinations of the powerful.

Greenwald’s critique of the former view is, as might be expected, quite pungent:

[T]his model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms….The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers….all journalism is a form of activism.

That last sentence is crucial: it takes journalism out of the sphere of some imagined realm whose contours resemble that of an archetypal scientific laboratory where men in white coats are replaced by reporters with notepads. These diligent collectors and tabulators merely report their observations of little parcels of reality called ‘facts’.

Instead, journalism turns into a form of political activity, its participants struggling just like any other political player to further some ends and not others. In a democratic society’s politics, the journalists are those players whose role is to report on, and make transparent, the workings of those in power. This power is not insignificant: the state can imprison, silence and immiserate its citizens; it can declare war and martial law; it possesses a monopoly of power, and in the modern state, this power is awesome indeed.

This asymmetrical distribution of power can only be offset and compensated for, by way of protecting those who are subject to it, if they are kept fully apprised of their rulers’ doings and deeds. What the citizenry does not possess by way of material power it strives to obtain by means of information and knowledge. Requests for secrecy, for coyness, for message modification, are, all too often, disingenuous requests that the balance of power be tipped back the other way. Thus, we best understand ‘journalist’ as merely a fancy name for ‘citizen activist dedicated to the full transparency of governmentality.’ A journalist represents the segment of the polity dedicated to making the powerful cower, not preen and strut; he is not an observer of the political system, he is part of it.

Understood in this way, a journalist embodies an anarchist ideal: the rejection of opaque, unaccountable power.  The profession’s basic stance is skeptical and adversarial; it should maintain a distance from those in power so that they may be critiqued more frankly and critically. This entails a prickly relationship with those in power, one with many rough edges. But those unable to deal with this consequent unpleasantness would be well advised to stay out of the proverbial kitchen. Critics aren’t supposed to have too many friends.

Glaucon and the Basic and Advanced Polis, Contd.

Yesterday’s post on Glaucon and the preferred forms of the polis for him and Socrates  sparked off an interesting discussion on Facebook with Alex Gourevitch. I’m reproducing it here as Gourevitch’s responses are wonderfully rich and worth responding to carefully.

Here is the sequence of comments on Facebook, followed by my response last.


I still think it’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.


Indeed. I’m just not sure the inhabitants of the basic polis are pigs; that description matches the often rapacious, gluttonous inhabitants of Glaucon’s preferred state.


They are pigs because they will eat anything. They are easily satisfied. They lack culture and refinement, which you only have if you are leisured – which is what, I think, the reference to reclining on couches is supposed to be about. It’s not just about having lots of desires to satisfy, but time to reflect on and develop one’s desires. Of course, that requires a social surplus, and someone else to do the work, which is what introduces class relations. We go from being pigs to being wolves. So you must tame the wolves. That is the question of justice, I think, for Plato. But it’s one also defined by the circumstances of justice. Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus set up the problem in such a way that the only way to imagine a surplus necessary to sustain leisure and culture is by conquering others, taking their land, and enslaving them. At the time, that may very well have been correct – Aristotle says the same thing about why slaves are necessary (the tripods of Haphaestus, looms spinning themselves). But one can imagine other ways, like machines/technology, so that everyone can have that leisure to develop their tastes and participate in culture. Note, by the way, that the theory of justice that develops out of the original problem as Glaucon and Socrates set it up is an attempt to restore that natural harmony of the ‘healthy state’ but through rational principles. In fact, Glaucon wants to be convinced of the idea that it is better to perfectly just and perfectly unjust. So even he does not deny that there is something superior to the condition of the pigs to that of living with wolves. Don’t you think?


 Does Socrates’ description of the basic polis really sound like people who don’t have leisure? Sitting by the fire, drinking wine in moderation, roasting nuts? They aren’t eating just anything. They live in peace to old age too. Perhaps they work into their old age rather than retiring. So what? There is a false opposition set up here. If you don’t grant the opposition that Glaucon sets up little remains of the desire for the advanced polis, which as you note, brings war, class conflict, and the problem of justice and law. It is almost as if Glaucon didn’t pay attention to the description Socrates provides. I would agree with him (and you) if the state described by Socrates was indeed pig like: scrounging for roots, eating dirt, the hardscrabble life from birth to death. But that is not what Socrates has in mind.


Very interesting. I see the plausibility of your reading but I think it rests on overstating the hardscrabble life of the pig as the central issue. In Glaucon’s eye the key feature of the pig is not that it scrounges but that it is indiscriminate. I take that to be one of the oldest metaphors about pigs – they eat anything. The connection to leisure is then that in the primitive division of labor of the ‘healthy city’ everyone works, they have an occupation, but there is no leisure, no culture, and indeed no philosophy. It is only the original act of injustice, the primitive accumulation, as it were, that creates the leisured class, sets reflection in motion, and brings about a philosophical attitude towards the human condition. Of course, what we find upon reflection is injustice. And we can retrospectively appreciate what is harmonious and good about the healthy state, but it is still a state of pigs. It is a state of pigs not because they work from dawn until dusk per se but because there is no demand for leisure and culture, and that demand is not there because people are satisfied with what they have. Needs are limited to a ‘natural’ range, to what can be supplied through a very simple division of labor and a few objects. Everyone is happy to do their work and consume what they can. They are indifferent to the limted range of their lives.


I’m not sure the text supports the reading you attribute to Glaucon. He listens to Socrates’ description of the basic polis and calls its inhabitants pigs anyway, seemingly without having paid attention to the leisure that is built into it. Your reading, and his, only works if this ignored. I’m getting stuck on this point, because I’m willing to concede the rest of your points if indeed all that happened in the basic polis was mere adherence to occupations. Thus I don’t see the necessity for the ‘original act of injustice’ or the ‘primitive accumulation’ either. I would also find it strange that Glaucon/you term them pigs when given a description of their working days: Is no reflection possible while at work? Is no reflection possible by being in the moment of one’s daily activities? You identify ‘culture’ with the arts; I think I have a broader reading of culture that is more inclusive of a broader range of human activities, many of which are possible in the basic polis. And thus I don’t buy the ‘limited range’ view of the polis that you have. But perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that we have lost a great deal by preferring a state that includes class conflict and war. There’s something depressingly Nietzschean about this vision, as if war is the inevitable price we must pay for the fine arts.

More importantly, I think there is a fairly convincing argument to be made that Plato finds the basic polis, despite the attention he pays to the advanced polis, a morally superior one. Remember what he terms the life of the philosopher: unconcerned with material acquisition but only with the pursuit of the truth. The basic polis provides this without the temptations of the advanced polis. A frugal life is possible here without evoking our worst instincts; it can give us time for the pursuit of the truth without necessarily owning or consuming the ‘finer things’ that Glaucon thinks are possible in the advanced polis. Indeed, Plato’s philosophers would be unmoved by the material wealth of the advanced polis; the contemplative time provided by the basic polis is enough. The basic polis makes possible a society where laws and government might play a minimal role; it might be the kind of community anarchist political philosophies have in mind.  The rudimentary polis can get along without being  a state; the advanced polis has to be one. And I find it hard to believe that the state represents an advancement on the basic polis.

Note: My arguments above are not original to me. I read them many years ago in David Melling’s lovely little book on Plato, which I’ve often recommended to my students. I stumbled upon the book again recently and was moved to write yesterday’s and today’s posts in response.