Farewell to the Republic We Once Dreamt of?
Ken Taylor

26 December 2023

As part of the inaugural Ken Taylor Memorial Episode, we are republishing Ken's 2018 blog post, "Why America Is Not a Nation," in which he articulates some of what inspired this week's special program.

 

America is not a nation. It is only a place. Or so I will argue in this blog entry. And this fact, I claim, has great significance for understanding the potential demise of the republic we once dreamt of.

Why do I say that?   Well, there's a short answer and a slightly longer answer.  The short answer is that too many Americans hate, or at least really dislike other Americans for us to count as a nation.   The longer answer is similar in spirit, but will take some work to spell out in detail.   Spelling out the longer answer requires me to say a bit more  about what I mean by a nation. There are, I think, two different conceptions of nationhood.   In one of these senses of ‘nation’ America is as much a nation as any other. But that, I shall argue, is hardly a sense of ‘nation’ worth caring much about.  

On the one hand, you have a nation wherever you have an intact state, held together by some means or other, under the unified jurisdiction of some central government, with the power and authority to make laws, defend itself, etc. In this sense, American is clearly a nation and a pretty powerful one at that. But in this sense, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a nation. So too were the former Soviet Union under the Communist Party and the former Yugoslavia under Tito.  And I hope these examples will help you see where I am headed.

The point is that despite the power of the glue that holds nations so understood together, nations in this sense can in fact be pretty fragile and precarious things, especially when they are held together, not by common bonds of citizenship or common projects and values, but by little more than force and fear. The coercive glue that held the old Soviet nation together was composed partly of the Communist Party, partly of the KGB, and partly of the Red Army. But as the coercive power of that glue began to weaken its hold on the disparate peoples of the Soviet Union, it quickly ceased to exist, even as a nation-considered-as-state. That’s because the Soviet Union was, in fact, never really a nation in the deeper and more important sense that I outline below. It too was ultimately merely a place.  

To grasp the deeper sense of nationhood I have in mind, think of a nation not as defined by the potentially coercive instruments of statehood, but by mutual bonds of sympathy, respect, and tolerance among citizens.  Such bonds may serve to gather people into a single or at least unified collectivity.  They may serve as the basis of a shared national identity, grounded in a set of mutually endorsed commitments, projects, and values. To participate in the life of a nation in this sense  -- call it nation-as-shared-project --  is not merely to be subject to the coercive power of this or that state. It is to participate willingly in set of shared commitment and projects. And it is for one’s participation in those shared projects and commitments to form an important component of one’s identity as a being in a world. When I am a citizen of a nation so understood, I identify with my fellow citizens as partners in a set of joint national projects and they, in turn, identify with me.

I do not mean to say that we can never have it both ways. It is surely possible for a stretch of land to be occupied by a people whose common nationhood encompasses both nation-as-state and nation-as-shared-project. Perhaps many of the current nations of the world do precisely that. But since I know only America from the inside, I will reserve judgement on this score. On the flip side, there are also stateless nations, as we might call them. A stateless nation is constituted by a people bound together by a system of shared projects, values and commitments, but without access to the instruments of statehood. Think here of the Palestinian nation or the Kurdish nation.

And I certainly do not mean to suggest that nations are necessarily forces for good in the world. Some nations, with their defining national projects, are loci of pure evil. Arguably, Nazi Germany was more than a mere place. It was, however briefly,  a genuine nation-as-shared-project.  Its people were united by a grand, powerful, and dark project.  And its attempt to carry out that project was enormously destructive for humanity at large. All things considered, It would surely be better for a stretch of land to be a mere place, than a nation-as-project of this sort.

So I hope it is clear that when I say that America is not a nation, but merely a place, I certainly do not mean to deny the existence of the America state.  As I have already conceded, the American state definitely exists.  Again, it is a highly consequential and powerful state. What there is not is an American nation-as-shared-project, defined by a set of mutually endorsed values, projects and commitments that serve to unite the inhabitants of the place that is America into a single people of a single nation-as-shared-project.

To some extent, this means that America is somewhat akin to the now defunct Soviet Union. It too was merely a place, as I have already argued. Of course, the glue that holds the American state together is rather different in character from the glue that once held the Soviet state together. The instruments of state power here are more democratic in character than were the instruments of Soviet state power. But we should not let this dissimilarity blind us to the possibility that just as the glue of the Soviet state dissolved and weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, so too may the glue of the American state. If that day should come, not only will America not be a nation-as-state, it could possibly cease to exist as even a place -- at least in one sense.   Of course, there  will still be the land mass once occupied by the American state.  But just as 'the Soviet Union'  no longer serves in common parlance  even as a geographical designation for a stretch of land, so too might 'America' cease to function in common parlance as a geographical designation, should the American nation-as-state cease to exist.  

Now it  should be said that in both the old Soviet Union, and in the Eastern bloc nation states that fell under its sway, people knew how to mouth the slogans of nationhood.  Indeed, the Soviets were extremely determined to create what they called the 'Soviet man'  whose identification with the Soviet-nation-as-shared project would run deep indeed.   And the peoples who toiled under the sway of the Soviet state did appear to go along, at least outwardly.  They learned the ins and outs of dialectical materialism from an early age. They learned to sing the songs and chant the chants. But in their heart of hearts, very few were true believers.  Perhaps it is the same with us Americans.  To test this thought, imagine that you are an alien cultural anthropologist, sent to study America. You want to know what commitments truly define the American body politic, as a collectivity, in their heart of hearts. You are determined to look past the official declarations, documents, and pronouncements of the ruling elites. You are determined to search deep into the everyday lives and consciousness of Americans at large. What would you find there? Would you find a people deeply committed to democracy, equality, tolerance, and a reasonable pluralism? I am not sure. Part of me suspects not. I suspect that you would find that though many have been socially conditioned to mouth the slogans of American nationhood, our true level of commitment to such ideals runs pretty shallow.  

Once upon a time, perhaps America had more of a claim of being a nation-as-shared-project than it now has.  This is a tempting thought, but I doubt that it is  true. I suspect America has never been a nation-as-shared-project --  at least not for very many of the inhabitants of the place that is America. Or perhaps I should say that if America ever was a nation in the sense that concerns me here, it was a nation that excluded very many of the inhabitants of the land mass that housed the people of that nation. Or to put it differently, it may have been a nation-as-project for the few, but it was a mere place for the many.  This is evidenced by the fact that America has seldom welcomed into its bosom the full range of peoples who have from time to time dwelled in this place. Think of how many of the inhabitants of this land mass were brutalized, exploited, enslaved, even exterminated in the name of one after another of America’s  putatively defining "shared" projects.

This is not to deny that at various singular moments in the troubled history of the place that is America, we have experienced at least temporary stirrings of a deeper sort of nationhood. One thinks here of the very revolution with which America began, or of the westward expansion of the American state, or of the two World Wars, or the Great Depression, or even the Cold War.  To be sure, even at such moments of apparent deep national unity, there have always been alternative voices, with competing, even irreconcilable ideas about what the project of America should be. The complete cynic will even say that such moments of apparent national unity and joint commitment were always merely apparent.  They have been overly mythologized in our imaginations, the cynic will say,  and bear little or no relation to concrete historical reality. We Americans have always been a people divided and at odds, with little sense of shared purpose, engaged in constant and bitter struggle. We hardly even know how to conduct the sort of civic conversation that might serve to bind the disparate people that we are into a united nation.   

Perhaps the cynic is right. Perhaps America has never experienced even a faint glimmer of true nationhood-as-shared-project. Perhaps it has always been on the sham and illusion of nationhood.  I will grant that there is a case to be made for that point of view. But arguing over history is not really my concern here. The more biting question for me and for the present moment in our history is whether we can become a nation, if not once again, then perhaps for the first time. I confess to not being optimistic. For one thing, we are now nearly as deeply at odds over the potential identity of an American nation as we have ever been. To take one small thing, think of how obsessed some Americans are over the very concept of an American. Some inhabitants of this place that is America think of themselves as the only "real" Americans and by implication dismiss others as not "real Americans." People often talk of "the American Heartland" as if primarily the people who live in those places are the "real" Americans, or at least the most authentically American of Americans. Then there is the ever popular concept of the "un-American"  which is always wielded as a weapon by some Americans against other Americans and their beliefs, activities, and values.

I sometimes wonder if there is any place on earth as obsessed with the concept of a real (national) as at least some Americans are. This obsession would be sort of, barely understandable if the distinction between "real" Americans and what—”faux"(?)—Americans was applied only to recent interlopers into the American polity. After all, throughout our history, waves and waves of immigrants, from all over the world, were not considered "real Americans" by those already here. But it's not just recent immigrants who get tagged by some as less than fully authentic real Americans. Even people with deep roots in this land are often dismissed as merely faux Americans. And the deeply troubling thing is that the “real” Americans seem to want, with all their hearts, to "take America back"  from the “faux” Americans.

What this shows is that America, and our identities as American, are utterly contested.  And our differences are not signs of mere disagreement.  They are signs of  something more like incommensurable world views. We are moving closer and closer to a politics of incommensurability. The difference between a politics of mere disagreement and politics of incommensurability is quite profound. Fruitful conversation is still possible in the face of mere disagreement.  But true Incommensurability makes conversation all but impossible.  And as a consequence, true incommensurability is likely to bring only rupture, revolution, civil war, and dissolution.

Part of what is driving us toward a politics of incommensurability is the almost complete breakdown of mediating structures within our total civic life that might help shape and guide civic conversations among citizens, considered as partners in joint national endeavors. There are many reasons for this collapse. They include the rise of the internet, the proliferation of confirmation bias as a business model, the demise of unions, the atomizing effects of globalization, the ideological hardening of our parties, combined with extreme gerrymandering, the rising influence of ungodly sums of money in politics, the fracturing of the media landscape and on and on and on. These developments have conspired to make civic conversations, which are a sine qua non of the forging of shared national projects, much harder. As a result, "America" has become a place where people struggle and contend with hardly any basis on which we might form a shared sense of identity or adopt shared commitments to shared projects and values.   

Where are we to go from here? Are we determined to share the fate of other states that were merely places held together by the weakening glue of a dissolving state? Or can we finally build a united nation where there is now only a place occupied by disparate and divided peoples? It is hard to say. Nationhood of the kind I am talking about is never a thing easily achieved. Think even of the great and enduring nations of Europe and their very turbulent histories. Think of England with its warring Kings, their Lancasters and their Yorks, their civil wars, their religious ruptures!  Or of France, forged  from a history of monarchy, revolution, empire, defeat, occupation, and a succession of failed Republics! We Americans are relatively new at the work of nation building by comparison. It is not entirely surprising that we have not yet gotten it right.

What is needed is a fresh start. We must build a new American Republic, one with an entirely different constitution and an entirely different civic ethos. The current Republic is not the real thing. It is a best pseudo-republic. And it is rapidly collapsing unto itself. Even if it were possible to save it, it is hardly worth saving, at least not in its current form. Best to consign the pseudo-republic to the dustbin of our turbulent history, reboot and start over. The aforementioned French, after all, are on their 5th Republic. I admit that is not altogether certain that we can achieve the New Republic non-violently, in a spirit of mutual cooperation rather than mutual enmity. But these are perilous times for the place that is America with its fractured inhabitants. Heavy burdens must be shouldered. Perhaps persons of great vision, integrity, and practical wisdom will emerge to help lead the way. A Lincoln or Mandela or Gandhi for this age!

In forming a new American Republic, there is much that we will need to renegotiate.  But at least we can start by freeing ourselves of the remnants of our ancient and divisive curses—such as the sordid compromises that were written into our constitution over the evil of slavery. Indeed, those very compromises, together with their enduring consequences, are almost single-handedly responsible for many of worst features of our current pseudo-republic.

Comments (6)


MJA's picture

MJA

Wednesday, December 27, 2023 -- 11:26 PM

To Ken,

To Ken,

A New Declaration of Unity, Freedom, & Equality

We the people of this planet Earth, in order to form a more perfect or equal union, establish equitable justice, insure domestic as well as universal tranquility, provide for a common defense against inequity, promote a general equitable welfare system, and secure the Blessings of Liberty, or more simply the true Freedoms of Equality, to ourselves, our posterity, to all things, must declare and practice a new constitution, based on the ultimate truth, the power of Nature’s true equality, the separate and equal station in which Nature’s God entitles all, the self-evident truth that not only all men, but equally all things are truly created equal, that all is truly One. Then and only then, will mankind as well as the entire universe, that he through the course of human events so unlawfully, so unnaturally, so destructively, and so inequitably divided, be truly united, and equally set free. The time has come to dissolve the bands of inequity that divide us, the time has come for a new declaration, a revolution based on truth, a new constitution powered by nature’s true equity, true unity, true oneness, the time has come to unite all things and set the universe free.
Only the truth shall set us free,

=
MJA

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Rattapallax

Saturday, January 13, 2024 -- 5:00 PM

America was a loose

America was a loose affiliation of members willing to let things be due to the massive wealth to be extracted, and has now become an ever tightening and defining group of tribes, uniting and becoming fewer in number but still so far letting things be because the affiliation is still more profitable than the fracture.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Thursday, January 18, 2024 -- 9:14 AM

Could you elaborate on your

Could you elaborate on your phrase "let things be"? Does this indicate a standing-back in continuance-allowing, or an effortful preservation of a status quo which would otherwise disappear? The reason for this question arises from my interest in establishing a shareable reference to a respective relationship between what exists (the being(-s) which is/are let) and what is or can be intended (the letting of what is or is to be). For this relationship, it seems to me, is rarely clear in collective contexts. Might a kind of mediate intentionality be interposed between clear intention and abject refusal? Are there cases where an optional situation which is not desired is nevertheless energetically preserved on account of some benefit drawn from it which is desired? If so, how frequently do such choices occur? As the rich suggestiveness of your analysis above would be poorly served if left only to others to explain, additional details are cordially requested.

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Rutherford

Wednesday, February 14, 2024 -- 10:36 PM

The ideals enshrined in the

The ideals enshrined in the Constitution, such as liberty, equality, and justice, have served as unifying principles for generations slope game of Americans.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Thursday, February 15, 2024 -- 5:01 PM

All or some?

All or some?

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Saturday, February 17, 2024 -- 11:46 PM

Heartily agreed at this spot

Heartily agreed at this spot is that America is a place. That it's not a nation however is a harder sell. In the first several paragraphs above I interpret Ken's account of Nation to be as an inhabited place whose members are not pushed together by fear of the outside but drawn together by common aspirations and affinities. Nations are not therefore primarily states, and even though the two are usually thought to be found together, either one could exist without the other. Ken offers the Soviet Union as an example of this latter, and believed the U.S. to be in a similar situation, --held together by the wrong kind of glue. In order to remedy the insufficiencies of defective social adhesive, a manufactured culture may be imposed by the state which is not organic (paragraph 10). Further problems include arbitrary exclusivity of genuine collaboration at the national level (paragraph 11), dissolution of occasional periods of strong national unity by strife in civic discourse and over-exaggeration of opinion-diversity (paragraph 12), and the pullulation of national identity into incompatible camps (paragraph 13).

The remedy which Ken suggested above is contained in the last two paragraphs and contains many elements which can be considered controversial. My interest in them here though focuses upon his emphasis on Constitutional reform. He cites "the sordid compromises that were written into our constitution over the evil of slavery" as a strong causal influence on the problems which he describes. In order to determine the strength of this claim and the ramifications of its contents in subsequent developments, as well as any philosophical significance of its truth, a brief account of these "sordid compromises" is undertaken below.

1) Article I, section 2, paragraph 3 contains the infamous "three fifths" clause which, interestingly, refers to members of the chattel portion of the labor force as "all other Persons", thereby conceding the existence of the other two fifths while denying official recognition of it for purposes of taxation and number of Representatives in the House of Representatives. Together with the lesser known section 9, paragraph 4, the clause ties census-determination to taxation-quantification, resulting in a tax-break for business owners who torture their employees. This is overridden in 1868 by section 1 the XIV Amendment, which is understood as a clear legal victory for the victims of the torturers. In practice however a clause in the XIII Amendment, as noted below, returned the right of employee torture to the perpetrators, even if they finally lost their tax-break, relatively weakened already by slightly higher liability, in 1913 by the XVI Amendment, which switched determination from capitation to income.
2) Article I, section 9, paragraph 1 contains the Importation clause. The term "importation" is contrasted with "migration", which refers to free laborers whereas the former refers to those marketed as property. The clause says that while the state can tax the imports, it can't prohibit them or the migrants from entry before 1808, which sets up a possible sunset for either, and took place in that year with regards to imports which, as in Section 2, are referred to as "Persons", appearing to violate the Declaration's first enunciated principle. It remains as an historical document, since it in effect indicates the federal illegality of slave-imports by the same sentence as it does its prior legality. Presumably it hasn't been removed for the reason that a simple housekeeping measure wouldn't be worth the effort. On the other hand, some view the Person/Import language as setting a dangerous linguistic precedent, if not a legal one; but in comparison to the first it does not seem to qualify as one of the "sordid compromises," even if it remains part of the document.
3) Article IV, Section 2, paragraph 3 refers specifically to owned laborers who quit, and makes clear that no claimed right to do so can be protected. This was confirmed in 1857 by the final court of appeals (or the "Supreme" Court) in Dred Scott v. Sanford. The technical overturning of this by the XIII Amendment however did not apply to convicts, and therefore the Dred Scott decision can be said to still stand in part, in spite of attempts to amend its chattel prison-labor language on grounds of the VIII Amendment's "cruel and unusual" clause.

This latter then fulfills the criteria invoked by Ken's description. It's interesting to note how closely the XIII Amendment's reasoning can be paired with Aristotle's in Book One of the Politics. The idea there is that some people are natural slaves because they don't choose to work and therefore have to be forced to do so. In Aristotle's defense, he had no criterion for just who such people might be, since the Athenian slaves were products of war and thus would not have been obtained according to such determinations, but the fact that he saw a rational place for coerced labor within economic arrangements puts him firmly in the camp of the Taney Court.

To this extent then I am in agreement with Ken: The exception-clause of the XIII Amendment has had wide enough consequences, not only in the use of involuntary labor pressed from persons as wards of the state but also the appropriation of its reasoning into commonly accepted institutional commitments such as "retraining for the digital economy" and other demands that the grunt-work required by the plans of others be performed by people who have nothing to do with them, that the accuracy of the term "compromise" is confirmed with regards to federal protections of the rights of free and independent labor from arbitrary coercion. As this compromise is with institutional slavery in its most brutal historic form, the removal of the Amendment's exception is recommended.

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