To go back a few steps, one puzzle is why Arendt, Foucault, Taylor and others believe that taking “life” as the primary value leads to states that kill (in large numbers?)
James Scott’s Against the Grain (Yale UP, 2017) (which I have just about finished reading) offers some ideas along that line. Scott accepts that both slavery and war existed before the emergence of the state. But he sees the state as obsessed from the start with population control. So much for Foucault’s bringing the question of population on board somewhere in the eighteenth century. For Scott, it is all about people, and almost nothing to do with territory, when considering the underlying motives of war.
Life, in its barest form, is about subsistence, about producing enough to sustain life. (In that sense, Scott is a materialist of a fairly straight-forward Marxist/Darwinian type.) The state always creates classes of people who do not directly (or even indirectly) produce the stuff needed for subsistence. Thus, any state must 1) organize production in such a way that a surplus is produced, and 2) appropriate that surplus for distribution to those who do not produce the basics (food, clothing etc.) Furthermore, states create a need for non-subsistence goods (metals, luxuries, the implements of war, the ceremonial architecture of hierarchies) that necessitate 1) trade and 2) even more laborers who are not directly producing subsistence goods and who must be fed.
The problem with life—if we think in Arendt’s terms—is that it requires “labor.” The problem of the state, in Scott’s rendering, is that it amplifies the need for labor because states invent so many more things to labor on. War is a primary means to gain access to more labor. The most important prize of a successful battle is prisoners who can be turned into slaves. Or, alternatively, the threat of violence can make a neighboring society agree to pay tribute.
The state, then, has a stake in keeping its slaves alive, in increasing its population in order to secure an adequate supply of labor. But it also has to coerce people into doing that labor because there is no good reason to voluntarily do the work. It’s economic exploitation and appropriation from the get go—and all the way down. States are always kleptocracies—and taxes are the form that robbery takes.
Scott has written a book called Two Cheers for Anarchism that is not very good. His other work is off the charts fantastic. (Seeing Like a State, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Weapons of the Weak, and The Art of Not Being Governed.) He comes down squarely on the side of organized violence is far worse (because more effective and more systematic) than the sporadic but ever-present violence found in non-state societies. Far be it from Scott to accept Steven Pinker’s insistence that the rule of law curbs violence. If we go by the numbers, the legitimate violence of the state always claims more victims than free-lancers.
Still—does a state that claims to be working in the service of life inflict more death than a state that locates its raison d’être elsewhere. And does it even make any sense to think in those terms? What would a state look like that did not claim to be enhancing, protecting, sustaining the life of its subjects? Even the most brutal regime, one that accepts, without putting any kind of pretty face on it, that power must be deployed ruthlessly and continuously, still sees that power as enhancing and protecting the lies of the powerful. The wielders of power don’t will their own death.
The alternative is a sacrificial culture, one centered around a death cult. The Nazis approach that elevation of death over life. “Balanced against this life, this death.” (Yeats). It seems plausible to me that, in certain circumstances, a kind of fatalistic embrace of death, an even joyful embrace of destruction including destruction of the self, would be possible. In all the stuff about killing that I have been reading, about the ecstasy, the “high,” of battle, I haven’t seen anyone talk about the ecstasy of embracing one’s own death in the general conflagration. Surely, however, that’s an ecstasy of submission, not one of power. (The ever presence of those two sides of Nietzsche, his celebration of the “beast” who acts unapologetically out of the will to power shadowed by the masochism of the Dionysian figure who glories in suffering and in willing to live his whole painful life over and over again.) To embrace death is an odd combination of hatred for life and never feeling more alive than when the end of life is imminent.
The point, if we take the Darwinian perspective that also appealed so much to Engels, is that the preservation of life (enabling its reproduction) is the first requirement imposed upon us by biology. No state could possibly escape that imperative. Scott is simply arguing that the state is not necessarily the most efficient and preferable (according to a variety of criteria) means for preserving life—and employing the state as the means for subsistence comes with some very high costs. He clearly believes that non-state solutions to the problem of subsistence are actually better for most involved (if not for the elites at the top of state hierarchies.)
Scott’s conclusion is driven by his not valuing the achievements of “civilization” very highly and by his firm belief that “culture” (as opposed to “civilization”) is preserved (and can ever flourish) in the stateless conditions that we have mistakenly thought of as “dark ages.” Arendt’s take, it seems to me, would be the exact opposite. She sees the polity—and politics—as the pinnacle of human achievement precisely because it transcends labor and the necessities of subsistence. “Man’s life would be cheap as beasts” (King Lear) if we didn’t aspire to—and actually achieve—something more than mere subsistence. “Freedom” is only granted to us by the polis and precisely means escaping from the bonds of necessity, of being able to indulge in the non-productive “action” that politics enables. Arendt is motivated by a horror of production, of doing something for the sake of securing or making the means to life. She values those things that are not conducive to preserving or sustaining life.
Thus, she also wants a state not oriented toward life. Instead, her ideal state (just like her ideal political actor) is motivated by a “love of the world.” That’s where I will pick it up tomorrow.