The Unreason of State

Chiaromonte, Nicola

When, after hearing about a case of government corruption, police torture, or arbitrary arrest we in Europe call on the state to respect moral values, we forget that the most important...

...it is the voice of the unreality that we are made of, that life is made of, and that man continually contrasts to accomplished facts...
...And this is not the simple reason of state of absolute monarchy...
...The state that does not recognize any principle superior to itself has not issued from a void...
...Today in order to transform the mass in which we languish into an orderly and peaceful society we need an entirely fresh political foundation to serve as a bridge between new, freer forms of communal living and the hybrid forms based on repression that were forced on us by a century and a half of political and economic upheaval...
...That the democratic ideal has been wholly or largely realized in any country in the world is claiming too much and is really more than one can ask...
...and these are ends that cannot be obtained without respecting norms that transcend immediate advantage...
...Perhaps we are being Utopian...
...Concocted in government offices and committee meetings it comes out of computer machines sharp and clear...
...For it soon became apparent that the destruction of Hiroshima was unnecessary for a rapid victory over Japan as the concessions made to Stalin for his cooperation...
...Instead of the meeting of justice, there was the avenging of a crime...
...But they, too, could only do what they did, that is, perform their task of bringing the war to a rapid and victorious conclusion...
...If, however, he had deliberately analyzed all the pros and cons and not been hypnotized by the criterion of mere efficiency, which narrows the range of vision to the present moment, he would have proved himself a statesman worthy of what he called "the new era in the history of humanity...
...Political expediency, awe of accomplished facts and force majeure have no place in this image, which is formed by a desire for peace and continuity...
...Are we then calling for the destruction of machines and denying the necessity of an efficient order...
...However, one thing is certain: the mechanical organization of society that has been crushing the Western world for one hundred and fifty years, and that has now reached a climax, is absolutely bad insofar as it has destroyed the individual's sense of responsibility and convinced him that participation in politics is meaningless...
...Judged by ordinary standards of good and evil the Nazi leaders were certainly criminals...
...The cult of expediency is simply the systematic surrender to accom plished facts...
...Yet their scruples were not only reasonable and well-founded, as the history of atomic arms in the following years proved, they were "realistic...
...But according to the notion of the state common to them and their judges, it is not at all certain that they could be considered so...
...All this is clear enough if we consider the acts of judges, soldiers, and simple functionaries whom no one would think of holding responsible for their decisions and deeds insofar as they obey the law or orders from above...
...Moreover, some of the scientists who had collaborated on its invention and fabrication were deeply conscious of this and of the fact that the crucial question was at once moral, intellectual and political...
...Not even the scientists who constructed the bomb and who, like Oppenheimer, thought it should be dropped, can be held responsible...
...Why not...
...Responsibility seems to belong to everybody and to nobody, that is, to the state...
...So only the individual can be held responsible for what he does...
...what concrete meaning can such ideal aims have...
...Indeed, it is not so much a system where, according to the old sally, "everything not prohibited is obligatory" as one which in exchange for its subjects' automatic allegiance the government guarantees them what the basest element in every individual secretly wants: release from the demands of responsibility, inquiry, choice and freedom...
...This kind of organization seems an inevitable necessity but as a matter of fact it is essentially destructive, for it consumes energy without recreating it...
...Justice is what is achieved by Athena in the Eumenides, when, with the agon of the just judgment, an expedient that is only a symbol of violent action, she breaks the chain of bloody deeds...
...It does not placate a single Erinnys...
...To decide" means to in tervene in the course of events with an act of free will, whereas Truman just capitulated to the fact of the existence of the atomic weapon, sanctioning what the scientists had created and the warriors prepared...
...it goes much farther for, in practice if not in principle, it is claimed to be the supreme expression of Reason on earth...
...We must challenge this false notion with our conviction that "reality" is not the measure of anything...
...One of the most cogent examples is President Truman's order on August 5, 1945 to drop the first atom bomb on Hiroshima...
...Once they had declared that dropping the bomb would save hundreds of thousands of American lives, and once the state machinery had reduced the issue to a technical one, Truman had no choice but to accept the experts' opinion (which was a simple deduction from the principle of reason of state...
...What we maintain is that the mechanization of society and politics is absurd, incongruous, and evil...
...But one should not reduce the problem to the iniquity or wisdom of those who govern...
...the right and duty of every individual to disobey authority's orders when they are in confiict with his ordinary sense of good and evil) could they be regarded as just, and not simply justifiable...
...If existence is thus reduced to a series of choices that are compulsory, what room is left for the exercise of independent criticism and liberty...
...for social and political life simply do not tolerate automatization...
...The Empire of the Rising Sun had been at the end of its tether for a whole year, and an ultimatum plus the threat of atom bombs would have been enough to bring surrender...
...Be he soldier, functionary, minister or simple citizen, the individual is absolved of all responsibility and relieved of the task of freely examining public issues so long as he obeys orders from above...
...Indeed when mechanization spreads in all directions it is deadly...
...Historical Necessity is fate minus the supernatural...
...It is the outgrowth of a situation in which no God, no idea of Good, no moral imperative has shown itself to be strong enough to impose its norms...
...Once more we are called on to obey historical necessity which in practice means continually adjusting to force majeure, modifying action to meet the demands of expediency and accepting the kind of operation to which politicians decree "there is no alternative...
...This minority, however, does carry some weight because it is they and not the mass of eager and unhappy servitors who are entrusted with the destiny of society...
...But the statesman who today looks beyond the present and seeks anything but the swiftest possible success is considered guilty of preferring abstractions to reality, and of falling short of his duties which, as the Machiavellians so aptly say, are those of a realistic technician not of a moralist...
...In the final analysis, the vicious circle of irresponsibility that we traced earlier is the result of a fundamental fallacy, the "realistic" tenet that the validity of human actions, enterprises, and even thoughts are measured by what they correspond to "in reality," that is by their immediate effectiveness...
...Now in times of war who are the supreme experts if not the generals...
...and they take it upon themselves to decide which forces are invincible and which are not, the former being those they fear, the latter those they feel they can control or eliminate...
...Only the belief in an ideal democratic state, where the deeds of rulers are in harmony with the dictates of men's consciences, kept this principle from overrunning Europe in its full destructive fury...
...What was really at issue was the nature of the new arm and the consequences of its utilization...
...If the state did not grant this privilege to its citizens it could not function as the machine it is and is meant to be...
...The most important problem raised by the atom bomb was not whether the massacre of hundreds of thousands of defenseless human beings would "save" hundreds of thousands of American lives...
...The state takes on itself the full burden of committing errors, follies and crimes, transforming them into efficacious or at least "inevitable" acts...
...When, after hearing about a case of government corruption, police torture, or arbitrary arrest we in Europe call on the state to respect moral values, we forget that the most important privilege modern bureaucratic government guarantees (if not imposes on) its subjects and servants is moral irresponsibility...
...Drowned in a multitude of men like himself, subject like them to the coercion of factory and office, plus the search for a modicum of breathing space, the individual can only submit and adjust to the common lot...
...To what degree the contemporary state is incapable of rendering justice was revealed in two extreme cases: the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders in 1945 and the Eichmann trial in 1962 in Jerusalem...
...After all, in Greek mythos originally means "natural discourse" and logos "orderly discourse...
...Myth is an ineradicable part of what men think and do...
...So Truman had no real alternative and cannot be held responsible for the course he took...
...What prevailed was the principle of retaliation...
...I sub mit that it is an idea of good and evil that can be adjusted to circum stances, political expediency, the last image of the Godhead for West ern man...
...The simple demonstration of the power of the bombŚwhich was the alternative to its actual useŚcould never have been as persuasive as the destruction of an entire city...
...But the vital issue with all its complexities was quickly tabled, leaving only the "technical" question which the experts in political realism solved without difficulty...
...When we think of ourselves as members of a collectivity like the state, in the extreme circumstances of war or revolution (or when our proximity to wielders of power tempts us to influence them), we find again and again that we have to choose between a personal morality which is clear but ineffective and irrelevant, and the official norm of public interest which soon becomes salus public suprema lex even when the situation is far from extreme...
...Winning the war as rapidly as possible was the sole aspect of the problem clearly visible to Henry Stimson, President Truman's Secretary of War...
...Properly speaking, when Truman gave the order to drop the bomb he did not really decide anything...
...When we act as individuals the existence of such values is as evident as the possibility of choosing between "better" and "worse...
...otherwise his choices are obligatory...
...At the conclusion of our search for those who bear responsibility for one of the gravest decisions in contemporary history we find our selves in a vicious circle...
...yet this does not keep it from being considered as inevitable as if it had been imprinted in the nature of things from time immemorial...
...The totalitarian state bases itself on the principle of individual irresponsibility carried to the extreme...
...In that case, we might ask, does the onus for bombing Hiroshima fall on Stimson and the military command...
...They had to give the advice they did since, after all, their business in Los Alamos was not the conducting of a laboratory experiment but the creation of a weapon...
...Who is the state...
...In fact, what Husserl says about truth can be applied to morality: in concrete situations the difference between right and wrong (like the difference between true and false) is clear and unequivocal...
...Solely in personal relationships does his individual responsibility come into play...
...The concepts of good and evil are irrelevant for the excellent reason that the facts do not permit us to consider Truman responsible for his act in the sense that an ordinary person is so considered when he harms another...
...Does that mean opposing the unreality of myth to the reality of the concrete and the calculable...
...And this kind of state is implicit not only in authoritarian but in democratic ideologies...
...Its greatest value, though, is that it frees its interpreters, executors and instruments from the weight of responsibility to their fellows, their consciences and the God in which they may believe...
...Moreover, if the state's commands were subject to the free criticism of individual consciences, the right to disobey would be sanctioned by the constitution...
...Nevertheless, the system of government under which we are now living in Europe is still founded for the most part on the principle of individual irresponsibility...
...but it becomes even clearer if we look at the crucial acts of statesmen...
...Mass politics, the organizing, directing and restricting of multitudes within the boundaries of a collective discipline cannot be obtained on any other basis...
...or in the sense that Nero is considered responsible for Agrippina's assassination, and Napoleon for the execution of the Duke of Enghien...
...Whether his decision was moral or immoral, human or inhuman, good or evil is not the question...
...In the last century up to the collapse of totalitarian regimes, even the Catholic Church, without accepting the concept did accept the fact, and volunteered to serve as the spiritual arm of any government opposing libertarian and egalitarian movements...
...But is it not obvious that no state body would survive the exercise of this right...
...But, interestingly enough, the chief supporters of this idea of the state were the ever-increasing masses who had been taught by the Weltgeist and social conditions to seek profit, power and efficiency without concern for the idealistic fictions in which the ruling classes cloaked their very materialistic opera tions...
...No matter how enormous the crime to be contended with, retaliation is not justice...
...If it is the ma chine that keeps the vicious circle going or Nietzsche's "cold monster," what is the motor of the machine and the soul of the monster...
...Certainly not...
...An action ordered by history has the character of implacable and indisputable necessity...
...Indeed, it is but a burden to be borne or a torment to be suffered unless we measure it by a clear idea of something that could be in the place of what is...
...Could he absurdly affirm that the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were worth less than an ethical and political thesis supported by ideas rather than by figures and the guarantee of swift and decisive results...
...Historical necessity and its offspring, political expediency, have the special virtue of relieving of responsibility whoever acts in their name or according to their rules...
...Does it make sense to ask the state to respect moral values...
...And such a "just judgment" cannot be attained without an idea of justice, and without a society that wants to be just in accordance with an ideal image of itself and its destiny...
...but if one is bent on equivocation one can of course find as many meanings of right and wrong as there are possible equivocations...
...However the trail does not end there...
...He advised Truman accordingly, Truman followed his advice, and the generals, of course, were of the same mind...
...Now the fact is that they simply refuse to see the validity of any choice that does not, in the first place, protect their power...
...When one has carried out the act, he is considered to have absolved an ethical obligation and obeyed a moral imperative, or to say it "in prose" he had no choice, because Necessity knows no law, and orders from above cannot be disobeyed...
...In other words it was a complex human issue, not a narrow question for specialists...
...Reason thus conceived means Historical Necessity, which is another way of saying political expediency, and that actually amounts to whatever suits the rulers...
...On the whole one could say that modern man has not yet really begun to experience either freedom or responsibility, and without these, decorous living together is impossible...
...What does it mean to ask the state to respect moral values...
...However, neither at Nuremberg nor in Jerusalem was such a principle proclaimed...
...As Plato argues, only the individual is capable of reasoning, not the mass...
...failure to perform it, not the violation of common morality in performing it, is considered reprehensible...
...Menial work can be mechanized, but not creative activity, and surely not the most creative of all activities, the invention of ways of living with one's self and with others...
...Now only if the verdicts in Nuremberg and Jerusalem had been pronounced in the name of a different principle (i.e...
...For him the atom bomb was no different from any other weapon except that it was more powerful and could therefore end the war in one blow...
...Hence scientists like Szilard and Born who had declared their opposition to the use of a live target were left to their moral scruples...
...It has room only for the expedient, the "inevitable" and that which is guaranteed to give rapid results...
...Guglielmo Ferrero has shown that since the time of Napoleon (who destroyed the principle of legitimacy while restoring the principle of authority, thereby creating the modern bureaucratic state) the state has not recognized any principle superior to its own conservation...
...Although Historical Necessity is very different from the Fate of the Greeks it fulfills a similar function...
...One has to be satisfied with the fact that there was, and still is, a struggle for such a society, that the principle of totalitarianism has not triumphed everywhere, and that wherever it did take hold it ended by being defeated, as we are beginning to see even in Russia...
...Ordinary morality, then, has either no voice at all in the matter or loses itself in casuistry...
...It is obvious that the vicious circle we have tried to describe can never bring about justice...
...After all, the tissue of society is formed and nourished by the natural and reasonable accord among free individuals, not by the technical and quasi-military organization that is now the object of universal worship...
...A just measure of each is perhaps the most that man can hope to achieve...
...Since the individual in obeying the orders of whomever he considers his superior is convinced that he is acting for the preservation and the greater glory of the state, and since there is no principle higher than that, he is not supposed to have further moral responsibility...
...neither the mass, nor the individual submerged in the mass can...

Vol. 11 • April 1964 • No. 2


 
Developed by
Kanda Software
  Kanda Software, Inc.