A review of A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State, by Pierre Manent, translated by Marc LePain

If politics, as modern social science proclaims, is best defined as "who gets what, when, how, and why," then Pierre Manent's A World Beyond Politics? must be judged as nonsensical. By floating vague warnings about a Europe on the verge of "leaving the political behind" or "exit[ing] from politics," Manent would only be indulging in the conceit, not uncommon to a certain species of European intellectual, of entertaining with enigma and puzzling with paradox. As long as humans live together—or so the social scientist insists—someone or some process will always be deciding who "gets" some things. A nation "beyond politics" is an impossibility.

Can Pierre Manent really be as lost as this? His record clearly suggests otherwise. He has written some of this generation's finest books of political thought, including the deeply challenging The City of Man (1998), and he is widely regarded as among the best "readers" of philosophical texts since Leo Strauss, one of the two major intellectual figures to have influenced his own approach. If nothing else, A World Beyond Politics?—which derives from a lecture course on political philosophy that Manent gave for a time at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris—demonstrates his talents as a teacher. He interprets in the manner of both a hedgehog and a fox, alternating between illuminating synopses of general intellectual developments and penetrating analyses of specific authors. Nor is he just an interpreter of old books. Manent's other mentor was the international relations theorist Raymond Aron, renowned for his studies of the reciprocal relation between ideas and the great issues of our era. Manent follows squarely in this tradition, aiming in this book to present an "impartial overview of the political order—or disorder—of today's world." Manent provides, in addition, a defense of politics that is intended as a wake up call to fellow Europeans who have forgotten, or who no longer fully appreciate, the value of what he calls "the political."

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Humans, according to Manent, can live in society and be ruled, but they are not thereby engaged in a genuinely "political" relation. Politics is a term of distinction; there is no genuine politics in tyrannies or extensive empires. A political relation requires at least two things: first, there must be a large and important enough stock of matters that is placed in common. Although that stock can be too great—Aristotle faulted Plato's Republic on this account—it can also be too meager, with the result that politics is reduced to triviality. The other requirement of politics is what Manent refers to metaphorically as a "body," meaning a recognized and limited group who are engaged together in this enterprise. A political relation needs a "people," some bounded number of persons who share a mysterious identity bred from things like common territory, mores, religious presuppositions, ancestors, belief in the same principles of government, and shared memories and experiences, especially the experience of having struggled and spilled blood together.

A look at these two requirements sheds light on some of the problems that confront liberal democracy today. Manent argues that the political philosophy of liberalism, which in the 18th century wisely reduced the existing scope of matters formally placed in common so as to enable larger numbers of people to live together peacefully and in freedom (e.g., by separating church and state), contained also a seed of the desire to escape the bonds of community altogether. This was found in liberalism's encouragement of personal independence and autonomy, which have since sprouted into immoderate demands for recognition of personal identity. In addition, the modern doctrines of moral humanitarianism and of evolving personal rights have served to justify the notion that most things can be determined without recourse to politics. Agreements and institutions applying international humanitarian norms can obviate conflicts that once might have required war; experts, such as administrators or judges, can decide matters of rights according to objective criteria. These de-politicizing sentiments and doctrines, Manent argues, are especially at home in Europe. They almost need to be, because the idea that lies behind the current project of European identity cannot work, even in the imagination, unless the demands of politics are very minimal. Europeans today are "embarked on the bold adventure of building a democracy without a people."

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Manent does not dwell on the fine points of definition, but puts his concept of politics to work in a broad historical survey of developments in the West. His analysis leads him to address what he calls the "form" of social organization, meaning the type of physical-geographical unit, as well as the corresponding psychological horizon, in which politics takes place. The "form" precedes the regime (tyranny, democracy, oligarchy, etc.). Aristotle had already begun to explore this question by distinguishing among the tribe, the city-state, and the larger empires to the east. In only one form, he argued famously, was genuine politics possible: the city-state. The city-state was large enough to be self-sufficient, yet small enough to have an intense, deliberative common life.

All this, at least as far as the city-state is concerned, is ancient history. For at the very moment Aristotle was writing, the city-state in Greece was on the verge of extinction. Through continual warfare, culminating in the Peloponnesian War, the poleis were drained of their strength; meanwhile, a new power—and a new kind of power—arose in the north (Macedonia). The city-states became tributary to an empire. The term "empire," which Manent uses both concretely and metaphorically, though not always clearly, suggests an aspiration to something universal. Empire gives rise to a psychological horizon that denies and disdains the particularity of bounded political communities. Empires can have their strong points—order, peace, schools, personal liberty, roads, and sanitation were only a few of the advantages invoked in a famous scene in Monty Python's The Life of Brian. But they lack something, too. Manent recalls Aristotle's argument that human beings are by nature political animals, who are not "completely fulfilled unless they lead a civic life, unless they are citizens."

Manent draws attention to a remarkable parallel between the development of political forms in the ancient and modern worlds. Even as the city-state emerged in the Peloponnesus, a new form, the nation-state, began to develop in Europe in the Middle Ages. It re-opened a space for politics and eventually became the form in the modern world that—given a suitable choice of regimes—could support and sustain a civic life. The nation-state is thus the spiritual successor to the city-state, though not, of course, a perfect replica. It is much larger and embraces greater heterogeneity, differences it has been able to manage thanks to the political device of representation and to liberalism (in the Lockean sense). At the same time, the nation-state was capable of meeting many of the new requirements of self-sufficiency dictated by modern conditions. This novel form was able to develop in a context in which the new states were not subsidiary parts of some larger empire, but independent entities, enmeshed in a system of relations with each other. This mutual recognition of particularity became the lens through which many in Europe saw the world. It is worth adding that "Europe," viewed as a single unit—for so it was often seen by the rest of the world—was a great empire, with colonies stretching around the globe.

The parallels suggested by the cycle extend further. For what happened to the city-state on the little peninsula of the Peloponnesus in the 4th century B.C., eventually happened to the nation-states on the peninsula of Europe in the 20th century. From the catastrophe of recurring, bloody wars—which devastated Europe and discredited the nation-state—emerged a desire to build a new kind of Europe that would safely put war and politics behind it. Here arises yet another difficulty, according to Manent, with the current plan of constructing Europe. It is predicated on a belief among the political classes that "their future [lies] with a clean break with their whole past."

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Manent offers no blueprint in this book for the future of Europe, but asks the reader instead to consider the three options that are in play: a federation of a limited number of nation-states; a new and enlarged Europe that would be a kind of super-state (or empire) supported by the development of a European people; and finally, the reigning idea, a Europe "defined paradoxically as an indefinite expansion." Admittedly, Europe cannot spread everywhere; but the thinking that lies behind this third option rests on a vague hope for a kind of benevolent universal empire based on humanitarian norms: "It would be the empire with no common power, except for the weak United Nations, constituted by the whole of humanity." It is soft despotism writ large.

Although the treatment of all of these themes would seem to be more than enough for a single volume, Manent's promise to provide an overview of "the world order" means that he cannot avoid discussing America, however briefly. For in the world today, America stands at the center as "the real empire." In the great historical cycle Manent sketches, America plays the same commanding role in relation to Europe that Macedonia played toward Greece: "Just as the Greek cities had had to submit to Macedonian hegemony, so the European nations had to submit to American hegemony."

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One important question Manent poses is what kind of "form" America exemplifies. His answer, which seems deliberately ambiguous, is that the United States is "a single nation with strong traits of empire." The traits of empire include the speed with which America swept across a continent, and the attraction and openness of America to so many immigrants. Probably the most important consideration, however, is the country's sheer dimensions, which lead Europeans on first encounter to think it a form different in kind from the nation-state.

Interestingly, this issue of dimension was at the center of one of the great debates in America in the mid-19th century. Many in the Whig Party doubted that a physical unit of continental scale (or at least one constructed so quickly) was compatible with the United States remaining a nation; they feared a weakening of the common bonds that make a people. By contrast, many Democrats adopted a position favorable not merely to what we know in retrospect as continental expansion, but also to something remarkably akin to what Manent describes as "indefinite expansion." They spoke of an "empire of liberty" that might include the islands of the Caribbean, Mexico, and the whole of the Americas, with scant regard to anything like the traditional characteristics of peoplehood, which they deemed unnecessary. The historical resolution of this debate came in the form of continental expansion, but with a renewed attention to the need to maintain certain common features of nationhood. Manent acknowledges this settlement of the matter by observing that, despite its vast dimensions, America has managed to form a people. In this sense it is clearly a nation.

The reason for classifying America as an empire has less to do with its internal character than with its impact on the world. America now "sets the rules by which most citizens of the world consent to live" and is the "throne," "insurer," and "guardian of last resort." The United States "is a sort of ‘common instrument' that the world uses to govern itself." America has such a major impact on others that some Europeans, only half-jokingly, demand the right to vote in our elections.

America's world preeminence is a bitter pill for Europeans to swallow. America was once a colony that has become an imperium, while Europe was once an imperium that has become a colony. Such a reversal of fortune is bound to be especially hard on many European intellectuals, who are far more closely tied to the pride of the nation-state than they like to acknowledge. But while their current plight may merit a degree of sympathy, it cannot begin to excuse the petty resentment, infantile petulance, and willful contempt for truth that has gone into the construction of the ideology of anti-Americanism, exported by European intellectuals to the rest of the world. The Greek intellectuals at the time of the Roman Empire, who faced a comparable situation, never behaved so disreputably, although perhaps this was because a much sterner taskmaster restrained them.

Manent, a philosopher rather than an intellectual, is free of such narrow prejudices. He judges America impartially. America "is in most cases a benevolent and often an enlightened empire. In quite a few circumstances it even deserves to be qualified as generous. It is the only empire, along with Alexander's, to belong to this category." (Taking into account the favorable evaluations from Isaiah and Aristotle, perhaps Cyrus the Great's empire should be added to this list.) Still, to Europeans, America is objectively an empire. And speaking impartially, Manent observes that if Europe ever should create the super-state some hope for, "a confrontation of an unprecedented kind seems inevitable."

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But a rivalry of this sort, among equals, is for another day. In current circumstances, Manent ascribes a large part of the conflict between America and Europe to the difference in their forms. America is a nation (or empire) with a people; Europe is bodiless and chasing a dream of infinite expansion. By the logic of its position, Europe has been compelled to extol notions of "soft power," while America has had the luxury to choose between soft and hard power. Manent clearly approves of America's ability to choose, if not of all the choices it has made.

Manent's discussion of the conflict concludes, however, most unexpectedly. Despite their differences, he finds that America and Europe are both guided by the idea that democracy, as each understands it, can and should be spread universally. Take either soft power or hard power, or both together, and what they harbor is this common metaphysical view: that the world can be made by us and dominated to our liking. This view, Manent writes, rests on a profound illusion that fails to reckon with "the intractable character of the political world," "belittle[s] the political and human meaning of a mankind naturally divided among different peoples," and "wildly exaggerate[s] the docility or plasticity of the peoples of the world, including Western peoples." In a tone reminiscent of Tocqueville's description of the "religious terror" he felt in his soul in writing Democracy in America, Manent states that his concern about this illusion "has accompanied me throughout the writing of this book."

Manent is restating here a traditional conservative admonition about the dangers of modern philosophy, which proclaims its power to master and to control. The core of his warning is that nature imposes limits, and that a failure to heed these limits must bring disappointment and tragedy. This is sound theoretical advice. At the same time, it is necessary to ask what should follow practically from these "natural" facts of "intractability" and a "mankind divided," besides the suggestion to curb our exuberance for the spread of democracy. This matter is all the more pressing because of the new circumstances of our time, which call into question the practical conclusions that this conservative analysis has supported in the past. These conclusions generally favored political quiescence and desistance. Following this counsel in our time, however, might serve paradoxically to reinforce the great illusion of mastery and control rather than to check or moderate it.

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For four or five centuries, the context of this cautious advice has been the assumption of the West's safety from and superiority over outside forces. The counsels therefore took the form of warnings against huge enterprises—against colonial ventures, empires, and missions to remake the earth. Less action would save us from such follies. The underlying premise in dealing with the rest of mankind was that we were now and forever secure at home. Edward Gibbon expressed this point when he asked, with "anxious curiosity," whether Europe could ever again be "threatened with a repetition of those calamities which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome." On surveying the conditions of the world and the state of development in the West, including the progress of its science and arms, he concluded that a similar threat in modern times was all but impossible. And should the nearly impossible nevertheless occur, and Europe find herself again threatened, Gibbon offered a final consolation (though one that the anti-Americans will no doubt find repulsive): "Should the victorious Barbarians carry slavery and desolation as far as the Atlantic Ocean, ten thousand vessels would transport beyond their pursuit the remains of civilized society; and Europe would revive and flourish in the American world, which is already filled with her colonies and institutions."

Until the last decade, few would have quarreled with the soundness of Gibbon's judgment. If "barbarism" were to succeed in destroying the West, it would not be a barbarism from the outside, but one of the West's own making. Today, technological development has proceeded to a new stage in which the balance between attack and defense has changed. Outsiders, even without mastering advanced technology, have access to its destructive instruments; they can wreak havoc on the West. At the same time, the willingness to engage in such attacks has grown with the re-opening of the centuries-long struggle between Islam and Christianity (or enlightened civilization). Manent restates, and seems to agree with, Aron's argument that men will always do what technology allows them to do, at least when they think it advantageous to their interest or cause. It is this facet of the "intractability" of nature that those in the West, if the West can still be said to exist, must now anxiously contemplate.

Whatever the direction of Pierre Manent's own thinking on this point, his book forces the reader to confront the most fundamental political questions of our age—an age that is characterized by the growing threat to the existence of the political. A World Beyond Politics? is a remarkable tour d'horizon that happens also to be a genuine tour de force.