Elucidating Ellul #3: Statism

What used to be a utopian view of society, with the state playing the role of the brain, not only has been ideologically accepted in the present time but also has been profoundly integrated into the depths of our consciousness. To act in a contrary fashion would place us in radical disagreement with the entire trend of our society, a punishment we cannot possibly accept. (Ellul, The Political Illusion, 12)

How far into the “depths of our consciousness”? So far that my traditionally liberal friends (to pick on them for the moment) are actually calling on Trump to make and enforce new racial and gender anti-discrimination laws (!). Friendly reminder: (a) the US President is the head of the police for the whole nation, and (b) calling on such a person to act means empowering them more than they are already are. (Good heavens, do we really want the President trying to use an army to establish social equality – especially this one? If we don’t like a politician or a tyrannical bureaucrat, shouldn’t we be thinking of ways to disempower them?) Sigh. Ellul is right: the instinct to depend on one’s political overlords, even when that is morally and logically absurd, overcomes even our deepest and consistently-voiced political opinions.

And of course, it’s no different for mainstream neoconservatives who want to follow the Constitution, balance the budget, reduce the size of government, and save “American lives”: A country’s leaders dare to have nuclear weapons “like us,” which (somehow) gives the U.S. the right to violate the Constitution and invade the country in a new, illegal war – which will increase the size of government, kill Americans, and increase the federal deficit. Genius.

Statism, the habitual deference to, respect of, and even veneration of the state, is something Jacques Ellul was unusually thoughtful about. (Then again, most anarchists are.) “We believe that for the world to be in good order,” he writes, “the state must have all the powers” (13). Leaning on cultural habit and western tradition, everyone assumes “someone has to be the steering wheel” – as if society could be driven like a car. Worse, is that the primacy of the political dominates the subject matter of all human knowledge.

Social scientists have long noticed that the vast majority of history is political history (and written by the perspective of victors, and by men, and so on). The primary sources of history are therefore tainted from the start. Whether one turns to Greek, Roman, or even Chinese sources, the narratives that dominate are those of kings, wars, and nations.

The place we accord in our hearts to the state and political activity leads us to an interpretation of history which we regard primarily as political history. For a long time only events concerning empires and nations, only wars and conquests, only political revolutions were taken into account. Undoubtedly that concept of history is obsolete. (13)

Universities and history departments are obviously overwhelmed with revisionist work to do. Family life, business and economic life, technology, cooking, architecture, child-rearing, dress, sleeping habits, even literature are neglected domains of pre-modern history that almost anyone historian or anthropologist would find interesting. But there is so little said about them – at least without reference to the authorities who keep messing with everybody. As a result,

A society has no reality for us except in its political institutions, and those institutions take precedence over all others (despite the importance assumed by economic and social history). Above all, we cannot escape the strange view that history is ultimately a function of the state. Only where the state is, is history worth the name. (14)

With centuries of such ideological inculcation behind us, it is no surprise that human value is attached to the political. To be human is to participate in the system of the state, to have something to say about politics, and to read all the latest hubbub about those in office – even though all of it is as fleeting as the weather.

A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person. To progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place. Progress is to read newspapers. (17)

Or in our case today, read blogs.

It doesn’t take long to realize just how overwhelming this environment can be for someone trying to live a good life, love one’s neighbor, and seek the face of God. It’s detrimental, really. There are families and relationships entirely contingent on political agreement and conversation. If the political agreement ends or evolves or develops to a new place, the relationship is potentially compromised.

Isn’t this kind of shallowness sad? Is it really necessary? “Discovering” that a friend is a “liberal” or “libertarian” should not be any more traumatic than discovering that they are “conservative” or “Marxist.” But in ‘Mericah, when political identities are tied so much to human identities, it’s another story. And it really is difficult to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Which is to say: remember that we are all fellow passengers on the bus towards death, and “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

The internet is both breaking the spell of statism and the primacy of politics in some spheres, and reinforcing it in others. This growing bifurcation, I think, is possibly one agitator towards the kind of rampant violence we’re seeing. It’s not easy to listen to those “so far off” – so it is easier to hate them. And as Mary Ruwart so wisely put it in her excellent work Healing Our Worldwe can only commit violence against people after we have first separated ourselves from them mentally and emotionally.  This is true towards any person or group that is different or unfamiliar to us. Heck, I regularly complain about out-of-state tourists clogging up the streets during tourist season. “Forget those ___ans and _____ians! Go back to the state from whence you came!” This may be funny and even trivial. But, like a seven-year-old who only shares his toys with white kids on the playground, the silent seeds of discord are always cropping up in our hearts about one thing or another, big or small.

It is our responsibility, then, not to feed the beast. But this is a sort of balancing act that pulls in two directions. While we may choose to be more informed about contemporary political matters than others, others have chosen to separate themselves (for whatever reason) from the ocean of commentary and debate, and showing our respect and honor towards that choice is extremely important. There is no surplus of political monks and monasteries. Good on you for not letting the political machine control what you think about!

On the other hand, when the decisions of Caesar are practically demanding the church’s involvement, action requires judgment – whether about sanctions in Venezuela that killed over 5,000 diabetic persons for lack of insulin, or starving children at the southern border. I wish it went without saying but it bears reiterating: Love knows no borders, and there ought be no human collateral damage in the Kingdom of God. Period. The cross ended that barbaric phase of human history and it is best we move on.

How to navigate the liminal space between the hermit and monk and the way of the public prophet and activist is a skill that has to be learned in humility and community, just like most any other skill.