Intellectual History of the Modern State

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Helmut Willke:

"What was the new type or new quality of the problem in the evolution of latemedieval societies, to which the State appeared to be a solution? This wording of the question of course, implies functional thilnking. And this means that for an adequate answer it is not so important to fix a specific historical date for the formation of the State in Europe. Rather, the point is to specify the conditions of the possibility and the conditions of the neceessity of the State in the context of representing and stabilizing the unity of a specific society. One major factor undoubtedly, was the religious schisms or differences which lead to a variety of external and internal wars in the 16th and 17th centuries. The question to be answered, was whether the sovereignity of a political unity was to be based on religious or on secular power. The answer can be found in the formula of the Peace of Augsburg: cuius regio, eius religio. (Augsburger Religionsfriede 1555).

This formula highlights an historical trend of secularization which gradually eroded the medieval idea of order - that is the idea of the possibility of political order by referring to an external (and eternal) authority: the authority of God. In sociological terms the unity of medieval society was based on concurring transcendental reference or other-reference, not on self-reference. This idea of a transcendental legitimacy or order had to be adapted to structural innovation when - notably in France and England - the kings succeeded in centralizing political authority. A first solution was to base the authority (Herrschaft) of the king and the legitimacy of political power directly on divine authority - a device that even today is far from being inoperative. When religion had to retreat further from politics because relilgious reasoning couldn't solve the problem of unjust power (in the sense of Weber's "domination") and legitimate resistance, a second solution was needed. The second solution to reconcile transcendental reference and structural variation was to base authority on nature. If not God, then at least natural law and the Nature of Man were to guarantee justice of order and containment of power.

However, the formula of "nature" only bridges the opening gap between transcendence and immancence, between religion and secularization, between other-reference and self-reference of the political system for a while. The more serious beginnings of occidental rationalization (as analyzed by Max Weber) and of functional differentiation unleash the internal dynamics of positive science and industrial economy, the very two factors Saint-Simon later refers to as the real revolutionary and revolutionizing forces of the new era.

However, it is in the realm of politics where the most obvious changes occur. When the American revolution puts an end to monarchial authority and dominance, and the French Revolution over-throws the "Ancien Regime", the stage ist set for a new foundation of political order: neither God nor Nature, but the human being itself as bourgois and citoyen is now the measure of perfection.

Within the next few years however, the terror in the aftermath of the French Revolution radically shattered the belief in human rationality as a guaranty for the "bonum commune". So what was left? I think it is safe to say, that in Europe around 1800 a uniquely anomic situation emerged: the old foundations of societal order were discredited, and the new hope, the idea of rational Man had failed. At the same time, the dynamics of industrial economy, of science, technology, and education pushed for more functional differentiation, for more diversity and interdependence and in combination created a new quality of societal complexity. But which authority was to contain, control and guide this complexity? Which institution - after God, Nature and Man - was capable of structuring this anomic complexity?

Some of the most eminent thinkers of that period tried to answer this question. Saint-Simon thought of industrials and scientists as those best equipped to direct the course of society intentionally. Tocqueville on the other hand, realized - with "terreur religieuse" - the advent of egalitarian democracy. But he could not find that desparately needed invisible-handmechanism, which might have been able to reconcile equality as a form of citizenship and democracy as a form of government.

From my point of view however, the most problematic and most consequential answer came from Hegel. Around 1820, he realized the necessity to break with two thousand years of Aristotelian tradition and to react theoretically to the fact of the separation of State and society7.

In the Aristotelian model the "koinonia politike" or "societas civilis sive politice" as the sphere of politics and public discourse was set against the "oikos", the household as the sphere of the family, the private, and - as Max Weber says - of "organized want satisfaction".

It is important to realise, that the oikos included an economic function. Structural innovation by differentiation set in, when gradually household and enterprise became seperated and the rationality of the economic function shifted from want satisfaction to the profitability of capital investment.

Hegel sees most precisely that the classical term of "societas civilis" has become misleading, and even disguises the fundamental change in societal structure which definitely establishes itself during the 18th century: the functional differentiation mainly of politics, economy, and family. Political economists such as Adam Smith or Ferguson reintroduce the term "civil society" in an effort to integrate industrialized economy into the Aristotelian model. However, they substitute economic society for political society, and notably Adam Smith omits the problem of control, authority and political domination.

Hegel instead, takes a radical stance: he coins a new meaning of civil society ("Bürgerliche Gesellschaft") by defining it in sharp contrast to the Aristotelian tradaition. To him, civil society is the system of particularized needs and interests, as sphere of universal egotism10. Civil society, Hegel says, is the difference which establishes itself between family and State11. In an impressingly lucid analysis Hegel takes account of the consequences of the division of labor, of industrialized economy, and of the differentiation of societeal functions. Rejecting all theories of societal contract as a way to structure and organize the resulting complexity, Hegel rigorously presents the problem: What is there to represent the identity of society in the face of the diversity of its parts? And he comes up with his famous (and many say: infamous) answer: the State as the sphere of universal altruism.

So, here it is, the noble hero of the new era, ready to defend the common good, the common identity, the common welfare against the contradictions and contingencies of a civil society which is built in the inherent instability of private interests. And the tragedy of the State begins with the fact, that Hegel's Philosophy of the State epitomizes the idea of the State as a solution to the problem of civil society at an historical moment, when the solution itself begins to aggravate the problems it was intended to solve. In order to make this hypothesis more feasible, we have to change our frame of reference and turn to a short reflection on certain properties of complex systems." (