The Political Illusion pt. 2: The Autonomy of Politics
Ellul argues that politics in a world of "necessity," that is, a world where there is sin and evil, runs by its own rules: an "ethical" politics is not really possible or advisable.
The Monopoly of Force
As Ellul opens this section, he accepts Machiavelli’s argument that politics must be understood as its own autonomous category, governed by its own rules. At its most basic, politics is about what is most effective and efficient. You must deal with the political realm as it is, not as we would like it to be.
As a background, we must see that Ellul, as a Christian, understands that the world is fundamentally flawed by human sinfulness, by humanity’s inborn capacity for evil. The reality of evil and humanity’s propensity to do what is evil must be faced head on by Christians. He argues that in a world where there is evil, there are times one must do things that are “necessary” in order to deal with existing evil. Sometimes it is necessary to commit acts of violence. But this necessity does not make these acts “good,” or “moral,” or “Christian.” Ellul argued for a strict separation of the “Christian” from that of “violence.” Even though violence is necessary, it should not, nor can it be, justified by the saving work of Jesus. You commit violence knowing it is an unjustifiable evil act, but one that is necessary. For a fuller understanding, I invite you to read my piece on Ellul’s book “Violence”:
I would argue that Ellul does something similar with the political realm. Politics is part of that which is “necessary.” As we will see later, he argues that a Christian politics will be impossible, hypocritical and disastrous.
Since Machiavelli, Ellul explains, the only criteria by which a state can be judged is its effectiveness. Once this is acknowledged, though, regardless of the form which the state takes, it renders all states essentially the same in practice. Whether a country is a republic, has a parliamentary system with a monarch, or is authoritarian, the only criterion which matters is the efficacy of the state. An effective authoritarian government is “better” than an ineffective system of democratic republicanism. You may feel morally superior living in an ineffective democratic regime, but that superiority is based on an illusion, a false judgement of the autonomous nature of politics. All moral conclusions about the particular form of the state are illusory. Once we recognize that politics is its own autonomous realm governed by its own rules, its own necessity, we can look it properly with unclouded eyes.
If we accept the the autonomy of politics, how do we judge the legitimacy of a state if we cannot do it on moral grounds? Ellul argues that all states are founded by force, by violence. There is no exceptions to this. A state gains legitimacy when it can defend itself from its neighbors.
“In the present world the state is taken seriously only when it threatens or defends itself in a fight to the death against some grave danger to its existence.”
Carl Schmitt would approve.
“We will find that powers which are able to maintain themselves are legitimate”
There are two sources of legitimacy that must work together for a regime to secure and maintain its legitimacy:
Support by the people.
Recognition by other states.
In practice, though, because the first criteria can be, and generally is, manufactured through propaganda, the only actual marker of legitimacy is that the state is recognized as a state by other states. There are no moral criteria. The worst despots, once recognized, are legitimate. North Korea’s state is as legitimate as that of the United States of America. The Taliban are legitimate, because the US, through its actions, has recognized them as legitimate.
Ellul argues that once the autonomy of politics is recognized, there is no longer any normative power to law. It the law collides with the facts on the ground, the law will be changed to conform with political realities. You can see the truth of this necessity when a state applies the use of force, of violence. The law is made to conform to the state’s use of force. With this in mind, we must understand that the police and the military are the same. They are both applications of state force. Any differences are illusory. Both the military and the police apply force on behalf of the state. The law will not restrain the use of force by the government. The idea of “the rule of law” is a fiction, an illusion.
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