The state as an instrument of emancipation?
November 3, 2017
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In a lengthy review of James Scott’s new book, Against the Grain (The Nation, Oct. 23, pp 27-32), Samuel Moyn makes a rather startling assertion (I do not call it an argument as he presents no evidence to support it, though he does repeat himself):
Both anarchists and neoliberals have combined in our time to obscure the fact that, to date, the state has been the most successful technology known to history for imagining and institutionalizing liberty and equality, even though it has often failed… (do tell) Scott only rarely mentions the forms of social justice that only modernity and its states have permitted and put into practice…
And he calls on us to recognize “the fact that modern states could strive not simply for civilizational splendor, but also for the freedom of equality of all.” He tempers (but I’m not sure he realizes that’s what he’s doing) this claim in the very next paragraph, where he asserts that “modern (and not only modern, jb) humans have attempted to make [the state] serve their emancipation rather than their oppression.”
And indeed they have, from the guillotine to the Marxists and their ilk who imagined a people’s state, to the Civil Rights Movement who demanded equal rights and an end to oppression, and now the Black Lives Matter movement which asks mainly that the state just stop killing them. But an unsuccessful history of trying to make the state serve as an instrument of emancipation is quite a different matter from establishing that the state is capable of, let alone ever has, serving to imagine and institutionalize liberty and equality.
I have not read Scott’s book, and so can not judge whether the criticisms raised against it are fair. But the reviewer clearly suffers from a very advanced stage of state worship – one that has progressed to the point where he is suffering visions of philosopher kings and benevolent dictatorships.