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The Jehoshua Novels

Corey Robin on NatSec & Civil Liberties

Already linked to this the other day, but it’s worth amplifying: Corey Robin’s thoughtful new essay in the latest Jacobin (subscribe and/or donate today) on the rise of the (failed) Hobbesian state is a must-read (assuming you haven’t already done so). Alas, I don’t have the time/energy/lucidity to offer anything substantive in reply (it is Saturday, after all, aka whiskey-o’-clock). Thankfully, Scott Lemieux (along with the LGM commitariat) and Daniel Nexon are working the overtime shift this holiday weekend, so click yrselves on over for some keen responses.

A sample (as originally excerpted by Robin):

Security is an ideal language for suppressing rights because it combines a universality and neutrality in rhetoric with a particularity and partiality in practice.  Security is a good that everyone needs, and, we assume, that everyone needs in the same way and to the same degree.  It is “the most vital of all interests,” John Stuart Mill wrote, which no one can “possibly do without.” Though Mill was referring here to the security of persons rather than of nations or states, his argument about personal security is often extended to nations and states, which are conceived to be persons writ large.

Unlike other values — say justice or equality — the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests.  It is the necessary condition for the pursuit of any belief or interest, regardless of who holds that belief or has that interest.  It is a good, as I’ve said, that is universal and neutral.  That’s the theory.

The reality, as we have seen, is altogether different.  The practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests, and these ideologies and interests fundamentally help determine whether threats become a focus of attention, and how they are perceived and mobilized against.  The provision of security requires resources, which are not limitless.  They must be distributed according to some calculus, which, like the distribution calculus of any other resource (say income or education), will reflect controversial and contested assumption about justice and will be the subject of debate. National security is as political as Social Security, and just as we argue about the latter, so do we argue about the former.


Because the rhetoric of security is one of universality and neutrality while the reality is one of conflict and division, state officials and elites have every motivation, and justification, to suppress heterodox and dissenting definitions of security.  And so they have, as Hobbes predicted they could and would.  But because a neutral, universal definition of security is impossible to achieve in practice, repression for the sake of security must be necessarily selective:  only certain groups or certain kinds of dissent will be targeted.  The question then becomes:  which groups, which dissent?

Because government officials are themselves connected with particular constituencies in society — often the most powerful — they will seldom suppress challenges to security that come from the powerful; instead they will target the powerless and the marginal, particularly if the powerless are mobilizing to threaten the powerful.  So the US government during WWI made it illegal to urge people, like the Socialists, not to buy war bonds — but it did allow a Wall Street adviser to counsel his client not to make a bad investment.

Or, when Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1918, which made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government or the military or to bring these institutions “into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute,” the Republicans attempted to insert an amendment that would have protected themselves and their constituencies, who were aggressively criticizing Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic leadership of the US government.  “Nothing in this act shall be construed,” the amendment read, “as limiting the liberty or impairing the right of an individual to publish or speak what is true, with good motives and for justifiable ends.”  Suppressing dissident socialists or activists against the draft was fine; suppressing dissenting Republicans was not.

But there is a second reason why security has proven the most potent justification for the suppression of rights.  And that has to do with the liberal tradition, which historically has offered the greatest theoretical resource for opposition to the suppression of rights.  While liberalism as a theory has given us excellent reasons to oppose the use of coercive state power on behalf of religious or moral orthodoxy, it has given us far fewer reasons to oppose the use of that power on behalf of security.  In fact, if we look at three touchstones of liberal discourse — Locke, Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes — we find that each of them actually provides excellent justifications for the use of coercive and repressive state power in the name of security.

Each of these writers tried, in his way, to prevent the state from using its coercive power on behalf of some controversial question of ideology or belief: for Locke, it was religion; for Mill, it was morality; for Holmes, it was politics.  And each of them formulated a test or condition for when the use of such power was legitimate:  for Locke, it was to protect “the security and safety of the commonwealth”; for Mill, it was to prevent harm; for Holmes, it was to thwart a “clear and present danger.”

The assumption behind the proscription against using coercive power in the first set of cases — religion, morality, and politics — and the endorsement of it in the second set of cases — the security and safety of the commonwealth, harm, or a clear and present danger — was not only that the first set was a source of controversy and division while the second set was not.  It was that the first was by its very nature a source of controversy while the second was by its very nature a source of unity.  Unlike religion, morality, and politics, in other words, security offered the basis for an uncontroversial exercise of coercive state power.

As we have seen, this assumption has not been borne out by reality.  But that failure has not stopped liberals from arguing, as the saying goes, that politics stops at the water’s edge.  And so when they have tried to chastise conservatives for using security for political ends (even though they do the same thing themselves), they have often found themselves, particularly since the Reagan years, hopelessly outgunned.  Having endorsed — indeed, invented — the idea that security is not, properly speaking, a subject of and for the political arena, liberals cannot possibly hope to beat their opponents at a game which their chief theoreticians claim does not even exist.

Update: Via Michael Cohen, the perfect thematic bookend to Robin: Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure Than Washington Thinks.

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