“Citizenship in Western liberal democracies,” wrote Joseph Carens in 1987, “is the modern equivalent of feudal privilege—an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances.” That observation was intended to ground Carens’s “case for open borders,” by which he meant the right for every human being to settle wherever they want, subject to certain caveats, but it clearly puts into question much more than immigration policy. Taken as a whole, the current system of nation-states entails massive inequalities between human beings, not only in individual rights to protection and opportunity but also in collective rights to territory and natural resources—and it does so largely on the basis of events that occurred before any of us was born. Desert and dignity play no role in this distribution; arbitrariness reigns supreme. The rippling of this realization across academic political philosophy over the past few decades has led to wave after wave of debate, each one depositing the fine silt of clarifying distinctions onto increasingly well-developed, and well-entrenched, positions. But whatever one thinks about the moral status of the existing global order, it is hard to imagine circumstances in which philosophical critique would make a difference to it. What came about through the workings of power politics will almost certainly end, if it ever does end, through the workings of power politics. The question for politically engaged intellectuals is what to make of that fact.
Carens, for example, came to regard advocacy of open borders as a “non-starter” from a political perspective: accepting that citizens of rich countries would mostly view the proposal as “deeply contrary to their interests,” he aimed simply to dissuade fellow intellectuals from “legitimating what should only be endured.” Yet three decades after his original article, talk of open borders had migrated from the philosophical fringe to the center of political conversation in the West, most often used as a facile smear against moderates but sometimes, especially on the left, worn as a badge of honor. In the wake of COVID-19, the idea of free migration now seems to belong in science fiction; in the short term, at least, everything points to an era of deglobalization in which ordinary people find it harder and harder to travel internationally, let alone to migrate. If critiques of the nation-state are impolitic at the best of times, they will presumably be even more so in the coming years.
Carens is surely right, however, that political contingencies ought not to constrain criticism: if the system of nation-states cannot be justified philosophically, whether in whole or in part, then we should distance ourselves from it in some way. The difficulty is living with the political consciousness that results from this distance. For one thing, how should the minority who deny the legitimacy of the current system relate to the majority who do not? It seems axiomatic that democratic egalitarians have no business thinking of their fellow citizens as benighted atavists, but it also seems clear, as Carens says, that there will likely never be a majority of Westerners in favor of giving away their birthright. This in turn points to a deeper problem: If the current world order is illegitimate, how should we think about the claims that we routinely make within that order? It’s common to argue for welfare provisions such as basic income, for example, by arguing that every member of society should share in its prosperity. But if that prosperity depends on the illegitimate seizure or fencing off of natural resources that rightly belong to humanity as a whole—think of Norway’s vast oil wealth—then battles over its internal distribution might look like disputes among thieves.
At the beginning of spring, as the corridors of Italian hospitals burst with gurneys and army trucks ferried bodies to crematoria, the West was thrust into emergency. Social life was suspended, but so too was political life: with parliaments shuttered and primaries postponed, leadership became quasi-monarchical. Some warned of nascent police states, but most worried more about whether our newfound kings and queens were up to the job. (The passion of Boris Johnson, who rose from his hospital bed on Easter Sunday, seemed to realize a collective daydream about the relation between the king’s two bodies, the body natural and the body politic.) This monarchical trend was accompanied by the rapid abandonment of neoliberal dogma in favor of something like early-modern mercantilism as states began to direct industry, limit international trade, mobilize the armed forces and prop up failing businesses. This was not the West of the IMF or the WTO, but the West of Westphalia.
Carl Schmitt famously claimed that states of emergency reveal the underlying structure of political power in a state: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” His argument was that because emergencies are situations whose parameters cannot be spelled out in advance, the rules for handling them can never be exhaustive. Whichever agent is charged with deciding what counts as an exceptional case and how to respond to it therefore has an exceptional power, one that stands above the normal legal order. Whether COVID-19 has revealed anything so clear is doubtful, since those who have been making the decisions are not, in the final analysis, unaccountable. But at a more general level Schmitt’s point does seem illuminating: the crisis has indeed revealed something about the basic structure of our polities, both from a legal perspective—it turns out that America really is a federation of states, for instance—and from a philosophical one.
What became clear in the early stages of this crisis, in that brief phase where we were all too stunned to know what our partisan identities demanded of us, was the truth of Hobbes’s claim that the first requirement for any legitimate government is to protect the lives of its citizens. Even now, with the backlash well underway, those who argue against the lockdown typically rely on the premise that the virus isn’t all that bad—if it were the bubonic plague, we’re given to understand, the cure might indeed be preferable to the disease. But at points during the pandemic our collective understanding of the social contract seemed to push beyond Hobbes all the way to the proto-socialist vision of Fichte, who argued that the state could only be legitimate if it controlled the economy, regulating prices, distributing jobs, sponsoring wages and meeting basic needs. The neoliberal immune system violently rejected that suggestion, of course, and the idea that COVID-19 spelled the end of capitalism was clearly a fantasy. But the mere fact that these ideas were in the air as the darkness descended—just as they were during World War II—suggests that they represent a kind of default or baseline to which our thinking returns in times of crisis, and hence, perhaps, that capitalism is a kind of luxury that we permit ourselves only when we’re sure the worst is over.
If this is right, then socialism, or at least a version of it, is in an important sense prior to capitalism—though not necessarily in a good way. For the thought occurs that socialism might be trapped in an existentially absurd condition whereby it is only ever called into existence in order to dig its own grave, its proposals accepted only in desperate times that they help to end. Worse still, it might be that the most plausible normative basis for socialism, the idea that the social contract takes the form of all for one and one for all, can only get traction in a political setting that it would ideally like to reject. For if one thing has been made manifest in the current crisis, it is that the political unit to which people presently look for protection, both physically and economically, is the nation. Even if there could and should be a social contract at a global level, that is not the world we live in. Perhaps cosmopolitanism, too, is the kind of luxury we allow ourselves only when we’re sure the worst is behind us.
The United Kingdom is, as its name suggests, a feudal arrangement—not just in the metaphorical sense that Carens appeals to, but quite literally. When citizens pay taxes they pay them to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs; when they commit crimes they face the Crown Prosecution Service. Legislative power is exercised by the Queen-in-Parliament; executive power by Her Majesty’s Government; even spiritual power, in the form of the Church of England, is vested in her person. The concrete expression of this structure comes once a week, usually on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., when the prime minister, who serves at the Queen’s discretion, is obliged to visit Buckingham Palace to account for himself. All of this is well known and yet from a certain point of view it remains shocking. If we ask ourselves by what right one human being could hold such power over others, assuming the equal worth of all, we will not easily find an answer. The system is a historical inheritance that reflects past power struggles; there is no principle of justice that would recommend it. And yet republican arguments are hard to take seriously in the United Kingdom—they seem jejune, adolescent, the stuff of debate clubs. That is partly because our sense of what is achievable shapes our sense of what is worth getting exercised over, and in a democratic society what is achievable depends on popular opinion. But it is also because arbitrary traditions can be a resource. As human beings we need symbolic as well as material support from our leaders, and in practice the monarchy serves mostly to separate this function from executive power, which is probably a good thing; better for troops to salute a royal than to salute a president. We might even say, channeling Carens, that the contingency of these particular people being royals allows them to symbolize the contingency of their subjects being British.
The point about coming to terms with popular opinion is hard to accept, of course, and one of the most notable features of recent politics has been the left’s penchant for supporting leaders who have made whole careers of rejecting it: for these prophets in the wilderness, the fundamental duty is to castigate the electorate, not appeal to it. Jeremy Corbyn represented the ideal type of this kind of leader, a career protester who gave the impression that he would never forgive Britain its imperial sins, but Bernie Sanders was never too far behind. To criticize these men for their refusal to subjugate the moral to the political is in a sense beside the point; they are what they are. The better question is why we sustained them for so long, why we preferred to hear a leader say what we hold to be right and true rather than to see some of our preferred policies actually enacted. We can always reference long-term goals such as “opening the Overton window,” building social movements, heightening social contradictions, preparing for the next cycle and so on, but on some level we must know these justifications are insufficient. If anyone needed a lesson in how uncertain the future is, COVID-19 is it. In politics all that exists is the present; when opportunity emerges, what matters is who’s in charge.
Politicians are not social critics. They have a job to do, and that job necessarily involves compromise with public opinion. That leaves open the question, though, of how intellectuals should relate to it. There is no simple answer. Political thought is necessarily amphibious, with one foot in action and the other in abstraction. For thought to count as genuinely political it must assume a certain context that comes to it from the outside, as it were: “In the beginning was the deed,” as Bernard Williams was fond of reminding philosophers. To count as genuine thought, on the other hand, it must put that context into question, which involves thinking beyond and behind it. How best to balance these demands depends on our purposes, but as a rule of thumb we might say that the more we intend our thought to guide action in the here and now, the more we need to take for granted facts that are ultimately arbitrary. What is crucial, then, is to be clear about which activity we’re engaged in at any given time. Where immigration is concerned, for example, possible intellectual endeavors fall on a spectrum from straightforward advocacy of a pre-given party platform to policy work that develops novel legislation to mid-range philosophy that outlines principles for a non-ideal world to speculative philosophy that envisions an ideal global order. Each of these projects may be valuable; the problem comes when we confuse one with another. Partisan advocacy aims at changing public opinion in the short term, so it needs to begin by meeting people where they are; speculative philosophy, by contrast, abstracts from so many features of the world as it actually exists that it should never be taken as a straightforward guide to policy. “Utopian thought is not necessarily frivolous,” Williams wrote, “but the nearer political thought gets to action … the more likely it is to be frivolous if it is utopian.”
For leftist intellectuals there may be an even bigger danger than being frivolous: losing track of what our commitments require of us in the first place. In particular, we have to guard against the tendency to picture ourselves as missionaries whose goal is to convert the wider public. It is true that popular opinion is by no means fixed, and that we ought to try to convince our fellow citizens of what we take to be right. As democratic egalitarians, however, we also have to be open to the possibility of learning from them.
To return to the example at hand, there may be some wisdom in treating the current form of the nation-state as a fixed point in political life, like the monarchy in the U.K.—and not only for pragmatic reasons. As we grow out of adolescence, we generally learn to stop viewing the accidents of our circumstances as merely external constraints. We come to see that they are also enabling: we are who we are by virtue of them, and no other version of us is thinkable. It is not just that you can only play the hand you’re dealt; it’s also that all of our projects, no matter how critical or transformative, require the background of a culture and a history that come to us as given and hence, in a certain sense, as a gift. Something similar holds true in the realm of politics: the webs of meaning through which a better world appears to us are anchored in the structures of the world we have inherited, and in the particular attachments we have formed within those structures. If we can think of socializing the whole world, it is generally because we have first thought of socializing the nation-state; and if we have thought of that, it is because the nation matters to us as a collective with whom we share something more determinate than universal principles. This doesn’t mean we need to endorse everything about the international system as it stands. But it does mean that, if we are genuinely interested in altering that system—in making it more just or democratic or equal—we had better find a way of taking seriously the passions and perspectives of the people it has produced.