The Duck of Minerva

Someone needs to stop these violent psychopaths!

9 February 2022

Do states have consciousness? Lerner says it doesn’t ultimately matter whether they do or they don’t; we have no real way of knowing. There are various theories of consciousness, not all of which are ‘neuro-chauvinistic.’ We can theorise states as conscious entities, because – conscious or not – they act as if they are, and are therefore at least functionally conscious.

States act, suggests Lerner, like middle schoolers at a dance. They are anxious. They do not like to leave their immediate social circle. When they venture outside of that circle then their anxiety will only get worse. There’s a problem, though. Middle schoolers are so anxious because they think that the stakes are high, but, really, the stakes are almost nonexistent – unless, like most states, the average middle schooler is heavily armed and dangerous.

Terms like ‘use of force’…. don’t just sanitise state violence, they erase its victims

Here we need to talk across levels of analysis. In the postcolonial world, at least, state rarely do each other real harm. But they frequently kill, maim, brutalise, and torture citizens of other states – or their own (see Syria). They do so in the name of security – both during periods of war and times of peace. States will kill huge numbers of people to save themselves. And we have all, somehow, been tricked into thinking this is reasonable. If states do indeed have consciousness, I do not think there could be a better argument for ending them altogether – for finding a different way of organizing political life. Someone needs to stop these violent psychopaths.

Of course, in traditional International Relations, we do not really like to acknowledge that states are violent. In a 2011 article, Clare Thomas finds that most international-relations scholarship rarely mentions violence. Instead, it relies on euphemisms – ones that legitimise the violence of states.

Terms like ‘use of force’, ‘attack’, ‘offensive strategies,’ and ‘strike back’ don’t just sanitise state violence, they erase its victims. States can only feel pain, bleed, or die in a metaphorical sense. Thinking only in terms of states, and not what’s ‘inside’ or ‘across’ them, creates an image of a world where real people – people in pain, bleeding, and dying – are, at best, ‘collateral damage’ in the high politics of states and statecraft.

Lerner writes about states as middle schoolers to underscore that states are driven by a complex range of internal forces. Nevertheless, teachers can observe, understand, and make predictions about how middle schoolers behave – and they can do so without detailed knowledge of the inner workings of any given student.

Teachers have a ‘bird’s eye’ view of middle schoolers, and that view gives them insights that middle schoolers lack, whether about themselves or their peers. Teachers come to believe that middle schoolers, despite their differences, have ‘irreducible unitary qualities.’

Focusing on states as persons distracts us from how violence travels across levels of analysis

It would be foolish to dismiss teachers’ views of what middle schoolers are like and how they tend to behave. The teacher might very well understand the middle-schoolers better than they understand their own adolescent bodies and minds. The same is true of the insights that international-relations theorists develop about general patterns in state behavior.

Lerner notes that state consciouses raises a number of ethical problems. Of these, I think one is he most important: ‘how can scholarship wrestle with state consciousness without affirming violent ideologies?’ I think it’s clear that the state is a violent entity. It is socially constituted as such via history and ideology.

If states are conscious, then they have somehow tricked humans into believing the continued existence of the state takes precedence over their own lives. Focusing on states as persons distracts us from how violence travels across levels of analysis. States don’t do violence to one another. They inflict violence on actual living beings.

Once we start treating states as conscious entities, then we only further legitimate a way of thinking that conspires to obscure the violence and the suffering it causes; we further distance ourselves, and our analysis, from the horrific violence that permeates international politics.