Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bon Mots: Coetzee on the Origin of the State

From his most recent novel, Diary of a Bad Year (Viking, 2007, p.3), J.M. Coetzee's chief narrator, Señor C, speculates:

Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that "we"-- not we the readers but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one-- participate in its coming into being. But the fact is that the only "we" we know-- ourselves and the people close to us-- are born into the state; and out forbears too were born into the state as far back as we can trace. The state is always there before we are...

...If, despite the evidence of our senses, we accept the premise that we or our forbears created the state, then we must accept its entailment: that we or our forbears could have created the state in some other form, if we had chosen; perhaps, too, that we could change it if we collectively so decided. But the fact is that, even collectively, those who are "under" the state, who "belong to" the state, will find it very hard indeed to change its form; they-- we-- are certainly powerless to abolish it.

It is hardly in our present power to change the form of the state and impossible to abolish it because, vis-à-vis the state, we are, precisely, powerless. In the myth of the founding of the state as set down by Thomas Hobbes, our descent into powerlessness was voluntary: in order to escape the violence of internecine warfare without end (reprisal upon reprisal, vengeance upon vengeance, the vendetta), we individually and severally yielded up to the state the right to use physical force (right is might, might is right), thereby entering the realm (the protection) of the law. Those who chose and choose to stay outseide the compact become outlaw.

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