Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen

Published late last year, Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen by Peter Alexander Meyers merits more attention than the rather narrow acclaim it has received to date — though its neglect, so far, may be a matter of its timing as well as its tenor. It is the opening volume in a trilogy of works on political theory that will bear the overarching title “Democracy in America After 9/11.”

Reading it now is a constant reminder of the difference that six months can make, for the pages of Civic War are saturated with the concerns, the topical references, and the uneasy ambience of the first several years of this decade, when the office of the president was occupied by a man who proclaimed his role to be “the decider” in tones suggesting that this is the most sophisticated political doctrine he or anyone else might ever imagine. As it happens, Meyers’s focus as a theorist is on precisely that topic: how democracy is shaped by the habits (and the failures) of political imagination.

To discuss our recent experience in such terms means establishing a certain degree of distance from the events of the past eight years — moving from journalism’s first draft of history to a higher plane, from which we can examine not just long-term trends but (to use an old bit of philosophical shorthand) the “conditions of possibility” of democratic politics. For Meyers, the aftermath of 9/11 raises questions about the nature and activity of what he calls “the Citizen.” That capital letter emphasizes the element of abstraction involved here, for Meyers is trying to define an essence, a mode of being, rather than a demographic group.

“Just as being a doctor is constituted by seeing, thinking, and acting like a doctor,” he writes, “so being a citizen is constituted by distinctive ways of seeing, thinking, and acting.” What distinguishes the role of Citizen is that you have to play it with other people also assuming that role. You have to enter the public sphere to argue, to debate, to make decisions together with others through the existing mechanisms governing large-scale common action. To be a Citizen means establishing (and indeed insisting upon) some degree of control over those mechanisms for deciding and directing how power will be used.

The real target of an act of terrorism, then, is the Citizen — not in the sense that individuals, like buildings, are destroyed, but that it seeks to reduce the public to stunned helplessness. (The desire to create “shock and awe” is, in the strictest sense, a terrorist intention.) The temptation in the face of terror is to hand over complete control to those with power. Such abdication of the role of Citizen may be done via democratic means, but it is deeply antipolitical.

The term Meyers uses for this tendency is “monocracy,” referring to “the aspiration to or achievement of a form of government in which just one power is decisive.” We are trained to think of democracy in America as characterized by a separation of powers designed to check monocracy, but the impulse remains a durable one even so.

And it is reinforced by — even perhaps finally indistinguishable from — the pronounced tendency to describe any sort of public struggle as a “war.” Presidents have declared war on unemployment (FDR), poverty (LBJ), and drugs (Nixon), and more recently on terrorism. The recurrent use of a metaphor has the effect of turning it from a rhetorical device to something taken as a given. In ways both overt and subtle, it shapes, and deforms, how we imagine responding to a crisis. For one thing, war tends to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch.

The role of the Citizen shrinks, even apart from any limitations on civil rights imposed by a president overreaching his authority. This tendency towards monocracy is, in part, a failure of the imagination. “Our faculty for projective future orientation,” writes Meyers, “is always operative in everyday life; it guides the next step, balances dependence, affirms plurality, adjusts the division of action, allocates our energies, and so forth.”

To have the habit of conceiving political life through reference to preparation for combat is deeply destructive of the capacity for citizenship. But it is a prevailing condition — one that Meyers describes through the unfamiliar and sometimes puzzling expression “civic war.” In a state of civil war, the nation is split into warring camps; by contrast, “civic war” reflects a kind of excessive unity, in which the scope of political dispute is narrowed by the urgencies of mobilization.

Meyers interprets 9/11 not as an event leading the United States into a condition of civic war but, rather, as a moment when long-standing monocratic tendencies intensified because of the weaknesses in our capacity to be Citizens in any strong sense. Affixing a flag sticker to your car does not count; nor (pace the 43rd president) does going shopping at the mall count as a gesture of public spiritedness.

The roots of this atrophy run deep. We tend to speak of the Cold War as having ended almost two decades ago, but Meyers’s argument is that the past few years have been a continuation of the state of civic war that consolidated during that drawn-out, uneasily “stable” stand-off. “It is impossible,” he writes, “that institutions, beliefs, and practices built up over several generations simply dissolve into thin air. They must persist, even if in so doing they often take on unexpected or perverse new forms.”

There are implications to this argument that seem much more radical than anything Meyers explicitly draws out from it. One is hard pressed to see how any revitalization of the Citizen’s role would be possible given the degree of corruption in both the institutions and the mores wrought by decades of civic war. But then, this is the first book of three — and it may be that later volumes will deepen what is only intriguingly suggested here.

In the meantime, what can any Citizen with the least imagination do except to listen to William Blake’s manifesto from 1804? “”Rouse up,” he called out to his readers, “set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.” That was more than 200 years ago, which just proves that the struggle for change, while very slow, is at least steady work.