The Scorpion State
The state governs: it is what it does
[I]f progressives suffer from motivated reasoning, national conservatives are afflicted by amnesia. They’ve forgotten what conservatives once understood: When you stray from limiting the state’s role to clear and unambiguous necessities, you create the tools for your opponents’ mischief.
An awful lot of ‘new right’ thinking is devoted to laundering the notion that a political party can be ‘left on the economy and right on culture’. This certainly seemed to be the phrase on everybody’s lips at NatCon UK in 2023. The idea here, I think, is that most voters are basically in favour of a big, interventionist state when it comes to health, welfare, protectionism and industrial policy, but also like the idea of hard borders, toughness on crime, national pride, and so on. If a political party could somehow find that political lagrange point between left and right, the theory goes, they could romp to electoral triumph and usher in a new era of populist domination.
Let me break it to you: this is a pipe dream. While the desire on the part of modern conservatives to divorce themselves from ‘neoliberalism’ is understandable enough, the simple truth is that there is a very good and obvious reason why parties on the economic left tend towards being left on culture, too. And it is simply this: a State which minutely governs the economy is one which minutely governs society as a whole, because economy and society are not in fact separate phenomena, but an integrated whole. This means that if the State is big vis-a-vis the economy, it is going to be big in all areas - and it is going to want to squash or co-opt competing sources of loyalty and authority (like the family, religious and community groups, businesses, etc.) which the right holds dear accordingly. The truth of the matter, then, is that conservatives and libertarians both fundamentally need the same thing (a small state) and that the ‘left on the economy and right on culture’ meme is just that: a slogan without a genuine cause.
I now aim to elucidate this for you through the use two symbols: the toothbrush, and the scorpion.
Let me begin by asking you a question: whose job do you think it is to make sure that little Johnny, aged 4-11, brushes his teeth properly each day? Would you say it is his parents?
Well, you would be wrong. The leader of the opposition in the UK and presumptive next Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer MP, has been busy making this clear for us in recent months: the job of making sure children brush their teeth properly is in fact the State’s. You see, tooth decay is a big issue. Children are having to be taken to hospitals to perform tooth extractions. This is bad for their health, and bad for the taxpayer, who has to pay for treatment. Parents can’t be trusted to do the job. And the only solution is therefore for teachers to supervise toothbrushing in school. If Labour win the next election, this is, then, going to be part of the overall children’s health plan which they implement. Each day, at least in the early years, the teacher is going to monitor the children in the class, and watch them brush their teeth - and, presumably, step in to help if a child is doing it wrongly.
Keir Starmer’s mentality in this respect is deeply instructive - indeed, in a recent piece for The Guardian about this issue he made two of those most revealing statements I can recall a politician having made. First, speaking about the Tory government’s ‘inability’ to think strategically about children’s health: ‘If parents treated their own children the way this government has treated the nation’s children, the word being used would be “neglect”’. And, second, speaking about the way in which the problem of poor health in children will be solved: ‘None of this will happen without a genuine and respectful partnership with professionals and parents to improve our children’s health.’
Note carefully what is going on here. Note how the State is conceptualised as national pseudo-parent, with overall responsibility for the health of the nation’s children; note how parents are reconceived as, at best, ‘partners’ in the project of improving children’s health. And note the result: the State’s insinuation into, and subversion of, the most fundamental human relationship of all, that between parent and child. Children are no longer the responsibility of parents or the extended family to bring up; they are rather best concieved as beneficiaries of a benevolent nexus of fiduciaries - State, parent, professional. And of these the State is the most important of all, since it is always there in the background to step in and pick up the slack where parents or professionals fail.
There is of course an impeccable and inevitable logic to this, which Starmer himself makes plain: ‘Healthy, happy children is not something nice to have, it’s a basic right that has economic urgency [emphasis added].’ Healthy, happy children help the economy to grow and don’t impose as much of a drain on the State’s resources as do unhappy, unhealthy ones. Since the State, in other words, has general responsibility for the well-being of the population, whether economic or physical (the State must increase GDP; it must also provide universal health care) it simply has therefore to involve itself in the decision-making of the population at the most granular level of detail - taking responsibility ultimately even for tooth-brushing. And therefore it is no good imposing limits by circumscribing activity x, y or z as properly within the realm of the family, or the church, or the business, or of ‘society’ broadly construed. All such limits must be eroded and broken down, because all such limits stand in the way of the State’s overarching mission.
As soon, in other words, as you grant that the State should have responsibility for the economic well-being of the population, you grant that it should have responsibility for its health and mental well-being too - and ultimately of course even its biopolitical features: its demography, its sexual morality, immigration flows, and so on. And this sets the relationship between State and society more or less on rails, with every intervention on the part of the State creating yet more reliance upon it on the part of the population, so that indeed in the end the presence of a universal free healthcare system almost necessitates the absurd situation in which we find ourselves, with the role of the parent reduced to a kind of wage-earning sibling of the child, unequipped even for the most basic exercise of authority such as the requirement of teeth brushing.
This is not a circle that can be squared by imagining that the State could somehow have responsibility for actively intervening in society in the name of, say, strengthening the family, church, civil society and so on and so forth - if only the right people (Viktor Orban, perhaps?) could be put in charge. To do so would simply be to concede the point that those institutions do not and should not have an independent existence of their own, and that they should be made transparent to State action in order that the State can operationalise its ends. This is tantamount to accepting that the existence of society itself is contingent - and that it is for the State to determine its composition, its material circumstances, and its mores, rather than the people themselves. And in practical terms, of course, all it would serve to do is to produce the policy levers that can be pulled by progressives to further intervene in society whenever it is that the ‘right people’ happen to leave office - or have their backs turned.
To be left-wing with respect to the economy is therefore to be left-wing with respect to culture, and the State’s relationship to both economy and culture are on precisely the same trajectory, since the distinction between those two phenomena is more conceptual rather than it is actual. And that trajectory is an arc that has its ultimate end in totalisation: the eventual identification of State with society, and the eventual relationship of total subservience between individual and State. To acknowledge this is not to say that it is inevitable that matters will reach that culmination; it is rather to map out the path upon which we are walking, so that we have an idea of our likely destination in advance.
To unpack that last paragraph, let’s turn to the scorpion. You will be familiiar, I am sure, with the old tale about the scorpion and the frog, made famous by Orson Welles. But to refresh your memory, the story goes as follows:
And now I'm going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. No, said the frog, no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death. Now, where, asked the scorpion, is the logic in that? For scorpions always try to be logical. If I sting you, you will die. I will drown. So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But, just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. Logic! Cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. There is no logic in this! I know, said the scorpion, but I can't help it - it's my character.
What is the character of the State? It is that which governs. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions (perhaps most fully here), but the import of the observation - I claim no credit for it; blame Foucault - is so poorly understood that it bears repeated emphasis. The State is the central political problem of modernity, because it is only in modernity that the ruling framework of a society must find secular, temporal justification. In the premodern world that justification was theological; in the modern world, the only way that a ruling framework can provide such a justification is indeed by ‘governing’: it must do things. The State, which governs, is then the fundamental political feature of the modern world, precisely because it is that which governs. It is the only form of rule which a modern society will tolerate, and to maintain that position it must endlessly present itself as engaging thoroughly and wholeheartedly in governing, and as reflecting on the practice of governing - as to reassure both itself and the population that its existence remains justified.
The entire exercise of modern government, then, must be understood self-referentially. Continual reflection on the practice of governing is the very means by which the modern State comes into being and perpetuates itself. As Foucault put it, in an absolutely crucial passage that is worth reading and re-reading until it can be parsed:
[T]the appearance of the state on the horizon of a reflected practice at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century has been of absolutely capital importance in the history of the state and in the way in which the institutions of the state actually crystallized. The reflexive event, the set of processes by which the state effectively entered into the reflected practice of people at a given moment, the way in which, at a given moment, the state became for those who governed, for those who advised the governors, for those who reflected on governments and the action of governments as they saw it…was absolutely essential, I think, for the entry of all these elements into the field of an active, concerted, and reflected practice that was, precisely, the state. […] The state is a practice. The state is inseparable from the set of practices by which the state actually became a way of governing, a way of doing things, and a way too of relating to government.
The result is a vision of the State as neurotic, insecure, restless, self-critical, and constantly striving for new ways in which it can govern - new vistas to open up, new areas to explore, new barriers between itself and society to break down. It can indeed do nothing else, precisely because of what it is: it is, to repeat, a practice - not an object or territory or ruler or state-of-affairs, as was a medieval realm, but the very exercise of government itself.
Once this is understood, it explains a great deal about our predicament, and why it is that we ordinary people simply cannot be left alone by those engaged in government, but rather must be always ‘watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, [an] commanded’. And it also explains why it is that the idea that there is a way that this monolithic drive to govern can be directed towards bolstering competing institutions with their own calling upon our loyalties and our resources - those such as the family, religious organisation, community centre, or business - is such a well-meaning delusion. Those who make this kind of argument are precisely like the frog in the fable, swimming along in good faith, and earnest in their public-spiritedness, but fundamentally misguided about the nature of what they are dealing with. The State will in the long term suffer to exist no hindrance to its project of government, because governing is straightforwardly what it does. That is what it is for, and reflecting upon its own practice is how it justifies itself to itself and the society which it rules. And in the end it always exercises its sting.
I am no anarchist. But it is important for conservatives and libertarians alike to understand this lesson. The State may on occasion be a necessary scorpion, but it is a scorpion all the same, and should be given license to act only on the strictest and most assiduous of terms. In the great run of cases, society - like the economy - functions best when left to its own devices, and when the basic good sense of ordinary people is allowed to ‘govern’ in a loose definition, in recognition of the basic superiority of dispersed over centralised knowledge.
There will, though, be situations in which it the State is rightly called upon to rule, particularly in the making and enforcement of law, and in acting to preserve the stability of the body politic across time. It will not escape your observation that this will mean doing many of the things that conservatives wish it would take seriously - such as maintaining a proper border, deporting foreign criminals, properly investigating and punishing crime, pursuing the national interest in foreign affairs, and so on. Identifying further such situations is of course the proper purview of politics - though I will give you a clue: tooth brushing is not one of them.