The People: A Terrible Abstraction
[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-2006, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]
What is a people? According to what modern legislators have laid down as binding in practice, a people is nothing more than the totality of a country’s inhabitants whom a state power defines as its members. Regardless of the natural and social differences and antagonisms between them, these members form a political collective by virtue of being subordinate to one and the same state authority. Being obligated to the same rule and its agenda is the common cause they stand up for as a people.
1. The product and the basis of rule
A monopoly of force over a territory is established not in order to oppress the people living in it. Rather, these people’s designation by a state as subjects or citizens aims at using them, and requires that they actively recognize their rule, that is, serve the state’s concerns. No state’s interest in its human inventory has ever been taken care of by the formality that is celebrated nowadays by the issuance of a tamper-proof passport. It is the other way round: the members of an empire or a state prove their worth as a people by arranging their social life — their work and livelihood, the disposition of their needs, and thus their dealings with each other — as the public power intends. Its stipulations for how citizens are to interact, which invariably revolve around the national accumulation of wealth and power, are known as ‘law and order’ and organize the compatriots’ living conditions so as to turn their efforts into useful services for the national agenda.
These services come about reliably when the masses make no fuss about an authority using its power to impose many a tribute on them and requisition their lives and means of living in accordance with the fluctuations of “history”; and make no fuss about a rule whose order also puts everyone in his place, a rule that, by allocating all kinds of rights and duties, sorts society through and through, into rich and poor, classes and ranks, and so on, and thus decides on the nature and extent of the interests that the various sections of society can partake in. This requires “merely” that the people perceive all the various works the political sovereigns accomplish when shaping and overseeing the society they govern from the perspective of being affected and powerless. This perspective is by no means a creation of modern grievance-mongers, but rather the historically tried and tested code of practice of the people: the rules of order decreed by the state present the subjects of a prince and the electors of a legislative body alike with nothing more and nothing less than their living conditions, which they have to cope with. The habit of taking the deeds and institutions of one’s rule as “the prevailing conditions,” of toiling away under them and adapting to them, of accepting or grappling with the possibilities and limits of one’s social position: this characterizes a lastingly useful people at all times. Busy coping with interests that oppose their own and that all too often have superior resources at their disposal; always prepared to receive new duties and sacrifices from the prevailing enforcer of order: this is how a people makes itself at home in its dependence on the state’s decisions. All peoples take it for granted that a higher authority ‘establishes order,’ and not just because it’s all they’ve ever known — in light of the difficulties they meet with in their respective order, they actually come to appreciate their masters. Since living or just surviving turns out to be a struggle because it involves constantly colliding with the interests of other members of the polity, subjects of all kinds consider a superior oversight power to be useful. The ‘security’ being sought — that one’s own interest should rank as a sovereign-protected right — develops wholly into a common need, which unites the most diverse social characters into a people. Whether relating to ‘their’ rule passively as bashed-around subordinates or actively as responsible citizens, members of the people abstract from the antagonistic interests and resources a state management provides them with, and bank on the blessings of a powerful management.
This also means that every people is very well equipped to fulfill the special task that no society founded on rule ever spares its members. As history confirms, the need for wealth and power is not limited to the use of territory that has already been acquired, nor to the services of its inhabitants. The demands aiming at ‘globalization’ and asserted by states since time immemorial bring those states into conflicts that are decided sometimes directly, but always ultimately, by force. For these and also for all pending disputes below the level of war, statesmen are in the habit of enlisting their people — who else. And since the members of a state accept the guarantee of internal rules of order as a virtual means of sustenance that a sovereign power is responsible for providing, their due services are not long in coming. A sound relationship of wills between rule and people is not shaken by the fact that the preparation and conduct of armed encounters call for pure sacrifice — without the least semblance of a reward. On the contrary: the joining together of leader and led into the national “we” is necessary because the ‘existence of the polity’ is at stake. A people fights for its survival when the ruling power sees its ‘vital interests’ threatened.
The identity that proves itself in dealings with foreign states and peoples is obviously the same abstraction that a people indulges in in their civilian, domestic affairs. The slight intensification that is to be noted in the case of war consists in the fact that then the citizens take action strictly so that their rule will succeed in its test of strength with its enemies, whereas otherwise, in civilian life, they always support state power and stand up for it while citing the particular interest that they themselves have been conceded by the political management — demanding services from their rule as a farmer, a worker, etc. This also applies to commerce with foreign countries conducted in peaceful competition: when trade disputes are on the agenda, a sharp people — and there has never been any lack of enlightenment on this front — knows it is definitely affected in its various functions as wage earner, farmer, or craftsman by the machinations of foreign countries. In order that this abstraction — through which subjects band together with their rule’s foreign interests — becomes clear and at the same time appears to be a genuine ‘grass roots’ need, there circulates in all countries praise and glory for one’s own identity, which is threatened by foreign countries and foreigners. What has to be preserved, and defended into these days of ‘globalization,’ ranges from the way of life and traditional customs, through one’s faith and ancestry, to one’s language: every non- and pre-state characteristic of a people is cited in order to supply really good, innocent reasons for a polemical, or at least risk-conscious, treatment of foreign misbehavior — as if cultural conservation were (or had ever been) the driving force for political rule across all epochs!
2. The call for good rule
For a decent people, it is no disgrace to serve as the base for a political power and go through the ups and downs of an entire human life as the dependent variable of the demands and decisions that a ruling power deems necessary. After all, a member of a people knows how to explain and justify his will both to follow the direction of a superior power and to make common cause with others in lifelong allegiance:
— It is always appropriate, and more useful than ever today, to refer to the undeniable ‘reality’ of ruling powers and the peoples that go along with them that is found everywhere and always has been; from which it follows clear as crystal — according to the slogan, “If it’s real it must be necessary!” — that it is impossible for anybody to be spared the state-forming work of nature and/or a divine will. 
— Some suspect, or actually voice the critique, that a people let themselves get dictated what social relations they enter into; that they let themselves get told whether and how they are to bring about mutual benefit with their contemporaries, and that some are authorized to use and exploit others; that they are thoroughly sorted into rich and poor by their ruling power, etc. Such socially critical objections to the work of sovereign power are just as easy for the voices of the people to rebut. They don’t at all deny the ‘reality’ of masters and servants, huts and palaces, poverty and wealth; on the contrary: every ‘social imbalance’ just proves to them the necessity of a rule to oversee and manage it. A people likes to imagine their ‘conditions of life’ without an originator — only to empower it to remedy evils of all kinds. Neither imperial princes nor modern party chairmen need to be told this twice; supported by the arguments of contemporary enlighteners from the intelligentsia, they proclaim the ultimate state agenda: rule exists to counteract hardships, which it has nothing to do with causing! That’s what it is needed for!
— And it is absolutely no trouble, finally, to whole-heartedly endorse action against foreign countries, action that the rulers of a polity owe their citizens. The power and the glory of the states — which use the achievements and deprivations of a supervised people as their source, which also make extensive use of them and can never get enough — are indeed mutually exclusive. After all, they have to assert themselves against their peers. That is why a people would do well to recognize this ‘reality,’ too, and not cling to the utopian dream that their work and products could complement the efforts and wealth of other peoples as well as the natural resources in other parts of the world; so that — while politely respecting foreign languages and stimulating each other culturally — they were all enjoying a wealth they jointly produced and managed. Such dreams are clearly opposed by the fact that the “fate” of a people happens to stand or fall by what its rule is able to achieve in the competition of empires or nations. A people knows this from experience, is available when their rulers need to conquer additional sources of wealth in near or distant lands, and they make the expected contribution to ensuring that their rulers do not run out of the weapon of money, money for weapons, or the personnel for operating them. Their country’s gratitude, while not making the required services worthwhile, is at least guaranteed.
On the other hand, no people that stands by their authorities in unbreakable unity can avoid taking stock and checking what the leaders are doing with their people’s labors and sacrifices. Patriots suffer no lack of bad experiences that give them both reason and the right to criticize their rule. As shown by the testimony of past and present, they need not betray their ‘identity’ when their disappointments drive them to denigrate the mighty. For they interpret the restrictions and hardships that — contrary to their high expectations of their government’s social obligations — they are incessantly exposed to, not as its doing, but as the result of its errors and omissions. They think their privations arise not from the service that a people lets itself in for, but from their mismanagement by the mighty. When peoples become critical, they supplement their ‘realism’ — it is simply forever necessary to submit to a political power — with a seasoned idealism: they call for good rule; and with this demand they insist that their service to the polity’s masters of wealth and masters of power gives them the right to be well treated. Quite as if they were able, and actually willing, to set a price for letting themselves be used and governed and for meeting the needs of their masters. The price they get is, not coincidentally, never excessively high, because it is determined and set by the other party.
— For a critical people with a will to distinguish between good and bad rulers, it is common practice to see a lack of resolutely active rule. The modern allegations worked up for the people in brain-storming editorial sessions maintaining that those holding ‘responsibility’ in government are passive and “sit out” everything certainly have their historical antecedents. Even kings and popes have been thought by some of their contemporaries to pursue unseemly activities instead of — exercising power, i.e., deciding on the duties of their followers. And whenever the rule over a society did not function properly because of external troubles and/or internal turmoil, peoples were neither helpless, nor eager, to set up a viable social life according to their needs and means and therefore do without a commanding power. They have always sought their salvation in offering themselves to a new authority, usually as troops in inconclusive power struggles; the latter especially when they see themselves as victims of a rule that is not merely bad because it is malfunctioning, but — far worse than that — is intolerable because it is foreign, a rule that a hostile superior power has imposed on the defeated people. This at times indeed meant tribute to pay or even slavery. But for an active separatism — this, too, not a prerogative of the modern age — it is not even particularly a matter of how badly the affected people are treated by their foreign-born authorities, or whether they are especially badly treated at all. In such a situation, ambitious leaders have always known to make it clear to dissatisfied sections of the population that the cause of all evil is that their own rule has been lost at some time (almost no matter how remote) and since then withheld — the “foreign yoke” — and that a restored autonomy is the guarantee, in fact the epitome, of good rule, and to convince people they have a basic need for rulers with the same mother tongue — whatever they have to convey and dictate in it.
— Patriots deal with exploitation and poverty in the same spirit of critical longing for good treatment by those who have the say. Clashes with the economically powerful, who make life (or survival) hard for the majority of the people, supply more material for the historiography of the lower classes than their everyday services do: militant peasants and workers are held in high esteem in retrospect. There are actually two reasons for this. The first lies in the standpoint of observers who judge all incidents, older and more recent, in which social classes have clashed, by what they have provided in the way of beneficial or detrimental contributions to the current constitution of the polity in which the observers live and which they hold in high esteem. Accordingly, they cannot help but acknowledge that veritable class struggles not only shook respectable ruling houses and had a retarding effect on an unstoppable process of development, but also paved the way to progress. And progress leads straight to the emergence of the order that prevails today and is superior to its forerunners.
— The second reason for the relentless embracing of these movements (in which criticism turned into combat) for the praising of today’s rule lies in the movements themselves. For as little as the rebellious masses had any idea of the social relations in whose establishment their action allegedly found fulfillment, in one respect they certainly supply a confirmation to devotees of modern statecraft: in their struggles to assert class interests, the ‘humiliated and insulted’[†] always remained a people. They subscribed to the lofty goal of justice and demanded its redemption by the reigning supreme authority. No matter that this rule demonstrated so unambiguously and forcefully how much it was interested in the effective utilization of the poor — the ‘historic’ movements insisted on winning over the political authority as a partisan for their concerns. They expected it to show consideration for the most urgent needs of the battered classes, who only demanded what they thought they were rightly entitled to — it was not on the agenda to get rid of their class or their rule. This was not even the agenda of the successful labor movement, which outgrew its communist inclinations and saw to it that all ‘social questions’ along with their solutions became government mandates.
— In that regard, the representatives and admirers of modern nation-states would not deny that these states brought under their control not only the territories of former rule: their legacy also includes the unwavering will of the governed people to hand over their material situation, even and especially when it becomes unbearable, to the decisions of the ruling state power. A people not only knows that its well-being depends on which necessities the authority decrees — they recognize that the authority has this responsibility and let it dictate the useful extent of service and poverty that arises from its calculations. Because it generally provides the people too little, their dissatisfaction extends not only to their situation but also to the rule. But a people that is used to relativizing its material interests to the needs of its leaders can well cope with this chronic complaint: they readily fiddle about with comparisons in which the impositions of their rule are marvelously contrasted with the hardships to which subjects were formerly or elsewhere exposed, or still are. This in no way alters the grounds of their dissatisfaction, but does modify their demands quite a bit.
Conscientiously distinguishing between good, better, and worse rulers is the driving force behind all popular criticism, which starts out from the damage suffered from practicing allegiance but just won’t quit supporting — unconditionally belonging to — “one’s own” polity. This art also proves itself very nicely in the assessment of the services that a leadership offers its people when grappling with foreign countries.
— When their government opens the borders for goods, money, capital, and persons, even many a modern people cannot readily believe that a state’s activities in this field will benefit citizens in the country. Sound nationalism and racism — which was cultivated and very useful for armed encounters not too long ago even in extremely civilized parts of the world — is occasionally so fervent that statesmen have to extensively propagandize for the benefits of the international friendship they are instigating. That attracts mistrustful examination of all the international deals they make — and the people, who go along with it all and are therefore affected, always discover what they’re looking for. Without at all examining the vagaries of the world trade their government holds so dear, housewives and shop owners, corporate leaders and employees start calculating benefits and disadvantages, which never really leaves them too thrilled. The promises that are bandied about in connection with a nation’s initiatives regarding the world market never correspond to the experiences that the good people tend to have with cross-border dealings. Not even the development of foreign countries for all sorts of holiday delights is a bed of roses, so that the leadership comes under fierce attack from all sections of the population. However, the damage done by the voice of the people is easy to bear: once an enlightened people has learned that consumption and jobs, the assortments and prices of goods, and the course of the economy as a whole are dependent on world trade, they translate their discontent into a rather simple mandate for their government. It must assert itself against foreign countries; relations must not be at “our” expense; when negotiations fail it’s the fault of the others, who insist on their own advantage in a way reminiscent of a nationalism long thought overcome, which “we” must not put up with…. In foreign governments and the demands of their industries, workers, and farmers, quite progressive peoples and not always those of yesteryear discover exactly the bad habits that they display themselves. Their indignation about this means that their own leaders — whom they encourage to be intransigent under the guidance of the national media — can continue to count on them as the reliable means of a competition they were never intended to be beneficiaries of.
— Peoples are quite keen on violence, at least the violence that stems from their own rule and serves it. What they have done in the wars of crowned, noble, or freely elected leaders earns due respect; likewise what they have suffered — so that the dual use of commemoration days and monuments is perfectly fine. By contrast, it is embarrassing when they keep on making those timid attempts to distance themselves from war and present themselves as supporters of peace. When citizens refer to the sacrifices that fought battles have cost — especially in cases of dubious success — they become pointedly docile. They draw a comparison between the quality of life on the field of honor and that on the field of work in the home environment, and put on record that civilian life is preferable in any case as far as they are concerned. They blame their leadership for the carnage that they went along with “only” as followers and under duress. It does not occur to them to put a stop to the leadership — they beseech it at most and beg the Most High for peace, thus leaving the power to decide on war and peace right where it belongs. Consequently, the leaders of an empire or republic determine time and time again when the machinations of another rule are incompatible with their ‘vital interests’ and therefore also with the continued civilian existence of their followers. When it then comes to light that nothing turns out for the better for said existence and perhaps not even for the power and glory of the polity for whose sake peace had to be terminated, then the people know their talent for making distinctions is called on once again. The good citizen knows that there is a kind of war that is senseless — futile, unnecessary — and wastes few words on the other kinds. However, he also recognizes — into the postmodern era — just wars, in which the people are not “sent to the slaughter,” but rather blaze the trail for freedom with their sacrifices. If such a precious good constitutes the purpose, then war becomes the appropriate measure for making peace; at any rate, that peace that makes every war worthwhile. Unless its effect could be achieved just as well by ‘political solutions.’ A good leadership decides after careful consideration whether this can be done — its critical people certainly gives it the mandate to induce other sovereigns to give in. But one thing that such followers cannot stand at all is a lost war. This subtype of war even leads a clever people to realize that they have been taken in by a bogus image of the enemy, and abused. Whereby the disappointed people are usually spared the duty of withdrawing the mandate from their perfidious rulers: after all, their power has been broken by the victorious enemy….
It would be wholly wrong to accuse a people of inconsistency due to the few contradictions they allow themselves in their will for rule. The quality of being a people, the abstraction they live — the habitual and stubborn, decidedly positive relation to their rule; their willingness, that has become ‘second nature,’ to submit to an authority armed with force: this they bring into play quite unconditionally. They have no reservations about the kind of authority, show no consideration for the basis and mode of operation of rule, have no doubts about the fine points of the particular ‘reason of state’ at hand. Democratic or dictatorial, republican or “by the grace of God,” founded more on religion or constitutional, successful or notoriously having less pull: rule can be any of these things — even simultaneously or successively — as long as the people have their own.
3. Democracy and market economy
4. National Identity in the age of ‘globalization’
5. The people today: a terrifying abstraction in its purest form
* The German term Volk refers only to the totality of people belonging to a state, as opposed to people as individual human beings (Menschen, Leute). English uses only one word for both, whereby the rarer singular usage, although formally correct, sounds archaic if not downright peculiar (“Behold, a people is coming from the north…” Jer 50:41). This translation will therefore often resort to the modern blend of singular and plural for the sake of readability.
1 The pre- and early history of many a people began with tribal communities, i.e., really natural kinship relations; and often enough clan chiefs, underground movements, a Church, and similar authorities have cited all kinds of shared culture to stand by the fact that their crowd see and maintain themselves as a particular society with an autonomous right to a rule from their own ranks. Modern states and peoples distinguish themselves, however, by having irretrievably left behind such primeval relations: with their national territory, monopolists on the use of force also fence off their peoples from each other. It is a bad ideological joke that in this very world of states, there is such a fondness for explaining the sorting of mankind into peoples by some pre-political or even natural connection, and for interpreting state power as the desideratum and product of a kind of tribal community.
2 Among critical citizens, the rhetorical question, “How else is it supposed to work?,” has always been regarded as a sound argument against any doubts about whether the prevailing relations of force really have to be. There is never any serious consideration of why they actually have to be, what necessities they are based on (at most, the idea of a justifying necessity is projected by ‘political science’ onto “man,” who “by nature” does not function without force); much less are these necessities explained, which would, incidentally, be their critique and the first step towards abolishing them. Which is no surprise. After all, if “it,” i.e., all the social constraints that man has gotten accustomed to in this particular case, “is supposed to work” in the well-known and accustomed manner, then there really is not much in the way of an alternative.
3 Critique of the state was once a domain of leftist intellectuals, who considered politics to be systematically mean for its services to the wealth of the wealthy and for the poverty of the poor, and expected or demanded that revolution be the end of force in society and the “dying out” of its monopolist. In those days, pointing to human evils that could hardly be attributed a “societal cause,” or could easily be denied one, in particular pointing to violent individuals — who are in reality usually people who have somehow misunderstood their lesson from the “struggle for existence” in society — was virtually raised to the status of a derivation of the state: generations of political scientists have cited crime as unbeatably good grounds for crime-fighting by the police, not in order to reduce state power to this fine service, but to legitimize it with its entire range of tasks. Meanwhile, the ideological fronts have reversed themselves, without the arguments getting any better. These days, politicians espousing individual liberty who push for power and have a precise idea of the hard, freedom-based conditions of work and competition they want to impose on people, as well as permanently appointed experts who regard themselves as indispensable and underpaid, consider government social policy a pure waste of money and have introduced into the “public discourse” the extremely honorable insight that the government is not looking after poor people because of their — politico-economically useful — poverty, but rather poverty exists because it is totally unnecessarily being looked after; without the state, its welfare cases would therefore be better off. (Obviously, they wouldn’t be cases anymore, just poor.) In light of the fact that the modern state expends some effort to keep within bounds certain devastating effects of the modern mode of production on the natural conditions of life, especially dedicated representatives and lobbyists for business have become sworn enemies of “bureaucracy” and propagate “deregulation” as the guideline for the ruling activities of a state as they would like it. By contrast, socially and environmentally minded experts raise the objection that only the wealthy can afford “less government,” while the masses remain dependent on the “general services” of government — not exactly a derivation of the state, but a fine retrieval of the state’s honor, which doesn’t criticize the hardships of poverty, nor challenge the private nature of social wealth, but rather simply draws attention to the need to maintain order in the midst of these conditions.