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Modern history, modern crisis

The term crisis, more generally, is derived from the Greek Krisis, which originally meant to “choose”, “decide” or “judge” (Koselleck 2006, 358). Its original political significance was in a constitutional context insofar as it indicated a necessary legal decision. Being part of a polis, that is, being a citizen, largely meant taking part in such deliberate decisions that had consequences for its welfare. More generally, as Reinhardt Koselleck (2006, 359) shows, crisis was understood by Aristotle as “[defining] the ordering of civic community” concerning matters of justice or [per Aristotle] the “regulation of the political partnership” (Politics I.I.1253a). To be sure, the meaning of crisis was manifold: alternatively referring to the necessity of constitutional judgment during either acute moments of objective peril or legal decision-making, crisis also possessed a medical and theological significance that would become important in modern appropriations of the term. It meant, on the one hand, an observable condition of the course of a disease with a subjective determination or judgment as to its etiology and treatment. On the other, crisis referred to “the expectation of the Last Judgment (XPlZ/krisis = judicium), whose hour, time, and place remained unknown but whose inevitability is certain” (Koselleck 1997, 359). The conceptual conjunction of the various (secularized) meanings of crisis reaches, in a certain sense, its apogee in early modernity when crisis becomes perceived to be an endemic feature. “Applied to history,” Koselleck argues, “‘crisis,’ since 1780, has become an expression of a new sense of time which both indicated and intensified the end of an epoch” (358).

Onuf does not dwell on the relationship between modernity, crisis, rules and rule in World of Our Making, even if there are significant implications for its theorization. It is, however, in his subsequent collaborative work - in Federal Union, Modern World: The Law of Nations in an Age of Revolution, 1776-1814 and Nations, Markets and War: Modern History and the American Civil War - with his brother Peter Onuf where the reflection on the historical relationship between modernity and political crisis comes into sharper focus. Both works are engaged in critical questions pertaining to international relations theory by rethinking nineteenth century political concepts and events. Their aim throughout is to understand processes and histories of modern state and international societal formation. Both works call into question the concept of the modern nation-state as an unproblematic whole, ideas of constitutionality, federalism, the role of markets, that are largely taken for granted today. Yet because much of international relations theory tends to regard the nineteenth century as a data set for testing parsimonious theories, the complexities of the conceptual debates, tensions, conflicts and indeed incommensurable values that constitute this period remains largely hidden from view. I think the great merit of their work is precisely to question the assumptions about our contemporary understandings of “modernity”, of Liberalism, of the role of markets, of what constitutes the nation and the treatment of the globe as a whole constituted by a particular ‘Westernized’ form of norm diffusion. What their work reveals instead is the everpresent possibility of sectional crises that may emerge between agents negotiating how rules create and maintain political society. There is, in other words, no easy escape from the relationship between rules and rule that does not essentially allocate advantages to particular interests and thus potentially create the conditions for future crises within a particular society.

The particular modern process of determining the relationship between union, market and the United States’ place in a nascent international order ultimately lead to the sectional crisis within the American nation and to the cataclysmic form of violence of the American Civil War. To illustrate this, I focus on the latter book, Nations, Markets and War (NMW). NMW is concerned with the larger context of conceptual changes occurring in early nineteenth-century modernization and Liberalism. Its main focus is on the conceptual-historical context of the antebellum United States because “American circumstances were propitious” in highlighting “a fundamental tension between the universal and the particular, the world and the nation, that characterized the modern world” (NMW, 4). Nations, Markets and War is an extraordinarily rich “essay in modern history” that delves into the challenges posed by the conjunction between nation, union, Liberalism and a nascent liberal international society in which violence is an ever-present possibility.

For my purposes in this essay, I wish to highlight one argument in particular. In the section entitled “Crises of the Federal Union” Nicholas and Peter Onuf excavate the growing tensions revolving around the position of the United States within international commerce and whether the United States should adopt protectionist policies versus those that would favor free trade abroad (NMW, 265ff). This debate largely occurred through respective interpretations of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations on questions concerning the place of the market and commerce in relation to the state and states. The specific question concerning American commercial policy conjoined with national state-formation had significant repercussions for what was understood as the great debates or controversies concerning the meaning and limitations of the American nation, of the role and scope of federal authority versus the member states and the place of the United States in relation to the other great European trading powers. In short, commercial policy was divided among those who wished to establish state protection of the nascent manufacturing industry through tariffs and the mainly Southern exporters and Atlantic traders that saw in this a threat to their livelihood. The debates on the tariffs were not just an issue concerning commercial policy and the respective interests involved; such debates impacted a whole understanding of what was at stake for the United States in early nineteenth-century international politics. For the protectionists, the safeguarding of manufacturing meant the promotion of a unified home market, a strong federal union to administer and promote this market and, in particular, the perception at the time that “ ‘peace’ [after the war of 1812] was merely nominal, a disguise for a British commercial empire that had already blighted Ireland and India and ultimately threatened the United States itself” (NMW, 259-260). By contrast, cotton producers, in particular, were convinced that free international markets would necessarily promote the progress of humanity and thus vehemently rejected “mercantilist statecraft” (NMW, 261).

The conceptual cleavage opened up as a result of divisions over commercial policy coalesced into distinctly internal political debates over the “advantages” accorded to different members of the United States. The emphasis on states’ rights by largely Southern writers centered on “preventing] legislation that would bear unequally on different parts of the union’ (NMW, 269 my emphasis). As Nicholas and Peter Onuf write, “The most immediate and insidious threat to a liberal trading system came from within, free traders insisted, because manufacturers and other beneficiaries of federal largesse sought to rig national commercial policy in ways that would perpetuate and promote their privileged interests” (NMW, 269). The profound consequence of this position was to call into question the very construction of the federal union as a national whole: “Americans experienced the imaginative demolition of the union in the tariff debates and in the recurrent controversies over slavery and its westward expansion as a kind of virtual war - and as a rehearsal for the actual bloodbath that would finally fulfill the founders’ most awful imaginings” (NMW, 275).3

The key here then is this reification of two incommensurable positions possessing ramifications about the role of the union, nation and state in an emergent liberal world. In other words, the implications such positions possessed for how privilege and advantage were distributed challenged the social meaning of the rules that comprised the American union and hence its rule. They thus

treat the antebellum United States as an early experiment in nation making that was driven by the logic of economic development and that, finally, gave rise to two separate and hostile nations. Radically different approaches to world markets and irreconcilable ways of life led to disunion and war.

(NMW, 10)

The resultant Civil War should be understood then as the “first great conflict in the nineteenth century between modern nations that commanded the loyalties and lives of their peoples” (NMW, 4). This I believe is significant because what they accomplish is the conceptual excavation of ontological tensions within what is often conceived as a unified liberal project: between Northern notions of continental expansionism and federal union and Southern emphasis on slavery as the predicate of civilization, economic freedom and trade. “Without slavery,” Nick and Peter Onuf write, “Southerners would not have constituted a distinct race or people; they would not have possessed the wealth and power to assert and vindicate their claims to national independence; they could not have believed themselves to be a civilized, Christian nation” (NMW, 341). Thus both the North and the South attempted to appropriate the mantel of modern civilization and in doing so created the conditions for the establishment of two distinct and hostile nation-states fracturing the American union.

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