Killing for the Telephone Company

In his article Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good,:”(Modern Theology 20:2, April 2004, pp. 243-274.)”: William Cavanaugh examines the idea held by many Christians today that the State is responsible for protecting the common good. This idea is based in part, says Cavanaugh, on the prior assumption that the state is an original institution of creation. Whether Aristotle’s polis or Aquinas’ regimen principum, Christian political discourse often assumes that human society is structured as a pyramid: “the family is at the base, other groups and associations are in the middle, and the state is at the top to coordinate and protect. The base has “ontological priority” to the state and calls forth the state to be at its
service.” What Cavanaugh finds bothersome about this picture is that generally speaking Christians do not attempt to justify it with historical evidence, but merely assume it to be true. Accordingly, Cavanaugh argues three theses. First, the state is not a natural institution originating in creation, but an artificial one of recent origin. Second, it is the state that creates society, not society that creates the state. Third, the state is not just a part of society, but has in our day become synonymous with society (pg. 244).

To the first point, Cavanaugh argues that the word “state” is often used in a catch-all sense to refer to any form of political organization – a definition which perpetuates the false idea that the state has always been with us. In reality, says Cavanaugh, the state is an invention of the Modern world, having been created during the Renaissance and Reformation, between about 1450 and 1650. The state in this sense is an entity possessing sovereignty within a given territory – that is, within that territory no other authority may challenge the recognized supreme authority. This scheme differs greatly from the pre-modern situation, in which political authority was more personal in nature (feudal, tribal, or monarchical): “If a stranger committed a crime on someone else’s land, it would be necessary to find out to whom he or she owed loyalty in order to know what law applied.” Political communities and processes certainly existed prior to the formation of the state, but they were not called “the state” until very recent times. Further, “The emphasis [of the term state] was on a personalized kind of rule embodied in the prince. Only in the sixteenth century does there arise the concept of an abstract “state” which is independent of both ruler and ruled” (pg. 245).

Another critical development of the modern era is that of the “nation-state,” or “the fusion of the idea of the nation—a unitary system of shared cultural attributes—with the political apparatus of the state.” The establishment of a state in the modern sense of sovereign authority within a given territory gathers together the things we consider matters of culture – such as linguistic, ethnic, and historical sensibilities – and unifies them in a “national” identity. Although the “nation-state” did not emerge until the eighteenth century, some of the important elements of it, such as centralization of governmental apparatus in the persons of the king and his officials, began to gain a firm footing (particularly in England and France) as early as the twelfth century (pp. 246-247). At this point in history, there was no concept as such of “the common good” or of “society” for Europe was fragmented into many societies. Cavanaugh cites Joseph Strayer’s analysis of this phenomenon:

A king of France might send letters on the same day to the count of Flanders, who was definitely his vassal but a very independent and unruly one, to the count of Luxemburg, who was a prince of the Empire but who held a money-fief (a regular, annual pension) of the king of France, and to the king of Sicily, who was certainly ruler of a sovereign state but was also a prince of the French royal house. In such a situation one could hardly distinguish between internal and external affairs. (pg. 248)

Some scholars argue that the distinction between internal and external affairs historically came to be resolved by the creation of the modern state, or “the coercive aggrandizement of [a sovereign central authority]” which used the tool of organized violence (war) to achieve its consolidation. Although the forces which made the modern state were often seeking only their own personal ends, the modern state was one result of their continuous resorting to coercive force. As the example of Tudor England shows, the progressive consolidation of a sovereign, central authority, “the state,” was frequently resisted – the Tudors had to put down popular rebellions in 1489, 1497, 1536, 1547, 1549, and 1553. In this connection, Cavanaugh explains Charles Tilly’s argument that the formation of the modern state should be likened to organized crime’s concept of the protection racket:

the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for its reduction. What separated state violence from other kinds of violence was the concept of legitimacy, but legitimacy was based on the ability of state-makers to approximate a monopoly on violence within a given geographical territory. In order to pursue that monopoly, it was necessary for elites to secure access to capital from the local population, which was accomplished in turn either by the direct threat of violence or the guarantee of protection from other kinds of violence. (pp. 249-250):”(This reminds one of the story Augustine tells of the pirate who, being brought before Alexander the Great to account for his crimes, challenged Alexander by saying, “What? Because I do this with a single ship I am an outlaw, but because you do it with a great fleet you are an emperor?”)”:

This survey gives much empirical evidence for Cavanaugh’s first point that the state is not the protector of the common good, but the creator of that very concept – and that through its control of the means of violence.

To his second point, that it is the state that creates society, not society that creates the state, Cavanaugh writes that in the modern world there is “a shift from ‘complex space’—varied communal contexts with overlapping jurisdictions and levels of authority—to a ‘simple space’ characterized by a duality of individual and state.” In other words, “the state ‘creates’ society by replacing the complex overlapping loyalties of medieval societates with one society, bounded by borders and ruled by one sovereign to whom allegiance is owed in a way that trumps all other allegiances.” It is of critical importance to understand that in this scheme law has become a function of will, not reason – that is, the will of the sovereign ruler, the ruler who, within a given territory, is bound by no standards save for those he himself establishes. Politics – as seen in Machiavelli and Hobbes in particular – has become the sheer exercise of power, and all other authorities, including that of the Church, have become subordinated to the state, which has created by will-power the one “society” in which they all live (pp. 251-252).

John Locke adds to the mix. Whereas Hobbes had absorbed the Church into the State, Locke privatizes the Church. Since “Peace would never be attained if essentially undecidable matters such as the end of human life were left open to public debate” (Cavanaugh), the concept of the common good is to be defined as “a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests,” that is, “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like” (Locke). The common good is purely material in nature (pg. 253) – all else (ethics, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and most especially religion) having been locked up inside the private heads and hearts of individuals.

This means that the common good, the center of the society created by the modern state, is economic in nature. Locke’s radical concept of individual rights leads to individual property rights, which in turn, combined with the transformation of perishable goods into imperishable wealt” (i.e., money), creates the idea that anything which is truly common can be so only by the artificial means of a contract. In this scheme, the Church, like all non-material entities, becomes a “voluntary society,” the bonds of which can hold no one who chooses to dissolve them. As one of its most important results, this process means that “The body politic does not pursue a common good, but seeks to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends. Contrary to Christian anthropology, the sovereign individual is presented here as the natural—not merely postlapsarian—condition of humankind.” The modern state exists to coercively make sure no one can interfere with anyone else and that all things are reducible to material transactions, but because human interactions cannot truly be purely individual, there is an explosive growth of legal powers and measures to enforce the innumerable and hopelessly contradicting claims of individualistic liberty (pp. 254-255).

To his third point, that “the state is not just a part of society, but has in our day become synonymous with society,” Cavanaugh cites Robert Nisbet’s judgment that “the rise and aggrandizement of political States took place in circumstances of powerful opposition to kinship and other traditional authorities” (pg. 256). “Prior to the rise of the state, central authority was weak and associations strong,” but as the state grew it increasingly absorbed the rights and functions of these associations. Family, village, church, guild, and university each had powers of their own which superseded any claims by the central authority (the king). However, in the modern context the state “came to be seen as the sole source of law, and as the guarantor of property and inheritance rights.” As such, it “took over many of the civil functions formerly belonging to the church, such as the system of ecclesiastical courts. The state claimed a monopoly on the means of coercion and facilitated the enclosure of common lands…In all places, war was the principal means by which the growth of the state advanced” (pp. 256-257). This is because “War requires a direct disciplinary relationship between the individual and the state, and so has served as a powerful solvent of the loyalties of individuals to social groups other than the state (pg. 257). Some empirical data from America alone which is relevant to the relationship of war-making to state-making includes these interesting items: World War I saw a 1000% increase in government spending, World War II saw a tripling of the the size of the government, and the “war on terror” has created the Office of Homeland Security, an agency of 170,000 employees and second in size only to the Pentagon (ibid.).

As Cavanaugh sees it, one major indication of how in modern times civil society has been increasingly absorbed into the state is the collapse of the distinction between politics and economics. Summarizing Charles Lindblom, Cavanugh writes that in our day, “corporate leaders not only buy influence over politicians, regulators, and public opinion, but the business executive him- or herself becomes a type of public official” (pg. 258). Economics makes politics go ’round; one may think here of how easily political leaders get Americans to make often complicated political decisions with long-term ramifications based on the short-term state of the economy: “It is not simply that government has gotten big, and economic and social transactions of every kind must pass through the organs of the state. It is also that the state itself—as well as churches, schools, unions, and other associations has been colonized by the logic of the market” (pg. 259). Perhaps more clearly:

The state is the source of social life. In the absence of a common good or telos, the state can only expand its reach, precisely in order to keep the welter of individuals pursuing their own goods from interfering with each other. Where there is a unitary simple space, pluralism of ends will always be a threat. To solve this threat, the demand will always be to absorb the many into the one. In the absence of shared ends, devotion to the state itself as the end in itself becomes ever more urgent. The result is not true pluralism but an ever-increasing directness of relationship between the individual and the state as the foundation of social interaction. (pg. 260)

In this light it is intriguing to consider that it is the modern state that creates the idea of a “nation” – that is, the idea of “a unitary space and a common history.” In the nineteenth century, the emerging nation-states of Europe expended vast amounts of energy to create within their respective territories “correct” versions of the “common” language, standardized histories and myths about their ancient origins and hereditary rights to the territory they currently occupied – and, further intriguingly, much of this was accomplished by programs of state-organized and state-run national education. The United States did not think of itself as a nation-state until after the Civil War “unified” its previously disparate cultures. Likewise, when “Italy” was created in 1860, only two and a half percent of “Italians” actually spoke “the Italian” language. World War I saw a massive explosion of national identity and national effort. Cavanaugh cites Benedict Anderson’s question about the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: “Why were common people willing to sacrifice their lives for nations their grandparents had never heard of?”, and gives the answer, “The loosing of individuals from traditional forms of community created the possibility and need of a larger, mass substitute for community. Loyalties are gradually transferred from more local types of community to the nation” (pg. 262).

Another significant aspect of the modern nation-state is the appeal by its citizens to their “rights.” The “rights” one is granted by the sovereign modern state further dissolve the bonds one has with the more traditional modes of community such as family, guild, and church, by subsuming all “lesser” concerns under the “higher” concern of loyalty to, and rewards from, the state: “political and civil rights name both the freeing of the individual from traditional types of community and the establishment of regular relations of power between the individual and the state” (ibid). Here appears the theme of Cavanaugh’s article, “killing for the telephone company.” Cavanaugh cites Alasdair MacIntyre:

The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company. (pg. 263)

Invoking Aristotelian categories, MacIntyre argues (as Cavanaugh summarizes) that “Integral to the political common good is a distribution of goods that reflect a common mind arrived at by rational deliberation. Rationality in turn depends upon recognition of our fundamental dependence on one another.” Unfortunately, because reason has fallen on hard times in the modern world (will, and therefore, raw power, being the primary focus of modern philosophy), the citizens of nation-states typically do not have any concept of a rational common good. Returning to the collapse of politics into economics, because “the nation-state is an arena of bargaining amongst different group interests,” it follows that “decisions on the distribution of goods are made on the basis of power, which is most often directly related to access to capital” (ibid.).

But even if the citizens understood the concept of rational deliberation for a common end and wanted to put it into practice, “[t]he sheer size of the nation-state precludes genuine rational deliberation; deliberation is carried on by a political elite of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals.” The modern nation-state, born from the fires of the Wars of Religion as the way to secure social harmony amongst people whose views of the most important things in life radically diverged, has replaced rational deliberation with mere monetary exchange in a common marketplace. Ironically, then, despite its attempt to downplay class interests and get everyone to participate in “the national interest,” the definition of what is or is not in “the national interest” tends to gravitate toward those who have the most money. Nevertheless, this contradiction is often smoothed over by successful political manipulation of people’s perceptions such that they come to think the differences within their nation are far less important than the differences between their nation and and all other nations (pp. 263-264).

Speaking of money and power:

Capitalism and the state arose simultaneously as, respectively, the economic and political logic of the same movement. The state produced a centralized and regularized legal framework to make mechanisms of contract and private property right possible. The state sanctioned the enclosure of common lands to private use, thus “freeing” landless peasants to become wage laborers. The state directly promoted international trade. The state universalized and guaranteed money, weights, and measures to facilitate exchanges. Taxation became centrally organized under the state, which effectively signified the decline of the land-owning aristocracy and the ascent of the bourgeoisie. Above all, the state contributed, as we have seen, to the creation of “possessive individualism”, the invention of the universal human subject liberated from local ties and free to exchange his or her property and labor with any other individual. (pp. 264-265)

Interestingly, however, the same logic which supports the nation state – the triumph of the universal over the local – has in our day begun to erod the nation-state via globalism. Corporations have in many cases become more powerful than nations as capital has increasingly flowed freely across once supposedly inviolable national boundaries. Nevertheless, the nation state remains powerful – it is still the bearer of the coercive force that is needed to enforce the paradoxically nation-eroding transnational economic standards. Even as government becomes decentralized and disconnected from territorial claims, the basic logic of subsuming the local to the universal continues to hold power. This is, evidently, a “hyperextension” of the logic of the nation-state (pg. 265).

Again following MacIntyre, Cavanaugh writes that while the modern nation is not wholly evil, it simply is not in the business of producing and maintaining the true common good. Indeed, “At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money.” Further, in Cavanaugh’s own words, “The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division” (pg. 266).

The Church’s response to the nation-state should be to “demystify” it, to begin to treat it the same way it would treat the telephone company. “The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to ‘complexify’ space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish.” Two ways this demystification could be implemented are in economics and war. In economics, as suggested in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, Guild-like associations of workmen independent from the state and under the auspices of the Church should be formed (pg. 267). In war, the Church should reclaim her moral authority and persuasiveness to determine when Christians can and cannot kill rather than leaving such decisions to the amoral nation-state. In conclusion:

the Church is not a merely particular association, but participates in the life of the triune God, who is the only good that can be common to all. Through the Eucharist especially, Christians belong to a body that is not only international, and constantly challenges the narrow particularity of national interests, but is also eternal, the Body of Christ, that anticipates the heavenly polity on earth. Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history, but simply is the story of God’s rule— not yet completely legible—over all of history. God’s activity is not, of course, confined to the Church, and the boundaries between the Church and the world are porous and fluid. Nevertheless, the Church needs to take seriously its task of promoting spaces where participation in the common good of God’s life can flourish. (pg. 269)

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8 Responses to Killing for the Telephone Company

  1. Peter Escalante says:


    Brilliant post. But one should be somewhat wary of Cavanaugh: he and the Radical Orthodoxy set in general toy with an totalizing ecclesiasticism which seems harmless enough so long as it is the Sim City of academics, but strikes me as pernicious in principle. Nevertheless, their critiques, if not their prescriptions, are on the whole very good. Still, as Oliver O’Donovan has noted, it is easy to be critical of the modern state but, as he says, we may yet shed a tear for it if it passes: what might replace could be very much worse. Be that as it may. If you’re strongly interested in this matter, Carl Schmitt is worth reading on the question of the distinctly modern state-form.

    And give Althusius a look: his Reformed theory of federal polity still has much to teach us. You might also give a look at Murray Bookchin, who, in a strange way, is an heir of Althusius.

    On the question of common good and modernity: you might find Maritain’s attempted synthesis of traditional common good and modern liberal personalism/pluralism interesting, a view whose merits were discussed with some vigor in an exchange between Charles De Koninck and Fr Eschmann, OP.


  2. Tim Enloe says:

    I’ve never yet had time to read any of the Radical Orthodoxy stuff, so thanks for the heads up.

  3. The Scylding says:

    Tim – good post. This is helping to crystallize a lot of nebulous thoughts that I’ve been thinking over a long time.

    Aside: Given your dual interest in sci-fi and medieval history, have you read Eifelheim by Michael Flynn? If so, what are your thoughts. I’m about 2/3 through it, and am thoroughly enjoying the experience.

  4. The story about Alexander the Great reminds me of the scene in the Godfather where Don Corleone told Michael that he never wanted him to be head of the family but that he was hoping he would become a senator or president. Michael responds by saying he never wanted to be one of those “pezzonovanti” – one of the big shots of the state as if they held any more legitimacy than his own family. Anyway, this is great stuff Tim.

  5. Bret Saunders says:

    I agree with Peter that RO’s critique of modernity is too idealistic, heavy on theoretical posturing and light on feasible alternatives. Dooyeweerd, among others, had a more ballanced, lose-and-gain view of modernity. But Cavanagh’s work as historical/theological scholarship is a knife-sharp genealogy compared to the standard reading. As such it is indespensable.

  6. Tim Enloe says:

    Scylding, I’ve not read Eifelheim, no. I have read Flynn’s Firestar books and his Wreck of the River of Stars. Generally great stuff.

  7. The Scylding says:

    Tim – well if you get the chance. A lot of medieval philosophy in it, and it gets fair play too! Ockham himself makes a brief appearance….

  8. Tim Enloe says:


    Got Eifelheim from the local library. Looks interesting; I’ll get back to you when I’m done with it. Thanks!

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