These are the times that try a Painite’s soul – especially with the terrible threat, looming just off the horizon, of a book on Tom Paine coming out from C. Hitchens. Perhaps (oh, thin hope) Hitchens will find some way out of the corner his prose has painted him into – the grafting of Bungalow Bill hectoring upon the petrified mendacities of your average Fred Hiatt editorial. The style of Hitchens premiere jeunesse worked because it infused the sham Augustinianism one usually associates with Tories with a lefty attitude. Contrast, sometimes, is all. Although to be fair, there was also a carefulness in going about making a point, and a distinct negative capability, especially when he was writing about literature. Well, negative C. has been long trashed, and the spiral downwards has been encrusted with a variety of platitudinous insults launched at the left that Hitchens seems to have picked up for a song at some John Birch fire sale. The precipitous descent can be measured by comparing, for instance, the glorious demolition of Isaiah Berlin – what was that, around 1990? – with the beef and choler prosecution of Joseph Wilson, a sad soliloquy in the best Captain Bligh manner.

To be fair, the insults that have been returned, from the academic left, have been fixated upon Hitchens drunkenness. This, too, is sad – all too often the academic left, like your average parole officer, is foursquare against smoking, drinking, doing drugs or shooting firearms. To which LI can only say: fuck you. (Although, less self righteously, LI might have indulged in a few drinking comments ourselves in 2003. But then we stopped.)

Now is the time to pre-empt the capturing of Tom Paine and the dragging him about as the great grand Godfather of neo-conservatism in some shabby triumph through the pages of the Weekly Standard. This isn’t to deny that there are traces, in Paine’s life, of an interventionist mindset. At one point, he did advise Napoleon to invade England. It was the same craziness that made Karl Marx, latter, criticize the historical views of German nationalists for hailing resistance to Napoleon instead of seeing in that resistance the reactionary impulses of which it was composed. Paine, in other words, sometimes thought conquest, in the service of liberty, was a good thing. But the deeper strain in the writing is against it. Paine was well aware of the contradiction between Republicanism and war. One simply has to fish the dialectic out of the supposedly now obsolete polemic against monarchy and inherited privilege. To paraphrase Randolph Bourne, Paine saw that war was the health of the monarchy.

Unfortunately, political philosophers rarely seem to understand war as an institution. Rather, it is looked upon as an accident, at best a derivative of other state interests. The state, after all, in classical theory, is the opposite of war – the essential curb on it. Thus it seems dialectically out of the question that war might become part of the state, colonize the state’s DNA, as it were, determine its political form (a possibility materialized in the way a state taxes and distributes money, in the way a governing elite gets its hands on the state, in the very culture of belligerence that the busy little state spreads among a population).It is as if, among possible state forms, one is missing. Democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, anarchy – all of them are there except for… bellarchy.

Bellarchy, in premodern times, impressed itself on the core of the state in terms of conquest, plunder, and glory. It, of course, existed – from the Assyrians to the colonizing West – but these things seem alien to the state in any of its modern guises. In modern times, it was Hitler who codified the arms race and perpetual readiness for war into the state’s answer to the numerous problems posed by the treadmill of production. After World War II, this was Hitler’s legacy to the two great superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. So, for instance, the U.S. was able, in the Cold war, to do what it had been unable to do for almost one hundred years – develop the South, using the military to distribute aid to that underdeveloped part of the country, just as it also did to the West. And that structure has had cultural effects we have seen to this day. A constituency for war has been created such that war unleashes, without any questioning, the massive resources of the state.

If Paine never quite foresaw this system, he certainly knew of and derided the connection between war and monarchy – or, if you will, the executive branch. Here he is still very much the prophet – meaning that his words are still not taken seriously. Only when prophecy is safely defunct is the prophet honored, which is why we dread the honor about to be done to his scattered bones by enlisting him to fight in the mock war against Islamofascism, that counterfeit ideology. In the next post, we will outline Paine’s thoughts about war.

PS -- The war state suns itself every day in the newspapers, so there is no need to say here it is or here it is. Nevertheless, readers are urged to look at this story in the NYT in which the Department of War, as is its habit, urges the acquisition of an unnecessary weapon to augment America's 'pre-emptive' capability:

"The program to develop a conventional version of the Trident II missile was foreshadowed in the Nuclear Posture Review, a classified study the Pentagon carried out in 2001. The study urged that nonnuclear systems be added to the existing triad of long-range nuclear air, land and sea forces — a concept that the military nicknamed "Global Strike."

The Strategic Command, which oversees the long-range nuclear weapons in the United States arsenal, was given the responsibility to figure out a way to develop such a capability. In 2004, General Cartwright, a Marine officer, was appointed to head the command.

In looking for a new weapon, General Cartwright said, his goal was a nonnuclear system that could respond to a threat in no more than an hour, including the time that would be needed to secure the president's authorization to attack."

See, we only, only ever, really, respond to threats. Like the world's largest paranoiac, we would be peaceful as pie, we would sit still in our chairs like the guy at the end of Psycho, we wouldn't hurt a fly, if we didn't have to respond to all these threats. They keep coming in. They fill the air. They buzz around. We just have to respond to them! again and again, tearing aside the shower curtain, striking out with our nonnuclear tips, again and again and again, to the background music provided by Bernard Herrmann.