The anthropomorphic fallacy in international relations discourse by Carlos Escudé

    The historical origins of the anthropomorphic fallacy


This is interesting and paradoxical, because the fact that "dignity" and other such concepts are not attributes of collective entities but of individual human beings and can at times be at odds with the general interest, is something that became obscure in the Modern Age, but that was clear to some ancient civilizations. For instance, in his essay about private life in the Roman Empire, Paul Veyne tells us that:

Since public dignity was in truth private property, it was admitted that whoever was elevated to public office should show it off and defend it as legitimately as a king defends his crown. No one thought of reproaching Caesar for crossing the Rubicon, marching against his country and throwing it into civil war. The Senate had attempted to curtail his dignity, and Caesar had made it known that he preferred his dignity to everything, including his life. Nor is it reasonable to blame El Cid for having killed the king's best soldier in duel in order to save his honor. [3]

Likewise, in his essay about late antiquity Peter Brown tells us how, with the advent of Christianity, the elites of the Roman Empire abandoned the old sort of philanthropy that had the objective of elevating the status of their city and thus excluded the very poor from its benefits, and channeled their efforts towards the latter. Christianized, the Roman notable converted from philopatris (a lover of his native city) to philoptôchos (a lover of the poor), in terms of his ethical ideology. [4]

This substitution of a model of urban society that underlined the duty of the well-born towards the status of their city (itself often referred to in anthropomorphic terms), for another based in the solidarity of the richer vis-a-vis the poor, that took place towards the second century A.D., illustrates to what extent the elitism of any discourse centered on the emotional values related to the status of a collective entity should be obvious. Likewise, the greater compatibility of a more materialistic discourse (such as that of early Christianity) with the ideal of social justice should be obvious too. But the private character of the emotional benefits of policies geared towards values such as the "dignity", "glory", "honor", "pride", etc., of collective entities; the essential elitism that underlies such policies; and the incompatibility of these policies with the Christian ideal of social justice (especially in the case of countries with large masses of poor people), were all obscured by the functionality acquired by the discourse based on the anthropomorphic fallacy with the emergence of the "nation-states".

Indeed, the anthropomorphic fallacy would have made no sense in the medieval world. Following John G. Ruggie's able synthesis in the context of a different discussion [5] , that was a world in which:

1. There existed multiple titles to the same territory, generating "a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights of government" in the context of chains of lord-vassal relationships [6] .

2. Not only were there no clear boundaries between what would later become modern states, but the concept of boundary made little sense. [7] .

3. Its ruling class was continental and was able to travel and take charge of government from one extreme of Europe to another.

4. Property was not absolute but conditional, carrying with it explicit social obligations. On the other hand, authority was private, residing personally in the holder of the fiefdom.

5. There were "common bodies of law, religion and custom that expressed inclusive natural rights pertaining to the social totality formed by the constituent units". They served the function of legitimizing this system of rule [8] .

6. The constituent units of the system were considered to be "municipal embodiments of a universal community" [9] .

Indeed, the medieval world was not "international" simply because it made no sense to speak of nations in that context, but it was far more inclusive and universal than the state system that followed. In the medieval world it thus made no sense to anthropomorphize a territorial unit that could one day be ruled by a prince from Aragón and the next by a Burgundian duke; a territorial unit that might be the fiefdom of a ruler who, in a different territorial setting, was the feoffor of the very prince of which he was feoffee in the former. In such a world it made no sense to engage in such metaphysical metaphors as "eternal France", and it was perfectly logical that the coat of arms of the English crown carry mottos in French or in any other European language. In such a context, soldiers fought for their religion, for their king or prince, or for their very lives and those of their kin, but not for their "fatherland" or "country", which would have been nonsensical concepts.

In contrast, the shift toward the modern state system implied the "rediscovery from Roman law of the concept of absolute property and the simultaneous emergence of mutually exclusive territorial state formations", which gave a new, "modern" meaning to the old concept of sovereignty [10] . Thus, the medieval plural allegiances and asymmetrical suzerainties tended to disappear, as the "patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights of government" faded. In this way the state, as an unambiguous territorial unit, replaced the fief and the chains of lord-vassal relationships. The concept of "nationhood" --the often fictitious link of culture and kin between the people who inhabit a territorial unit organized as a state-- helped to legitimize the new political realities, to the extent that insofar as it is taken as unproblematic, the very concept of the "nation-state" is, more than a theoretically useful descriptive category, an ideological instrument for legitimization, and to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy as well.

Eventually, the modern state system and its main legitimization instrument, the concept of nationhood, became so hegemonic (in Gramscian terms) that "nation-state" status is automatically awarded to almost any existing territorial state, even the newest and most artificial ones. As a consequence, most political scientists today do not ask themselves whether, for instance, Ecuador is or is not a "nation"-state. It is accepted as such if it is a member of the United "Nations", and this is of course what its dominant elite needs and demands. And we speak of a field of "international relations" even though most scholars will agree that it deals mostly with "interstate" relations. It is indeed curious, for example, to read a 1992 article by John C. Garnett in which the author specifies that "scholars have emphasized (...) that the focus of the subject is interstate relations", notwithstanding which this is practically the only place in the paper where such a term is used, and on that very page it is twice replaced as "international society" and "international relations" [11] .

"International" gained much wider currency than "interstate", even though "interstate" is (for this analysis) much more accurate a concept than "international", simply because "international" is more mobilizing and therefore more functional to dominant interests than "interstate". Thus even though a scholar may be conscious of the fact that he or she is not really talking about international relations, usage commands, and the subconscious often plays tricks as well, in such a way as to enmesh us in mental and linguistic traps which lead to the reinforcement of the interstate system under the emotion-activating guise of an international system. Furthermore, this linguistic phenomenon is not limited to the realm of international relations: male supremacy, for example, has been reinforced during centuries by language habits that assume that supremacy.

On the other hand, as soon as the concepts of the nation, the country, the state and/or the nation-state become unproblematic, are confused with the government and/or the individual statesman, and are meshed together in the state-as-actor model, the possibility of disguising government or statesman-centric policies as "nation"-centric policies arises, and this is what actually happened with the advent of the modern state system. In addition, it is taken for granted (at this level of analysis) that the "nation" represents the citizenry, and that the problems that affect the citizenry fall outside the scope of this type of theory. Thus the "nation" became a motor for mobilization and a justification for demanding the greatest individual sacrifices, which were dressed in the ethically alluring guise of altruism and "patriotism", although they often served the pettiest and most unholy interests. And concomitantly with this ideological phenomenon, political rhetoric became plagued with anthropomorphic and even metaphysical images of the "nation"-state, which became yet another instrument for legitimization and for the generation of an irrationality functional to the mobilization of loyalties. This in turn helped to legitimize the quest for state power in the interstate system as the generic state's basic objective, and to subordinate the quest for citizen welfare to the quest for state power, at least at the theoretical level.

The anthropomorphization of the "nation"-state was almost an automatic process. While John Locke legitimized the state in the new bourgeois society in terms of the need to protect natural individual property rights (a relatively new concept and phenomenon), Emeric Vattel legitimized the interstate system that acquired a recognizable profile with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, in terms of the need to preserve the separate existence of states. For Vattel, an inter-"national" community and international law were necessary precisely for this reason: to protect the sovereign states, just as each state and its domestic law were necessary to protect the rights of individual men (especially proprietors).

Anthropomorphization followed naturally. All that was necessary was to bring back to life an ancient tradition, easily identifiable in, for example, Thucydides, for whom the subject of history was not the individual but the polis, the former being under the obligation of caring for the "honor" of his city [12] . When, in Droit de Gens (1758) Vattel wrote about "the international law of political liberty", he was referring to the "liberty" of states, i.e., he was ascribing to the state an attribute that corresponds to the individual, who has a nervous system, a mind and a will with which to use his/her liberty. "Liberty" was applied to the individual within the state and to the state in the interstate system. Thus, the anthropomorphic fallacy is built into the language of the fields of international law and international relations as a sort of birthmark or original sin. Indeed, the fields themselves were born as an effort to legitimize the modern state-system, and the anthropomorphic fallacy has that functionality. The fact that the fallacious analogy for which the state is to the interstate system what the individual is to the state, ultimately leads to totalitarianism and contradicts the contractarian logic of Locke and others, mattered little and deterred no one from adopting it. After all, those were not precisely democratic times, and even had they been, the need to legitimize the state and to mobilize loyalties has always been greater than the need to avoid logical contradictions and flawed thinking.

It could be argued, of course, that to speak of the "liberty" of states is simply to engage in a metaphor, just as I engaged in one above when I wrote about the field's "original sin". My reply to this has already been suggested in my definition of the anthropomorphic fallacy: it is indeed very difficult to write or to speak without metaphors (and this should lead to a reflection on the limits to this type of knowledge), notwithstanding which there are metaphors with identifiable consequences and metaphors without them. The anthropomorphic fallacy in international relations discourse is not innocuous, is not without consequences, and often has had mobilization effects and therefore, policy consequences and an impact upon the real world.

 
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