Whack-a-Mole and Westphalian Sovereignty
What can the authorities of nation-states do about dissidents?
Cuius regio, eius religio
The origins of the political institution that we know as the nation-state are to be found in the Treaty of Westphalia, which brought an end of the Thirty Years’ War. One of the principles enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia came to be known as Cuius regio, eius religio, which means, “Whose realm, his religion.” In other words, the secular ruler of a state had the power to determine what religious confession would be adopted throughout the geographical extent of that state. This was, in a sense, a fusion of the territorial principle in law with the confessional pluralism that was the de facto outcome of the Reformation in Europe.
Institutional religion is no longer the central pillar of statecraft that it was in the 17th century (and before that time) and the concept of Westphalian sovereignty that grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia has repeatedly mutated and adapted to changed political circumstances, and thus has remained relevant to the institution of the nation-state despite all of the changes that have transformed the world since the foundation of the nation-state system, including the maturation of the scientific revolution, the political revolutions of 1776 and 1789, and the industrial revolution (what I call the Three Revolutions, which, taken together, define modernity). Westphalian sovereignty has survived these transformations by passing the power of princes to the permanent élite ruling class of liberal democracies, and by substituting ideology for religion.
The Secularization of Westphalian Sovereignty
The Stalinist expression of Westphalian sovereignty (which I discussed in The Stalin Doctrine) illustrates both the durability and adaptability of the concept:
“This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. If now there is not a communist government in Paris, the cause of this is Russia has no army that can reach Paris in 1945.”
Stalin’s command of history is here shown to be wanting, as this does not express a deviation from the past, but rather confirms the model of the past since the convergence of history upon the model of Westphalian sovereignty: those in control of the apparatus of the nation-state get to call the shots within the geographical territory of the nation-state (as well as protectorates that constitute the effective scope of military operations of the nation-state in question).
Arguably, the logic of Westphalian sovereignty achieved near-total dominance in Soviet Russia under Stalin. Even in a totalitarian communist dictatorship, the Soviet police state could not eliminate the appearance of dissidents, but wherever these dissidents appeared, they could and would be swatted down. And in the case of Trotsky’s assassination, the tendrils of the Soviet secret police reached all the way into Mexico — a nation-state in which the rule of law was so lacking that Mexican authorities could not prevent another nation-state from conducting an assassination on its soil (though Mexican authorities did capture and jail the assassin).
The oppressive Soviet regime, and its client regimes throughout the world, had to play political whack-a-mole for as long as they were in existence. The very oppressiveness of the system created resistance where a less totalitarian system would have not generated a similar number of dissidents. Ordinary individuals going about the ordinary business of life, and who had no wish to engage in a political struggle, found themselves engaged in political resistance.
Throughout the Soviet period those who wished to know what censors did not want them to know had to play a continual cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, attempting to read books or watch or listen to broadcasts forbidden within the nation-state. The East German Stasi would walk over the rooftops of buildings in East Berlin and destroy antennae that had been erected to receive Voice of America broadcasts from West Germany. And they would also trace the wires of these antennae to particular apartments, if they could, in order to detain and interrogate anyone bold enough to risk putting up an antenna.
Cold War Dissidents and Samizdat
I have a very clear memory of reading stories about dissidents in the Soviet Bloc when I was a child during the Cold War. I would never have imagined that the time would come in my own lifetime that individuals and groups in western nation-states would engage in the same cat-and-mouse game with censors that those in the Warsaw Pact nation-states had to endure during the Cold War. Nevertheless, that is the world we now live in. Political whack-a-mole has come to Europe and North America, though rather than government censors and secret police, we have private censors at social media companies and outrage mobs that brigade individuals, bullying them into silence and attempting to intimidate them off platforms.
As the nation-state gradually cedes its power to private industry, NGOs, and mass man made manifest through the mass medium of the internet, those who hold the power in the nation-state, and those whose views dictate the prevailing culture within the geographical region of the nation-state, act as the enforcing authority for the ideology they represent.
We also have European governments detaining, questioning, and sometimes convicting and jailing individuals for expressing their opinions on social media. Politically motivated prosecutions bring the full weight of the government down upon private citizens who would be protected under libel and slander laws if a private entity were to abuse them to a far lesser degree.
As in whack-a-mole, each time the censors — public and private — come down on content deemed to be offensive or hateful, it disappears or is deplatformed, but, since we know that the internet never forgets, it likely pops up again somewhere else on the internet. In the world of digital samizdat, one learns first of all to save one’s own copy of any controversial material, because it may well be unavailable tomorrow.
Controversial Youtubers put their content up only long enough for it to be downloaded by others, because if they leave it up, their channels will receive “strikes,” and if you receive three strikes within a given period, your Youtube channel is permanently banned. The technology industry powers-that-be have managed to nearly push Alex Jones off the internet, unpersonning him to the extent they are able. Large banks and credit card processing businesses have played a crucial role in this process of deplatforming and unpersonning by refusing to handle payments for individuals and groups deemed to be too controversial.
After the recent massacre in New Zealand, self-styled “opinion makers” bent every effort to make the shooter’s manifesto unavailable, and while they certainly did make it difficult to find, I did eventually find it, and I didn’t have to go to the dark web to do so. Having read the Unabomber’s manifesto and Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery and Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto and even the Virginia Tech shooter’s manifesto, I was not going to be easily turned aside from also reading the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto.
Success and Failure of the Whack-a-Mole Strategy
Is political whack-a-mole a winning strategy or a failing strategy? This depends upon a great many circumstances surrounding the political regime in question and its dissidents. Sometimes it works, sometimes it works temporarily, and sometimes it fails.
Before Westphalian sovereignty, the Roman Empire played whack-a-mole with the Christians, and the strategy failed so spectacularly that the Roman Empire became Christian in its turn. If the Romans had escalated from persecution to extirpation, and utterly annihilated the Christians throughout the empire, that probably would have been it for western Christianity. However, the Roman authorities lacked the stomach to take such measures, and, even if they had, it might have been another eastern mystery religion (maybe Mithraism) that would have won the hearts and minds of the Roman populace.
Christianity grew rapidly under the “Five Good Emperors,” so that life was good and few saw the Christians as a serious threat. I will bet that fewer still, when times are good, would support the kind of brutally repressive measures that would have been required to successfully suppress Christianity. It took three hundred years for the Christians to come into power in Rome, so that one could argue that the whack-a-mole strategy was a successful effort in delaying the Christian takeover of the Roman state.
Also before Westphalian sovereignty, Christian authorities played whack-a-mole with heretics, but, unlike the Romans, were largely successful in suppressing heresies (at least, until the Protestant Reformation). When Bishop of Paris Etienne Tempier issued his condemnations of 1277 this action was largely successful in ending the careers of many of the “Latin Averroist” philosophers at the University of Paris. The church was unable to stop the spread of Aristotle’s ideas, but they did largely contain the exposition of these ideas to mostly orthodox philosophers. There was, at the time, both élite and popular support for the policing of orthodoxy, so that a mere proclamation was sufficient to slap down the Aristotelian moles.
Above I discussed political whack-a-mole in the context of the Soviet bloc. Was this successful? It was successful in so far as it limited the influence of dissidents, and one could argue that it was economic reality that ended the Soviet bloc and not the actions of dissidents. The Soviets made being a dissident risky and potentially disastrous, which didn’t stop the dissidents from popping up, but it may have made the regime viable for a longer period of time than it would have been otherwise.
The governments of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa played whack-a-mole with their dissidents, and, again, as with the Soviet bloc, it wasn’t the dissidents who brought down these regimes. It was concerted and unified international pressure that resulted in the collapse of Rhodesia and South Africa, not the “armed struggle” that continued at a manageable level. Fifty years of civil war did not topple the government of Colombia, so we know that low level military action can continue for decades with little consequence.
Are there any lessons to be learned from political whack-a-mole as a strategy for policing Westphalian sovereignty? Given the radically different outcomes of different nation-states, contingent circumstances seem to play a decisive role in the success or failure of the dissident whack-a-mole strategy. If authorities come down too hard on dissidents, the populace may sympathize with them as underdogs. If authorities fail to come down on dissidents, the dissidents may come into power and become the new authorities. This fits with whack-a-mole as a strategy of management and containment, not a strategy of outright defeating the opponent.
However, managing dissidents means tolerating dissidents, and if the dissidents represent the authentic feelings of the people, the dissidents will eventually win unless they are utterly eliminated. However, a strategy of annihilation of dissidents risks definitively losing the hearts and minds of the populace as innocents inevitably get caught up in the violence and are destroyed along with the dissidents.
There is almost no liberal democratic government in the world today that has the stomach to extirpate its dissidents, thus their whack-a-mole strategies are betting on effective management of dissidents, which is in turn betting on the idea that the authorities represent the authentic feelings of the populace. While this latter idea ought to be taken for granted in the case of liberal democracies devoted to popular sovereignty, one of the most interesting political developments of our time is that of the governments of liberal democracies experiencing a growing disconnect with their electorates (i.e., the permanent élite ruling class is out of touch with the populace they presume to represent). How this came about, and what is portends for the future, is a large and complex discussion for another time, but what it portends for the management of dissidents ought to be clear.