TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Looking Beyond the Westphalian Nation-State: Challenging the Modernist Vision of History with Alternative Political Orders and Worldviews

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

The emerging exhaustion of the Westphalian paradigm of state sovereignty intimates the profoundly contestable and contingent character of modern, Western claims for a universal model of history. Over several centuries, the state has embodied and enforced foundational postulates, such as the pre-eminence of the individual knowing subject, and the imagined divide between religious and secular realms of existence and authority (with the latter sphere effectively internalizing the sacred import of the former). At present, though, the state’s tenuousness, and yet in key instances fierce tenacity, amidst a world of potent transnational forces, portends the urgency for alternative conceptions of the meaning and arrangement of human life. Contemporary Middle Eastern quandaries are especially illustrative of this predicament: for example, the disintegration (as in Iraq, Syria, Libya) or, then again, coercive retrenchment (viz., Egypt) of state formations and nationalist identities; or, to take another sort of instance, the chimerical prospects for coexistence, or even bare existence, among conflicting national communities, as in Israel/Palestine. Are there political paradigms beyond the Westphalian state that could help to integrate plural traditions in pursuit of less exclusionary, and more just, historical possibilities?

The Westphalian model of sovereignty is, in numerous respects, a synecdoche not merely for the global arrangement of political order, but also for modernity’s outlook on history and reality as a whole—centering on humankind’s supposed escape from a mythic, chaotic condition somewhere beyond time, and subsequent advancement through a worldly realm where we can seize our own destiny. Therefore, a full deconstruction of this model would amount to little other than a disassembly of the modernist worldview. In lieu of this impracticable endeavor, a few pivotal dimensions should be underscored.

There is something of a “chicken and egg” quandary at work in trying to determine which key marker of the Westphalian state is logically predicated on another. Perhaps the first trait that comes immediately to mind is the unitary, yet composite character of the sovereign, as the individual wills of all signatories to the social contract are folded into the awesome, artificially concocted singular will that then looms over his domain within time and space, as the final gatekeeper between the world and eternity. This is the image conveyed by the memorable title page for the original 1651 edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.[1] However, at the same time, the sovereign’s omnipotent role as God’s “lieutenant”[2] on earth is in turn implicated in and yet based on a further trait, that is, sovereignty’s active role in carving an imaginary divide between sacred and secular, the religious and the political.

The creation of religion and secularity as discrete ideas and phenomena coincides with the secular state’s emergence, during the 1500s, 1600s, and after, as a distinct political agent who, under the guise of protecting citizens from violence wrought in the name of religion, goes on to claim an absolute monopoly on worldly power.[3] A chief irony in what William Cavanaugh thereby terms “The Myth of Religious Violence” is that the state, in representing itself as a savior guarding against divinely inspired bloodshed, shows forth a further, definitive quality, namely, the sovereign’s exclusive demand to inscribe the territorial and instrumental parameters of and implement legitimated violence.

Our late-modern historical epoch is characterized by myriad and ubiquitous overlaps between religion and public life, as well as a burgeoning realization that, not only does the secularization thesis fail to capture the animating spirit(s) of modernity, it is by no means apparent where sacredness might end and secularity begin. As such, the modernist state paradigm, together with its mundane metaphysics, seems like a bee caught in amber. It is the peculiar product of a post-medieval Western milieu giving rise to underlying pillars like an individual, autonomous subject whose all-seeing vantage point on reality merits being reproduced as the Leviathan; and a physical universe of particulate matter whose empirical character foreshortens the bounds of knowing and being, and whose atomistic, ceaselessly jostling nature is replicated in the ever-grasping human subject. Along with the idea of a rational individual, standing astride a material world that can be scientifically known and managerially controlled, comes the notion of humans as economic actors, capable of harnessing the world as repositories of property and commodities—such as is implied in Carl Schmitt’s critique of the liberal state defeating itself through the supplanting of politics by economics.[4]

As Schmitt taught, by elaborating the full import of Hobbes’s tenet that the sovereign is the “Mortal God,” any notion that the naturalistic, modern state has progressed beyond a theological worldview is a fatal illusion, for sovereignty infused with the miracle-working power of theology is, in fact, all that can save us from the abyss.[5] For that matter, the secular sovereign’s inhering sacredness resides, above all, in the power to decide where the abyss lies, and what extraordinary measures must be taken to avoid it—including the abrogation of the naturally grounded laws that supposedly establish the parameters of reality, in the first instance. So, the metaphysics of the modern state proves to rest on a despairingly circular logic in which the natural world provides the illusion of a firm foundation, until the capricious power of the naturally emerging sovereign acts to remove that foundation—in the supposed pursuit of saving it. It seems little wonder that, during a time when many would regard naturalism as ever more suspect, its state-based form increasingly leaves the desire to look elsewhere for inspiration, if not necessarily salvation.

Within an environment like today’s Middle East, deeply troubled and, in numerous instances, unravelling nation-states attest to the ongoing breakdown of modernity’s colonially engrafted worldview; this, after “nation-states . . . [were to have become] an exemplar of the linear process and the advancement of global human history.”[6] How might one critique the state model, while posing just and compassionate political alternatives that, in keeping with the singularly pluralistic conditions of twenty-first-century life, answer the human desire to connect with transcendence?

One attempt comes from Islamic law scholar Wael Hallaq, who takes the manifest deficiencies of the Westphalian nation-state, not least its increasingly futile colonial intrusion into the Middle East, as an opportunity to contemplate new modes of governance that might be enriched by the “moral resources” of faith.[7] In his quest to foster fruitful relations between contemporary Islamic legal and political life, and moral consciousness, Hallaq questions whether the foreshortened spiritual and ethical vision of modernist state sovereignty can ever be squared with an Islamic quest for more just and peaceable forms of human coexistence within, and with the world (i.e., in this latter sense, the natural world). However, given the multi-confessional composition of the Middle East, in particular, there remains the arrestingly urgent matter of relations among differing religious communities, within the Islamic world, as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. During the present, intense period of inter-communal hostilities, it seems that neither states which conjoin national with religious identity, nor sub-state entities that have broken out along denominational lines, have managed to do much other than exacerbate a politics of violent exclusion. Under these circumstances—including the fact that, though the state is assuredly experiencing turbulent transformation, it remains, thus far, the coin of the global political realm—there is a singularly vital imperative for contending paths towards transcendence to intersect with one another, in a manner that seeks to negotiate, rather than resolve difference, within political communities that can at least eschew the chauvinism of a domineering national identity. Thus, the recent work of someone like Charles Taylor holds forth the possibility of societies creating literal and figurative open space, where an array of citizens can inject into public dialogue, and debate, their individual and communal understandings of sacred reality, in the ceaseless pursuit of a shared civic identity that flourishes, but, appropriately, never achieves seamless unity.[8]

The ultimate challenges posed to a modernist vision of history by fundamental critiques of the Westphalian state and its underlying worldview could not be more profound: indeed, what is at stake may be nothing less than the freeing up of potential opportunities for new eruptions of transcendent inspiration, to immeasurably enrich human life. In his interpretive work on Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History,” Michael Löwy observes that, for Benjamin, critiquing a linear, materialist conception of history is suggestive of the possibility that any moment could bring a messianic interjection into time, to help redeem human life from its innumerable travails, and that people must be open to circumstances that might make propitious the seizing of such a moment.[9] Perhaps pursuing new forms of linkage between transcendence and political life is a means by which to make this sacred sign more likely to be grasped.


1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan,ed. J.C.A. Gaski (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1996); see the front cover of Telos 156 (Fall 2011).

2. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 92.

3. William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2009); see also Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003).

4. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 28.

5. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 114; Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, George Schwab, trans. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005).

6. Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011), p. 162.

7. Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia UP, 2013).

8. See Charles Taylor’s books, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2007); and Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2011).

9. Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, trans. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 2005).

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