Mini-Feature: A New Country from Scratch

If you could start a country from scratch, what would it be like?

No country is built purely "from scratch", and therein lies the problem. We can build a city in speech however we wish. In reality, however, if we try to alter things too much we tear at the fabric of human life.

Consider this passage from St. Thomas Aquinas: 

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Psalm 30:33): "He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood"; and (Matthew 9:17) that if "new wine," i.e. precepts of a perfect life, "is put into old bottles," i.e. into imperfect men, "the bottles break, and the wine runneth out," i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still…. The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law: while human law falls short of the eternal law. Now Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): "The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence. Nor, if this law does not attempt to do everything, is this a reason why it should be blamed for what it does." Wherefore, too, human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law.

By the same principle, sudden, vast builds or changes in political forms are usually disastrous. Founding, or going from zero to one, is an immensely difficult task. It requires statesmanship of the highest order possible. 

Nonetheless, when the aforementioned fabric breaks down to the point of disintegration there comes a point at which founding is absolutely necessary. As Aristotle said "To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement." It was considered by the likes of Aristotle and Aquinas one of the—if not the—most noble achievements naturally possible by man. It is why founders are so revered the world over.

But getting this right requires a real knowledge of human beings and their behavior and purpose, and a host of other truths that are disputed—what form of government is best, really? Getting founding right above all practically also requires the ability to navigate the "matter" of human reality in a given time and place: whatever "scratch" is, it is vitally important. Contrary to the televisual delusions of our time, you can't actually make whatever you can imagine. You have to make what you can with what you have in a given time and place.

The perfect regimes in my or anyone else’s head do not matter except insofar as they relate to the here and now. I am of the opinion that America needs a kind of refounding. We have not completely disintegrated but we are moving in that direction and we need to prevent it from happening. Our form of government has been corrupted in practice and we disagree among ourselves deeply about what form it ought to take. But it needs to be reformed such that it addresses our present reality. And we need to think deeply about what "scratch" we have at our disposal to do so as peacefully as possible: because this will profoundly influence the form we should be fighting for.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

Many have dreamed and some now still dream about starting a country from (so to speak) scratch. In what we tend to think of as modern times, dreaming itself has often seemed like the precondition of starting a new country, and in America, the mood generally began to set in that nothing new or created by man could come into existence, much less survive, that did not come through the act of the dream or the experience of dreams. In premodern times, the founding of a new regime was not, despite what Rousseau implied, a matter of the will to imagination in the way a modern would recognize: the human imagination was not self-consciously worshipped as it later would be, with the decisive faculty being human memory instead, even for the single legislator or, at the cusp of modernity, the institutor of new modes and orders. What mattered with regard to founding was the cyclical nature of time and of the affairs and propensities of man, and the puzzle of durability amid the ungovernable details of human disorder that held such sway as these cycles played out demanded colossal acts of crystallizing and instrumentalizing deep social memory that involved, but did not pour forth from, dreams.  

There was but one apparent exception to this rule, which had to do not with the arts as we think of them today, or even as they were thought of then, but with the demands on newly-founded regimes placed by military insecurity. Even long-established regimes, such as the Eastern Roman Empire, were in constant need of innovations in warfighting to preserve their existence; over time as well as at the outset, regimes facing security crises could rarely count on superhuman strength and ingenuity from warriors themselves, needing the faster and more sweeping kind of results that only leaps forward in tools of war could provide. The postulating faculty, the groping for visions in the darkness, that characterizes the instrumentalized imagination was concentrated in the premodern political era, by the ultimate pressing need to destroy or be destroyed, into the advancement of military technology. The success of political foundings, as Strauss noted in his thoughts on Machiavelli, became increasingly tied to success in instrumentalizing new dreams of destruction.  

What should be curious today for would-be founders is that the Western cult of the imagination that defined the electric age and ascended to rule during that time seems to have arisen in response to the consummation of destructive technology in the form of devices that could destroy life on earth and could depart the earth entirely. While the occult worship of the imagination as the ultimate source of boundless power and authority reaches back in modern times to the very advent of electric technology, perhaps the two most intelligent modern idols of the electric imagination, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, both testified in dramatic terms that rock and roll, and the “counterculture” of imagination it fueled and fed from, could only be understood in terms of the power unleashed by splitting the atom and blasting into space.  

This is significant because the prospects for any new political founding today can only be properly understood and measured in light of the crippling shock and disenchantment unleashed by the unexpected obsolescence of the cult of the imagination by digital technology which was built, intended, and all but prophesied to consummate it. The severity of this shock and disenchantment is so comprehensive and total that any new political founding is, in virtue of it, a founding “from scratch” of a fundamental sort. Digital technology, which has already conquered the whole world in a way no human or human organization can any longer use imagination to do, forces political founders to begin from the ground up—not in the sense of a tabula rasa, but in the sense of being obliged as a practical matter to set aside the core assumptions and patterns of thinking that characterized the previous era of media and reach back to wisdom produced during the last era in which a medium of recordation and recall reigned, as it now does, supreme. This—uncannily, for Americans—is the medieval era, when scribal technology formed the psychosocial environment wherein certain political forms became possible, thinkable, executable, and sustainable. Much of the political theorizing and practical founding to come will be obliged to unpack the realities of this situation and to understand more though memory than imagination how to transfer it into the soil of the present in a generative and healthy way. But for anyone interested in thinking through what a really new founding must entail today (myself included), this kind of thought process must be present from the creation. 

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


The idea of starting a new country appeals in particular to certain fervid types who yearn to become "fathers of the country." There's a certain manic quality that probably helps, a monomania for doing the impossible. As Theodor Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream."

Certain important national fathers—George Washington, Ataturk, and Hitler come to mind--bore no children, apparently putting all of their generative energy into founding and building their new nations. The teeming millions of their nations were their real children.

The idea of building a new nation in the present climate--when taking over some vacant land is no longer politically tenable--usually revolves around disused marine oil platforms, and is the dream of libertarian billionaire types who want to "seastead" and establish tiny little offshore countries where they can, presumably, enjoy legalized LSD manufacturing, approve the promulgation of child pornography, and license corporate shell entities for the facilitation of international Ponzi schemes.

But miniature Bermudas built on rocky outcrops in the North Sea are hardly nations in the traditional sense, if we mean by it places where people are "native." Nations etymologically imply reproduction and growth through birth, which means families, which means local economy, culture, and identity. Making a real country requires some cohesion among the people who live there, not just a Thelemite experiment in untrammeled freedom.

That's the rub of starting a new country--not so much how many branches of government it should have, or how its elections will work, but who will live there. A nation needs a people.

Really it shouldn't be so hard to figure out, because there are lots of nations around the world that aren't very old. Israel is frequently called illegitimate because it's so young, though most of its neighbors are also fairly new. Israel gets people so mad because it really is based in the 19th century idea of a nation-state as a common thing owned by a specific group of people related by blood. The idea of Israel fits right in with the League of Nations ideal of self-determination circa 1919. 

Really, a country like Pakistan makes even less sense than Israel. How many people know the obscure derivation of the name "Pakistan," which is an acronym of five national groups: Punjab, Afghan, Kashmiri, Sindh, and Baluchistani?

In any case, show me a people who want a country, and I will show you a country in utero.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

There is no such thing as starting a country from scratch. At the very least you begin with a primary ingredient whose nature and character is not of your choosing: you begin with a people. That is, you start not just with some number of interchangeable human widgets, but with men and women who have been living in a particular place, in particular ways, for a particular length of time. In a very deep sense this is the meaning of Aristotle’s “man is a political animal”: nowhere on earth is there to be found a real-life version of that famous thought experiment, the state of nature. Nature is not the anarchic wilderness of our imagination or fantasy. Nature is political, in the sense that humans naturally establish associations, customs, and rituals specific to their time and place. 

You could take those people into another place, as the Pilgrims did when they set out for a new and uncultivated land. But even then you come bringing your own mores, your own presuppositions, your own ways of life, and you impose them on the territory you find. This famously causes complications because no land is in fact entirely uncultivated where humans live, and no country was ever founded without a violent interruption of some previously existing and organically developing society. 

In essence, this was Edmund Burke’s objection to “social contract” theory as conceived by the likes of Rousseau. “Society is indeed a contract,” Burke wrote, but not one of the kind that could ever be dissolved and reconstituted at will or ex nihilo. “Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world.” You do not write your social contract, in other words, on a blank sheet of paper. 

But for what it’s worth, and truly, I can think of no other people with whom I would rather start building a new country than the American people. Though elite efforts to degrade, humiliate, weaken, and misinform them have been in part successful, they remain the gentlest and noblest people in the world. I find every day—in a mere trip to the grocery store or the gym—more generous and pious instincts among my fellow Americans than I could have thought possible in this degraded age. If those people were to be set free of the cretinous failures who now rule them, and if they undertook, as many of them are already doing, to form local communities governed by the principles articulated in their Constitution—well then, you might have a shot at a very good thing indeed. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind