David W. Bates


On his book States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political

Cover Interview of December 29, 2011

A close-up

I think that the reader interested in the pressing contemporary problem of emergency power and its excesses would find the introductory chapter most interesting. There I identify the longer history of the problem and introduce the main conceptual difficulties surrounding the nature of the “political” as an autonomous sphere. For example, I discuss the influential (if controversial) German thinker Carl Schmitt and his ideas about the political as a life-or-death decision about the “enemy.” My use of the term “concept of the political” comes from Schmitt, however I am arguing that Enlightenment thinkers were the first to isolate the autonomous, existential nature of the political sphere. I also sketch out the importance of the Enlightenment for understanding the tensions between legal notions of the state and sovereign conceptions—for it was in the eighteenth century that this conflict first appeared with the first modern notions of constitutional definitions of state authority.

However, I expect that many readers will gravitate to one or more of the individual chapters, depending on their own interests. For example, for those intrigued by the constitutional ideas of Montesquieu, I give a rather iconoclastic reading of his famous depiction of the English constitution, so often taken (even by the founders) as a celebration of the ideal “separation of powers.” For those interested in Locke’s defense of individual rights and property, the chapter on his work will hopefully raise some new questions about the importance of war and enmity that have been overlooked. I focus not only on his theory of prerogative (a kind of emergency power) but also Locke’s analysis of early tribal leadership and his precise definitions of the nature of war. The chapter on Rousseau offers an original take on this author, first by looking at his political theory from the perspective of war and violence, and then by framing his discussion of the political body at war with the crucial metaphors of the nervous system, metaphors that resonate with later ideas of cybernetics.