Eliot Rosenstock reviews a fascinating new work that interrogates the relationship between warfare, constitutions, and modernity.
Linda Colley, The Gun, The Ship and The Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World (Profile Books, 2021), 512pp.
Modernity both saves and kills. This much has been made clear. Princeton professor Linda Colley’s study of constitutions in the era of intercontinental naval exploration reveals the historical events at the crux of the Enlightenment, the various peoples impacted by those documents, and how those constitutions became so impactful in the age before instant global communication. This text is extremely detailed, so I encourage you to read the book itself if you are interested in the subject, as the quantitative vastness of key players and perspectives from the era of naval hybrid warfare is a key feature of this work. But do note: a substantial quality of Colley’s scholarship is that she provides a multitude of concrete examples of the way in which the modern world was formed through a sort of constitutional fever.
There is no one writer of the modern world. During the age of naval hybrid warfare, constitutions were created by a variety of different individuals from all walks of life. But the staying power of the constitutions, as well as how impactful they became, rested not simply on the soundness of the writing but on the guns which enforced them. Colley critiques “authoritarianism” both past and present throughout the text, but despite this, seems to have a sympathetic bent towards the efforts of monarch Catherine II (Catherine the Great) – sympathizing with her position as not only a woman in power during a time when women were still considered lesser citizens than men, but also as a ruler who was considered by some to be a usurper of her husband’s throne and thus entirely unworthy of her position. I am not quite sure what to make of this tendency of the advocates of liberal democracy to at times stare longingly into the powerful thrones of the past, which were in no way liberal democratic or republican. It seems that those who are villainized can also be used and valorized just as easily.
Colley’s work reminds us that monarchy seems always to be in flux in the liberal gaze – between the desire to gaze upon a great and powerful person, a self-actualized representative of some sort of ideal, and the knowledge that monarchy ultimately holds a fatal flaw: that it rests on a single point of failure. (Although, for would-be libertarian constitution writers of a non-existent western monarcho-capitalist CEO state, this is a feature, not a bug. Writings on this are as interesting as they are irrelevant to anything relating to modern state power!) The pen, Colley argues, is the way that Catherine the Great decides to address both of these issues – her Nakaz constitution “designed both to impress and to sweep aside doubts and opposition” (Colley, 73).
Indeed, the Nakaz confirms Catherine the Great’s absolute power and affirms that this power is moral and, in fact, exercised for the freedom of Russian citizens. Colley is successful in showing the wide variety of reasons for the creation of constitutional documents such as this. The supposed Enlightenment-influenced idea running through the Nakaz is that via the absolute power of a monarch a freedom is granted to the subjects of the monarch. However, the idealist freedom of having the spirit of the people run through a single individual seems to create more of a fetish for power than anything which truly resolves the contradictions of society towards a greater human freedom. There is a fetishism of power and a fetishism of the law which stems from this power. However, it is clear that a simple fetishism of the law does not grant freedom to the people under the domain of the constitutions which are purposely and calculatedly harmful to them.
Modernity is never simply progressive. Instead, it is always a sort of techno-legalist scream. At times, modernity and progressivism become entirely confused, meaning that there is no way to ascribe the righteousness of constitution writing efforts or the more efficient naval communication technologies of the Enlightenment as an absolute good. Students of democratic governance are well-informed regarding the injustice of the laws of states, and it becomes all the more clear with this study of Enlightenment history that the idea that something is bad because it breaks a law, cannot hold up next to the tide of history. In the creation of constitutions, Colley posits there is
a lingering notion that written constitutionalism has been invariably benevolent and normally acted as a liberating force. Yet, in regard to Indigenous peoples, as less lethally with women, constitutions frequently worked – and were designed to work – as a means to exclude and marginalise. (Colley, 277)
Before setting out to discuss any equivalent of democracy with constitutions and a sort of good, modern progress, it is clear that there is a force within constitution writing which is both singular and egoistic of a particular ruler, validating and justifying their power, as well as a force for white supremacy. Constitutions are a substantial part of what constitutes the modern world, but throughout her book, Colley is careful not to forget the destructive backside to this modern process.
Modern progress brings up the idea of western expansion, cowboys and natives, the forces of technology and the nation overcoming the tribe. Modernity, which in this case is to say the force of modern governance combined with the force of technology, is not something that simply surpasses tribal existences; it is a force that intensifies tribalism, creating classes and citizens as quickly as it can exclude them with the scribble of a pen and at the barrel of a gun. We cannot escape the fact that modernity is intrinsically technological. If we were to look at a society that had pen without, say, the ship, it would become immediately clear that the horizon of possibility was entirely different. Why is modernity associated with philosophical and governmental progress, then? Perhaps we can look at the modern world whose heart is that of technology, and whose brain is constantly reflecting on itself, commenting on how that technology should be utilized.
The modern world sickens and cures itself. When modernity tries to cure itself with more of itself, it is sometimes successful. Voting rights expand, white supremacist unions are crushed, and with the improvement of technology comes the potential of longer lives and improved living conditions.
But despite this, modernity is still intrinsically linked with darker aspects of human thought. It is a wonder how progress becomes associated so strongly with modern democratic constitutions and technological improvement, but no amount of antithetical force seems to stop the fever of progress through violence, unpalatable writings, and savage demonstrations of technological superiority. The cost of the modern state is all too apparent, and democracy is sidelined too easily to other concerns. Modernity fights power while simultaneously bolstering the powerful, and yet somehow ideas of gender equality and racial justice become the justification for its engine. If the heart of modernity is technology, a sort of technological chauvinism begins to emerge. Those who can wield technology become not just winners by way of the gun but also by the pen, which literally authorizes their existence on the planet. The fight against the forces of white supremacy also bolsters empires to enact other horrors. The Japanese victory over the Russian empire at the turn of the twentieth century shocked those members of the European intelligentsia and bourgeoisie who had previously thought Russia’s invasion of that part of the world proof of white superiority. The Japanese won the war of technological chauvinism on its own terms. Suddenly, this meant Japan had a new, more valid and contemporary position in the world from the point of view of the West. With technological chauvinism, however, Western chauvinism cannot be far behind as the credit for the Japanese victory over Russia was seen by the West as a result of the European-styled constitution which established various assemblies and constitutional laws in Japan, and thus, a Japanese victory was nonetheless a result of a sort of Western victory (Colley, 394-397).
Modernity is filled with self-contradicting forces, which is why the extensive catalogue which Colley provides should provide us with a clue about how such events should be examined. There is no way to close the gap between technological superiority justifying itself with rhetoric and a higher moral world ambition, we can only understand this as two separate categories of forces, constantly pushing at each other. Technology is improving and being wielded by national forces while the pens scribble their ideological justifications. In addition, the world stage becomes a place where nations jockey for position while not at outright war with each other. Warfare, technology, and rhetoric, which is to say, the gun, the ship, and the pen, cannot be combined into a single driving force of history except by employing the wider category of modernity.
Therefore, if there is one major value to this work, it is found in the way that it separates the powers of rhetoric, warfare, and technology.What is it that Professor Linda Colley, a representative of Ivy League thought and a thorough cataloguer of history, wants us to see as we look into the tea leaves of history which she has set before us? Clearly, she thinks there is something called “authoritarianism” which is bad, and yet it seems broad questions of morality can be set aside when two authoritarian governments clash, or when the monarch represents a powerful challenge to misogynistic gender relations, or when a message of the defeat of white supremacy comes to us through the smoke of gunfire (such as Japan’s victory over Russia). The confederate advocates of white supremacy get proven wrong not via debate, but by the gun. The confederate southerners too had their constitution, but it could not survive Lincoln.
The modern world is described at times by Colley as having two separate major forces, that of authoritarianism and that of democracy. It becomes clear through this text that, historically, democracy is not that which is simply free from authoritarianism. After all, once it is established who can and cannot vote, the taking of the vote can fall into a sort of secondary process which re-affirms the ideology of those who set up the supposed anti-authority authority. Colley’s work is an extraordinary effort which chronicles the history and contradictions of modern democracy while simultaneously praising its superiority to authoritarianism. Not only are we given a chronicle of events through Colley’s work, but we are given a method of gaining insight into the battery of forces that are rhetoric, technology, and law, and how they continue to shape the world today.
Eliot Rosenstock is a psychotherapist living in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. He is the author of The Ego and Its Hyperstate: A Psychoanalytically Informed Dialectical Analysis of Self Interest, available for pre-order from Zero Books. His blog, where he writes about psychology, philosophy, and politics, is 21stcenturysynthesis.substack.com.