One month from now I start my class, States and Their Secrets, with a renewed focus (in light of Ukraine) on deliberately orchestrated famine, secret wars, and nationalism within and against empire.

The premise of the course is to examine deliberate but disastrous policies like airplane crash investigators.

What do they reveal about the machinery of state that allowed them to happen? What methods do people have to avoid them in the future?

This course is a careful balance among critiques of liberal/colonial, Nazi, and Soviet states, because most people believe that only other's political ideologies are responsible for unfathomable cruelty.

New elements of that balance are parallel study of the Holodomor famine in Ukraine and Victorian-era famines in colonial India.

The other challenge is to balance looking crimes against humanity in the face and showing how non-compliance and disruption have overcome them.

The role of professions and professionals in amoral compliance, and thereby (given the right orders) atrocities is pretty much the hinge point of this course.

So, Arendt on Eichmann and Kafka's The Trial.

Bureaucrats are expected to comply with superior orders, "even if the order appears wrong to him… Without this moral discipline and self-denial, in the highest sense, the whole apparatus would fall to pieces," as Max Weber wrote.

We look at how disastrously this can go wrong.


But also at how people can resist as well as succumb to this pressure.

The memoir Secrets, of how was moved to leak the Pentagon Papers, is the lead example in the course.

The Vietnam War is striking for how many of its lead architects held deep moral or political reservations about the war, yet kept diligently making it deadlier and longer.

The goal of looking into this dark mirror is to ask: How do we understand ethics and responsibility in the context of a highly elaborate structure of power? Who has the responsibility to object? Who has the power to refuse?

And most importantly, How do we reckon with the power and dangers of the modern state?

Oh, and we'll draw on this fascinating book of conversations among Arundhati Roy,,,

If I have my own hidden argument within the course, it's this: most of the things that make states dangerous, and the unthinkable possible, are techniques that are appropriated across ideologies:

courts, statistics, identity papers, censuses, maps, imprisonment, bureaucratic hierarchies, surveillance technologies, military doctrines and strategies.

These "secrets of the state" are as important as state secrecy (information and decisions that are kept confidential by governments) to understanding the risks we face.

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