On the Modern Relevance of Old Republicanism

Download 93.07 Kb.
Size93.07 Kb.
  1   2   3
On the Modern Relevance of Old Republicanism.

“ Remember you have a free city and an unfettered discretion to live as you please ”

“ The logic of power is fairly simple, and has been often applied in a masterly way. The opposite kind of politics is much more difficult ; partly because the logic of anti-power politics, the logic of freedom, is hardly understood yet ”

Karl Popper

Since at least as far back as the 17th century, the 'Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns' has figured on the philosophers' agenda, in aesthetics and in natural philosophy as well as in ethics and in politics. In this last field, one of the most important stakes of the quarrel turns on the distinction which Benjamin Constant drew, in 1819, between two different conceptions of liberty: that of the Ancients and that of the Moderns. The problem of freedom lies at the very heart of all philosophical reflection: in metaphysics and in theology, as well as in ethics and in social and political philosophy. Being founded on a very stong affirmation of the preeminent value of individual freedom, liberalism has, for at least two centuries, been at the centre of the discussion both in modern political philosophy and in economics. Not only were its first rivals, namely anarchism, socialism and a reactionary mode of thought together with its nostalgia for a hierarchical society, defined against the background of liberalism; but the internal discussions within liberalism itself have not been any the less intense, as is realized when comparing its 'solidarist' with its 'proprietarist' or 'libertarian' versions (Rawls and Dworkin, as opposed to Nozick and even Rothbard). Some liberals claim descent from Burke, others from Condorcet, some from Humboldt and others from the early Fichte. Liberalism can indeed be spelt out in different ways. One can anyway perceive in present-day objections to liberalism the reappearance of a good many classical philosophical theses. Thus the communitarian criticism of abstract universalism and of state neutrality reminds one of the Hegelian and romantic criticism of the Enlightenment; while some arguments advanced by 'leftist' communitarians recall the Marxist criticisms aimed at the formal idealism inherent in the Declarations of the Rights of Man1.

In the same way that economic liberalism rests on a certain conception of an economic agent's entrepreneurial liberty and on his freedom to acquire various goods, political liberalism is obviously founded on a certain conception of the individual ‘s liberty vis-à-vis the power of the state. But then, what is political liberty? Let us stave off all essentialist temptations: rather than wondering about the 'true' definition of liberty, we shall be reflecting on what is at stake in the search for such much-vaunted liberty. What do men really struggle for? What is this precious 'something' which should be established or defended? There is nothing scholastic about such a question. A definition of political freedom does not constitute an end in itself but an instrument of analysis helping us towards knowing who we really are, we who want to be free.

The conflict between liberalism (or liberalisms), on the one hand, and communitarianism (or communitarianisms), on the other, has dominated the philosophical debates during the 80 's, especially in the English-speaking world which had previously been dominated by discussions of utilitarian thought. An alternative movement proposes to go beyond this opposition in a somewhat unexpected way - unexpected, that is, first in the English-speaking world; namely through going back to a 'forgotten', though entirely unimpeachable, republican tradition that is inherited from the Ancients, in this particular case: from the Roman Republicans. Does republicanism constitute, in the words of the French philosopher Jean-Fabien Spitz, a third way between liberalism and communitarianism2? Do we still have something to learn from the Ancients?

My claims here are essentially the following:
1) The republican tradition was indeed born in antiquity, and this is an important clue, because some tend to overestimate the differences between the Ancients and the Moderns. But it is even more ancient than Cicero: it comes from Athens, and from the democratic thesis that ‘eleutheria’ first means submission only to law (nomos). To be free is primarily to have no human master and to have an equal right to discuss and vote the laws of the city. This is the beginning of what Popper would have called the adventure of the ‘Open Society’.

2) But Athens was in that sense the origin also of individual liberty, as Hegel insisted, and republicans have to choose, so to speak, between Sparta and Athens. Some of them were fascinated more by Sparta than by Athens, for instance the typical republican Rousseau. Liberals prefer Athens.

3) The choice between Sparta and Athens is connected with Rawls’ s dilemma for republicans: either they regard political participation as a communitarian ideal of the Supreme Good, and this is anti-pluralistic, or they simply insist on the desirability of defending and improving the institutions of a free open society, and this is a form of political liberalism.

4) Liberals typically accept the ideal of non-domination, as a proper part of the set of their political demands. Liberalism should not be construed as simply favouring non-interference. That conception is not political enough. For liberals too, I cannot be free under a benevolent master.

5) Politics is not reducible to the struggle against domination because not all social evils come from domination.

The revival of the republicanist or republican theses is to be credited to historians of political ideas, more particularly to John Pocock and Quentin Skinner3. These theses were developed by several philosophers, in particular by Philip Pettit whose remarkable book, Republicanism 4, will no doubt provide an indispensable basis for discussion in the years to come. We have here a finely argued work with a rich conceptual texture. I am unable to explain how much and why this book is in my view an important one. I’ll try only to discuss critically the conception of liberal tradition it embodies. Without discussing it in detail, Pettit starts from Isaiah Berlin's famous article on 'the two concepts of liberty'5. In it, Berlin distinguished between, on the one hand, a 'negative liberty' understood essentially as non-interference, as the respect of a private sphere that defines the individual by his capacity to act in accordance with his own desires and faculty of judgment; and, on the other, a positive liberty qua ideal of self-control. This latter conception, attributed by Berlin to practically the whole rationalist tradition from the Stoics to Kant and Marx, would, in Berlin's view, threaten the individual; that is, if such an ideal of rational existence is set up as a monistic dogma (in my opinion, Pettit does not remind us often enough of this anti-totalitarian and pluralist aspect of Berlin's position). It is true that Berlin - hastily - subsumed the "Ancients' Liberty" as understood by Benjamin Constant (direct participation in political sovereignty) under the concept of positive liberty. This led him to deny the Ancients (with the exception of Epicurus6 ) any insight into the notion of negative liberty; which, as will later be seen, remains quite questionable. Pettit actually shows that such a dichotomy is not tantamount to a dilemma: there is a third, 'republican' conception, namely the one that can be linked to such names as those of Cicero, Livy, Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau, Jefferson …, defining liberty as non-domination. Between the liberal notion, which, being defined simply as non-interference, is not unconnected with laissez-faire, and the rationalist concept of self-control, which might lead to étatisme, a classical republican concept has to be acknowledged; namely that of the absence of mastery arbitrarily exerted by others. I can be free even though others may interfere in my life (interference without domination); and be unfree, should another person be my master without actually intruding into my existence (domination without interference). To be free is not to have a master, not to be a serf. In this sense, it should not be claimed, as was claimed by Rawls, that 'liberty should not be diminished except for the sake of liberty', since the law is not a dominus7.

The whole of Pettit's system can be deduced from such a conception of liberty which would - by itself - deserve a much more extended discussion: let us straight away remark that an analogous conception of political freedom qua absence of any coercion exerted by others had been defended by the very liberal Hayek in his classic work The Constitution of Liberty 8, where he comments on the texts of Cicero, Livy, Harrington, Sidney, who were claimed to have been rediscovered by the republicans, but also the sentence of the pacifist Athenian general Nicias quoted in epigraph9. Having said this, let us remark that Pettit is not fundamentally an anti-liberal, for he is very much attached to the idea of subjective rights; following Skinner, he underlines the fact that for the Romans, republican liberty is more of a negative than a positive notion of freedom (not being governed rather than actually governing); and unlike other republicanists, he does not continually put forward the noble idea of 'civic virtues', despite being attached to it. His republicanism has greater affinity with that of Montesquieu than with that of Rousseau. However, the notion that Locke and the author of L'Esprit des Lois were republicans while Hobbes anticipated the liberal definition of freedom10 and Bentham was a doctrinaire liberal, is prima facie somewhat surprising. And what about Humboldt, who inspired not only Mill in On Liberty but also Popper and Rawls, but is not dealt with? At this point, everything becomes far more complex.

In fact, it seems to me that a liberal can, as Hayek does, adopt a definition of freedom as absence of coercion11. Like Hayek, he can extol the law together with a submission to some impersonal authority. He neither deifies nor rejects the State but looks upon it as an (indispensable) tool, not as an end in itself; and he requires that its powers be limited and controlled: for 'if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely' (Lord Acton), which neither Hobbes nor Louis XIVwould have granted. Like the republican, the liberal does not sanctify the vox populi but sees in democracy the least bad (=best) means of 'watching the watchdogs', i.e. of controlling the rulers (Alain, Popper). Unlike Hayek and following Rawls's example, a solidarist liberal might however also ascribe the utmost importance to a theory of social justice and, like Rawls himself, defend the republican theme of citizenship; he is nonetheless wary of its pathos which is sometimes nationalistic, and he refuses to set it up as the unique paradigm of the good life, as is done by the communitarian version of republicanism. Pettit however objects to communitarianism while extolling egalitarianism and modern pluralism. His version of republicanism is perhaps more liberal than he admits; that is if one compares it with that of Pocock and Spitz, where the latter is more receptive towards the Rousseauist theme of the General Will and towards Sandel's communitarian criticism of Rawls. Thus it seems that, like liberalism and communitarianism, republicanism is anyway a somewhat ambiguous current of thought: it can be spelt out in many different ways.

Whatever the case may be, one of the consequences drawn by Pettit from the republican definition of liberty is that the latter is a social relationship, whereas the advocate of liberal freedom would understand it, in atomistic terms, as a property of individuals independent of the latter's interactions. Pettit assumes that liberal individualism is necessarily atomistic, that it looks upon the individual as a self-sufficient totality, as a 'perfect and solitary whole' (as ... Rousseau said), while turning all social aspects into various sorts of accidents; whereas republicanism is supposedly a 'non-collectivist holism' which conceives of the individual only as part of a (political) whole. Though widespread, this conception of liberalism and of methodological individualism seems to me to be questionable, for reasons which cannot be gone into here . Suffice it to say that liberalism can perfectly well be construed in a way that makes it differ from a glorification of egoism and clearly have nothing to do with the false idea that human beings can be envisaged independently of their belonging to a social setting. Pettit moreover convincingly argues in support of the fact that political liberty, qua non-domination, is a communitarian commodity in the sense that I cannot partake of it unless the same applies, similarly, to all the other members of the community. This is akin to Spitz's thesis that, in the republican tradition and - if we are to believe to Hegel - in all modern “ Germanic ” cultures12, liberty exists only if equally shared by everybody13. Thus the relevant test of whether we are dealing with a republican or with a genuine liberal (in the negativist and individualist-atomistic sense) would be to inquire into the manner in which he connects the two concepts of liberty and equality: the republican is essentially one who holds liberty analytically to entail both equality and justice; which is actually denied by Berlin. As seen by the republicans, the French republican trinity is in effect a rhetorical pleonasm: political freedom (i.e. non-domination) is the only value which counts, for it exists exclusively in a fraternal society of equals ready to die for the fatherland, i.e. for the republican instititions. The republican can furthermore be characterised through his (Rousseauist) denial of the Hobbesian and Benthamite thesis that by definition, all laws restrict individual freedom14. Finally, republican liberty protects the individuals (in this sense, it is, as remarked by Pettit, closer to the liberal than to the romantic-populist tradition); and this not only in the real contemporary world, but in all possible worlds. Its originality is of a modal type: a supporter of liberty taken in the purely negativist sense may be satisfied with having a 'good master', whereas a republican would want no master whatever. Whatever the master's personality and his possible changes of attitude, it should in principle be impossible for me to be enslaved.

In this presentation of the problematics of political liberty many points appear to be worthy of discussion. To begin with, is the dichotomy put forward by Berlin satisfactory? It actually seems to me not to be entirely so; Berlin proceeds as though the supporters of negative liberty failed to put the notions of political demands and of rights at the centre of their theory. The latter notion obviously entails that it is not from any master's benevolence that I can expect the respect of my freedom of action, but only from my possession of certain rights15. This is a modal notion: we demand that nobody should be in any position to compel us to do this or that16.

This was clearly asserted by Benjamin Constant:

“ The "Moderns' Liberty" consists in everybody's right to be subject exclusively to the Law (…), the right to express one's opinion, the right to choose one's profession (…), the right to associate with other individuals (…), the right of influencing the administration of government ”17.

It would actually be rather irrational for a supporter of liberty, conceived as non-interference, not to want a priori to guard against other people's possible encroachment on his sphere of autonomy. Liberalism can only be a doctrine of individual rights18 (the doctrine of collective rights being obviously confused). When Constant, the author of Adolphe, speaks of 'private enjoyments', this term should be understood in its legal and not only, or not exclusively, in its hedonist-egoistical sense: one does not 'enjoy (or one does not purely and simply enjoy) without any constraints'; one rather enjoys a right. Besides, The Declaration of the Rights of Man did not understand this notion in any other way. The idea, shared by Charles Taylor and the republicans, that liberal society is atomistic seems to me to be contradicted by a fact underlined by Constant, namely that one of the modern individual's essential rights is none other than the right of free association; or - as described by Popper - the right to form subgroups; i.e. the right to belong voluntarily to one or other more or less open communities, and to divorce from them. It is often forgotten that even Nozick laid stress on this possibility ('Utopia'). A most important and distinctive characteristic of political liberalism is simply the belief that the (adult19) individual has a mind sufficiently critical to prevent his membership of a community from coming to define him so completely and essentially that he cannot break loose from that community. 'Thou shalt be nobody's property !': such is the deep complicity between liberalism and libertarian thought. About this point, Hayek rightly asked the question of self-alienation: if liberty means having no master, what about those who wish to have a master and submit to him perinde ac cadaver20. Anyway, it seems to me unjust to blame the liberals for having no conception of the common good: according to liberalism, the common good is the individuals' freedom to act as they see fit, of course within the framework of laws that are seen to be legitimate and make all individual liberties compossible (Kant). Liberal individuals can be attached to this common good and wish to defend it. As more or less said by Voltaire, 'I do not agree with your viewpoint but am ready to fight in order for you to have the right to express it'.

Let us now go back to Berlin's distinction. It appears to me that Berlin does not distinguish, within his fuzzy concept of 'positive liberty'21, between two components: on the one hand, the classical ideal of self-control and of the control of one's desires through reason; and, on the other, the idea of direct democracy, which he anyway hardly ever mentions. If we are to believe him, there is a direct line running from Athenian democracy to Stoicism, then to the ascetic ideal (which he criticises, using arguments very different from Nietzsche's), and to Kantianism and socialism … 'Positive Liberty' thus seems to constitute a somewhat lax category. One should incidentally note that Berlin shared in an illusion, characteristic of the time (in 1958), according to which the 'second world' presented a paradigm of positive liberty22; but then, are there any self-control and self-government to be found under real communist regimes23? One can read into such communism something like a Promethean ideal of (natural and historic) world-domination; but, as against this, the people's participation in deliberations and - albeit indirectly - in political decision-making, though most certainly far from ideal, has, during the 20 century, been infinitely greater in the liberal than in the allegedly 'people’s democracies'. The right of free association which was fought for and acquired, against the doctrinaires of laissez-faire, in the domain of wage-relations is henceforth inviolable; in this area, the problem is rather about how to encourage people to participate in trade-union activity; while the increasing in insecurity employment admittedly allows for no total optimism concerning such issues. Would a 'democracy of owners', so dear to Rawls's heart as well to a certain French republican tradition, constitute a solution to this problem? The debate is still open.

The defect of Berlin's exposé is that it is not sufficently political. Modern liberalism, be it pure or modified in a social-democratic sense, is crucially linked to the ideas of free public deliberation, of 'checks and balances', of the control of the rulers, of the freedom of the press, of the separation of powers and of constitutional representative democracy. Any theory of political liberty that finesses on the question of the type of democracy (absolute versus constitutional, proprietarist versus universal...) and of “ the limits to be set to the power of the state ”, in Humboldt's words, is condemned to confusion.
One of the salient features of the reference to republicanism is that it short-circuits the opposition between Ancients and Moderns, which underpins the thoughts of authors as different as Rousseau, Condorcet, Constantth , Strauss, Arendt, Berlin, but not that of Mill, Popper, Rawls or Hayek, and not even really that of de Tocqueville, who contrasts the feudal hierarchical order with egalitarian democracy rather than the Ancients with the Moderns. For instance, de Tocqueville has a definite feeling of nostalgia for the aristocratic world; since democracy can threaten liberty which is, first, an aristocratic value! Because de Tocqueville nevertheless sees in egalitarianism a providential movement, he does not oppose it, but seeks to find in it that which might enable us to salvage both individual liberty and the communitarian bond. In La démocratie en Amérique, the text that expeditively deals with Athens (II, 1, 15) betrays a historical knowledge cruder than that of Constant: the only argument allowing de Tocqueville to speak of the demos as of an 'aristocracy' is the existence of slavery. Apart from the fact that there was in Athens a debate about the problem of slavery (Popper quotes Antiphon and Alcidamas as advocates, before the Cynics, of the principle of the equality of all men), de Tocqueville's argument backfires on its author; for it entails that neither America nor France was, at the time, genuine democracies (Just imagine the title 'De l'aristocratie en Amérique'!); for both of these countries subscribed to the shameful institution of slavery or else allowed it to remain in existence (until 1865 and 1848 respectively). As for the women's right to vote, it was not to be won in France before 1945; until this date, there was a hierarchy based on 'natural' criteria - in as far as this was at all possible; whereas being a slave was, in Greece, above all else a random outcome of war; had the Trojans won, then Hecuba would have enslaved the Achaeans (See Euripides, Hecuba ). Progress is rarely in the nature of a sudden conversion to a 'new world of ideas'; and it is not linear.

In fact, according to Pocock and Skinner, the republican tradition was founded by the Romans and was taken up first by the Venetian and Florentine civic humanists, to whom Machiavelli belonged, then by the 17 century English republicans (Harrington, Algernous Sidney) and finally by Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and the American revolutionaries. However, since the beginning of the 19th th century, the 'liberal catastrophe' supposedly obliterated the memory of this glorious tradition; and it would be necessary (and sufficient) to exhume the latter in order to obviate the fundamental paradoxes inherent in liberalism and in modern atomised societies.

This genealogy will obviously appear problematic to those who hold that only modern, anti-Aristotelian, humanistic and subjectivist philosophy can found a genuine universalism. Whether it be in the sense of a glorification of the Ancients relatively to the Moderns (Arendt, Strauss, Villey) or the other way round (Volnay, Berlin, Ferry and Renaut), such an opposition appears to be at the basis of modern political philosophy. Different positions are however possible. We have said that well before Castoriadis, authors such as Popper and Hayek considered Classical Greece, and more particularly Athens, as the birthplace of the ideas of practical liberty and of an open society: with such figures as Protagoras, Euripides, and Socrates, there gradually emerged the outline of a hitherto unknown notion, namely - in Popper's words - that of the autonomy of ethics; human beings start perceiving themselves as the creators of their own norms and as providing the measure of their own legitimacy. The birth of critical rationality goes hand in hand with the emergence of discussions, by logical argument, of the foundations of politics. Christianity added an even more assertively humanistic and universalist dimension, but definitely shifted the foundations of all norms out of this world. Far from taking liberty to be a natural attribute inherent in every individual independently of all social relationships, the Austrian liberals, following Carl Menger, turned it into a social and historical product, whose emergence is therefore conditioned by history. But to pretend, as some of the republicans, that the idea of liberty qua non-domination could be 'Roman' without having previously been 'Athenian' is, as already seen, questionable. What could the great Cicero have achieved without Polybus, without the Stoa, without Aristotle or Sophocles? The example of democratic Athens, which was vilified by Plato and then partially rehabilitated by Aristotle, has the merit of shattering the myth of the 'Ancient City' as forged by Fustel de Coulanges, which is obviously nothing but a crude ideal-type24. Every aspect of the Spartan model (as mythicised by Rousseau) is the opposite of that of its Athenian counterpart. A liberal can be an idolater of Athens but certainly not a Spartaphile (or rather: an Athenephile but not an idolater of Sparta). Hence the question: do contemporary republicans follow Machiavelli's and Rousseau's example in admiring the warlike, agrarian, virtuous, unpolished, static and autarchic Sparta; or do they, like liberals in general, prefer the Attic city, artistic and mercantile, which was open on to the seas and to the world at large; the 'chatter' of the Sophists or else rigidity and laconic monotony? Many Athenian instititions and practices (slavery, perhaps ostracism, imperialism,…) appear to us to be clearly contrary to the ideas of liberty and of individual rights; but can we be sure that our 'modernity' is marred by no such defects? The slave trade flourished in the century of the Enlightenment, and colonialism was no negligible historical detail: was not the great de Tocqueville himself unflinchingly attached to the idea of the military conquest of Algeria ?

Share with your friends:
  1   2   3

The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2020
send message

    Main page