Category Archives: democracy

In Defence of Limited Government

Can we best understand Locke’s Second Treatise as a defence of secular rights and property or as an essentially Calvinist call for men and government to do their duty to God?

Intro

Much of the debate regarding the true meaning of Locke’s Second Treatise has revolved around the pivotal chapter five: Of Property. On one hand, some scholars assert that it serves as an apology to individual wealth accumulation thereby marking the genesis of the liberal capitalist order; on the other hand, some assert that Locke’s theory of property cannot be understood outside of the theological context in which it was written. Both sides of the argument present valid points, however adopting only one of them would be incorrect as a complete understanding of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and a specific understanding of chapter five, requires a detailed contextualisation of John Locke the man and his work.

This paper will argue that the Second Treatise is indeed a defence of secular rights and property. However, the particular way in which Locke justifies and legitimizes both his theory of property and his conception of limited government is grounded in a theological understanding of the duty of men and civil society to follow divine will as prescribed by natural law. This means that we cannot begin to speculate on the possible meanings of the Second Treatise without recognizing the theological context in which Locke was working, living and writing. In other words, Locke could not propose any theory of secular rights or property without grounding it on a solid religious base.

Debate regarding the true understanding of the Second Treatise was inflamed by C.B. Macpherson’s work The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) in which he asserted that Locke’s intention was to provide a moral justification for unlimited individual wealth accumulation. For Macpherson, Locke was not merely sowing the seeds of what would eventually blossom into modern capitalism, but was actually presenting an apology for an existing capitalist order complete with wage relationships and class exploitation. Macpherson’s argument is complemented by Leo Strauss’s essay in Natural Right and History (1953) in which he states that Locke’s theory is guided by the principle of self-preservation (as was Hobbes’s) and that it ultimately accounts to a protection of property and life.

On the other side of the argument, we find James Tully (1980, 1993), John Dunn (1969, 1984) and Jeremy Waldron (2002) arguing for a theological understanding of Locke’s theory. These authors, particularly Dunn, endeavour to show that it is not possible to recover Locke’s original meaning without recognizing the normative theological vocabulary of the late 1600s (Tully 1993, p99). Moreover, a complete understanding requires the recognition of three factors that shaped Locke’s thought: the Exclusion Bill crisis, the centrality of the theory of limited government and natural law as prescribed by divine will.

The first two sections of the essay will explore the interpretation of Locke’s theory by both Macpherson and Strauss. They will specifically analyse firstly Macpherson’s idea of the transcendence of natural law and secondly Strauss’s assertion that Locke does not in fact base natural law in God. The third part of the essay will begin by offering a historical contextualisation of Locke, while the subsequent sections will critique Macpherson and Strauss’s ideas through an analysis firstly of Locke’s understanding of limited government and secondly of natural law. In the concluding remarks, it will be suggested that Macpherson’s thesis can be generally accepted solely if it recognizes that Locke’s intent in the Second Treatise was in fact not to justify the claims of a nascent bourgeois class, but to provide a theory of limited government which genuinely based its assumptions on natural law and the duty of men and governments to God.

Possessive Individualism

For C.B. Macpherson, Locke’s sole purpose in the Second Treatise was to provide a moral justification for unlimited wealth appropriation (1962, p198). “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property” (Second Treatise -ST from now on-, §124). From this statement, Macpherson begins to construct a critique of Locke’s theory which involves the movement of property rights from the state of nature into civil society. This occurs in two steps: firstly by basing property rights on natural law, and secondly by removing the limitations of natural law from property accumulation. “The Law Man was under, was rather for appropriating. God Commanded, and his Wants forced him to labour. That was his Property which could not be taken from him where-ever he had fixed it.” (ST, §35) Locke shows that it is natural law and God’s will which commands mankind to labour. When a person mixes his/her labour with the objects of the world (which is given as a gift by God in common to all mankind) that act of labour confers an exclusive right on the object taken out of the commons. However, Locke puts a very specific limitation on the extent of appropriation, the famous “proviso”, where he states that men can appropriate in so much that there is enough left for other men to meet their basic sustenance (ST, §36). The other limitation Locke imposes on property appropriation is what Macpherson calls the “spoilage limitation” (1962, p204), where men may appropriate as long as the objects they appropriate do not spoil, rot or perish (ST, §46). This is what Macpherson’s refers to as Locke’s first step: the grounding of property rights in natural law.

It is the second movement that Locke performs which Macpherson sees as problematic: the transcendence of the limitations set out by natural law. Macpherson presents us with the three limitations, these being the spoilage limitation, the “proviso” (as long as there is enough left for others) and the labour limitation (only by mixing one’s labour with an object can one appropriate it). It is through the removal of these limitations that Macpherson sees Locke as justifying unlimited property accumulation and where we witness a “transition from the limited right to the unlimited right” (1962, p203). According to Macpherson, it is the introduction of money in the state of nature which allows for the limitations to be transcended, when men “had agreed that a little piece of yellow Metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of Flesh, or a whole heap of Corn.” (ST, §37) In this way, if money cannot perish because it is made out of metal, the spoilage limitation does not apply, thereby sanctioning the unlimited accumulation of money (Macpherson 1962, p208). In addition, the introduction of money implies the possibility to sell one’s labour. This means that the “proviso” does not apply: one can appropriate all he/she wants without leaving enough for others because the others can work for a wage now that money has been introduced (1962, p214).

Macpherson thus states that Locke’s state of nature is an ambiguous one. At first, it seems as if it is one which implies the respect of both the will of God and of fellow human beings. Yet, the introduction of money transforms the state of nature into a race towards unfettered property accumulation (1962, p243). Moreover, embedded within the state of nature is the alienation of one’s labour (through wage relationships) and consequently class exploitation. Macpherson asserts that Locke could not have been oblivious to the class differentiation in his society, and it is only fitting that he would reproduce them in his conceptualization of the state of nature (1962, p231). The state of nature therefore has two different sets of rights, one for the propertied and one for the property-less. Thus when men enter in civil society, the sole purpose of forming a government is to protect the property rights of the wealthy (1962, p248), which brings us back to the afore mentioned quote from which Macpherson begins his critique: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.”

Self Preservation

According to Leo Strauss (1953), Locke did not make natural law dependent on the will of God. Locke’s humans, when obeying natural law, are not acting in consonance with the precepts set out by divine will but in truth are following their inherent drive towards self preservation. For Strauss, there is no way that Locke’s definition of human reason could ever allow men to know the true will of God. Thus, the guiding principles of human reason were principles simply the aversion to pain and the propensity towards happiness. “The law of nature is nothing other than the sum of the dictates of reason in regard to men’s “mutual security” or to the “peace and safety” of mankind.” (Strauss 1953, p228)

Similarly to Macpherson, Strauss goes on to demonstrate that Locke‘s theory allows for the transcendence of the limits of natural law. Regarding the “proviso”, Strauss asserts the drive towards self preservation simply cannot allow leaving enough for others as this could potentially jeopardize one’s life (1953, p237). He then goes on to show that with the introduction of moneyed relationships Locke performs the “emancipation of acquisitiveness” which effectively liberates man firstly from the limitations of natural law and secondly from any kind of social responsibility (1953, p249) “Man is effectively liberated from the bounds of nature and there within the individual is emancipated from those social bonds which antedate all consent of compact, by the emancipation of his productive acquisitiveness, which is necessarily, if accidentally, beneficent and hence susceptible of becoming the strongest social bond” (1953, p249). Strauss concludes that man enters in civil society not only to protect his life, liberty and estates (this corresponds to the principle of self preservation) but actually to enlarge his possessions (this corresponding to the pursuit of happiness) (1953, p245).

Contextualising Locke

Macpherson and Strauss present us with a Hobbesian Locke (if indeed his natural law is guided by the principle of self preservation) whose aim in the Second Treatise is to articulate a theory of moral justification for unlimited capitalist accumulation and the legitimization of class exploitation. Such a harsh explanation of Locke was met with much resistance by professors John Dunn (1969, 1984), James Tully (1980, 1993) and Peter Laslett (1988). The argument against the theory of possessive individualism hinges on the contextualisation of both Locke as a man and of his work. Dunn (1969, 1984) suggests that it is impossible to recover the meaning of the Second Treatise without looking at three important factors: the Exclusion Bill crisis, Filmer’s Patriarcha, and the theological vocabulary of natural law. For all three mentioned scholars, there can be no assumption of Locke’s intent without recognizing the political and religious backdrop in which he was writing. For James Tully (and indeed for Cambridge scholars such as Austin and Skinner attempting to recuperate the illocutionary force of an author’s writings): “Understanding, as opposed to explanation, turns on recovering the meaning the author intended to convey by reading the text in light of the available conventions and assumptions, and so of coming to understand it in these terms” (Tully 1993, p99).

The Exclusion Bill Crisis and Sir Robert Filmer

As it became apparent in the late 1670s that King Charles II would be succeeded by his brother James Duke of York, it was feared that the new King, a Catholic, would re-institute pontifical authority and force Catholicism on the English people. The Earl of Shaftesbury (Locke’s employer) led the Whig Party in drafting the Exclusion Bill, a piece of legislation aimed at excluding James II from becoming king (Dunn, 1969 p44). The stage was thus set for the advent of an absolute monarch without concern for religious toleration or parliamentary legitimacy. It is within this context and within this historical moment that Locke was writing the Second Treatise (Laslett 1988, p54) thereby articulating a theory of limited government and the right to revolution with the specific purpose of delegitimizing absolute monarchy. The Exclusion Bill crisis is the first fact that we must recognize for our understanding of the Second Treatise.

Within this political crisis, Locke faced a formidable adversary, Sir Robert Filmer, the author of Patriarcha, a book arguing in favour of the divine right of kings and in direct support of James II. If Locke was going to publish any theory of limited government aimed at curbing arbitrary absolute power he would first have to disprove Filmer’s thesis (Tully 1980, p95). However, proving Filmer wrong was no easy feat. Patriarcha’s basic assumption stated that God gave the world specifically to Adam who would rightfully own it and who would have dominion over it and his own posterity. Seeing that monarchs rule in the stead of God on earth, Adamic rule transferred solely to kings. Filmer’s thesis accounted ultimately to a scriptural justification of the divine right of kings (Dunn 1980, p35). Moreover, it gave a clear and simple justification of the theory of property: the world and all the things in it, including people, belong to the monarch, and the regulation of property can only derive from the king’s positive laws (Tully 1980, p96). Other natural right theorists such as Grotius, had found it difficult to reconcile common property with private property. Filmer did not, as absolute authority over all property simply pertained to the king as sanctioned by God Almighty (Dunn 1969, p65; Tully 1993 p110).

The Theory of Limited Government

Locke’s aim in the First Treatise therefore accounts to a scriptural rejection of Filmer’s assumption that God gave the world particularly to Adam and more generally to males (Locke summarises this succinctly in the very beginning of the Second Treatise: “It is impossible that the Rulers now on Earth, should make any benefit, or derive any the least shadow of Authority from that, which is held to be the Fountain of all Power, Adam’s Private Dominion and Paternal Jurisdiction”). According to Jeremy Waldron (2002) the First Treatise is Locke’s attempt to demonstrate that God gave the world to all in common as a gift and that all men are created equal. Waldron suggests that Locke’s work is essentially a “defence of the proposition that humans are, basically, one another’s equals” (2002, p15). Thus he was not solely fighting Filmer on scriptural basis, but had consciously understood that a theory of equality necessarily required a theological basis.

However, if the world was given to men in common, and if men are all equal, how could private property be possible? It is here that Chapter V On Property becomes pivotal. With the theory of property Locke is able to move men from “that State of perfect Equality” (ST, §7) where “God gave the World to Adam and his Posterity in common” (ST, §25), through one in which the individual has the right of self ownership over himself and his property, and ultimately into civil society where he is finally able to propose a doctrine of limited government. “It is through the theory of property that men can proceed from the abstract world of liberty and equality based on their relationship with God and natural law, to the concrete world of political liberty guaranteed by political arrangements” (Laslett 1988, p103). In Locke’s political theory, individual political freedom cannot be justified without the prior institution of private property rights. Moreover, Locke’s general use of the term property seems to encapsulate this point: “Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general name, Property” (ST, §123). Locke could not separate political freedom from economic freedom as he used the concept of Property to define them both; and he needed this concept ultimately to ground his theory of limited government, natural rights and majority rule in individual freedom rather than in absolute despotic rule (Dunn 1969, p67). In the light of the Exclusion Bill crisis, Locke’s ultimate goal was to propose a theory of limited government and the right to revolution, not, as Professor Macpherson has it, to provide a moral justification for class exploitation.

The Theological Vocabulary of Natural Law

The arguments Locke used to justify the political theory of the Second Treatise required a theological understanding of natural law, as he ultimately needed the supreme authority of God as a starting point if he was to firstly disprove Filmer’s thesis and secondly convince the political audience of his time. For Dunn (1969, p88), Locke wrote within a thoroughly theological backdrop in which man and all the creatures of the world where part of a divine plan created and ordered by God: a “great chain of being” in which some creatures had power over others as willed by God. The order that God had set for the rational functioning of the world was expressed through natural law. For James Tully (1980, p36) Locke’s God was the ultimate maker of the divine order. It followed that mankind, as his product, was thoroughly dependent on him. It is through the use of reason than humans could discover the natural laws that God has set; these being the duty of the preservation of mankind, the laws governing the acquisition of property and the rights accruing from these. “Reason, which was the Voice of God in him, could not but teach him and assure him, that pursuing that natural inclination he had to preserve his being, he followed the Will of his Maker” (First Treatise, §86). By demonstrating the dependency of man’s duties and rights on the will of God, Tully is able to disprove Strauss’s claim that man is driven by subjective egotistic self-preservation: “The point of grounding morality in Man’s relationship to God, and thus making him morally dependent on God’s objective will, is to repudiate this subjectivism” (Tully 1980, p47). Tully shows that there was simply no other natural law vocabulary, other than the theological one, available to Locke to justify all of his theory on (Tully 1993 p100). Locke’s teleology therefore does not entail, as Macpherson and Strauss suggest, the pursuit of unlimited wealth nor the principle of self preservation. For Tully, Locke’s teleology is the finding and obeying of natural law which is our duty to God (1993, p46).

Conclusion

From this analysis it is clear that a thorough understanding of Locke’s Second Treatise necessarily requires recognition of the political and religious context he was writing in. Only after can we proceed to speculate on what the text represents and means, and only after is it possible to accept Macpherson’s and Strauss’s criticisms to Locke. Yes, Locke was indeed a member of a rising Bourgeois class (Macpherson 1962, p261), and yes his theory does perform Strauss’s “emancipation of acquisitiveness”. However, this was not Locke’s intent. It has been demonstrated that Locke wanted to propose a theory of limited government aimed at countering the despotic and absolutist rule of James II. His motivations were indeed economic as he did fear arbitrary taxation; however these are not the sole motivations spurring Locke to write the Second Treatise. Locke was equally (if not more) concerned with the issues of political liberalism, individual rights, and toleration. Above all he was concerned with justifying his politics within a theological context as he genuinely believed in the God-given fact of the equality of mankind (Waldron 2002, p15).

In conclusion it is not possible to posit a dichotomy of interpretation for Locke’s Second Treatise as being either a defence of secular rights and property or a Calvinist call for men and government to do their duty to God. The former is dependent on the later. Both views are thoroughly enmeshed, and mutually supportive at a logical, political and more importantly theological level.

Bibliography

Dunn, J. 1969, The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Dunn, J. 1980, Locke, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Locke, J. 1988, Two Treatises of Government ed. Peter Laslett, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Macpherson, C.B. 1962, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Strauss, L. 1953, Natural Right and History, Chicago University Press, Chicago

Tully, J. 1980, A discourse on property: John Locke and his adversaries, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tully, J. 1993, An approach to political philosophy: Locke in contexts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Waldron, J. 2002, God, Locke and Equality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Negative Liberty, political philosophy, political theory

Pledges, Declarations and Constitutions

The Mobilization of Founding Documents as a Reassertion of American Identity

Intro


The Declaration of Independence

One of the constituent features of the Tea Party and its satellite movements consists in a strict allegiance to the founding documents and the founding moments that defined the United States of America as a sovereign and independent people. After all, the Tea Party movement names itself after the Boston Tea Party, the original act of dissent against tyranny and the symbolic assertion of American independence. Most recently, also the GOP has unveiled its own document A Pledge to America: a manifesto bristling with the rhetoric found in the Declaration of Independence and with the passion of the Spirit of ’76[1]. The founding documents are for the Tea Party (and like-minded conservatives) symbols which stand for limited government, individual rights, government by consent and economic freedom; and it is they, as a political movement, who claim to be the natural heirs to this political tradition. On the website teapartypatriots.com the mission statement asserts that:

“The Tea Party Patriots stand with our founders, as heirs to the republic, to claim our rights and duties which preserve their legacy and our own. We hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.”[2]

 

Photo by Sage Ross

Tea Party Protest, Hartford, Connecticut, 15 April 2009. Photo by Sage Ross

 

However, the reassertion and reinterpretation of the Founding Documents on behalf of the Tea Party is a symptom which betrays a far greater malaise: the perception of a loss of American identity. It is no coincidence that among the non negotiable core beliefs found on teaparty.org we find those of: “illegal aliens are here illegally, English as core language is required and traditional family values are encouraged.”[3] The Tea Party therefore stands for the reassertion of traditional American identity against an expanding government which seeks to redistribute the hard-earned wealth of middling Americans, which favors immigrants over business and which institutes socialized health-care at the expense of the tax payer. America has thus strayed off the enlightened path set by its Founding Fathers; it has lost both its telos and its ontos:  it is no more the “land of the free and home of the brave” and has thereby sacrificed its very liberty in the name of political correctness and equality. Only a reassertion of the Founding Documents will return America to its libertarian roots of self-determination, limited federal government, state-based governance and individual liberty.

Main Issues

 

We must however be critical of such a re-assertion of tradition and identity through the use of the Founding Documents. Are we sure that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence explicitly signify libertarian values? Could such documents point to alternative forms of government other than liberal democracy? And most importantly, does the Constitution truly represent the tenets of limited government and inalienable individual rights?

The Signing of the US Constitution

Between 1776 and 1787 the debate raging around the ratification of the Constitution pitted the Federalists (pro-Constitution) and the Antifederalists (against the Constitution) in a struggle that would eventually define what form the US government would take and what it would stand for. A close reading of the Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers will actually reveal that the Federalists (many of whom eventually became Founding Fathers by framing the Constitution) were in many cases arguing against the conception of government which the Tea Party attributes to them today: a small, limited, isolationist government which believes in the inviolability individual rights and free enterprise. Moreover, the ratification of the US Constitution was not universally seen in the 1780s as the national institutionalization of liberty and freedom; rather, it came to represented taxation, a standing army and a powerful and unaccountable executive – all issues which were fought against in the Revolution (Cornell 1999 p.53). The idea of a federal Constitution was repudiated by almost half of the American population, and was eventually ratified on very narrow margins[4] (Kramnick, 1987). On the other hand, the Antifederalists, whom championed the Articles of Confederation, argued for a more localist politics and against a federal government capable of coercively levying taxes on the fruit of the sovereign state’s labor (Cornell 1999, p.95).

I wish to explore three points here. Firstly, that the Tea Party is re-interpreting the Founding Documents (especially the Constitution) in a way which is not universally correct. By basing the legitimacy of their claim on a very specific interpretation of what the Constitution represents they are justifying the project of re-asserting a particular form of American identity which is not totalizing. Such a conceptualization would impose a negative interpretation of liberty thereby restricting any rights claims other than those on the libertarian agenda, and view as illegitimate any attempt of wealth redistribution or collective citizen action.

My second point consists in demonstrating that the Tea Party is not in fact the natural heir to the Founding Fathers as they resemble more (in many, but not all, aspects) the Antifederalists. However, if we look even deeper within the ideology of the Antifederalists we will discover a conceptualization of society which favored collective action, redistribution and which championed an egalitarian and leveling democracy – ideas which are not consonant with Tea Party ideology.

This leads me to my third point. As the Tea Party is caught between two very different political heritages (Federalist/Antifederalist) it cannot claim to represent any definitive embodiment of American Identity. Therefore the wielding of the Founding Documents as the weapons with which to “Restore Honor” (as Glenn Beck puts it) corresponds to a re-inscribing of what in semiotics is called a floating signifier. There is no historical legitimacy to the Tea Party: it is a popular movement which, like all others, tries to redefine the “We the people” through the mobilization of national symbols and other floating signifiers. As the Constitution has, under the liberal hegemony, become what Lacan calls a point de capiton (a symbol which manages to precariously anchor meaning into itself), the mobilization of this very symbol by the Tea Party betrays the instability of the liberal hegemony itself.

It therefore becomes clear that the Tea Party’s irreducible ideological contradictions are not merely a confused attempt to reinforce the supposedly founding principles of laissez faire capitalism and negative liberty against the encroachment of cultural relativism and redistribution imposed by the “progressive liberal elite”. Rather, it emerges as an angry backlash against those very principles which they claim to support. In other words the Tea Party, as the popular movement which defends liberalism, is in truth a movement which is angry at the shortcomings of liberalism itself.

What the Tea Party is demonstrating to the world is that the neo-liberal hegemony is no longer able to support and provide a coherent cultural, social, political and economic framework which successfully reflects the people’s life experiences. The disruptive and destructive forces  that globalized neo-liberalism has unleashed on the American middle class – the lowering of wages, outsourcing of jobs to third world countries, financial bubbles, higher health care costs, immigration, recession, etc… – have prompted the formation of a movement which has paradoxically become its most ardent supporter.

The Federalists and the Tea Party

 

It is interesting to see the diverging interpretations of what the Constitution represented at the time of its ratification and what it represents today. For the Tea Party, as we have mentioned, the Constitution embodies the principles of economic freedom, individual liberty and limited government. Along with the Bill of Rights it is the document which protects the individual from coercive taxation and any unlawful encroachment of federal power upon the private sphere. For an organization such as Let Freedom Ring, a constitutional government is one which promotes “the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution and limited (federal) government”[5]. Citing the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution has become for the Tea Party a symbol of resistance against the influence of the centralized federal government over the sovereignty of individual states: “we support states’ rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution. As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.”[6] Not only are politics to return closer to the States, but also closer to the citizen, as promoted by the initiative Contract FROM America which attempts to force Washington’s unaccountable politicians closer to their constituencies[7]. Finally, any attempt to presently interpret the constitution must be coherent with the original intent of the Founding Fathers – a movement termed originalist constitutionalism (Liptak 2010) which “believe[s] that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent.”[8]

But what was the original intent of the founders? And what did the Constitution represent to Americans in the 1780s? The socio-political panorama following the Declaration of Independence presented a loosely united confederation of independent and sovereign states which had the freedom to coin their own money, levy their own taxes and draft their own laws (Wood 1972, p354). They truly lived under libertarian principles and practiced a much more participatory model of democracy than that which exists today (Wood 1999). America under the Articles of Confederation was a place where politics occurred on a local level, where representatives mirrored their constituency and where the “politics of liberty” reigned supreme (Kramnick 1987). It was a place which any Tea Partier could call home.  Contrarily, Madison, Hamilton and Jay argued, in the Federalist Papers, for a new type of government where power was to be taken away from the states, farther removed from the locality, and placed in the hands of distant representatives who would take economic, military, judiciary, and legislative decisions on a national level far away from the will of the people (Kramnick 1987).

Alexander Hamilton

In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton seems often to argue against a conception of limited government. For Hamilton, America needed to become a nation-state able to compete internationally with the other European nation states of the time, and the federal government therefore required more power: the coercive power to legislate, direct commerce and wage war. Hamilton’s theory of state building is here not purely Lockean, but rather more Hobbesian and Machiavellian. In Federalist nos. 15, 16 and 17 Hamilton argues against state-based legislatures, equating them to bickering medieval feudal fiefdoms. Also Madison, as Isaac Kramnick points out, despised the “spirit of locality” fostered by state-centered politics, which advocated popular and parochial concerns (Kramnick, 1987). The new union of states was to have a standing army and a strong, decisive executive: “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government…The ingredients which constitute energy in the executive are unity; duration; and adequate provision for its support; and competent powers.”(Hamilton 1788, p402) In Federalist no. 72, Hamilton goes in so far as to argue for the President’s right to indefinite election.

Another point of view which seeks to dispel the notion that the Framers were not complete laissez faire capitalists is presented by Gordon S. Wood, whom points out that the Founding Fathers were more influenced by notions of civic humanism and classical republicanism than by Lockean liberalism. When the US population truly turned to commerce and completely embraced “free market logic” around the first two decades of the 1800s, Wood suggests that the remaining Founding Fathers, and particularly Jefferson, were appalled at the type of nation they had created: one which had given up virtue, secularism and civic morals for “speculation, banks, paper money and evangelical Christianity.”(Wood 1988)

Tea Party Protest

We are therefore presented with studies by authoritative historians which point out that the Founding Fathers were not in fact what the Tea Party makes them out to be today. For many Americans in the 1780s the Constitution represented exactly the opposite of what the tea party makes it out to be now. It was written by men who still believed in the “public good”, who still had not completely embraced the idea of America as a capitalist Mecca, whom believed in executive decisions and which actually made provisions for curbing the liberty that characterized America under the Articles of Confederation.

The Antifederalists and the Tea Party

 

A brief look into Antifederalist political philosophy will reveal striking similarities with that of the Tea Party. Amongst the main issues the Tea Party is concerned about are the erosion of American traditional values and the destructive forces immigration has on American culture. Tea Party supporters seem to be fighting for small, independent communities of hard-working (Christian) men and women: communities where the family represents the nucleus of social organization, and a place where interests, wealth and culture are relatively homogenous. The Tea Party nation is that of the common man, and, as Sarah Palin stated at the Tea Party National Convention:

“The soul of this movement is the people—everyday Americans who grow our food and run our small businesses, and teach our kids, and fight our wars. They’re folks in small towns and cities across this great nation who saw what was happening, and they saw, and they were concerned, and they got involved.”[9]

Similarly, the Antifederalists also championed a view of a local, homogenous community. Montesquieu had taught that republics could survive only in relatively small constituencies where wealth, ideas, ethnicity, religion and political views were similar (Cornell 1999, p86). Difference and factiousness were therefore destabilizing forces for such communities (as is immigration for the Tea Party today). The America of post 1776 was a country with a strong middle class constituted of farmers, mechanics, artisans, and small merchants, who were not yet integrated into a massive commercial system, but were tied to their locality, and therefore looked with suspicion on the plans of the elitist Federalists of instituting a federal government that could encroach on their freedom of enterprise(Wood 1972, p.46-47).

The same distrust for the intellectual elite was present in the Antifederalist camp as in the Tea Party today. The “out of touch” progressive elite of Washington and Hollywood that the Tea Party denounces today were the Federalists of the 1780s. Kramnick quotes an Antifederalist as stating that the Constitution wished to “raise the fortunes and respectability of the well born few, and oppress the plebeian” it was “a continental exertion of the well-born of America to obtain that darling domination which they have not yet been able to accomplish in their respective states” and would “lead to an aristocratical government and establish tyranny over us.” (cited in Kramnick 1987) This critique bears striking resemblance to a passage from the GOP’s recent Pledge to America: “An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.[10]

Shays Rebellion

Yet, at the same time, the Tea Party cannot claim to be direct heirs of the Antifederalists either. Popular Antifederalism believed in participatory democracy, civic virtue and radical egalitarianism. They were indeed very far from any conception of Lockean liberalism as championed by the Tea Party. They were so radical that they hardly even believed in the notion of separation of powers. For an Antifederalist who wrote under the pseudonym of Centinel, unicameralism was to be the only legitimate form of government, as the most important check on power was not another branch of government, but the people themselves (Cornell 1999, p106).  Plebian Antifederalism rejected the notion of representation altogether: it was the people who, through the sole legitimate institution of the plebiscite, would take decisions. As Kramnick demonstates “preferable for many Antifederalists was that there be no representatives, that, as Rousseau had envisioned, the people simply gather in public assembly and give themselves laws.”(Kramnick, 1987) Radical Antifederalist politics believed in crowd action, where the “common good” had the right, through the use of militias and mobs, to overrule both personal rights and private property (Cornell 1999, p114). Wood calls these movements the “People out of Doors”, people who felt so alienated by the landed gentry that they took matters into their own hands. Such popular movements eventually erupted in instances of violent dissent and calculated property destruction such as the Shay’s Rebellion of 1786 (Wood 1972, p325).

Founding Symbols as Floating Signifiers

 

US Constitution

What the Tea Party’s re-assertion of the Founding Heritage amounts to is an attempt to give meaning to what America is, it is trying to answer the age old question of, as Samuel Huntington put it, “who are we?”. It does so through the investing of meaning into the symbol of the Constitution. Therefore, in Sausserian terms, here the signifiers are Founding symbols, while the signifieds are Lockean Liberalism, laissez faire capitalism and other Libertarian values. According to Jacques Lacan, however, the relationship between signifiers and signifieds is never direct and explicit. As we have seen in our historical analysis the Constitution meant different things at different times and to different people. For Lacan, signifiers “slip” – it is impossible for them to “fix” meaning in a totalizing and universal way – therefore they continuously refer to another signifier in an ever ending chain of signification. However, Lacan admits the existence of what he calls points de capiton or nodal points: anchoring points which allows for “moments of stable signification.”(Homer 2005, p42)

The Founding symbols are here slipping or floating signifiers, which, at certain moments in American history, have become points de capiton: genuinely representing, legitimizing and justifying the dominant ideology, political framework and economic base. The contemporary instance of stable signification is what has come to be known as the liberal capitalist democracy: a particular regime justified by the enlightenment (and hence documents such as the Constitution) and which today has become hegemonic.However, this “stable moment of signification” is presently coming to an end. It simply does not provide enough meaning to legitimize precarious economies, terrorism, world-wide secessionist movements, environmental disasters, endless wars, democratic deficits and the climate crisis.

The theory of Ernesto Laclau here is key in analyzing the Tea party as a popular movment. Laclau’s notion of radical investment, informed by Lacan’s understanding of objet petit a, demonstrates how one particular political demand can come to represent the whole. In this case, the Tea Party is attempting to redefine the whole of American identity based on a minority’s identity (theirs): “From our founding, the Tea Party is the voice of the true owners of the United States, WE THE PEOPLE.”[11] Laclau demonstrates how the constitution of the “We the People” is an explicitly political project. For him: “radical investment means making an object the embodiment of a mythical fullness.” (Laclau 2005, p115) Through the radical investment of the Founding Symbols, the Tea Party attempts to claim as theirs the very mythical founding of the US republic.

Hope

 

What Laclau offers us therefore is the multiplication of a plurality of new points of resistance and alternatives to the status quo. Once we have understood that any conception of “We the People” is in truth not a universal and mythical aggregation of the wills, passions, backgrounds and inclinations of the population, but is an explicit political endeavor, the possibility for the claiming of that very same heritage is open to all. The Founding Fathers radically invested the basis of what was to be the federal government with a particular and narrow understanding which was not shared by the totality of the American people. The Tea Party attempts to do the same today with those same symbols. The work of Laclau and Mouffe liberate those symbols by demonstrating that they are political constructs, at which point they become available for use by potentially any political group. For example, Glenn Beck in his recent “Restoring Honor” rally held under the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. attempted to claim the narrative of slave liberation as part of the Tea Party’s heritage.

“What has been exploded is the idea and the reality itself of a unique space of constitution of the political.” (Laclau & Mouffe 1985, p181)

Politics can therefore be constituted within the very texts, signs and symbols which we use to give meaning to it:

“There is no meaning which is not over determined from its very inception.” (Laclau 2005, p115)

This, then, must be the building block of the new project of the left. At a moment in history where traditional narratives cease to “fix meaning”, when the liberal hegemony is wavering, here is the moment to reclaim that tradition and continue the democratic revolution that was “fixed” by the ratification of the constitution and by the supporters of a negative conception of liberty. The true heirs to the Constitution are therefore not (only) the Tea Party; rather, the liberated slaves, the emancipated women, gay and lesbians with rights, workers with a right to work in safe conditions and with a decent wage, children with the right to free and public education. These are the people who perpetuated and fought for the original legacy of the Founding Fathers: for the Constitution might embody individual rights, but it also represents the right of collective emancipation.

Bibliography

  • Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders : Anti-Federalism and the dissenting tradition in America, 1788-1828. Virginia : University of North Carolina Press, 1999
  • Homer, Sean. Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jacques Lacan. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 2005
  • Laclau, Ernesto & Mouffe, Chantal. Hegemony & socialist strategy : towards a radical democratic politics. London : Verso, 1985
  • Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. London: Verso, 2005
  • Levy, Leonard. W. Origins of the Bill of Rights. London : Yale University Press, 1999
  • Liptak, A., “Tea-ing Up the Constitution”, 12/03/2010, The New York Times
  • Madison, James; Hamilton, Alexander; Jay, John; edited by Kramnick, Isaac. The Federalist Papers. London : Penguin, 1987
  • Wood, Gordon S. 1988The Significance of the Early Republic Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 1-20
  • Wood, Gordon S. 1999 “Was America Born Capitalist?” The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 36-46
  • Wood, Gordon. S. The creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York : Norton, 1972

[1] http://pledge.gop.gov/

[2] http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Mission.aspx

[3] http://teaparty.org/about.php

[4] Kramnick, Isaac 1987 in Editor’s Introduction to the Federalist Papers

[5] http://www.letfreedomringusa.com/about

[6] http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Mission.aspx

[7] http://www.thecontract.org/support/

[8] http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Mission.aspx

[9] Palin, Sarah http://themoderatevoice.com/62060/sarah-palins-keynote-speech-at-national-tea-party-convention/

[10] http://pledge.gop.gov/

[11] http://teaparty.org/about.php

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Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Ernesto Laclau, Libertarianism, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

The Democratic Deficit, Crisis and Participatory Democracy

Why is Participation Important?

In the past decade, the theme of participation has increasingly gained more prominence within the fields of governance and development. It is being mainstreamed within the policy making process, in public planning and in public monitoring, slowly gaining legitimacy and taking a place as a viable alternative (or valuable contribution) to standard development and political paradigms. Simply put, participation entails the right of citizens to be included within decision-making processes.

However, we must still ask the question of why participation is important, or, perhaps a more pressing question is: why is participation necessary in the first place? Participation is necessary because the modes of thought, disciplines and institutions which have traditionally informed the fields of governance and development in the past century are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and accountability. Moreover, novel contingencies such as the ecological crisis, food insecurity and the global financial meltdown are putting such institutions under unprecedented levels of pressure. Participation is thus seen as a way to render existing institutions more accountable, transparent and efficient. Mainstreaming a re-invigorated conception of democratic citizenship within contemporary governance institutions is therefore the answer to the economic and political crisis of liberal democracies.

Some, however, would still raise the question: but is our present system that bad? Does it actually need to be re-conceptualized? Does the frightening word “participation” (which evokes the terror of Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty) be included within the discourse of a system which, after all, has generated wealth for many, defeated totalitarianisms, instituted countless democracies and defended human rights? One might detect here a hint of Fukuyama’s thesis and reach the conclusion that our system, namely the capitalist liberal democracy, is not perfect but it’s the best system we have (as put by Churchill), and that giving it sufficient time to fix its present problems is better than risking a “citizen revolution” (see Ecuador) that could spiral out of control and into a totalitarian regime thereby losing our sacrosanct individual rights.

It is exactly these questions and deductions which we must contest by demonstrating that this system really is in a serious crisis, and that time is running out. I therefore agree with Zizek’s statement of how liberalism died twice at the dawn of the 21st century: knocked out firstly by the jab of 9-11 and secondly by the hook of the financial meltdown (Zizek 2009). To this we must add the utter failure of developed and developing nation’s governments of reaching any form of meaningful agreement aimed at halting global warming and dealing with the looming ecological crisis.

Yet, the problems are not only to be found in the realm of power politics and political economy. The root cause of crisis, I believe, resides not in a “mismanagement” of the political and economic institutions of the system per se, but in the very epistemological framework which upholds the system and its institutions in the first place; and, taking it a step further, in the symbolic framework within which democracy is exercised (Mouffe 2001). Fixing the system would therefore require us to challenge the very notions of what a democratic regime actually is. Without a radical challenge and critique of these notions, proposing alternatives becomes impossible, for the simple fact that they would build upon the faulty foundations of a system whose alleged “sustainability” is inscribed within the logics of crisis.

The Democratic Deficit

In the past decade there has been a growing consensus regarding the democratic deficit affecting the liberal representative democratic model. This is often referred to as a crisis of accountability, a crisis of legitimacy and a general loss of trust in political representatives and in democratic institutions (Cornwall 2001). Robert A. Dahl points out that citizen confidence in democratic institutions of the trilateral democracies (North America, Europe and Japan) has rapidly declined since the 1980s. Although citizens still believe in democracy as the appropriate model of governance there is a widespread feeling that key democratic institutions are increasingly removed from and unaccountable to the citizen. (Dahl 2000)

In the U.S.A., Theda Skocpol denounces the loss of civic political participation in government as a cause for the grave contemporary democratic deficit. For her, the loss of the Tocquevillian characteristics of civic association which had nurtured U.S.A. democracy in the past have been replaced by a conception of the citizen understood as a consumer rather than a member of society. As a result “early twenty-first-century Americans live in a diminished democracy, in a much less participatory and more oligarchicly managed civic world.”(Skocpol 2003)

Gaventa and Cornwall point out that within the context of the blurring of the lines between state, civil society and market actors we are experiencing a serious crisis of accountability. As responsibilities are transferred from the state to NGOs and the private sector the question of who is accountable to who for the provision of vital public services (particularly in the developing world) remains unanswered, therefore potentially threatening citizen and human rights (Cornwall 2001). This has contributed to a “greater crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the democratic institutions affecting their lives”. (Gaventa 2006)

Finally, in Voices of the Poor, a World Bank report by Narayan et al., surveys conducted on tens of thousands of people in the global south reveal that the poor of the world perceive a serious crisis in governance and are experiencing a growing loss of trust in domestic and international governance institutions. (Narayan 2000)

The Cause of the Deficit

We are, however, in need of a critique of the very foundations of the liberal model in order to explain the above mentioned loss of accountability, legitimacy and trust our democratic institutions are currently experiencing. We can find such a critique in the work by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Their most important contribution to our discussion lies in challenging the notion that democratic subjects possess an a priori identity. Liberalism attributes to the individual a conception of subjectivity which is inherent, objective, inalienable, which exists universally and is not created nor influenced by culture or society: humans are rational individuals before they are members of society. This particular articulation of identity is one of the root causes of why liberal democracy is now in crisis and cannot address the issue of the continuous alienation of the citizen from the sphere of decision making:

“The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject which sees individuals as prior to society, bearers of natural rights, and either utility maximizing agents or rational subjects.” (Mouffe, 2000)

For Laclau and Mouffe, the liberal conception of the nature of man is limited, and its acceptance (and at times imposition) defeats one of democracy’s main tenets: pluralism. The hegemony of the individualist framework precludes the possibility of existence of different forms of identification, namely a more communitarian one. If democracy is the realm of contestation amongst a plurality of different demands, identities, ideology etc. (legitimized by our inalienable right to freedom of expression) then the acceptance of only one form of identification defeats democracy’s purpose in the first place. Democracy, therefore, is the very terrain in which identification is constructed and articulated.

In this way, the cause of the democratic deficit resides in the crisis of the very individualist paradigm which has shaped, molded and informed democracy as we know it today. The tension between the conception of a rational individual and new (and potentially dangerous) forms of identification such as ethnic, fundamentalist, nationalist or religious ones are putting liberalism under incredible amounts of stress.

It is here that the dimension of participation enters the discourse of democratic theory. Participation, informed by radical plural democracy, embraces the moment of democratic contestation and condemns attempts at defining once and for all democracy’s ultimate nature. For Laclau and Mouffe, the very act of naming and defining what the terms democracy, liberty, equality or justice entail (these being prime examples of empty and floating signifiers) always involve an act of exclusion. Therefore the only legitimate democratic framework would be one which would consider the continuous contestation between different ideals to be the most “just” expression of democratic exercise rather than trying to fix meaning once and for all. Hence participatory democracy’s stress on inclusion, extension of rights and extension of citizenship so that the moment of contestation can be nurtured by as many different forms of identification and demands as possible. We will return to the specifics and consequences of participatory democracy later.

A Reflection

We must however still ask a paramount question: if liberalism is not delivering its promise for a bright new democratic future and the pursuit of happiness for all, then why are we not able change system? Why do we still consent? Zizek is right in pointing out the fact that we were able to mobilize billions of dollars of tax-payer money in the matter of hours in order to fix a financial system which is still dependent on booms and busts, yet we are unable to face up to the environmental crisis or world hunger (problems created by the inherent contradictions of the financial system in the first place).

The root of our consent lies in our total unconscious acceptance of the individualist paradigm with its strongest component being the inseparable binomial: individual freedom-free markets; and that is why, deep down in all of us, we thought it necessary to save a faltering capitalist order rather than seizing the opportunity to create meaningful and sustainable change. Within the liberal collective unconscious, changing or reforming free markets equates to giving up individual freedom.

In its struggle to emancipate itself from the yoke of tyranny (namely through the historical sequence: enlightenment-II WW-fall of the soviet bloc), I believe the West has lost its ability to confront problems collectively. Liberation discourse, in its purest sense, has effectively freed the individual from all external influence exerted on it. And free we are indeed, yet the process of liberation from government, from collective responsibility, from tyranny, etc. has left us, well, with nothing. We are free from all constraints: the individual has been emancipated and is autonomous…but what is he or she left with? This is probably one of the most important cruxes at the heart of the liberal crisis. All the individual creativity, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (actions which are possible only because of  the individual’s autonomy from the collective) cannot ever dream of dealing with the financial meltdown or the environmental crisis for the simple reason that individual action cannot resolve problems which are global. So what are we missing? What have we lost in our glorious pursuit of freedom? I believe we have quite simply lost the “we”.

The key point here is to realize that the crisis we are experiencing now is a collective crisis: it is affecting all of humankind across cultures, classes and continents. The crisis has not been caused by individual irresponsibility nor can it be fixed by virtuous individual behavior. Our unsustainable system can be transcended solely if it is understood that the problem is rooted in a “we” and not in fact in an “I”.

The answer, however, does not lie in the institution of a “we” as a tree-hugging “global village” where brown, yellow, and white children hold hands in a circle and sing “we are the world”. Nor does it lie, as Marxists and radical Libertarians alike see it, in freeing the “we” through the (violent) removal of a conspiratorial corporate elite which “puppeteers” the politico-economical infrastructure. The radical dimension of recognizing the “we” allows us to detect that the root of the problem lies in our consent to the liberal order, and, more specifically, in our consent to the symbolic, ontological and teleological dimensions of liberalism.

On Participation and Plurality

So we return to our initial question: why is participation important? Participation, in the terms proposed to us by the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, is important because it is not presented as a panacea. Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism have been presented as paradigms with which to achieve a “just society”, yet we have witnessed the disastrous consequences that all three ideologies have had on the past century. The relativist point here is that there is no panacea in the first place, and that the heart of democracy lies exactly in the confrontation amongst different interpretations of what constitutes the “we” in democracy. Recognizing the moment of contestation between differing demands is realizing the radical plural dimension of democracy. Especially in Laclau’s most recent work, it is increasingly clear that it is the very act of contestation (antagonism) and alliance building (equivalential chains) which produces subjectivity, identification and ultimately a hegemonic order (popular identities) (Laclau 2004). Denying healthy confrontation through the imposition of one “objective” and “universal” form of identification is dangerous.

Therefore we must resist saturating democratic theory solely with notions of representation, the rule of law and consensus building, and understand that extending rights and citizenship coupled with the inclusion of citizens within the decision making process is at the heart of democratic theory and can begin to provide alternative venues through which we can begin to solve our collective problems and reduce global injustices. Participatory democracy is therefore a perpetual process of democratic contestation which must provide a venue for all, and include all in democratic deliberation and contestation alike.

“And the fact that this must be envisaged as an unending process should not be cause for despair because the desire to reach a final destination can only lead to the elimination of the political and the destruction of democracy.” (Mouffe, 2000)

“It is only when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality.” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1989)

Bibliography:

Cornwall, A. Gaventa, J. (2001) “Bridging the Gap: Citizenship, Participation and Accountability” In PLA Notes No. 40: 32-35. International Institute for Environment and Development

Dahl, R. (2000) “A Democratic Paradox?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 1 PP. 35-40

Gaventa, J. (2006) “Triumph, Deficit or Contestation? Deepening the “Deepening Democracy” Debate”. IDS Working Paper 267. Institute of Development Studies

Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. Verso

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Verso

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. Verso

Narayan, D. et all (2000) Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change. Washington, DC. World Bank

Skocpol, T. (2003) Diminished Democracy: from membership to management in American civil life. University of Oklahoma Press

Zizek, S. (2009) First as Tragedy, then as Farce. Verso

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Filed under democracy, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Participatory Democracy, political theory, post-structuralism