Category Archives: political theory

Towards a New Definition of Liberty

Neo-Roman liberty: beyond positive and negative freedom

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

One of the most influential essays in the political tradition of classical liberalism is without a doubt Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) by Sir Isaiah Berlin. In it, the brilliant Berlin presents a positive and a negative understanding of the idea of liberty. These two different conceptualizations of freedom, says the author, have informed the philosophies of influential thinkers as well as the policies of many governments. Even to this day they remain very influential, and are at the core of the ideologies of the left and right respectively.

In this essay I argue that the positive and negative definitions are not exhaustive of the concept of liberty. Moreover, accepting Berlin’s dichotomy is limiting and excludes alternative conceptualizations of a vital concept at the heart of democratic theory. By presenting the research of Professor Quentin Skinner I will propose a different idea of liberty: a novel definition which may greatly contribute to our political discussions. But first let us turn back to Isaiah Berlin.

Put in very generalizing terms, positive liberty involves the right of an individual to participate in the collective decisions which influence his or her life. In positive liberty, government is a natural expression of the popular will to the point where the individual’s interest and the government’s coincide. Negative freedom, contrarily, is manifest when an individual is not constrained by external impediments, particularly from laws imposed on him or her by the political apparatus.

Berlin states that governments which have adopted a positive understanding of freedom have most often exhibited authoritarian tendencies, inevitably sacrificing the individual’s private rights for the good of “the people”. Expressions of positive liberty are Jacobin France and Rousseau’s volonte generale. Berlin concludes that negative liberty is a safer understanding of freedom because, in the end, the natural rights of individuals (those to life and private property chiefly) remain sacrosanct and inviolable.

It is safe to say that within the field of political theory these two understandings are the most commonly accepted definitions of liberty to date. So pervasive are Berlin’s definitions that the ends of the political spectrum still identify with them. The left has generally embraced positive freedom, expressing it through a prominent role of government in the individual’s life. While the right has usually given prominence to free enterprise and free markets, allowing individuals to be free of governmental intervention. An alternative way of thinking about the concept of liberty may help us break this conceptual impasse.

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The intellectual historian Quentin Skinner does not embrace the negative and positive dichotomy. Through a meticulous historical analysis, Skinner recovered a third understanding of liberty referred to as civic republican or neo-roman liberty. This formulation of liberty has roots in ancient Greece, expresses itself in Republican Rome, resurfaces in the Italian renaissance republics of Florence and Venice, forms the ideological backbone of the English Revolution, and influenced the language of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Skinner states that neo-roman liberty does not express freedom through government as the positive articulation has it. Nor does it embrace a negative position whereby the individual is free only if there are no constraints put on him by other actors. Neo-roman liberty is best described as the condition of the absence of dependence, where human agency is not dependent on the will of another individual.

This idea of freedom emerged historically in reaction to absolutist and aristocratic claims to power. Its proponents asked the question: how can I be free if my actions must be sanctioned by an arbitrary higher will? Civic republican freedom exists when an individual is not subject to the power of anyone else. It ceases to exist when an individual finds him or herself in a condition of dependence. An individual need not be directly constrained by another actor: it is the mere possibility of one’s actions depending on the will of someone else that engenders the loss of freedom.

Skinner concedes that neo-roman liberty is indeed a strand of negative liberty. But what distinguishes it from Berlin’s definition is how the condition of dependence is to be avoided. In neo-roman liberty, removing the dependence on greater powers requires massive doses of participation in civic life. Maintaining liberty from powerful interests –be them governments or private agents- is to constantly check, balance, control and limit their influence through participation in the political process. For Skinner, the lesson that the civic republicans teach us is that “if we wish to maximise our personal liberty, we must not place our trust in princes; we must instead take charge of the political arena ourselves”[1].

Positive liberty tends to place too much trust in the guidance of governments. Negative liberty lends itself to ideologies based on the infallibility of free markets. Neo-roman liberty, contrarily, does not trust either. The ancient Romans, the English Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers all new that power corrupts -be it public or private. Their answer, however, was not to retreat to a negative conception of liberty limiting itself solely to the obsessive guardianship of liberal natural rights (as Berlin might seem to suggest). They knew that power must be controlled through political means. They knew that popular participation in the political process was absolutely central to balance the influence of powerful interests.

What conditions of dependence are we in today? Well, for one, our whole economic system seems to be inextricably tied to the fate of unaccountable and far-removed financial institutions such as the Fed, investment banks, the WTO, credit rating agencies, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. If Wall Street fares well, all is good (or so says the trickle-down theory). If Wall Street has a bad day, or worse, experiences a financial meltdown, our economy plummets. This, dear reader, is thralldom. And the only way to reverse this condition of dependence, as the civic republicans taught us, is to subject those powerful interests to democratic control, making them accountable to citizens and forcing their decisions to be taken in the public sphere in an open and transparent fashion. The same can be said for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows powerful private interests to unduly influence the democratic process. It puts the citizen in a condition of dependence vis-à-vis those interests. The examples are endless.

Neo-roman liberty is grounded in a profound suspicion of all power and in the wisdom that powerful interests must be always made accountable to the public at large. Above all, it teaches us that if we wish to maintain our liberty we must take charge of the political arena ourselves, as free and equal citizens.

For more information on the subject consult the following:

  • Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Skinner, Q. 1992, “On Justice, the Common Good and Liberty” in Mouffe, C.Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso: London

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Filed under Democratic Theory, liberalism, Liberty, political philosophy, political theory

Defining the Commons

River Gorge, by C. Krieghoff. Courtesy of Wikipedia

What exactly are “the commons”? Is water a common? Is the environment as a whole a common? Is education a common? And who exactly is in charge of governing these commons?

As the word suggests, the commons are resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons.

However, the commons remains an elusive term, one which at times evades a precise definition. And this, sadly, is a pitfall. Without a clear definition and a coherent vocabulary with which to talk about the commons it becomes very difficult to protect them from instances of privatization, particularly when they must be defended through legislative means.

My aim here is to explore two different dimensions of the commons with hopes to provide firstly a coherent idea of what a commons actually consists of, and secondly to offer a political vocabulary with which to talk about them. By taking a look at the work of Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom, we will present a working definition of the commons and explore their empirical dimension. Secondly, I wish to present the recent and innovative work of Italian jurist Ugo Mattei, which examines the sociological and political dimension of the commons.

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy of Wikipedia

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal study Governing the Commons (1990) is premised on a refutation of Gareth Hardin’s basic assumption in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Hardin believed that individuals inevitably end up over-exploiting and degrading common resources. In his article, he presents an example of herders using a grazing field in common: without an external monitor the herders will increase the size of their herds unsustainably which will result in the over-grazing of the common field. Echoing a Hobbesian world-view, he states that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit – in a world that is limited”[1].

Policy-makers have since interpreted the Tragedy of the Commons as a paradigmatic example of individuals destroying their own resources, thereby causing environmental degradation. As a result, some policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property[2].

Ostrom believes that both privatization and governmental control are policies based on generalizing and totalizing presumptions. Moreover, she refutes Hardin’s assumption that individuals are incapable of self-governing their resources. Contrarily, for Ostrom “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time”[3]. Individuals are not “trapped” in the tragedy of the commons paradigm, but are capable of creating their own institutions, rules and enforcement mechanisms which ensure the sustainable use of such resources.

By comparing case studies in which individuals were successful in overcoming the tragedy of the commons with cases in which they were not, Ostrom draws a set of variables and prerequisites which provide a general framework for self-governing and self-financed institutions. These include mutual monitoring, agreeing on rules written by the users of the common resource, establishing legitimate arbitrators, and instituting policies which incentivize collaboration and discourage free-riding[4].

Ostrom defines the subject of her book as common pool resources: resources which 1) produce a steady flow of resource units (benefits accruing from the resource), and 2) resources that are so large (an ocean for example) that excluding the individuals that use them unsustainably becomes almost impossible –hence her stress on the maximization of collaboration between users of common pool resources. The success of self-governing institutions, concludes Ostrom, proves that policies of privatization and government control are not the only alternatives open to us[5].

The second dimension of the commons I wish to talk about, can be found in the work of Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist deeply involved in the recent and successful efforts of preventing the privatization of public water in Italy. Mattei explores the historical, sociological and political development of the commons as well as their relationship with social movements and political contention in his book “Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto” (Common Goods: a Manifesto).

For Mattei, the commons are first and foremost contextual and contingent. By this he means that they acquire meaning the moment in which they are demanded for politically. For example, water has always existed as a natural resource, and yet it does not become “a commons” until individuals find that their access to it has been restricted by instances of privatization or bureaucratization. The commons “come into existence”, if you will, the moment they become relevant or even vital for a particular social end. Their political dimension is therefore shaped by the social context in which the demand for them has originated[6].

In addition, Mattei believes that a particular commons, say a forest, cannot be divorced from the cultural, social, economic or environmental context in which it exists. In such a way, it cannot be understood as an object separate from its surrounding territory, but rather as an integral part of complex human-ecological systems[7].

However, Mattei distinguishes the political demand for the defense of the commons from a demand for a right as understood by the political theory of classical liberalism. For example, human rights are transcendental rights which one possesses in virtue of being human. The demand for the commons, contrarily, is not claiming a right which exists separately from the individual claiming it. The demand for a common is not transcendental but relational: it is the object of struggle between communities attempting to defend them and structures of authority seeking to control them (be these property rights or state sovereignty)[8]. This type of demands are essentially dynamic relations of political contention.

And yet, Mattei asserts that the commons are absolutely central to the fulfillment of the rights pertaining to the classical liberal tradition. The human rights to food, water and education, for example, cannot be fulfilled unless these are recognized as common goods or common resources which we all, in virtue of being alive, owe to each other and have the responsibility to maintain for generations to come[9].

This very brief foray into the work of Elinor Ostrom and Ugo Mattei has served firstly to provide the empirical foundations for talking about the commons, and secondly to explore their sociological and political dimensions. Today, commons such as water, education, genetic heritage or culture are increasingly privatized in the name of a financial state of exception. Governments are forced to devolve and divest themselves of what were once seen as core responsibilities towards their citizens. As the State retreats we must ask ourselves who will protect our common resources from callous economic exploitation and environmental degradation. For now, the movement in defense of the commons is laying down the empirical, sociological and political groundwork for just this task.

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Bbliography

  • Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Hardin 1969, in Ostrom, 1990, p2

[2] Ostrom, 1990, p14

[3] Ostrom, 1990, p1

[4] Ostrom, 1990, p183

[5] Ostrom, 1990, p30

[6] Mattei, 2011, p53

[7] Mattei,2011, p, 62

[8] Mattei, 2011, p57

[9] Mattei, 2011, p59

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Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, Human Rights, liberalism, political theory, social movements

The Locus of Sovereignty

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What legitimizes sovereign power in modern liberal democracies?

Perhaps one of the most worrying issues directly linked to the financial meltdown has been the repercussions that the crisis has had on the political stability of once well-off countries. The once reliable and stable finances of European nations now appear dangerously precarious, as the economic downturn coupled with austerity measures renders growth an increasingly distant mirage. Moreover, the market’s loss of confidence in public budget balancing has had disastrous political consequences for all of Europe, with some countries precariously governing through frail coalitions, others resorting to technical guidance, and one (or perhaps more) appears to be on the brink of default.

As the politico-economic turmoil questions the stability of sovereign nations, it has laid bare the well established and growing tendency of subordinating democratic decision making to economic and financial priorities. Increasingly, and alarmingly, we are witnessing how the decisions of national and supranational institutions of an economic type are influencing not only parliamentary politics but also the executive decisions taken by governments. As the priorities of unelected economic institutions override the democratic decision-making of political institutions, the question of where sovereignty resides and is exercised can no longer be ignored.

In democracies, as the social contract theorists taught us, sovereignty is popular: it resides originally in “the people” with its regulatory and coercive powers democratically delegated to representatives which exercise them in people’s stead. This exchange of power is referred to as the social contract, in which the voluntary consent of citizens is absolutely central. However, in modern liberal democracies popular sovereignty has always been an ambiguous and ill-defined concept, frequently overridden particularly when public policy is unduly influenced by unaccountable and distant economic institutions.

A brief look at the past will reveal the origin and the rationale behind the tendency within liberal democratic thought to subordinate popular sovereignty to economic priorities.

According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, a momentous change began to take place early in the 1700s in the way the concept of sovereignty was understood. For Foucault, the industrial revolution, the emergence of commercial society and the ascent of the classical economic theory of Adam Smith amounted to a paradigmatic shift in which sovereignty began to lose its explicitly political dimension and embraced the economic.

Before this shift, says Foucault, popular sovereignty was understood as a concept with which to juridically separate the spheres that pertained to the citizen and to government respectively. The natural rights theorists had taught us that every individual was born free and equal and that these rights were sacred and could be given up only through voluntary consent. The social contract theorists then explained that a portion of every individual’s natural freedom should be ceded to an established authority in order to live in a political society guided by the rule of law. The political vocabulary of social contracts was thus employed as a legal instrument which established the rights of the citizen and those of government through a united political effort by the people. [1]

For Foucault, this was the age of the Homo Juridicus, the individual which renounced some of his or her natural liberty in order to create political society and legitimate institutions of authority. Homo Juridicus is therefore defined by the renunciation of certain natural rights for explicitly political ends: the collective act of establishing a government founded on the concept of popular sovereignty and legitimized by the will of the people.[2]

Contrarily, however, as commerce increased in the eighteenth century, and as a rising bourgeois class began challenging the power of the aristocracy, the relationship between citizen and government began to change slowly but steadily.

Individuals living in Adam Smith’s commercial society were radically different from individuals living in the political society of social contract theorists such as Rousseau. In a commercial society, continues Foucault, every individual is not part of a greater whole (“the people” for example), but is rather a rational individual distinct and separated from all others. Commercial society is not unified, but is constituted by atomized individuals pursuing their self interest and interacting spontaneously in free markets. The dynamics of exchange and competition between individuals pursuing their self-interest never result in a concerted or homogenous action, but rather balance themselves out thanks to the regulating mechanisms of the invisible hand. Commercial society is therefore self-regulating and does not require the guidance of government. In fact, governments should let commercial society be: government should laissez fair.[3]

Foucault suggests that by the mid 1700s we witness the emergence of Homo Oeconomicus, the individual defined by his or her pursuit of self-interest within the free market. Government’s role thus began to change throughout the 19th and 20th century, increasingly limiting itself to the creation of the conditions (free markets) in which Homo Oeconomicus could pursue, unhindered, his self interest. The virtues of the invisible hand, and the harmony and equilibrium accruing from it effectively removed the need for a sovereign entity to intervene in the public sphere. [4]

“Adam Smith’s political economy, economic liberalism, amounts to a disqualification … of a political reason indexed to the state and its sovereignty.”

Foucault 2008, p284

Foucault’s central point is that, after Adam Smith, what grants legitimacy to government is not the social contract and the popular sovereignty generated therein; rather, a government garners legitimacy when it creates the conditions in which economic freedom and pursuit of self-interest may be exercised unhindered. Sovereign power is legitimized by governmental non-interference in what, we are told, is a self-regulating free-market guided by the invisible hand and informed by the practice of laissez fair.

What Foucault’s reflection highlights, is a fundamental shift in the locus of sovereignty. Sovereignty is no longer established in a founding political and collective act by “We the People”, but rather in the pursuit of self interest by atomized individuals in free markets. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has effectively displaced Rousseau’s social contract; as Homo Juridicus succumbs to Homo Oeconomicus.

Romanticizing about a lost (and fictitious) age when political society was a unified and virtuous whole amounts to a cheap conservative maneuver. What we should reflect on, however, is how far we have actually moved away from the democratic ideals informing the social contract and popular sovereignty. Adam Smith’s economic liberalism, re-proposed and re-deployed by neoliberals throughout the past 30 years, has effectively undermined the legitimacy of democratic institutions by substituting the will and consent of political society with the logics of the free market. Any post-crisis society who would like to think of itself as democratic, should reflect on how far away we have moved from our founding democratic ideals, and begin to imagine ways to re-invent them in the light of the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Bibliography:

  • Foucault, M. 2008 The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, UK

[1] Foucault 2008, p40

[2] Foucault 2008, p275

[3] Foucault 2008, p61

[4] Foucault 2008, p270

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, liberalism, Michel Foucault, political theory, Social Contract

Occupy Hegemony: Gramsci, Ideology and Common Sense

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Why do we consent to the status quo of the neoliberal hegemony?

It is simply baffling that citizens in both Europe and the US continue to tolerate the neo-liberal agenda. After the unrestrained greed of financial institutions brought the world to its knees, and after tax-payers bailed out those same institutions responsible for the crisis, the rules of the game appear more or less unchanged. Moreover (and even more baffling), the culprits of the crisis seem to be no longer the unaccountable financial institutions but the citizens responsible for sovereign debt. We are told that “we have lived beyond our means”, that “we are all in this together” and that these are times of sacrifice and austerity for the sake of financial stability.

And the vast majority of citizens consents. We tolerate unelected technical governments (Greece, Italy) and we elect conservative administrations (Spain, England) whose main objective is that of not arousing the ire of financial markets with talks of progressive taxation, labor rights or welfare services of any kind. The only cure for the crisis, we are told, is the well-rehearsed neoliberal mantra of deregulation, liberalization and privatization. Why, may I ask, are we accepting the preposterous idea that the sole cure to a failed free market is more free market theory?

The answer, I believe, lies in the particular way in which the neoliberal hegemony has been able to saturate contemporary political discourse. The way neoliberalism has positioned itself within the field of political theory has effectively displaced alternative political paradigms capable of challenging its hegemony. And it is specifically the alleged lack of political alternatives which functions as a primary generator of consent to an imposed status quo.

An important issue that any movement committed to structural change should consider is to challenge the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts on political discourse, for it is precisely there that consent to its worldview is produced. A brief look into the ideas of the great theorist of hegemony Antonio Gramsci, will reveal the dynamic relationship between the power of hegemony and the consent of the governed.

According to Gramsci, hegemony is a disposition of power which does not merely coerce its subjects into submission through top-down impositions. For Gramsci, hegemony is a power which saturates, influences, and permeates all aspects of one’s life:  the economic, cultural, social, ethical, political, and so on. In doing so, it shapes and moulds consciousness, conceptions of common sense and world-views. More importantly, it creates an “ideological terrain” by positing which are the acceptable political alternatives that may be expressed within the particular world-view it is advancing.

“The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates new ideological terrain, determine[s] a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge … when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world, one finishes by introducing the conception as well; in other words, one determines a reform of the whole philosophy.” (Gramsci, p192)

Consent to the hegemony, said Gramsci, does not arise solely out of the elites coercing the masses, but through the denial of alternative world-views with which the oppressed can conceive of their positions as subjects. Writing between the two World Wars, Gramsci, a communist, could not understand why the peasant masses of southern Italy were unable to organize and join the militant communists of the industrialized north. He concluded that their plight and immobility were not only caused by the post-feudal domination of the rural bourgeoisie, but rather by the peasants’ lack of a language, of a vocabulary, and of a philosophy capable of explaining the causes of their material conditions.

The peasant masses of the south lacked their own intellectuals, and relied only on their notions of common sense and folklore to conceive of their every-day travails. Gramsci maintained that “common sense” was a piecemeal composition of life experiences, of religion, and of popular morals. Common sense was also heavily influenced by the dominant ideology. In fact, the ability of the hegemonic ideology to mould common sense was of particular concern to Gramsci. Ideological influence did not occur in the form of a coercive “brainwashing” of the ignorant peasant, but was rather a subtle exercise of power which induced a fragmentary and inchoate conceptualization of one’s life experiences. Moreover, this confused worldview would inhibit individuals from thinking outside of the “ideological terrain” predisposed by the powers of hegemony. In sum, a fragmented world-view coupled with the lack of an alternative language with which to vent political contention generated consent to the status quo.

A similar scenario presents itself to us today. Out of the dust and rubble of the Berlin Wall, neoliberalism has proclaimed itself “the last game in town” and politicians for the past twenty years have merely presented variations of the same neoliberal game to which we have consented for too long. If the Occupy and Indignados movements wish to win the hearts and minds of US and EU citizens they must break this mass consent by demonstrating that neoliberalism is not in fact our only option and that mainstream political discourse must be pluralized.

In the same way as the occupation of public squares opens up a new space for democratic participation, occupying hegemony must open up political discourse to a plurality of alternative political ideas. It must explode the hegemony’s veneer of inevitability by exposing its uses of ideology as strategies for sociological subjugation and political displacement. Neoliberalism is not inevitable nor is it the last game in town. In truth, it has failed in both of its privileged sites of intervention: capitalism and democracy. The first step in breaking its hegemony is therefore to demonstrate that alternatives to a world-view founded on the myths of rugged individualism and rational free markets do in fact exist. We are in desperate need of a radical pluralization of the ideological terrain, so that new ideas may emerge and contest the neoliberal hegemony over political discourse. As Gramsci put it:

“Ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are the result of historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality etc.; but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another one.” (Gramsci, p196)

Bibliography

  • Gramsci, A. 1999 The Antonio Gramsci Reader. ed. Forgacs, D. Lawrence and Wishart: London

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Filed under Gramsci, hegemony, Indignados, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, occupy, Occupy Wall Street, political theory, social movements

John Locke, Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Rights

What implications does Locke’s theory have on current environmental struggles?

On April 22nd 2010, in Cochabamba Bolivia, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change drafted the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth. The document advocates the bestowing of legal rights on nature, such as that to live, to exist, to continue its “vital cycles and processes”, and to clean water and air, amongst others.

The idea of giving rights to Mother Nature has been around for some time. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, for example, has helped many municipalities in the US draft ordinances defending the inalienable rights of their ecosystems to exist in the light of the threats posed to them by corporate mining or fracking operations. It has also helped Ecuador include environmental rights within its 2008 constitution. Most environmental rights legislation obligates governments (and allows citizens) to legally defend ecosystems from threats that would significantly alter or inhibit the ecosystem’s ability to regenerate itself.

The advancement of environmental rights is a noble endeavor, one that has been equated to the abolitionist and woman suffrage movements. It is often seen as an extension of existing rights to a subject which was previously deemed inferior or negligible[1]. What is interesting, however, is to analyze the assumptions underpinning the granting of environmental rights. In fact, there are two different approaches to the issue: one occurring within Western juridical discourse and the other pertaining to aboriginal and indigenous cosmology.

According to Christopher D. Stone, nature could enjoy rights -and thus be legally defended in court- on the grounds that it cannot defend itself. This would occur in the same way as a senile elder or a child are defended in court by someone else acting in their stead. Thus, when citizens witness an ecological disaster, they could sue the party responsible for the damage by appealing to the ecosystem’s inherent rights[2]. This has been termed the “guardianship” approach, and it works well within Western jurisprudential tradition. Its core rationale is that of extending the protection of existing rights to a previously uncovered subject.

The aboriginal and indigenous people’s approach is based on radically different assumptions. Their rights-claim does not demand a mere extension of existing rights but the recognition of explicitly non-western ones. It demands that Mother Earth be recognized as “an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny”, a being enjoying intrinsic value in itself[3]. It is based on a holistic cosmology opposed to an anthropocentric (i.e. Western) understanding of nature. Within this cosmology, humans are but one part of a greater harmonious being that they are obliged to respect.

This approach breaks away from the philosophical thought informing Western juridical discourse. A brief glimpse into the theory of John Locke, the “grandfather” of modern liberal rights, will reveal how different these two approaches actually are.

John Locke builds his famous theories of individual rights and government by consent upon a hypothetical state of nature. Before modern civil society existed, humans hunted and gathered in an environment lacking property rights and political organization. The example Locke used to describe the state of nature was late seventeenth century north America, a wild and unexplored continent inhabited by Amerindian societies and those few European colonies huddled along the Atlantic seaboard.

“Thus in the beginning all the World was America

Second Treatise §49

In this setting, Locke constructs his political theory by contrasting it to Amerindian societies. Amerindians still lived in the state of nature primarily because they lacked property rights. Property rights, for Locke, were conferred when individuals mixed their labor with an object they found in nature. For example, if someone made a pot out of clay, that object was said to be rightfully hers. However, Locke did not recognize as valid the forms of labor and modes of production practiced by Amerindians. In fact, he understood of “labor” as consisting solely of European production practices such as the tilling of land, large scale husbandry or the construction of edifices. These practices, says Locke, “improved” on nature and gave it greater “value”. In his theory only European forms of labor could confer property rights –hunting, gathering and other Amerindian production practices would not[4].

“For it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing; and let any one consider what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.”

Second Treatise §34

Locke’s theory of property (a bedrock of modern jurisprudence), therefore, arises directly out of European practices of molding nature towards human needs. Modern political societies necessitate the mutual recognition of possessions acquired through labor: labor intended as the exploitation  of natural resources (“improvement”) through European productive practices . Moreover, societies which do not do so (Amerindians) are perceived by Locke and his contemporaries as still inhabiting a superseded state of nature.

The approach to environmental rights which seeks to merely extend rights to nature does not go to the root of the problem, and corresponds to a typical liberal maneuver of absorbing alterity into its avowed universality. The rights-claim advanced by indigenous peoples, contrarily, seeks to force their world-view directly into the political traditions of Western juridical discourse. It attempts to replace the Lockean idea that nature acquires worth only when it is instrumental to human uses (i.e. surplus production) with a holistic approach demanding the recognition of nature’s intrinsic worth.

Indigenous claims to environmental rights explode the historical justification which European juridical discourse has constructed for itself by challenging the social contract theorists’ conceptualizations of the state of nature. In doing so, it forces us to reconsider the alleged universality of individual rights and problematizes the rationale informing the concept of private property.

Bibliography

Tully, J. 1993. “The Two treatises and Aboriginal Rights” in An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Stone, C.D. 1972. Should Trees Have Standing? –Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Available online @ http://www.derechosdelanaturaleza.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/C.Stone-Should-Trees-Having-Standings.pdf


[1] Stone 1972

[2] Stone 1972

[3] Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth 2010: http://pwccc.wordpress.com/programa/

[4] Tully 1993, p150

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Filed under Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, John Locke, liberalism, political theory

Popular Sovereignty and Sovereign Debt

What does the friction between popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entail for our democratic orders? Are we experiencing a loss of popular sovereignty in the sovereign debt crisis?

Voices from both the left and the right decry the austerity measures devised by supranational institutions as amounting to nothing less but an assault on popular sovereignty. As fiscal hawks chip away at the welfare state in their “give-no-quarter” pursuit of balanced budgets, many a political pundit has donned the populist cape and rushed to the rescue of the “sovereign people”. Indeed, the austerity-medicine shoved down the throats of most European citizens -without their consent- has brought to the fore what now appear as two diametrically opposed concepts: popular sovereignty and sovereign debt.

It is easy at this point to slip into demagoguery, claiming that sovereign debts are illegitimate because, after all, “the people” did not cause the crisis. Blame the bankers, right? What is harder, however, is to understand what the friction between the concepts of popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entails for our democratic regimes. A look into the past at one of the first moments in history when this tension surfaced will help us understand the matter more profoundly.

The years were the 1690s in England, a period also known as the Financial Revolution. In 1694 the Bank of England was established to supply fresh credit to a cash-strapped Crown for the expansion of the Royal Navy’s fleet. For the first time individuals and firms could invest in the fortunes of government on the assumption that they would be paid back with interest at later date. Future revenues from taxation and/or economic growth of the nation would serve as collateral for investment – hence the build-up of national, or sovereign, debt[1].

The institution of national debt however was not well received. In fact, it implied a radical re-thinking of the relationship between the people and government. In the late seventeenth century this relationship had been defined by the political theories of civic republicanism (Harrington, Milton) and social contract theorists (Pufendorf, Locke) as one based explicitly on the consent of the governed. It was the people’s responsibility, as bearers of god-granted rights and as free citizens, to erect a government through the election of public magistrates (or monarchs) which would rule in their stead. Sovereignty ultimately resided with the people who enjoyed the right to revoke the mandate given to their representatives if their trust was breached. Late seventeenth century political consciousness generally conceived of a legitimate government as one founded upon on the will of the people and upon some idea of a social contract.

Accompanying the idea of “the people” as the original source of political sovereignty was the concept of civic virtue. The civic virtues were those qualities required by citizens and governments alike to be in control of their destiny and not succumb to external dominion. Civic virtue entailed political agency: participating in the political affairs of one’s community as a means of protecting individual freedoms. In fact, the very notion of personal liberty was intimately connected to the idea of civic virtue. Liberty was defined by a certain degree of political self-determination which ensured autonomy from external rule (the arbitrary rule of a monarch or of another nation for example). On the contrary, not being free was caused by being dependant on the will of someone or something else. Un-freedom thus entailed the condition in which one lost human agency and the ability to defend and define one’s liberty[2].

Within this conceptual universe, the idea of sovereign debt clashed with both the concepts of popular sovereignty and civic virtue. While before the fate of the nation was conceived as inextricably tied to the political agency of the sovereign people, now sovereign debt chained the fortunes of government to the will of anonymous investors. As nations increasingly relied on external and private credit (and eventually on the issuing of bonds), it was perceived that the people would steadily lose political agency and control over the fate of their nations. Sovereign debt therefore created a condition of dependence of government towards creditors. And, as we have seen, dependence signified the loss of civil freedom[3].

In such a way, the stability of government was no longer sustained by the civic virtue of its citizens, nor from that holy pact called the social contract. Now, government was to rely on the fickle nature of investors and what would eventually become the almighty bond market. As the historian J.G.A. Pocock puts it:

“Stability of government in the present became linked to the self-perpetuation of speculation concerning the future … government and politics seemed to have been placed at the mercy of passion, fantasy and appetite, and these forces were known to feed on themselves and to be without moral limit”[4]

“Booms and busts, bulls and bears became the determinants of politics”[5]

The lesson we may draw from this historical example is not that sovereign debt is intrinsically bad. Every modern government must at some point take up debt in order to deliver on its responsibilities. The lesson here is in recognizing the dangers posed by the loss of democratic control over the institutions of public governance. Increasingly the policies of sovereign nations are unduly influenced by credit rating agencies, international markets and anonymous investors through their speculating and passing judgment over sovereign debt. Brought to an extreme this situation becomes incompatible with the basic tenets of democracy. Subsuming popular sovereignty to the arbitrary whim of capricious markets robs the concept of the social contract of its fundamental source of legitimacy, namely, what Locke called the “consent of the governed”.

The political discourses of the late seventeenth century show us that, at times, the machinations of the world of finance and the balanced functioning of a democratic regime may be at odds. It also warns us that dependence of our governments on unaccountable institutions minimizes the political agency of citizens, thereby curbing our democratic freedoms first of which is the exercise of democratic control over government. No matter how serious the sovereign debt crisis may be, democracy and popular sovereignty must remain non-negotiable.

Bibliography

Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 1990. “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty”, in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge


[1] Pocock 1985, p69

[2] Skinner 1990

[3] Pocock 1985, p69

[4] Pocock 1985, p112

[5] Pocock 1985, p112

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Filed under Democratic Theory, John Locke, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract

Founding Fathers and Ethnosymbols: Re-interpreting the Founding heritage according to Occupy

Intro

The Founding Father legacy is without a doubt the primary source of American nationalism. The American Revolution, George Washington, the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell are symbols which inspire pride and passion within the hearts of American citizens. The narrative of the emancipation of the thirteen united colonies and the subsequent establishment of the first modern republic is indeed the beating heart of American nationalistic sentiment.

An interesting field of study is the way in which these national symbols are re-interpreted politically. Although they may all point towards an idea of “Americanness” they are used to convey different messages by different social actors. In the past year, we have witnessed how the Tea Party has employed them, accusing Obama’s administration of straying off the sacred path set by our Founding principles; namely small government, individual freedom and free trade. And yet, very recently, even the Occupy movement has begun re-articulating the Founding legacy in progressive terms, invoking a new American Revolution to emancipate the nation from the stranglehold that corporations and financial institutions impose on the democratic process.

This re-articulation of Founding Father symbols is an act of liberation from the conservative interpretation they have traditionally been imbued with. It distances them from the domain of the political right. Moreover, it breaks the ideological chains which confine the Founding heritage to a narrow set of conservative, individualistic and capitalism-justifying principles, thereby allowing us to fully appreciate the emancipatory potential found within its political discourse.

Theories of Nationalism

Within the study of nationalism, national symbols are referred to as ethnosymbols: myths, customs, traditions, and memories which pertain to dominant ethnic groups. According to the ethnosymbolist school of thought, modern nations emerge out of the cultural traits and traditions of dominant ethnic cores[1]. In the case of the US, these would be the cultural values highlighted for example by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” belonging to the descendants of the Plymouth Rock pilgrims. Contrarily, the school of thought referred to as modernism asserts that ethnosymbols are not necessarily genuine products of a homogeneous ethnic core but are rather symbols which elites manipulate -or deliberately “invent”- for the purposes of nation-building[2].

However, a third school of thought attempts to reconcile these two opposite approaches. The ideas of theorists such as Oliver Zimmer and Eric Kaufmann reject the notion that ethnosymbols are mere constructs. Nonetheless, they believe that they may be re-interpreted in different ways depending on who is articulating them. Zimmer suggests that social actors may access a “stock” of deposited symbolic resources (national myths, memories, traditions) and employ them to advance their own particular idea of the nation’s culture, politics or society[3]. Similarly, Kaufmann asserts that different social actors view symbolic resources through different “ideological lenses”: what looks like a symbol signifying conservative values for some, might stand for progressive values for others[4].

This third approach allows us to recognize that the Founding Father symbols do not point towards a single set of values, traditions or political ideas, but that they may be employed to grant historical legitimacy to alternative ideological dispositions and demands.

Re-Articulating the Founding

A brief look at the rhetoric employed by Tea Party movement websites reveals a particular understanding of the values attributed to the Founding Father legacy. For them, the Founders believed primarily in individual liberty, limited government and free markets, and abhorred ideas regarding the common good, collectivity or redistribution.

“The Tea Party Patriots’ mission is to restore America’s founding principles of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”[5]

“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.”[6]

Such statements re-interpret the Founding legacy as being based primarily on the tenets of possessive individualism and laissez fair capitalism. Moreover, the Tea Party claims this heritage for itself:

“From our founding, the Tea Party is the voice of the true owners of the United States, WE THE PEOPLE.” [7]

Of course, this interpretation is historically inaccurate. The research of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock has revealed that the Founding Fathers were not cut-throat capitalists but rather civic republicans. In fact, they were concerned with the common good, the primacy of the collective over the individual and nurtured a profound distrust of private interests[8].

More recently however, we are witnessing the use of Founding Father symbols by the Occupy movements as well. The most visible example is the Declaration of Occupation drafted Sept. 29 at the New York City General Assembly[9]. The vocabulary used to express OWS grievances is deliberately similar to that in the Declaration of Independence. “Let these facts be known” (“let Facts be submitted to a candid world” in the DoI) followed by a list of grievances, basically replaces George III with the 1% as the source of injustice and inequality.

A similar example is the re-interpretation of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. For the Tea Party movement it is a paradigmatic example of resistance against government taxation. For many in OWS it represents the first act of resistance against a transnational corporation: the East India Company. In a brilliant essay published on the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Rebecca Manski writes:

“The biggest act of sabotage against a multinational corporation in American history began with a gathering at the Liberty Tree. That act was the Boston Tea Party.”[10]

Similarly, a disgruntled citizen venting his grievances on wearethe99percent.tumbler.com states:

“That is not the America our Founding Fathers built. People forget that the original Tea Party was against a corporation and its influence on our government. Our Founding Fathers feared just what is happening today. I AM THE 99% AND I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!”[11]

Occupy History!

The model presented by Zimmer and Kaufmann suggests that national symbols are never totally pre-determined and that they may be invested with different meanings and used for alternative purposes. This “liberates” such symbols from the traditionally conservative interpretation they have long been invested with. Once they are available for use, we may fully recognize the emancipatory potential found within them and the radical dimension of their politics.

The American Founding Fathers ignited a democratic revolution which turned the feudal and aristocratic world on its head. They fought a democratic revolution for political participation, liberty, equality, free constitutions and bills of rights. Of course, they owned slaves and most of them were wealthy aristocrats. They were not free of faults, vices or contradictions. And yet, this does not mean that their radical political discourses should be absorbed within the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism -which has neutered their radical character and used them as symbols to grant itself historical legitimacy.

The re-articulation of these symbols demonstrates one of the greatest strengths of the Occupy movement: the ability to reclaim the social, political, cultural and economic discourses from fields of thought which were previously saturated with neoliberal ideology. The reclaiming of history sends out a clear message: our Founding Fathers were not devoted to unfettered markets and laissez fair capitalism. Far from it. Our founding fathers provided the foundations for the democratic revolution which We the People, as their heirs, are still fighting today.

Bibliography

  • Smith, A. 1994 “The Origin of Nations” in Nationalism ed Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Hobsbawm, E. 1994 “The Nation as Invented Tradition” in Nationalism ed Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Zimmer, O. 2003. ‘Boundary mechanisms and symbolic resources: towards a process- oriented approach to national identity’, Nations and nationalism, Apr 2003, Vol.9, No.2, pp.173-193
  • Kaufmann, E. 2008 “The Lenses of Nationhood: an optical model of identity”, Nations and Nationalism, Volume 14, Number 3, July 2008 , pp. 449-477(29)


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Filed under Nationalism, Occupy Wall Street, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party