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


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


  • 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 Commons: Caught Between Sovereignty and Property

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

One of the main purposes of this blog is to pluralize fields of thought which on the surface present themselves as stable and indisputable dichotomies. We maintain that theories presenting themselves in such a fashion are potentially dangerous, intrinsically exclusionary and often serve narrow ideological ends. One of such discourses is the dichotomy between the categories of the “public”, understood as the domain of the state, and the “private”, the domain of free markets. The quintessential contrasts between government and private enterprise, between centralized planning and free markets, or between bureaucracies and corporations are ones which have conquered the way we conceptualize the world and the institutions governing it.

The point that this essay attempts to make however, is that there might be something lost by conceptualizing the world in such a narrow fashion. Are the domains of “public” and “private” adequate and efficient paradigms through which to categorize our world and our institutional arrangements?

A growing field of thought thinks otherwise. The movement in defense of  “the commons” claims that both the state and the private sector are inadequate stewards when it comes to managing the long term sustainable use of common resources. Common resources may consist of water basins, forests, fisheries, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity as well as ancestral knowledge or cultural memories. They are things which not do not belong to anyone in particular, but which are fundamental to environmental sustainability and the fulfillment of human and civil rights (the right to water, food, education, etc.).

This movement believes that such resources belong to mankind in common, and that the private sector as well as governments have no right to exclude stakeholders from their management through instances of privatization or bureaucratization. As corporations and governments are unable to overcome their short-term visions, due to quarterly profit targets or election cycles, common resources –when possible- should be governed by local institutions through participatory and democratic practices.

And yet, the idea of local stakeholders governing the resources on which they depend (think of fishermen governing the sustainable use of coastline fisheries) appears outlandish and unfeasible. Surely, across-the board regulation or the privatization of such resources would lead to their more efficient use. Alas, as we well know, this is not so. Callous exploitation of natural resources, environmental disasters, privatization of education and healthcare, and the embarrassing incompetence of governments to produce anything resembling an agreement on climate change are proof of this.

So why does the idea of local self-government of common resources appear to most as naïve? As suggested by this essay’s introduction, one possible reasons is because the categories of “public” and “private” have successfully saturated socio-political discourse to the point where “alternatives” are hastily dismissed as the utopian fantasies of un-pragmatic idealists. It is therefore worth exploring this apparent dichotomy further, as what we find at its heart are not two mutually excluding and fundamentally opposed concepts, but rather two categories functioning along the same logic.

Let us turn to one of the greatest theorists of the modern nation, Max Weber, in order to understand some fundamental characteristics of modern governments. For Weber, modern states exercise a type of domination over their territory called “rational-legal” domination, based on the strict following of  legal rules carried out by stiff bureaucratic administrations. In fact, bureaucracies are a defining feature of modern governments, they are hierarchical structures of authority concerned primarily with efficiency. Bureaucratic administration is characterized by “precision, speed, un-ambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination” (Weber, 1948). They are thus “blind” to cultural norms, religious beliefs or traditional values:

“the more bureaucracy is dehumanized the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from all official business love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.” (Weber, 1948)

For Weber, modern politics is about domination through the bureaucratic apparatus: communal institutions and traditional modes of collective organization are thereby excluded from government through legislative means (or coercion) in the name of state sovereignty.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the proponents of the private sector. For neo-classical economists such as Milton Friedman the centralized bureaucracies of modern nations are inadequate regulators and inefficient distributors of goods. Free markets and private enterprise, on the other hand, are able to cater to individual and very specific needs of both consumers and providers. Moreover, competition between rational individuals motivated by their self-interest will lead to overall beneficial outcomes. Private property is the cornerstone of this theory, based on the assumption that private possession of a good, as opposed to public, leads to its most efficient use and management. Privatization of all kinds of goods, resources and services -at the expense of other types of possession- is thus to be actively pursued. (Steger & Roy 2010)

The public and private domains appear to be diametrically opposed, but a closer look will actually reveal a few fundamental similarities. Private property functions on a principle of exclusion: it excludes others from what is properly one’s own. The modern state is based on the same exact principle: excluding others from the government of what it has sovereignty on. The exploitation of natural resources, for example, is pursued by all governments in absolutist and exclusionary fashions no different from corporations. Both Weber’s bureaucratic state and Friedman’s free market therefore govern their respective property by excluding stakeholders from the government of common resources. Furthermore, a corporation and a state bureaucracy share the same hierarchical structure, with decision-making powers concentrated in the hands of senior administrators and a lack of stakeholder inclusion or participation.

As such, the “public-private” dichotomy effectively rules out possibilities such as joint or mixed forms of government of common resources. It exhausts the field of possibilities and displaces viable alternatives: only a private company or a government agency may legitimately govern a common resource. Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist and long-time advocate of the defense of the commons, calls this a zero sum game, in which less government leads to more privatization and more government yields less private enterprise. This zero-sum game excludes a priori ideas of participatory governance of common resources (Mattei, 2011)

The dichotomy between public and private, therefore, serves a specific ideological purpose: that to confute and exclude any theory advocating an inclusive, collaborative and diffused government of resources belonging to all in common. It is high time to refute the indisputable status of this dichotomy and open up the managing of the commons to other forms of joint government. Both the future and the universal access to common resources depends on it, as neither state sovereignty nor private property are capable of ensuring their sustainable use for generations to come.

For more information regarding the movement in defence of the commons, please consult the following links:


  • Mattei, Ugo, 2011. Beni Comuni: un manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Steger, M. B. & Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Weber, Max, 1948. “Class, Status, Party” in From Max Weber: essays in sociology. Ed. Gerth, H. & Mills, C.W. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London





Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, neoliberalism, Participatory Democracy, political economy

Food Sovereignty

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

A democratic claim for self-determination from the world’s largest peasant movement

Banana Stand in Riobamba, Ecuador. By Giulio Caperchi

One of the most important social movements of the past decades has without a doubt been La Via Campesina, a transnational peasant organization representing 200 million farmers from 70 different countries. It campaigns for issues linked to agricultural production such as sustainable food systems, access to natural resources, indigenous and women rights, and access to land (Desmarais 2007). Above all, however, it is the world’s most vehement supporter of the concept of food sovereignty. According to Via Campesina, “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. It is a principle with which small agricultural producers worldwide attempt to reclaim their productive systems from the monopoly of transnational agribusiness.

Small scale farmers are increasingly disenfranchised by a handful of corporations which dominate virtually all aspects of the food cycle, from production to distribution. If we look at the inputs needed for agricultural production, only six corporations own more than 75 percent of the world’s pesticide market, and only four sell more than half of the world’s seeds. Furthermore, the distribution dimension of agriculture is equally monopolized. For example, only 4 companies process 90% of the global grain trade, and within the US only three companies process 70 percent of all beef (source).

The monopolization of agricultural production is not the only problem faced by small producers. The use of genetically engineered sterile seeds dubbed “terminator seeds”, force farmers to buy seeds from the same companies every single year. The same companies, Monsanto above all, have been accused of making their seeds genetically resistant to their own fertilizers and pesticides. The ecological disasters linked to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers is also a well documented fact: just to cite the example of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of  Mexico, where nitrogen discharge carried by the Mississippi has created a zero-oxygen area of 9,400 square miles which threatens the livelihoods of thousands of small fishermen and  the resilience of marine ecosystems.

Moreover, this status quo is maintained by powerful supranational institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by free trade agreements (FTA) between rich and poor countries. The WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) effectively removes much government oversight from agricultural trade and policy. As such, agribusiness is able to influence agricultural policy worldwide, frequently resulting in heavily subsidized agricultural products from rich countries being “dumped” at below market price on the markets of poor ones (Holt-Giménez 2008, Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The dumping of subsidized and genetically modified US corn into Mexico is a case in point, where Mexican farmers which have ancestrally grown corn for millennia are unable to compete with the flooding of cheap corn accruing from the North American FTA (Pollan 2006).

In this context, food sovereignty is employed as an umbrella concept attempting to reclaim the various domains which have traditionally been under the control of local peasants from the hegemony of corporatist agribusiness (Patel 2009). In fact, there are many different definitions of food sovereignty and a variety of issues which the term embraces. What all definitions share, however, is the fundamental claim that small farmers have the right to define and shape their own productive systems. It is, essentially, a democratic demand for self-determination and a cry for independence.

Perhaps the most important issue at the heart of food sovereignty is the right to subsistence farming. Industrial agriculture increasingly displaces diversified food systems for monocultures, to the point where entire agricultural sectors of countries are devoted to mono-production. If the price of what a country is mono-producing plummets, the livelihoods of the farmers producing it are jeopardized and so is their access to food. Food sovereignty demands that governments stop promoting agricultural policy dependent on monocultures and shift their resources towards the diversification of crops for resilient food systems which do not subordinate the livelihoods of farmers to the vagaries of the free market. As such, food sovereignty attempts to break the dependence of farmers on fluctuating and unpredictable markets thereby securing the basic right of subsistence (Petrini 2009).

Protecting biodiversity is another central issue of food sovereignty. In particular, the protection of seed varieties from the homogenizing effects of GM plant species has become a key struggle of movements such as Via Campesina. Of more importance still, agribusiness is patenting and privatizing the genetic codes of resistant plant varieties which are the product of centuries of patient intercropping by small famers. This amounts to an act of biopiracy. The privatization of the genetic patrimony of domesticated plant species robs farmers of what has been ancestrally a right of every producer: the right to exchange and use seeds freely (Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The concept of food sovereignty demands that local populations should not be forced to buy GM seeds and that they should retain control over what is rightfully theirs, namely, the natural resources and knowledge derived from their ancestral coexistence with local ecosystems (Petrini 2009).

Finally, food sovereignty is also a demand for the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts. We may term this an epistemological sovereignty. The drives towards “progress” and “modernization”, coupled with the obsessive fixation with “growth” force small farmers worldwide to adopt agro-industrial practices at the expense of their traditional practices of production. This results in a loss of valuable knowledge of food systems which were once sustainable, ecologically sound and extremely resilient (Altieri & Toledo, 2011). Food sovereignty refutes the neoliberal paradigm of growth and its exaggerated faith in the virtues of free markets (Patel 2009). On the contrary, it supports the re-discovery of local knowledges which embrace diversification, biodiversity, sustainability and resilience to risks.

The concept of food sovereignty is therefore one which attempts to reclaim the right to define one’s own livelihood. Supranational institutions, multinationals and markets have erected a system in which small farmers have no say, no vote and no access to the higher levels of decision making. They are therefore dependent on unaccountable organizations for their livelihoods. In this light, food sovereignty exercises the fundamental democratic right of self-determination: the right to define, control and participate in the decisions influencing one’s life. It is a democratic claim which seeks to break the condition of dependence between small farmers on one hand, and market fluctuations and agribusiness on the other. Its central message, however, should not be misinterpreted as a demand for complete autonomy (political or economic), but as one demanding freedom from dependence and the right to exercise local self-determination.

For more comprehensive definitions of food sovereignty please consult the following links:

Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Declaration:

Manifesto on the Future of Food:


Altieri & Toledo, 2011. The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:3, 587-612

Desmairis, A.A. 2007 La Vía Campesina: La globalizzazione e il potere dei contadini. Jaca Book: Milano

Holt-Gimenez, E. 2008 From Food Systems to Food Sovereignty: urgent call to fix a broken system. Food First. Available online @

Patel, R. 2009 Food Sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies, 36:3, 663-607

Petrini, C.  2009. Terra Madre: come non farci mangiare dal cibo. Giunti & Slow Food Editore: Milano

Pollan, M. 2006, The Omnivores Dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing: London

Windfhur & Jonsén, 2005. Food Sovereignty: towards democracy in the food system. FIAN-International, ITDG Publishing. Available online @


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Development, Environmentalism, Indigenous, 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.


  • 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


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

The Reverse Panopticon

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Is the advent of easily available recording technology coupled with mass-distribution of content through social media platforms allowing for the democratization of the state’s surveillance apparatus?

Most of us fear the totalitarian dystopia imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which citizens are controlled and stripped of private rights through the use of technologies enforcing total surveillance. It is easy to draw parallels with our world today, where the proliferation of CCTV devices and the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement eerily appear to emulate Big Brother’s tactics.

In fact, police forces worldwide are increasingly relying on overt and covert surveillance technologies. In the UK, police plan on deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to aid them in day to day surveillance operations in the light of the 2012 Olympics[1]. Similarly, on the ground, police are increasingly using Forward Intelligence Teams – officers armed with camcorders and other recording equipment used to document anti-social behavior[2]. Still, local governments continue to spend large sums of money on CCTV surveillance, despite evidence questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent[3].

However, in the past years we have witnessed the mass-consumption of relatively cheap products such as cell-phones equipped with camcorders. By now, any footage recorded by these devices is easily disseminated on the web thanks to social media platforms such as twitter and facebook. For example, the worldwide protests of 2011 have captured hours of footage in which civilians documented and “surveilled” law enforcement operations from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. We are all familiar with the grotesque images of a police officer pepper-spraying a row of seated and peaceful students at UC Davis.

Today we live in a world in which technology allows virtually anyone to easily document the actions of the same individuals whom operate the state’s surveillance apparatus. What occurs to the logics underlining mass surveillance when the “watched” are finally able to “watch the watchers”? And what implications does this have on the dynamics informing popular protest?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the effects that mass surveillance has on society very carefully. For him, modern law enforcement could not possibly sustain the economic cost of maintaining social order through the threat of physical coercion alone. Modern mass democracies would enforce compliance to law through less intrusive and more subtle techniques: techniques which would push individuals to “self-police” themselves. Foucault refers to one of these techniques as “panopticism”. In his studies regarding carceral institutions he analyses the architectural plans of a new type of prison built during the 19th century. The Panopticon was the first prison constructed in such a way so that inmates were always visible to the wardens, but where the inmates could not see the wardens. Its effect was that of forcing inmates to behave as if actually being observed, even though no-one was observing them. Modern surveillance devices such as CCTVs function along the same logic, as “eyes that must see without being seen”[4].

For Foucault, this type of constant and total surveillance produced disciplined subjects; individuals whom would spontaneously conform to socially acceptable behavior thereby conspiring in their own self-regulation. Its effects were those of discouraging abnormal behavior –such as political protest- while fostering acquiescence and the internalization of the status quo. Panopticism, said Foucault, “was the most direct way…of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance”[5].

Yet, alas, Foucault died just before the mass availability of today’s recording devices and before facebook and twitter accompanied the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. However his ideas might still prove useful in determining the effects that these new technological innovations have on society.

On one hand, the fact that we are increasingly watched not just by law enforcement but also by the public at large might reinforce and possibly magnify the discipline-inducing effects that Foucault highlighted. Individuals might feel observed to an even greater extent and behave in an ever more docile manner -with serious implications on their willingness to publicly vent political contention. Moreover, it might render individuals fearful of their neighbors, thereby tearing at the social fabric of our communities. Finally, it would negatively impinge on one’s sacrosanct privacy.

On the other hand, the ability of any individual to surveil public officers might induce law enforcement institutions to “self-police” themselves. The footage of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, an ex Marine, being shot in the head with a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Oakland protest created public outrage in the US and caused a serious investigation of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics[6]. Last December at an Occupy Wall Street protest the Guardian reported the use of the “occucopter”: a remote controlled helicopter equipped with a camcorder, broadcasting live on the web and documenting police repression[7]. Such devices are often the only instruments that a non-violent protest movement such as Occupy may employ against violent crackdowns.

These technological innovations have the potential to enforce accountability and to increase transparency, particularly within the murky dynamics of street protests. Being able to record and effortlessly disseminate evidence now allows any citizen to report “abnormal” behavior (as Foucault would put it) exhibited by law enforcement officials such as with the pepper-spray incident. However, this new-found ability possesses actual potential only if used to enforce compliance to law, to civil/human rights and to the norms of dignity. Moreover, it is effective solely when those caught breaking the law are held responsible for their actions or when the footage captured manages to influence public opinion.

Perhaps the apparent “democratization” of the surveillance apparatus is not a game-changer for social movements and will not tilt the game of political contention in favor of protesters. But it does serve to remind us that in any healthy democracy everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and if the evidence garnered by and spread through new technologies serves this purpose then this new phenomenon should be welcomed.

This article was originally published by The Heptagon Post on February 9th 2012


  • Foucault, M. 1991. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, P. Penguin: London


Filed under Human Rights, Indignados, Michel Foucault, Occupy Wall Street, security, social movements, surveillance

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)


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


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