Tag Archives: civic republicanism

What can Machiavelli teach us about democracy?

The Role of Conflict in Democracy According to Machiavelli and Mouffe

By Giulio Caperchi

It’s hard to deny that the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli enjoys a pretty vicious rep in the back alleys of political philosophy. If my memory serves me right, I’m quite sure that John Locke once referred to him as the “bad boy of political theory.”

So what can the a-moral realist, the cruel pragmatist and the counselor of ruthless princes ever teach us emancipated moderns about democracy? While Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are without a doubt hardly “democratic”, there is another façade of this eccentric Florentine’s thought which is scarcely talked about. Contrary to his street cred, Machiavelli is one of the greatest theorists of civic republicanism, of popular liberty and of political self-determination. More importantly, Machiavelli shares a vision of politics strikingly similar to contemporary radical democrats such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

A look into Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of political relations will reveal a surprisingly innovative approach to the way we can conceptualize democratic politics. Moreover, by highlighting the similarities with contemporary theorists such as Mouffe, we can begin to advance a fresh and radical critique of today’s neoliberal democratic order. Ultimately, what Machiavelli teaches us is that the essence of politics does not reside in universal value systems but in the constitutive role that political struggle engenders. We will see that for Machiavelli and Mouffe, claims to universality serve firstly to veil vested interests and secondly to displace alternative or competing value systems. The purpose of democratic politics is not to arrive at universal “truths” but rather to foster a system where competing hegemonies emerge through political struggle and conflict.

But first, I must spend a few lines re-habilitating Machiavelli’s reputation. Machiavelli’s “good side” comes out in his Discourses on Livy (ca. 1517) where instead of counseling a ruthless prince he lays out the military and political order that a self-governing and free republic should exhibit. Using the example of ancient Republican Rome, Machiavelli asserts that a free state is one governed by its own citizens through free and accessible institutions, thereby protecting its autonomy from the caprices of kings and despots. It is the collective commitment to civic values and the common good which make republics, such as Rome, so successful and glorious:

“It is … marvelous to consider the greatness Rome reached when she freed herself from her kings. The reason is easy to understand, for it is the common good and not private gain that makes cities great.” Discourses, Book II, Chapter II.

For the great Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli is a pivotal thinker because he is the first theorist to explicitly reject a Christian moral universe in favor of a classical humanist one. This act of rejection is important as it signals that Machiavelli clearly distinguished between two rival value systems. For Machiavelli, the Christian value system based on humility, sanctity, holiness and compassion was simply incompatible with the classical humanist one based on strength, decisiveness, cunning, power-politics and the antiquae virtus. And surviving in the world that Machiavelli inhabited, that of warring renaissance Italy, required the ancient civic virtues -not the Christian ones which, according to him, made people sheep-like and fearful of embracing their own liberty. Berlin goes in so far as stating that Machiavelli’s act of rejection destroyed a central assumption at the heart of Western civilization: that there exists a single universal value system. Machiavelli therefore explodes the illusion embedded in Western rationalist and positivist thought “that there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live” through a quest for the ultimate “just” society.

Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian value system stems from his understanding of politics and of the relations between political forces. Being the ultimate pragmatist, his politics are inherently conflictual and do not appeal to any value system or universal moral framework. Political forces are always in constant and irreducible tension, where the few (i grandi) seek to control and oppress the many (il populo), and the many wish to liberate themselves from the few. And this tension, for Machiavelli, is not problematic but is actually the source of political stability:

 “In every republic there are two different inclinations: that of the people and that of the upper class, and that all the laws which are made in favor of liberty are born of the conflict between the two.”  Discourses, Book I, Chapter IV.

Similarly, radical democratic theorist Chantal Mouffe does not accept the universal framework underpinning classical liberalism. For her, theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas envision the democratic process as a mere procedure required to achieve some form of idealized consensus within societies. Allegiance to the universal rights, principles and values of classical liberalism along with an agreement on the validity of deliberative procedures are absolute prerequisites in order to play the neoliberal democratic game.

Such ideas of democracy, for Mouffe, are wrong because they ignore the inherent antagonisms present in any pluralist society. Political identities, moral frameworks, and universal truths vary wildly throughout societies and will inevitably express conflicting assumptions. Attempting to force social diversity and pluralism to conform to an alleged universal liberal value system, says Mouffe, excludes them a-priori and serves to displace them. Just like Machiavelli, her idea of politics is characterized by antagonism and conflict emerging from the inherent diversity of social identities. As such, the purpose of democracy should be to provide a political framework which transforms antagonist conflict between enemies into agonistic relations between political adversaries. Confrontation, as in Machiavelli, becomes the essence of democracy.

Machiavelli and Mouffe’s rejection of universal frameworks and their recognition of the role of conflict in politics provide the basis for a radical critique of our neoliberal democratic orders. We have seen how envisioning democracy as a quest to achieve a final universal consensus serves the purpose of excluding alternative democratic articulations. This means, for example, that ideas such as participatory democracy, economic democracy, or reducing the primacy accorded to free markets are excluded a-priori from the democratic game because they don’t conform to neoliberal assumptions.

What we are in need of, therefore, is a democratic framework in which diverse expressions of democratic politics can confront each other on equal footing. This entails that political forces such as those emerging from political Islam, from indigenous cosmology, from the assemblies of Occupy, from Pirate Parties or from the Latin American Bolivarian bloc, for example, must be accepted as legitimate and viable democratic possibilities, and not be demonized, repressed and intellectually ridiculed by the West.

Neoliberalism is one among many different democratic articulations. It is high time we give space and opportunities to other equally legitimate ones so that they may contest and confront the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts over democratic theory.

Further Reading

  • Mouffe, C. 2000. The Democratic Paradox, Verso: London
  • Mouffe, C. 2005. On the Political, Routledge: New York
  • Skinner, Q. 1996. Machiavelli: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: New York
  • Berlin, I. 1993 “The Originality of Machiavelli” in ed. Hardy, H. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “Discourses” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “The Prince” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes (on thegocblog.com)
  • Towards a New Defintion of Liberty (on thegocblog.com)

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Civic Republicans and Arms Rights

In the history of civic republicanism, the right to bear arms was a means to an end. The end being the erection of free political institutions, the establishment of democracy, and above all, the creation of a public sphere independent of the arbitrary will of a monarch in which citizens could deliberate as equals.

J.A.S. Oertel- Pulling Down the Statue of King George III- ca 1859. Credits: Wikipedia

J.A.S. Oertel- Pulling Down the Statue of King George III- ca 1859. Credits: Wikipedia

In this brief essay I seek to shed light on the conceptual history of the right to bear arms. By conceptual history I mean a deep look into the history of the idea of arms rights: how it emerged, why it emerged, and what conceptual justifications were used to establish it. This exercise seeks to problematize the claim that arms rights are an inalienable right which cannot be legally regulated or curtailed (as some gun enthusiasts interpret the Second Amendment) and will reveal that contemporary arguments in their favor have been divorced from their historical development.

The intellectual historians J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner assert that the right to bear arms is one of the founding tenets of the political theory of civic republicanism. Civic (or classical) republicanism is the political theory most closely associated with the republics of Ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence, based on a rudimentary separation of powers, civic virtue, citizen militias and the political participation of an engaged and free citizenry (Skinner 1978, p78). Civic republican ideals eventually went on to inform Oliver Cromwell’s English Commonwealth, as well as the political theory of the American Revolution and much of the politics of the Founding Fathers (Skinner 1998).

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Citizen participation and civic virtue are the cornerstones of civic republican theory (Pocock 1975, p56). The republics of antiquity were self-governing political orders which required the participation of their citizens in all public endeavors lest the republic fall prey to powerful families, private interests or rival kingdoms and empires (Skinner 1978, p77). Cultivating the civic virtues meant participating actively in the political process as well as taking part in the military endeavors of the republic. Politics was to be entrusted to free citizens and articulated through free institutions, and never to nobles and the aristocracy. Military operations too, said the great Niccolò Machiavelli, were to be entrusted to citizen militias because mercenary armies and their condottieri frequently turned against their own employers and never fought with true valor (Viroli 1990).

As such, political and martial virtues were at the heart of civic republican theories of citizenship. This meant that the condition of being a free citizen required one to be able to fight for the only form of government which could guarantee his freedom: the republic. Pocock asserts that the possession of arms in republican Florence was “the ultima ratio whereby the citizen exposes his life in defense of the state and at the same time ensures that the decision to expose it cannot be taken without him; it is the possession of arms which makes a man a full citizen” (Pocock, p90).

Arms rights and martial virtues, particularly in republican Florence, were thus a means to an end. The ends being the individual’s sacrifice for the common good and the preservation of a free polis: autonomous and self-governing.

Commonwealth gold Unite, 1653. Credits: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, WIkipedia

Commonwealth gold Unite, 1653. Credits: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, WIkipedia

Similarly if we take a look at the political vocabulary employed during the Commonwealth of England (1649) and the American Revolution (1776) we find the same civic republican themes presented once again. Here, the civic virtues were called upon to emancipate individuals from the rule of absolute monarchy (Charles I in 1649 and George III in 1776). Theories of citizenship informing the Commonwealth justified rebellion and regicide by asserting the basic Aristotelian assumption that man is a free zoon politicon (a political animal) capable of self-government (Pocock 1985, p67). Similar justifications are used in the American Revolution, claiming that propertied men had a right to their own possessions and should be free from the arbitrary will of tyrants (Skinner 1998). Thus, the condition of personal freedom was possible solely through the institution of a popular government legitimized by the consent of the governed.

In 17th century England and in 18th century America, only the appeal to the sword and musket could ensure the erection and the maintenance of a free government for and by the people. Once again, Pocock suggests that in the political vocabulary of the times “the bearing of arms is the essential medium through which the individual asserts both his social power and his participation in politics as a responsible moral being” (Pocock 1975, p389).

The lesson we derive from the civic republican case for arms rights is that arms were an essential means through which to gain political agency and assert one’s status as free and equal citizen. Arms rights were therefore a historical exigency necessary to institute a public sphere, free and accessible political institutions and equality before the law.

Today, it appears to me that the right to bear arms is understood as a right unto itself, frequently equated with the inalienable rights to life, free speech and property. I think this is historically inaccurate. The founders of our democracies and the original architects of our republican orders did not equate the right to bear arms with some abstract notion of freedom, but rather saw arms and militias as a means through which to institute what they called a free body politick. Moreover, arms rights were part of a theory of citizenship imbued with civic virtue and uncompromisingly committed (unto death!) to the common good of the res publica.

In sum, the right to bear arms is historically part of a greater political struggle to institute a self-governing society informed by active citizenship. Today, contrarily, arms rights seem to signify some metaphysical libertarian notion of private freedom which is divorced from the collective struggle for a democratic society and hysterically suspicious of any notion of government.

Michael Hardt and Tony Negri point out how the ideals of republican theory become corrupt in modernity. They suggest that homo politicus -the civic republican- eventually succumbs to homo proprietarius –the possessive individualist whose egotistic self-interest powers the machinations of capital (Hardt and Negri 2011, p11). Contemporary justifications of arms rights are a perfect example of this type of corruption, successfully grounding the Second Amendment in the Hobbesian paradigm of the bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Yet, historically speaking, arms rights were put in place to create and defend the public sphere, not to assert private and absolute sovereignty over one’s backyard.

For a similar take on arms rights, please consult the following articles:

http://newindependentwhig.blogspot.com/2012/12/on-second-amendment.html#comment-form

http://newindependentwhig.blogspot.com/2012/12/on-well-regulated-militia_18.html

Bibliography:

  • Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2011, Commonwealth, Belknapp Press of First Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Viroli, M. 1990. “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics” in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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Filed under Arms Rights, Civic Republicanism, Democratic Theory, Libertarianism, Machiavelli, Nicolo Machiavelli, political philosophy, Second Amendment

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