Tag Archives: Liberalism

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

Conceptual Innovations in Latin American Indigenous Movements

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What can new political concepts advanced by indigenous movements teach the Western tradition of democratic theory?

As the undeliverable promises of social democracy gave way to the irrational exuberance of the neoliberal consensus, western liberal democracies today are struggling to present a new paradigm of governance capable of facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the BRIC countries continue to grow (in both geo-political and economic influence) thanks to a recipe of state-led capitalism and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism.  In this context, the West finds itself at an apparent impasse: how can it preserve the democratic values and freedoms which it purports to represent while remaining globally competitive?

Unsurprisingly, western democracies have increasingly traded in their cherished democratic values for security and economic growth. The primacy accorded to the War on Terror and to budget-deficit reduction through austerity measures bears testament to this. Of particular concern, however, is how this chronic state of emergency has stifled innovation in democratic thought within the West, impeding new ideas and concepts from presenting interesting alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. With the notable exception of the Occupy movements, there appears to be a dangerous lack of interest in how to re-articulate democracy in the light of twenty-first century challenges.

Not the same can be said for Latin America however. In fact, the indigenous struggles of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador have expanded democratic thought in innovative and interesting directions. Throughout the past decade, these struggles have radically changed the political panorama of the region, forcing governments to listen to the demands of some of the most neglected and excluded people in the world.

Although the demands of indigenous movements have not yet crystallized into tangible social change for their countries, within the field of political theory they have brought notable conceptual innovation. Three important ideas have been produced by indigenous political thought which simultaneously demand a break with -and imply an expansion of- the Western tradition of democratic theory.

The first concept is called “El Buen Vivir”, or “Good Living”. This idea, which in Quechua language is referred to as Sumak Kawsay, is understood as an alternative paradigm of development. For indigenous movements, both the Marxist and neoliberal governments of the past have depended on the callous exploitation of natural resources to fuel their projects of modernization. Large-scale mining in the high Andes and oil drilling in the Amazon are but two examples of how “modernization” and “development” have degraded the ancestral homelands  and destroyed the livelihoods of communities which previously lived in relative harmony with their natural surroundings.

The Sumak Kawsay therefore presents an idea of development founded on the harmonious relationship between society, the economy and the environment. It is informed by a principle of economic sustainability opposed to a regime dependent on short term profits. As such, it demands that nature be not conceived solely as capital or private property but as a patrimony: we inherit our natural resources and have a duty as citizens to nourish, use and protect them so as to pass them on to future generations. There is thus a principle of intergenerational justice involved[1].

Central to the concept of Sumak Kawsay, therefore, is the rupture from the western model of development based on the emancipatory promise of societies guided by the invisible hand of rational markets. Contrarily, it draws inspiration from the solidarity and communitarian economies of indigenous communities which stress cooperation and associativism over competition and rugged individualism[2].

The second conceptual innovation presented by indigenous movements is the idea of environmental rights. Although not a new concept, they were the first in the world to enshrine them within national legal orders, both in Bolivia and Ecuador.  The idea of giving rights to nature implies another radical break from the juridical tradition informing western democratic thought. In fact, it demands that we cease giving value to nature based on its instrumental use to us as humans (i.e. the uses we can put it to for production purposes in a market economy) and recognize its intrinsic value in virtue of its existence.

Recognizing environmental rights forces us to reconsider our anthropocentric stance vis-à-vis nature. Protecting the collective rights of ecosystems to exist and regenerate provides an innovative juridical framework with which to reverse the ecological damage caused by an extractivist paradigm of development[3].

The third conceptual innovation is referred to as plurinationality. Both Ecuador and Bolivia are countries with very diverse societies consisting of a plethora of ethnic groups. This diversity was never truly represented, but rather excluded by the practices of a western architecture of the state which assumed the homogeneity of the nation. Traditionally, the liberal state tends to remain neutral with respects to social plurality and conceives of its citizens solely as rights bearing individuals. Not recognizing the diverse ethnic groups and their respective demands allowed for the wholesale exclusion of the indigent and the different from policy making and political participation.

The concept of plurinationality seeks to reverse this process by changing the architecture of the liberal state. What it demands is not the homogenization of social plurality within a universal liberal understanding of citizenship, but rather the recognition of difference as the basis for a new configuration of citizenship. The plurinational state explicitly recognizes the diversity of its citizens; it actively promotes an intercultural dialogue, and provides platforms of mediation amongst them[4].

These three ideas radically question the Western understandings of development, the legal standing of nature, and what constitutes citizenship, respectively. They are, however, also expanding democratic theory by exposing the Eurocentric, anthropocentric and liberal bias that Western thought projects onto its alleged universal understanding of democracy. Precisely through a rupture with fundamental concepts of the Western model was indigenous political thought able to imagine new legal instruments and a new democratic ethic founded on the principles of environmental sustainability and collective rights.

The examples presented here allow us to see that Western democratic thought, once capable of shedding its particular liberal biases, is indeed free to expand in new and different directions. Such an expansion is critical in this historical moment as basic democratic tenets are being increasingly sacrificed in the name of a perpetual state of exception. Democratic theory should not give in to the false choices presented by the logics of crisis; rather, like indigenous movements, it should begin to reinvent itself by overcoming its liberal ideological limitations.


  • Galeano, E. 2009, “La Naturaleza no es Muda” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Derechos de la Naturaleza: el futuro es ahora. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Gudynas, E. 2009 “Seis puntos clave en ambiente y desarrollo” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. El Buen Vivir: una vía para el desarollo. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Ramírez, R., Navarrete R. Seeds of “Good Living” in Ecuador? New Left Project. Available @ http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/good_living_in_rafael_correas_ecuador
  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2009, “Las Paradojas de Nuestro Tiempo y la Plurinacionalidad” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Plurinacionalidad: democracia en la diversidad. Abya Yala: Quito

[1] Gudynas 2009

[2] Ramirez & Navarrete

[3] Galeano 2009

[4] Santos 2009


Filed under Democratic Theory, Development, Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, Latin America, liberalism, political economy

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.


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


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

Two Concepts of Liberty and Classical Republicanism

Deconstructing a False Dichotomy

Robert Nozick opens the preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia asserting that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do”[1]. Indeed natural rights are a hallmark of western political philosophy. They assert the individual’s natural freedom and protect his or her private life and property from external threats. As articulated in the seventeenth century by European and American liberals, the discourse of natural rights was employed to limit the power of absolutist monarchies and abolish the hegemony of hereditary aristocracies. In fact they acted as a principle of governmental limitation, attempting to draw a juridical barrier between naturally free citizens and their governments[2].

 Today’s political discourse presents a similar use of natural rights. If we look at the claims emerging from the Tea Party movement and like-minded libertarian circles we notice a similar re-assertion of natural freedom and individual independence from a government which intrudes excessively in the life of private citizens. Publicly funded programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are thus seen as direct assaults on the private sphere that pertains to individuals.

A False Dichotomy

          Such an interpretation of natural rights rests upon an understanding of human liberty defined as the condition of absence from external constraints. In his seminal essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1969), Isaiah Berlin terms this attitude towards freedom as negative liberty, one concerned solely with creating a private sphere of non-interference upon which no other person may intrude: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men can interfere with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”[3]. On the contrary, positive liberty implies the freedom to participate in the collective decisions influencing the individual’s life. Yet, collective participation in political endeavors, according to Berlin, has historically led to the formation of universal categories such as collective wills, the common good, or enlightened majorities which, in the name of collective well-being, have inevitably trodden upon the sacrosanct natural rights of private individuals. Berlin thus concludes that positive and negative liberty “are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life”[4].

          Similarly, the libertarian right, along with many neo-classical economists such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, eschew an understanding of positive liberty based on increased political participation and concerns for the common good. In their view, true liberty lies in the “freedom to choose” their own personal decisions rather than having them dictated by government. Moreover, political participation and democratic deliberation are not seen as conducive to social harmony or political stability as they most often lead to irresolvable political arguments which strain the already frail bonds uniting society. On the other hand, Milton Friedman asserts that if such decisions were left to the free market, such political strains would not occur: “the wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement”[5]. In fact, F.A. Hayek suggested that democracy is not an end to itself but solely a means to secure personal freedom.

“Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device, for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom.”[6]

          We are thus presented with two apparently irreconcilable understandings of liberty. The negative asserts freedom from external constraints, while the positive a freedom to engage in the political act of decision making. Yet, Isaiah Berlin warns us that political participation in a collective sphere, although potentially a noble endeavor, possesses no internal mechanism of limitation which allows it to check its ability to encroach on private natural rights. In this light, it is self-evident that negative liberty is the sole concept of freedom which ensures that at least our very basic rights are protected. This, however, presents us with a false dichotomy.

The Classical Republican Theory of Liberty

          Positive and negative liberty may coexist, and have coexisted, in many different articulations. A valuable example is the theory of republican liberty outlined by professors Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. These historians bring to the light a political discourse dating back to ancient Greece and republican Rome concerned with the common good, civic virtue and collective participation in the public sphere. This political theory found its first coherent expression in renaissance Florence, where quattrocento (1400) humanists along with Machiavelli articulated the foundational concepts of  classical republicanism. The republic of Florence from the early 1100s to 1432 had been a self governing and independent polity, vying for territorial and political hegemony with neighboring republics and principalities.

          Skinner and Pocock point out that Florentine political thought conceived of liberty as resting on two mutually dependent assertions: absence from forms of constraint and political participation[7]. Absence from constraint was understood as a the condition of independence from external rule. After all, Florence during the medieval and renaissance periods inhabited a world of warfare, marching armies and endless sieges. The individual liberty of citizens within the republic thus depended on the city’s ability to remain free from neighboring tyrants, popes, princes and monarchs[8]. This condition of independence was however maintained solely through citizen participation. In fact, the citizen was called upon to fulfill two duties: firstly, the running of the city’s administration, and secondly the military defense of the city’s walls[9].

          Such a form of citizen participation was embodied in a principle called civic virtue, or il vivere civile e politico, and demanded that citizens take part in the running of the republic’s endeavors if they wished to remain free[10]. In Florentine political thought, the condition of dependence signaled the loss of autonomy and human agency, eventually causing social decay and moral corruption. Civic virtue was thus a principle of individual and social action, an ethic which enabled citizens to be masters of their own destiny through a concerted and collective effort. As such, renaissance republican thought eschewed the idea of private interests guiding the republic, it was weary of princes, and cultivated a profound suspicion of hereditary aristocracies[11]. The republic’s highest magistracies should therefore be accessible to all qualified citizens, and its electoral system was characterized by frequent elections and short terms[12].

           Pocock and Skinner point out the presence of the theory of republican liberty during the English Civil War, in Revolutionary and Federalist America, all the way into the thought of Adam Smith. Its admonition is clear: the maintenance of negative liberty necessitates a positive effort of political participation. As Quentin Skinner suggests, the lesson that the great minds of the seventeenth century seem to be telling 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”[13].


             Recent attempts on behalf of libertarian movements forcing us to choose between individual liberty or political participation in a collective sphere are theoretically and historically erroneous. Accepting negative liberty as the only viable and modern understanding of freedom ignores a rich and varied political tradition on which western democracies have been built on. Moreover, this false dichotomy forces us to choose between the protection of natural rights on one hand, and a potentially collectivist totalitarian politics on the other, thereby nudging us towards the acceptance of a limited and unaccountable democratic system. Contrarily, we must conceive of democratic politics as a system requiring continuous political questioning and debate. Indeed democracy’s lifeblood lies in democratic deliberation which always necessities some degree  of citizen participation and civic virtue (of course not the same as the Florentine republic’s).

          A retreat to an a-political and a-social state of nature -which is what the Tea Party movement at times seems to base its claims on- will not maximize individual liberty but render it vulnerable to, and dependent on, powerful interests –be these governmental or private. If natural rights are not defended through political participation within government there is the serious possibility of losing them. Moreover, natural rights, such those to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, do not exist on different political playing field than the rights to basic healthcare, decent education and a dignified retirement plan. The lesson we derive from the political theories of classical republicanism and early liberalism is that natural rights are inextricably tied to the demands for civil liberties. Natural rights and civil rights are linked because they must both be fought for politically, continuously and within a democratic framework.

           A libertarian re-assertion of negative liberty and individual natural rights will not deliver American and European nations from their financial woes. Nor will the dismantlement of government and its public services. It will solely erode and gnaw away at the frail ties that keep us united as democratic nations, thereby fostering division, political apathy and national disunion. In a moment in which financial markets call into question our nations’ popular sovereignty, we are more than ever in need of a concerted and collective effort to rise to the challenge and defend our cherished liberties that define us as democratic citizens.

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Foucault 2008, p 9

[3] Berlin 1969, p 122

[4] Berlin 1969, p 166

[5] Friedman 1962, p 24

[6] Hayek 1944, p 73

[7] Skinner 1998

[8] Pocock 1975, p 201

[9] Skinner 1978, p 76

[10] Pocock 1975, p 56

[11] Pocock 1975, p 94

[12] Viroli 1990

[13] Skinner, 1992


Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Foucault, M. 2008, The Birth of Bio Politics. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire

Friedman, M. 1962, Capitalism and Freedom. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Hayek, F. A. 1944 The Road to Serfdom, Routledge: Abingdon

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton

Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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

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 democracy, Democratic Theory, liberalism, Libertarianism, Liberty, Machiavelli, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, Nicolo Machiavelli, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

The Liberal Ontos

Subjectivity and Raison D’état in Liberal Democracies

“You either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism …or else you criticise the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality.”

Foucault “What is the Enlightenment?” 1984, p43


In What is the Enlightenment (1984) Michel Foucault refuses what he calls “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”: he refuses to be “for” or “against” it. One of Foucault’s main objects of study was to understand the techniques and disciplines utilized by modern governments and their role in the creation of the modern individual. His aim was to expose the relation between the subject and subjectivity and between power and knowledge. As he saw modernity as the product of the Enlightenment, and as he deeply disagreed with modern governmental disciplinary techniques, Foucault set out to understand how the Enlightenment produced such coercive modern institutions. He sought to do this without condoning the disciplinary techniques of modernity as inevitable products of the Enlightenment, but at the same time without refuting the Enlightenment’s tradition as a whole. Refusing the blackmail of the Enlightenment would require embarking on a “historical ontology of the self”, a genealogy of subjectivity which would reveal the relation between the individual, understood as an autonomous agent, and the state, the governor of subjects through liberal-democratic rationalities.

Nowhere else does Foucault address this problem more concisely than in his lectures on Governmentality. It is here that he discusses the raison d’état of the early liberalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that of modern liberal mass democracies. Foucault’s studies expose the pivotal power relationship between governmental rationalities and individual subjectivity, and traces how this relationship changes from its birth during the Enlightenment to contemporary expressions of neo-liberalism.

What Foucault’s work allows us to address are the political rationalities on which early and modern liberalism rest. This, in turn, enables us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our rights, liberties and democratic agency as free and autonomous citizens. What does it mean to be in liberal democracies? This is the central question of the “historical ontology of ourselves”. Answering it requires exposing one of liberalism’s most explosive tensions: namely, that between its alleged neutrality in regards to conceptions of the “common good” and its imposition of an abstract and universal understanding of the self. Studies in governmentality allow us to clearly see that liberalism is not in fact value-neutral but rests on strong and well founded epistemological and ontological assumptions. Exposing the violence embedded in these assumptions is the main object of this enquiry.

The first part of the essay will analyse Foucault’s understanding of early and modern liberal political rationalities, delving into the differences between the principle of sovereignty as opposed to scientific knowledge. The second part will demonstrate how liberalism has presented itself through history as the ideology based on the tenets of negative liberty and limited government. This will be then contrasted with the particular ontological assumptions liberal government attributes to its democratic citizens. In turn, this will enable us to challenge the symbolic framework with which we come to understand ourselves as free and autonomous agents, thereby exposing the tension between liberalism’s alleged value-neutrality and its imposition of a particular form of subjectivity. I will conclude with a brief discussion of contemporary liberal subjectivity occurring in neo-liberalism.

Liberal Raison D’état

In his lecture Governmentality (1991), Foucault traces a distinctive change regarding social policy in the transition from early to modern liberalism. Early liberalism – that based on theorists such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf or Locke – grounded the legitimacy of government on the principle of sovereignty. Eighteenth century liberal political rationality is based on the concepts of popular sovereignty, limited government, the social contract, natural rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the subject over which the government rules has a distinct identity. Early liberal subjectivity conceives of the individual as a rational being who is constituted prior to society: a transcendental self, equal to all others in the eyes of God, with inalienable natural rights and liberties. As such, governing citizens required minimum state intervention and the codification of clear demarcations between the state and civil society as well as between the public and the private. In short, law and its juridical apparatus are the sole legitimate instruments through which the state could govern its subjects (Foucault 1991, p95)

However, Foucault points out that beginning in the eighteenth century the exponential growth of population and the expansion of commerce begin to morph the way government firstly relates to its citizens and secondly comes to conceive of them. As governing over large populations becomes increasingly difficult, scientific knowledge comes to the aid of the state, providing it with averages, statistics, surveys and studies which generalize and calculate virtually every conceivable characteristic of society with the aim of efficientizing and simplifying the art of government. Foucault suggests that this type of knowledge, garnered through the developing fields of the social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics, eventually came to supplant the rule of law as a more efficient technique of governing. It was not enough to threaten citizens with harsh penalties for breaking the law. Subjects could be made to conform to laws not through deterrent, but by following the suggestions of the social sciences which produced “truths” and “norms”. This expert knowledge pontificated, to citizens and governments alike, how populations should behave “normally”. Therefore norms garnered through authoritative and scientific sources provided statistics, averages and means to which the population would synchronize itself in order firstly to ensure domestic tranquillity and secondly to actually improve itself (Foucault 1980, p105).

Thus, a defining feature of modern liberalism is that it increasingly grounds its legitimacy in socio-scientific knowledge rather than in the juridical apparatus (Ashenden 2010, p62). It does not govern through the limited architecture of “rights and duties of citizens” but rather guides its population towards efficiency and self-improvement, so that citizens may exercise their inalienable freedoms in a disciplined fashion (Dean 1999, p175). The modern liberal subject is now conceived not only as a static bearer of rights and liberties but as someone who conforms to normal and reasonable codes of conduct. The patterns of behaviour he or she is supposed to follow are not derived from transcendental notions such as “the state of nature” or “natural rights”, but from what scientific knowledge has calculated to be normal, healthy, balanced and productive (Foucault 1984, 74).

Foucault asserts that advanced liberal democracies govern their subjects through a “demonic” mix of the early and modern political rationalities of liberalism. Today’s Western governments exercise their power firstly on the legitimacy of the concept of popular sovereignty and secondly through the techniques of disciplines offered by the sciences (Foucault 1980, p106). This is the theoretical context, as presented by Foucault, in which I wanted to place liberalism. Now I would like to analyse how liberalism presents itself as a coherent and unified ideology through time, and how is it that it has come to be the dominant political rationality.

Limited Government

From its earliest inceptions, liberalism presents itself as the theory of limited government. But why limited government? This is because it perceives as dangerous and potentially destructive any notion of the common good which could jeopardize the natural liberties of individuals. Government is limited in the sense that its primary purpose is restricted to the protection of the self-regulating sphere of civil society (Hindess 1996, p67). For example, early liberal theorists saw the wars of religion that had ravished Europe as factions of fanatics engaging in mass slaughter to impose an alleged divine order. The social unrest generated by religious strife destroyed and taxed property, inhibited progress and, more importantly, was bad for business. It is the imposition of a unitary notion of what is “right”, “divine” or “good” which liberalism sees as potentially dangerous and conducive to civil strife. Its emphasis on religious toleration embodies one of its earliest rejections of totalizing world-views and a move towards a neutral position in regards of what is “good”.

This is evident in Hobbes’s criticism of Christianity (directed primarily at the Pope and Scottish Presbyterians alike) in books III and IV of Leviathan, in which he states that religious strife was responsible for civil war and social unrest in the commonwealth. For the sake of stability and the preservation of life, Hobbes concludes that the sovereign should control the sphere of public worship in order to avert sectarian violence waged in the name of spiritual convictions. Privately, anyone could believe what they wished, as Hobbes fully embraced Parliament’s principle of Independency, that is, religious toleration (Tuck 1996, p.xliii). Similarly, Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration describes toleration firstly as a basic Christian value and secondly as an inalienable right (Tully 1993, p.57). But these early liberal theorists were not solely opposed to the imposition of totalizing religious orders but also of political ones. In Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) Quentin Skinner gives a detailed description of Hobbes’s rejection of civic-republican as well as classical notions of freedom. Hobbes believed that republican intentions of instituting popular sovereignty on Aristotelian assumptions were just as responsible for civil strife as religious factions were (Skinner 2008, p.75). In the same way, Locke’s Two Treatises are an attack on the illegitimacy of the divine right of kings, as his specific aim was that of delegitimizing authoritarian and absolutist claims to sovereignty (Dunn 1969, p67). Hence the stress on a limited form of government, with the main purpose of averting totalizing claims (be them religious, absolutist or civic republican) which can potentially deprive the inalienable and natural rights of freedom and self-government pertaining to individuals in civil society.

We can therefore see that liberal hallmarks such as representative forms of democracy, checks and balances, bicameralism and the separation of powers are all instituted with the aim of protecting the otherwise self-regulating sphere of civil society from a potentially coercive government. A brief look at James Madison’s Federalist X will reveal a plan for an architecture of government with the specific aim of diffusing the fiery passions of the “tyranny of the majority” and of violent factions (Madison 1987, p125). From Mill, to Berlin, to Rawls, liberalism offers a negative understanding of liberty whose main purpose is that of assuring neutrality and averting the encroachment of any dangerous conception of the common good (positive liberty) which could spiral out of control and into totalitarianism (Berlin 1969, p152). As such, liberalism has emerged victorious in modern history: it has achieved religious toleration, abolished the divine right of kings, survived the nationalisms and totalitarianisms of the First and Second World War and defeated the Soviet Union in the last great ideological duel of the twentieth century. Moreover it has done so by not imposing any apparent form of subjectivity on its citizens: liberalism perceives of individuals as self-determined subjects with inalienable rights and liberties. It rejects any particularised ontological grounding of the individual, limiting itself to the protection of a self-regulating and interest-motivated civil society within which individuals can perceive themselves as they see fit (Burchell 1999, p133).

The “Doubling” of Liberal Ontology

So we must ask now how the previous exposition of liberalism as proposed by Foucault can serve as a basis for a profound critique of the symbolic framework within which liberalism conceives of its subjects and within which citizens perceive of themselves. As I have shown, Foucault asserts that there are two distinct political rationalities working within liberalism: one based on the seventeenth century concept of sovereignty and the other, more modern, on socio-scientific knowledge which provides the government with the necessary expertise (and legitimacy) with which to govern. This in turn engenders a doubling of liberal subjectivity: the individual is simultaneously a bearer of rights and liberties as well as a subject to be studied, disciplined and made to improve him/herself. It is towards a critique of this doubling of liberal subjectivity to which we must turn now.

Liberal subjectivity engendered by the concept of sovereignty conceives of the individual as a rights bearing entity which is constituted prior to society. Most of the social contract theorists perceive the individual as possessing certain a priori characteristics which are not the product of political arrangements or social articulations but which are transcendental values granted by God. James Tully points out that the state of nature is an abstract condition: a “quasi transcendental speech situation” from which we derive an understanding of the self as being free and equal (Tully 1995 p64). Michael Sandel asserts that the Kantian notion of the universal self claims transcendence because it is constituted and imagined prior to the social, economic and political conditions in which an individual is born. “The antecedent unity of the self means that the subject, however heavily conditioned by his surroundings, is always, irreducibly, prior to his values and ends, and never fully constituted by them” (Sandel 1982, p22). This specific ontological articulation allows liberalism to claim a neutral stance. Contrarily, say, to an Aristotelian understanding of the self as the zoon politicon which can fulfil its telos solely through political participation, liberalism refracts the constitution of subjectivity to a higher and universal level of abstraction. In such a way, natural rights are prior to any other value, conception of the good, culture or religion. This allows thinkers such as Rawls (1993, p10) to articulate a theory of political liberalism as based on the priority of the right over the good: a theory which is perfectly compatible with liberalism’s fundamental mandate – limited government.

On the other hand, Foucault shows how liberal subjectivity changes once modern governments begin to act on individuals on the basis of evidence garnered through the social sciences. The conception of the transcendental self which defined early liberalism is now complemented by an understanding of the self as expounded by anthropology, psychology and sociology. These new typologies of knowledge produce what Foucault calls norms. On the basis of empirical evidence, presented in the form of statistics, calculations and percentages, governments formulate policies which enforce correct codes of conduct and particular patterns of behaviour which are deemed to be “normal” (Rose 1989, p6). For example, scientific studies suggesting a healthy diet or daily exercise are examples of norms which point to specific forms of behaviour meant to efficientize, help and improve individuals. As suggested by Rose (1989, p4), this knowledge shapes subjectivity: individuals see the “ideal self” as someone with a healthy diet and which exercises regularly and aspire to achieve that status.

In this sense, scientific knowledge is not an imposition of the government, but is rather a suggestion of a way to improve oneself. We must always bear in mind that liberalism views society as a self-regulating sphere on which it has no right to intrude, let alone dictate what to eat or when to exercise. Norms, therefore play the pivotal role of guiding and channelling the behaviour and interests of individuals in a productive and disciplined fashion. At the same time these codes of behaviour entail the need for the individual to synchronize his or her person to them: hence the link between subjectivity and norms. But how are norms created? Norms are averages. For example, the idea of the “average man” is a norm. It is derived through statistical information which tells us what the average man’s height is, how much he should weigh, how old he is and what kind of income he has. Mitchell Dean (1999, p171) refers to norms as “counter-factual and self referential”: they refer to us, but are pure abstractions. The “average man” does not exist: he is an arithmetic construct and blind calculation of what a man should look and behave like. This is the profound critique to modern liberal ontology which Foucault allows us to make. Therefore, we can see a doubling in the abstraction of the self as present by liberalism: the individual is at once a transcendental being deriving his or her rights from the abstract condition of the state of nature, as well as the product of blind statistics pointing to non-existent stereotypes.

Challenging the Symbolic Framework

Foucault’s work allows us to point out where liberalism is at its most hypocritical. While claiming to be the only ideology capable of ensuring individual autonomy without imposing conceptions of the common good on its society, it also makes very specific assumptions on the nature of the individual, of how civil society behaves, and on the relation between government and population. By exposing the assumptions that liberalism rests on, in its early and modern articulations, we finally see that both natural law and empirically determined norms are firmly grounded in the realm of abstraction and not in alleged objectivity. Far from receding from the realm of the metaphysical, liberalism ascends to a new level of abstraction, manufacturing universals which inform and construct the modern self. It is behind the “neutral” conceptualizations of the self that we find liberalism’s hidden violence: in a globalized world, the vast majority of the population finds it very difficult to conceptualize of the self as being constituted by transcendental rights and having to behave in rational (read Western) ways. The post-modern point worth making here is that individuals all over the world can equally identify themselves in ethnic, nationalistic, gender, religious, class or cultural terms, and not universal liberal ones. The imposition of liberal forms of subjectivity which the west has unleashed on the world (often with the most sincere and benevolent intentions) nonetheless have had devastating consequences: from socio-political marginalization of minorities to “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Not only must we be weary of the imposition of early forms of liberal subjectivity, but we must also be critical of the modern manufacturing of norms. Although it claims neutrality in regards to any conceptions of the good, the production of norms is not a mere exercise of blind scientific calculations, but the creation of statements which suggest the “right” way to behave and think. Ashenden points out that norms work on the normal-abnormal polarity, where “normal” inevitably points to what is “good” and abnormal to what is “bad”. Behind the veil of socio-scientific objectivity norms make profound normative statements (Ashenden 2010, p72). These, in turn, are based on very specific Eurocentric assertions which state that the individual behaves according to his or her interest-motivated choice. Norms are built upon a thoroughly capitalist conception of civil society in which individuals interact and are motivated by rational choice: a sphere which spontaneously regulates itself thanks to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (Burchell 1991, p134). Hence the normative and value-laden charge of norms suggests “right”, “correct” and ultimately “good” patterns of behaviour which are however inextricably enmeshed within western capitalist conceptions of the individual, of society and of government.


Two conclusions follow from our discussion. Firstly, an analysis of Foucault’s understanding of liberal political rationalities and subjectivities enable us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our freedoms. This is one of the key challenges of our times: instead of hiding behind a “veil of ignorance” and procedures ensuring neutrality, liberalism should bear full responsibility for the exclusions and violence it commits in the name of its very enlightened principles. The West’s problematic approaches to multiculturalism, the troubled relations with the Middle East and a grave democratic deficit are problems which can be traced back to the adoption of a symbolic framework which rests heavily on abstract and universal notions which are faltering in today’s globalized world. It is high time that liberalism recognizes that it too, as much as civic republicans, Marxists or Islamic fundamentalists, is promoting, imposing and exporting a conception of the “common good”. Perhaps the very ideology championing negative liberty should heed the warnings of Isaiah Berlin.

The second conclusion we derive from our argument is that Foucault’s work points towards a new terrain of contestation. This novel battlefield is located within the institutions where norms and socio-scientific knowledge are produced. If, according to Foucault, socio-scientific knowledge informs and sustains our very subjectivity, then such knowledge must be criticised and contested for the sake of the very definition of the self. Moreover, as neo-liberalism increasingly devolves, decentralizes and privatizes norm-creating institutions (think lower and higher education, hospitals, insane asylums, the armed forces, jails) citizens lose the scant democratic control they have on the production of normalising knowledge, thereby forfeiting any participation in the production of ontological discourse and abandoning it to the vagrancies of the fee-market.


Ashenden, S. 2010, “Legality, Legitimacy and the Circumstances of Sociology” in Tarnhill and Ashenden, S. Eds., Legality, Legitimacy: Normative and Sociological Approaches, Nomos, Baden Baden

Berlin, I. 1969 Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press

Burchell, M. 199, “Peculiar Interests: Civil Society and Governing the System of “Natural Liberty” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P. Eds., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Dean, M. 1999, “Normalizing Democracy: Foucault and Habermas on Democracy, Liberalism and Law” in Ashenden, S., Owen, eds. Foucault Contra Habermas, Sage, London

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

Foucault, M. 1980 “Two Lectures” in Gordon, C. ed., Power/Knowledge, Harvester Press, Essex

Foucault, M. 1984, “Truth and Power” in Rabinow, P. Ed. The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London

Foucault, M. 1984,What is the Enlightenment” in Rabinow, P. Ed. The Foucault Reader, Penguin, London

Foucault, M. 1991, “Governmentality” in Burchell, M., Gordon, C., Miller, P., The Foucault Effect, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Hindess, B., 1996, “Liberalism Socialism and Democracy: Variations on a Governmental Theme” in Barry, Osborne, Rose, eds. Foucault and Political Reason, UCL Press, London

Madison, Hamilton, Jay. 1987 The Federalist Papers, Penguin, London

Rawls, J 1993. Political Liberalism. Columbia University press, New York

Rose, N. 1989 Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. Free Association Press, London

Sandel, M.  J. 1982, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 2008 Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Tuck, R. “Introduction” in Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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

Tully, J. 1995 Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Michel Foucault, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes

In Defence of Limited Government

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


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

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

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

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

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

Possessive Individualism

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

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

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

Self Preservation

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

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

Contextualising Locke

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

The Exclusion Bill Crisis and Sir Robert Filmer

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

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

The Theory of Limited Government

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

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

The Theological Vocabulary of Natural Law

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes

The Encroachment of Negative Liberty on Republican Virtue


To this day, the definitions of the concepts of human agency and the political are continuously revised, debated and argued over. If, according to W.B. Gallie (1955), concepts are essentially contestable this paper seeks to contest these concepts through the comparison of their interpretations by arguably two of the greatest political theorists of all time: Machiavelli and Hobbes. Isaiah Berlin (1979) suggests that Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian-classical epistemic framework liberated the spheres of politics and human agency from previous (Christian) behavioural patterns and moral attitudes. This act of liberation allowed for a plurality of different value systems to answer the age old question of “how should men live together?” thereby actively challenging Christian hegemony over the proper articulation of authority and sovereignty. About a century later, and after the Reformation had successfully broken Catholic dominance over spiritual thought and temporal behaviour, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, in which he gave a particular account of the limits of human agency and proposed specific definitions of liberty and freedom. My concern is that if Machiavelli liberated the concept of freedom from the yoke of antiquity, Hobbes proceeded to assimilate it within the nascent theory of liberal individual liberty based on natural law. If Machiavelli’s a-moral realism “opened up” the space in which political concepts and ideas could be contested, Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation began to saturate that space by sowing the seeds for what was to eventually blossom into a negative interpretation of liberty.

It is therefore necessary to take a brief look into both Machiavelli and Hobbes’s understandings of human agency and by extension their notions of liberty and freedom. I will use the terms liberty and freedom quite interchangeably as both authors don’t seem to make clear cut definitions between them (Skinner 1998, p17). Therefore, in the first two sections the concepts of virtù, necessità and fortuna will be analysed alongside Hobbes’s causal understanding of human agency, his definition of liberty and the principle of self preservation as presented by Quentin Skinner. Successively, I will analyse Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Originality of Machiavelli (1979) thereby discussing the Florentine’s conception of the political and conclude by comparing it with Hobbes’s. By the political I intend the space in which human agency (and by extension political action) can be exercised and contested, a terrain which is inherently antagonistic (Mouffe 2000). I want to be clear here, I do not want to assert that Hobbes is the “grandfather” of negative liberty. Nor do I want to state, as Leo Strauss (1965) and C.B. Macpherson (1965) suggested, that Hobbes’s theory is the basis of liberalism or of the bourgeois man. Rather that the roots of negative liberty can be clearly discerned within Hobbes’s ambiguous account of liberty.

Virtù as Human Agency

The Machiavellian principality and republic exhibit what Quentin Skinner terms a neo-roman interpretation of liberty. Neo-roman liberty is concerned primarily with the relationship between the subject and the state and how freedom and authority are articulated within a polity (Skinner 1998, p17). Freedom is therefore a strictly political issue, and thus very different from the liberal notion of freedom which is based on natural or God given rights. Machiavelli’s vivere civile e libero (free and civil living) refers to a polity which is governed by good arms and good laws, or what Machiavelli calls the ordini, which are drafted and enforced by the prince or the leaders of the republic (Baron 1961). In order to ensure liberty within a polity good laws and good arms are required to be instituted so that the citizens and the city retain their virtue. But it is virtù itself the primary quality needed by leaders to ensure domestic tranquillity and prosperity. Both Romulus of Discourses and Cesare Borgia of The Prince exhibit decisiveness, courage and cunning, but above all they are able to shape the world around them according to their desires and political ends. It is here where virtue becomes the ultimate vehicle of human agency. Virtù, understood as the reliance on one’s own capacities (Wood 1972), is necessary for the institution of good arms and good laws, and is required to react boldly to both necessità and fortuna. Let us take a look at these terms more closely.

The concept of necessità arises in response to particular events which occur in a state of emergency. Machiavelli’s Italy was one in which power was continually contested, where invading armies were beating at the city gates and where citizens rebelled and princes crushed uprisings (Parks 2009). The leader must react to the necessities and events which emerge from a turbulent world prone to violence. Success lies in the ability to achieve stability in times of perpetual disorder by whatever means necessary (Mansfield 1972).

Fortuna, on the other hand, represents unforeseeable circumstances. These can be positive or negative: finding a pot of gold or getting hit on the head by a falling brick; being given the region of Emilia Romagna from your father the Pope, or losing it because of an incurable and unforeseeable sickness. “All the same, and so not to give up on free will, I reckon it may be true that luck decides the half of what we do, but it leaves the other half, more or less, to us.” (Prince, XXV) Even within the concept of fortuna, Machiavelli leaves ample space for human agency, however we must point out that “Machiavelli…promises only that we can increase our chances against Fortune, not that we can eliminate her effects entirely.”(Flanagan 1972, p. 141)

Finally, virtù is the primary quality of the prince and of the republic’s citizens. Virtù is shrewdness and astuteness; it is the reliance on one’s own arms, audacity, and at times calculated cruelty to achieve one’s ends (Plamenatz 1972). Virtù is what is necessary to react successfully to necessità. Machiavelli goes in so far as to say, in an oft quoted and scandalously sexist passage of the Prince (Ch. XXV), that virtù (intended as virility) must be able to tame and ride fortuna (intended as femininity).

Thus virtù is not only the attribute required to navigate the troubled seas of power politics and military confrontations (necessità), but, if properly wielded, it can also master unpredictable circumstances (fortuna) (Wood 1972). Understood in these terms, virtù represents the highest embodiment of human agency which can be exercised within a conception of liberty which is thoroughly positive.

Reason as Human Agency


In Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty (1990), Quentin Skinner argues against the criticism that Hobbes was advocating a conception of freedom akin to the theory of negative liberty. For Skinner, Hobbes’s distinction between the spheres of the state of nature and that of the commonwealth is crucial in this respect. In the state of nature their reigns a condition of absolute freedom, one where “every man has a Right to every thing; even to one another’s body” (Leviathan Ch. XIX). Here, a free man is he who is not hindered in his will to do what he wishes; therefore liberty is defined as the absence of impediment (Leviathan Ch. XXI).  On the other hand, Hobbes makes it clear that when men form a commonwealth civil law curbs their liberty and their freedom to act: “but Civill Law is an Obligation; and takes away from us the Liberty which the Law of Nature gave us”(Leviathan Ch.XXVI). The step in between the state of nature and the commonwealth is determined by fear, as it is fear of the state of war, and by extension the innate drive towards self-preservation, which forces us to renounce our natural rights in order to secure our person and our beloved. However, Skinner (1990) asserts that “even in those cases where the liberty of the state of nature is undoubtedly abridged by our obligation to obey the civil laws, this does nothing to limit our liberty in the proper signification of the word.” At this point, one could draw the conclusion that Hobbes’s notion of liberty is wholly determined by fear. Yet, Skinner denies this, as he states that Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation is dictated by reason and not by fear . Thus, Hobbes’s fear coincides with reason, as the forfeit of natural rights and the entering in a commonwealth is a voluntary and rational act: it is in the person’s own interest (Skinner 1990). According to this understanding the agent’s freedom to act as he deems fit is not impeded in any way: liberty, therefore is not understood ex-negativo.

Skinner’s account seems to fend off the critique of Hobbes’s liberty being a forerunner of negative liberty. However it does force us to look deeper inside what reason meant for Hobbes. In chapter V of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the use and end of reason does not reside in discerning the ultimate truth of an assertion (he was a sceptic after all); rather, in the following of its consequences. Hence, human reason is strictly causal (Tuck 1996 p.xxiv). Thus, if Hobbes’s notion of liberty, as presented by Skinner, hinges on the fact that entering in a commonwealth is determined by reason, and if reason is solely the calculation of cause and effect, is the covenant a product of voluntary free will or is it necessitated? And where does this account leave human agency? It is useful to complement the definition of reason in Leviathan with the definition of a voluntary action in Hobbes’s Of Liberty and Necessity. In the latter, Hobbes states that actions depend on a person’s deliberation between the positive and negative outcomes of his/her actions. Therefore, “voluntary actions have all of them necessary causes, and are therefore necessitated” (Hobbes Selections p.206).

Skinner’s conflation of fear and reason, in my view, does not exempt Hobbes’s theory of liberty from being negative, as it allows no space for human agency. The principle of self preservation, coupled with Hobbes’s causal understanding of voluntary actions and reason, impose very strong delimitations on human agency and by extension to liberty and freedom. In turn, these have serious implications on the limits and scope of political participation and civic activism. Moreover, if we do accept Skinner’s assumption that liberty is ensured by the use of our reason, then, for example, an act of patriotic sacrifice (which contradicts the principle of self preservation) would be by definition un-reasonable because it would go against one’s own interest. Therefore, human deliberation is not exempt from fear as Skinner suggests, but is influenced by the drive towards self preservation and more so by natural law. Here I must agree with Macpherson’s point (1962, p27)  that Hobbes’s subject in the abstract state of nature is not in fact exempt from the passions of society (in our case fear of confrontation and death). Strauss as well raises the issue of fear as the constituent feature firstly of Hobbes’s natural law (1953) and  secondly of his teleology: “death takes the place of the telos” (1965). Yet, I would like to add that it is not fear per se which is the determinant of reason and agency; rather, it is the denial of the political brought about by Hobbes’s understanding of natural law which limits liberty.

The Political According to Machiavelli

According to Isaiah Berlin in his essay “The Originality of Machiavelli”, Machiavelli’s chief contribution does not lie in the rejection of Christian and Aristotelian teleologies for an interpretation of politics based on a-moral realism and pragmatism. Most scholars, chiefly those following Benedetto Croce, believe that Machiavelli’s radical innovation lies in his separation of the purely political dimension of statecraft from that of Christian and Greco-roman morals. In such a way, Machiavelli does not necessarily reject morals and ethics, yet, if they come in between the Prince or the Republic’s interests then they are overridden, often with brutal violence (Parks 2009).

This interpretation is not accepted by Berlin. Berlin believes that Machiavelli did in fact possess a very specific set of morals which he never relinquished, these being those of civic-republicanism. For Berlin, Machiavelli’s morality is thoroughly classical, humanist and patriotic. He is looking for “energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, antique virtus, virtù – firmness in adversity, strength of character.” (Berlin 1979 p. 60) And he seeks these qualities not only in the prince, but in the citizens too.

“The central strain which runs through both [The Prince and Discourses] is one and the same. The vision – the dream – typical of many writers who see themselves as tough-minded realists – of the strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid and victorious patria, whether it is saved by the virtù of one man or many – remains central and constant.” (Berlin 1979 p.57)

Machiavelli’s values are therefore not instrumental but are an end to themselves, requiring sacrifice and political commitment in order to have a splendid, strong, vigorous and above all virtuous principality or republic. Thus Berlin’s point is that Machiavelli did not merely “deconstruct” the Christian-classical epistemological framework which fused moral and political duties into a particular teleology. Machiavelli did not separate Christian morality from the political endeavour of state-building: he did not emancipate what was to become the basis of modern politics from the shackles of moralist antiquity. For Berlin the paramount importance of Machiavelli lies in that he made a conscious choice between a moral Christian value system and a civic-republican one.

Berlin thus asserts that Machiavelli inflicted a terrible wound to a basic assumption underlying western civilization’s teleology: the idea that the world and humans are part of a single intelligible whole which will one day mature into a just and harmonious society. For Berlin, every western religion and ideology has embedded within it the promise of a glorious future in which all differences will be harmonized. Machiavelli explodes this preconception by demonstrating two paramount facts: firstly that there are different conceptualizations of how to achieve this end (that there exist different value systems); and secondly, those different value systems are in most cases simply irreconcilable. There is no way that a prince or republic can be ethical in the Christian sense and be successful in the civic-republican one. Private property simply cannot be governed the same way under liberalism as under socialism. In other words, there is no one-way to achieve a “just and harmonious society”.

“This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and aesthetic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, that has been characteristic of western civilisation. It is the rock, upon which western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (Berlin 1979, p.68)


Berlin’s assessment of Machiavelli effectively “opens up” the realm of political contestation to virtually any ideology or value system. However, I would not go insofar as deducing from Berlin’s argument that Machiavelli consciously pointed towards an inherent antagonism present in politics; nor would I assert that, in this way, Machiavelli is a some sort of postmodernist advocating equality amongst different value systems, far from this. Yet, it is clear that for Berlin’s Machiavelli, politics and statecraft is “up for grabs”: no single value system has a legitimate a priori claim to politics. Only virtù, and not a moral teleology, can assure success in politics; and it is here, I believe, that we find the pulsing heart of Machiavelli’s notion of human agency and by extension of the significance of the political. Here, for me, lies true freedom: an open field without obstacles in which Machiavelli’s Principe Virtuoso and Hobbes’s Absolute Sovereign can clash in the titanic struggle to define the very concepts and limits of human agency, liberty and freedom. It is a thoroughly political sphere saturated with power relations and clashing pre-conceptions.

In conclusion, Hobbes’s state of nature, and the subject inhabiting it, is conditioned by the limits of a causal understanding of freedom, which is in turn influenced by fear. Hobbes’s subject is fearful and does not seek the Machiavellian glories of public activism and patriotic sacrifice. Moreover, Hobbes’s subject is not inclined to participate politically, and this is what places his account of freedom squarely as the forerunner of the theory of negative liberty. This is because Hobbes has trapped him within the a priori logical stronghold of natural law – defying natural law would mean the subject is un-reasonable and thus not human. Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, has no intrinsic rules: natural law and natural rights are for Machiavelli thoroughly political constructs devised by the prince or the republic to achieve success in a world fraught with antagonism. Ultimately, Hobbes positions the state of nature as existing prior to politics, Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, is politics.


Baron, H. 1969 “Machiavelli: the Republican Citizen and the Author of the Prince” The English Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 299 pp. 217-253 Available from: JSTOR [05/11/2010]

Berlin, I. “The originality of Machiavelli” in Hardy, H. (ed) 1979 Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico, London

Flanagan, T. “The Concept of Fortuna in Machiavelli” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Gallie, W. B. 1955 “Essentially Contested Concepts” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 56, pp. 167-198 Available from: JSTOR [04/11/2010]

Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Machiavelli, N. 2009 The Prince, Penguin Group, New York

Macpherson, C.B. “Hobbes’s Bourgeois Man” in Brown, K.C (ed) 1965, Hobbes Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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

Mansfield, H. Jr. “Necessity in the Beginning of Cities” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Mouffe, C. 2000 The Democratic Paradox, Verso, London

Parks, T. “Introduction” in Machiavelli, N. 2009 The Prince, Penguin Group, New York

Plamenatz, J. “In search of Machiavellian Virtù” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Skinner, Q. 1990 “Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 40 (1990), pp. 121-151 Available from: JSTOR [04/11/2010]

Skinner, Q. 1998 Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University press, Cambridge

Strauss, L. “The Spirit of Hobbes’s Political Philosophy” in Brown, K.C (ed) 1965, Hobbes Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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

Tuck, R. “Introduction” in Hobbes, T. 1996 Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Wood, N. “Machiavelli’s Humanism of Action” in Parel, H. (ed) 1972 The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto


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Filed under Liberty, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes