Tag Archives: Libertarianism

Civic Republicans and Arms Rights

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

The Retreat to the State of Nature

The Tea Party’s Denial of the Enlightenment

Taming Leviathan

The economic views embraced by the Tea Party movement understand of big government as the major cause of America’s financial woes. An expansive, gargantuan and leviathan-like state is not only inefficient in delivering public services, but also has no right to decide what is right or wrong for private individuals. “Freedom to choose” said Milton Friedman in the 1960s, while calling for a retreat of the Keynesian welfare state in the name of private sector efficiency and individual freedom. Echoing neo-classical economics, the Tea Party movement calls for limited government and fiscal austerity through the reigning in of public spending particularly in services such as healthcare and education. However, this popular resurgence of neo-liberal ideology should be viewed with a critical eye, particularly because of its fiercely oppositional and almost phobic attitude towards the role government in society. We must ask therefore whether such a staunch and borderline-paranoid perception of government is in some way detrimental to American national unity and to its democratic process.

            The fierce rejection of government, accompanied by a deep suspicion of politics, in fact implies a denial of democratic values and traditions. Brought to its logical extreme, economic libertarianism attempts to remodel social interactions upon individuals inhabiting a state of nature devoid of an intrusive government. This represents a denial of the social contract, a rejection of democratic politics and the refutation of the politics of the enlightenment (with all of its flaws of course).

The Nightwatchman State

            Both libertarian and neo-classical economic theories –which the Tea Party movement broadly seems to subscribe to- believe that government should be limited for two main reasons. Firstly because individuals possess the inalienable right of self-ownership: they own themselves and the fruit of their labor. Government therefore has no right to coercively redistribute what they have acquired through the sweat of their brow. In addition, government has no right to force individuals to do anything which they don’t consent to, for example buying health insurance[1]. The second reason why government should be limited is that government formulates public policy on the basis of what it considers to be the common good. However, as David Hume and J. S. Mill have taught, and as F.A. Hayek has re-iterated, there is no way of discerning what this common good empirically is, as every single individual has a divergent conception of it. Centralized national planning (such as healthcare or education programs) should therefore be resisted[2].

            Without burdensome regulation and heavy taxation, so the theory assumes, private companies and entrepreneurs will be able to deliver efficient services which cater to specific consumer needs. The role of government in society is therefore minimal, as its main concerns become protecting the nation’s borders, protecting citizens and property, providing a just legal framework and enforcing private contracts[3]. There is of course disagreement over the extent to which government should be limited. Hayek and Friedman are critical of a complete laissez fair order; while, in Robert Nozick’s utopia, government should limit itself only to the protection of citizens and the enforcement of contracts, thereby merely acting as a night watchman.

The Retreat to the State of Nature

            Brought to its logical extreme, the doctrine of limited or minimal government implies the remodeling of society upon a world in which political participation and democratic deliberation are replaced by voluntary interactions between individuals in the state of nature. In its most extreme form, economic libertarianism does away with the idea of a community of consenting citizens while retaining solely individual natural rights. Moreover, it implies that the political act of national self-determination could be in some sense morally wrong because it offends the natural liberty of the individual by imposing laws and norms decided through a collective process.

            But what is the state of nature exactly? As employed by the social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it referred to a condition of mankind before it entered civil society and before it erected authority or government: in short, before real society existed. A brief look at three of the most important social contract theorists will help us understand this concept better.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau the state of nature is a hypothetical thought experiment used to determine mankind’s natural conditions, impulses and behaviors. Humans in the state of nature are neither good nor evil[4]. They live in a primitive world which is scarcely populated, where individuals are isolated from one another and where the only concern is that of self preservation. The impulse of self-preservation is however tempered by our inborn capacity for compassion, so that natural law tells us to “do good to yourself with as little possible harm to others”[5]. Humans become evil and selfish once they enter into society, when they begin to establish relations amongst themselves based on natural inequalities such as strength and intelligence.

            For John Locke, the state of nature is one where god created all humans free and equal. Natural law, which is discoverable by men through the application of their reason, tells individuals that everyone as god’s children possess the right to enjoy their life, liberty and property. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”[6]. However, in Locke’s state of nature, every man possesses the ability to exact his or her own justice, a condition which leads to the “State of War”. Individuals should therefore alienate this ability to a government established by the consent of the governed and ruled by law.

            Finally, for Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is one in which every individual is solely concerned with preserving his or her life. The instinct of self –preservation inevitably clashes against that of others in the competition for scarce resources. This leads to the omnium bellum contra omnes: the war of all against all, and “it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.”[7]. As a result, the life of man in the state of nature is “poore, nasty, brutish and short”[8]. Only a complete surrender of all rights to a powerful sovereign, which will keep all individuals in awe, will allow for a condition of peace. 

The Libertarian State of Nature

            In  Anarchy State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick founds his theory of the minimal state upon Locke’s state of nature, in which humans are born with the inalienable rights to their life, liberty and possessions. More importantly, we are all born with the right of self-ownership: we own ourselves and the fruit of our labor. Mankind in the state of nature is thus in a “state of perfect freedom” [9], a condition which Nozick, as a libertarian, aims to preserve. However, in this state there is no institution which provides for the fair distribution of justice, thus every individual may exact his own justice inevitably leading to the “state of war”. For Locke, men should therefore erect a government to which they all consent, thereby instituting a social contract between citizens and governors based on trust and the rule of law. Nozick, however, does not agree. There is no real need for such a process as something resembling the state may arise out of the state of nature through an “invisible hand explanation”.

            Nozick believes that individuals in the state of nature will spontaneously bond together in “protective associations”. Such voluntary associations would protect their members’ life, liberty and possessions. Eventually, out of the maelstrom of competing protective associations one would muscle out competition and establish itself as the “dominant protective agency” [10]. This dominant protective agency fulfils the basic Weberian role of the state: providing for the monopoly of legitimate force within a territory, which for Nozick, qualifies as a minimal state. This is an “invisible hand explanation” of the emergence of government from the state of nature, as it arises spontaneously without a conscious collective effort[11].

“We have explained how, without anyone having this in mind, the self-interested and rational actions of persons in a Lockean state of nature will lead to single protective agencies dominant over geographical territories; each territory will have either one dominant agency or a number of agencies federally affiliated so as to constitute, in essence, one.” (Nozick 1974, p. 118)

The Invisible Hand vs. the Social Contract

            Nozick’s minimal state therefore emerges directly out of the state of nature and models itself upon natural and spontaneous behavior of individuals interacting in the state of nature. This is in direct contrast with the whole of the social contract tradition upon which the democratic politics of the enlightenment are founded. All three of the social contract theorists we have looked at propose some sort of contract between individuals and a sovereign body with the specific aim of lifting ourselves from the state of nature.

            Thomas Hobbes believed that in order to stop the “war of all against all” we must institute a commonwealth so as to give up our rights to a sovereign which will establish peace and prohibit the private use of force:

“A Common-wealth is said to be instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly of Men, shall be given by the major part , the Right to Present the Person of them all.” (Leviathan, Part II, Chap. XVIII)

For John Locke it is the duty of man towards God to establish a government by consent which protects the natural liberties of individuals through the rule of law:

“And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a Society. And this is that, and only that, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful Government in the World.” (Second Treatise  §99)

Finally, for Rousseau, individuals cannot subsist in the state of nature and are thus required to come together and establish a sovereign body through the social contract:

“This act of association produces a moral and collective body made up of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives by the same act its unity, its common self, its life and its will…As for the associates, they collectively assume the name people and individually call themselves Citizens as participants in the sovereign authority, and Subjects as subjected to the laws of the State.” (The Social Contract, Book 1, Chap. 7)

Nozick’s idea of the minimal state does not lift people out of the state of nature, but is aimed specifically at reproducing the conditions of “perfect freedom” found in such a state. Yet, the idea that a government may arise spontaneously through an “invisible hand mechanism” represents a denial of the social contract theory tradition. The establishment of the minimal or “night watchman” state  is bereft of a founding political moment of collective self-determination. This implies a veiled attempt of denying social and national unity, democratic deliberation and citizen participation. It also implies a denial of the categories of the citizen and of government which are the participants of the social contract.

European and American democratic traditions are not perfect. Carole Pateman has revealed a sexual contract hidden within the idea of the social contract, thereby exposing the displacement of the female sex. Similarly, Bikhu Parekh and James Tully have shown how western democratic politics exclude different cultures through the establishment o universal rights[12]. However, the complete denial of democratic politics represented by a libertarian retreat to the state nature is very dangerous. The democratic politics of the enlightenment should be exposed for their colonialist, misogynist and exclusionary characteristics, but they must also be used as a platform on which to construct a broader participatory and more inclusive democratic framework. Let us not deny the social contract. Now, more than ever, we must revive it so as to counter the grave democratic deficit which is crippling our political and economic institutions.


  • Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom
  • Hobbes, T. 1996. Leviathan, ed. Tuck, R. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Locke, J. 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, P. Cambridge University Press
  • Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell: Oxford
  • Rousseau, J. 1984. A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin: London
  • Rousseau, J. 1997. “Of The Social Contract” in The Social Contract and other later Political Writings” ed. Gourevitch, V. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Steger, M.B., Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Hayek 1944, p 79

[3] Steger & Roy 2010, p 14

[4] Rousseau 1984, p 98

[5] Rousseau 1984, p 101

[6] Locke, Second Treatise §6

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIV

[8] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIII

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, §4

[10] Nozick 1974, p 17

[11] Nozick 1974, p 18

[12] See Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract (1988), Bikhu Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism (2002), and James Tully’s Strange Multiplicity (1995)


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Libertarianism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract, Tea Party, Thomas Hobbes, Uncategorized

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

Pledges, Declarations and Constitutions

The Mobilization of Founding Documents as a Reassertion of American Identity


The Declaration of Independence

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

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


Photo by Sage Ross

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


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

Main Issues


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

The Signing of the US Constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Federalists and the Tea Party


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

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

Alexander Hamilton

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

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

Tea Party Protest

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

The Antifederalists and the Tea Party


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

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

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

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

Shays Rebellion

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

Founding Symbols as Floating Signifiers


US Constitution

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tea Party and Libertarianism: Is Negative Liberty Free?

The Tea

Defining the Tea Party Movement is no easy task. It is a heterogeneous movement formed by a variety of different people with very different backgrounds. It is, however, increasingly consolidating,narrowing down its scope and creating a stable identity for itself. It is undeniably a grassroots movement, born as a reaction to the financial crisis and an unaccountable caste of political representatives, and thriving today thanks to a well coordinated web of blogs, on-line petitions and town hall meetings. It is, above all, a conservative movement. Its main tenets are “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets” (teapartypatriots.com). It is a movement disgusted with the way politics is conducted on both sides of the aisle in Washington, angry at government bailouts and bank bonuses, and horrified at the gargantuan size of government. It resents crippling unemployment, it fears immigration and, most importantly, it loathes taxes (Brooks, Von Drehle, 2010).

The Crisis of Liberalism

The Tea Party is not merely a “knee-jerk” reaction to specific problems such as unemployment or an unsustainable federal debt; it is, rather, part of a greater global reaction to the crisis of neo-liberalism. This crisis, I believe, can be divided into three main components: the crisis of financial capitalism, the crisis of representative democracy and a crisis of national identity. These are structural problems unleashed by the forces of liberalization and globalization which traditional centre-left and centre-right governments are simply unable to cope with. The grand liberal narrative of a globalized world nourished by a rational, dynamic and efficient free market cannot come to terms with today’s problems of financial meltdowns, mass immigration, international terrorism and political apathy.

In terms of the crisis of capitalism, there has been no strong response on behalf of 1st world governments. Apart from populist cries for more regulation and a tax increase for the ultra-wealthy, Western governments actually saved the very form of capitalism which created the crisis, giving no sign of change from the Wall Street “business as usual” paradigm. Regarding the crisis of representative democracy, here too no one has come to terms with the alienation of the citizenry from the democratic process. Citizen’s are treated as citizens solely before election dates; and elected representatives, after garnering initial consensus through multi-billion dollar electoral campaigns, become increasingly unaccountable and far removed from the people. Finally, considering the crisis of identity, it is clear that an increasingly globalized world has seriously tested an understanding of the nation based on the homogeneity of cultural, ethnic and religious shared values. Immigration on the one hand and cultural relativism on the other have thus created a feeling of rupture with traditional forms of identitification.

Tea as a Response to Crisis

This (Marxist) analysis of the crisis of liberalism is broadly shared by the Tea Party as well. The Tea Party Movement resents government bailouts, it demands more transparency and accountability on behalf of Capitol Hill (Von Drehle, 2010) and accuses the establishment of having abandoned the sacred principles and values (and thus the very identity) set out by the Founding Fathers and the Founding Documents (Liptak, 2010).

What is the Tea Party Movement’s response to this unprecedented crisis? “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets”. In addition to these precepts the Tea Party demands that the political and economic spheres act with honesty, dignity and above all abide by the rules of the Constitution and of the free market.

For the Tea Party, capitalism is in crisis because it has not respected the sacred tenets of the free market. It has also failed because it has behaved immorally by breaking the principle of competition and by seeking government subsidies (Barstow, 2010). The response is thus not more regulation but more economic freedom: free markets failed because they were not free enough.

To the crisis of political representation the Tea Party again invokes a strict adherence to the Constitution and to the Bill of Rights. They demand transparency, a smaller, less intrusive bureaucratic apparatus, accountability, and above all they demand fiscal responsibility on behalf of their representatives (Liptak, 2010). The Tea Party Patriot initiative “Contract From America” (contractfromamerica.com), for example, aims to force representatives closer to their constituents rather than the other way around.

Finally, the Tea Party seeks to identify itself (and this is obvious in the name they chose for themselves) with the tradition of the Founding Fathers. They equate Obama’s government with Great Britain’s Tyranny and attempt to embody the golden days of “Spirit of ’76”. Glen Becks “9-12 Project” urges Americans to read the Federalist Papers, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the only means to restore honour and transparency in politics (the912project.com).

“The answer, therefore, is a smaller government on a very short constitutional leash, with less spending and balanced budgets.” (Von Drehle, 2010)

Behind Common Sense

Presented in this way, the Tea Party seems to merely propose common sense (exactly in Thomas Pain’s sense). Yet there is more than meets the eye in this issue. The tenets of “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets” as a response to crisis are exactly the issues which caused the crisis in the first place. Is the present crisis not the consequence of the neo-liberal policies enacted by Reagan and fulfilled by Clinton? Is it not limited government which led to the crisis because of its insistence on de-regulation? Is it not a blind faith in the rationality of the free market that allowed our “irrational exuberance” to grow un-checked?

The drive towards the financialisation of the economy was started by the president who in 1981 stated that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”. The financial meltdown was caused by de-regulation, the repeal of the Glass-Steagle act and similar policies which derive from Reagonomics and which flourished under Clinton. If there is one lesson we have learnt from the recent crisis is that the freer the markets are the more the incentives towards monopoly and fiscal irresponsibility grow. Moreover, Obama’s (and Bush’s) big government, is the consequent response to the failures of capitalism: when the private sector is in crisis the only other possible actor that can restore economic balance is the State -hence the bailouts. The largest instance of government expansion occurred under F.D.R. with the New Deal which was a response to the 1930s Great Depression.

As for the crisis of political representation, I am convinced that a renewed adherence to the precepts of the Constitution is not enough to solve the present democratic deficit. This is not a issue of how to articulate representation, nor is it a question of the measure of accountability or honesty of representatives. Western democracy is in crisis because the representative model is outdated and needs to be reinvigorated through increased citizen participation. A conservative or “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution (Liptak, 2010) cannot account for 21st century issues such as mass immigration or a boom and bust economy, and, above all, it is unfit to mediate amongst a growing plurality of conflicting interests.

This brings us to the question of identity. The crisis of identity is not an issue, as the Tea Party would have it, of abandoning the principles set for us by the Founders. The crisis of identity arises exactly because the Founding principles are being challenged today by new historical contingencies. The “pursuit of happiness” and the binomial “democracy-capitalism” which had historically led to liberty and prosperity are being put to the test today by the rise of new models of governance which defy the American Dream (see the rise of the BRICs). Moreover, what is becoming increasingly clear (especially in the Bush II administrations) is that the U.S. manages to find a sense of identity and community solely in times of war. It seems as if America (and increasingly Europe) can articulate its identity solely through a continuous contrast with the “other”. It is not a coincidence that Glenn Beck’s 9-12 project seeks to recreate the feeling of American unity which emerged the day after 9-11: a confused emotional amalgam of sorrow and yearnings for revenge.

Negative Liberty

However, there is something lurking deeper within the subtext of Tea Party rhetoric. Underlying the Tea Party discourse is one of the U.S. strongest political undercurrents: libertarianism. The belief of the supremacy of the individual over the collective is so strong within the American political unconscious that it must be reckoned with whenever analyzing its social, political and economic spheres. For libertarians government should not decide what is best for the individual, nor should it attempt to coercively redistribute the fruit of the individual’s labour. Libertarian thought is based on the principles of self-ownership and non aggression, and interprets the notion of liberty negatively.

According to Isiah Berlin, in the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative liberty entails the individual’s right of being “free from” any external form of coercion; as opposed to positive liberty which entails the right of being “free to” participate in the collective sphere. Historically, Berlin argues, positive liberty has embodied the principles of equality and redistribution, and as a consequence has generally led to totalitarian regimes. Negative liberty, on the other hand, makes no claim to social justice; rather, it recognizes that the dangers of redistribution and coercive imposition of equality are far too great, and thus a functioning political order must be strictly limited to the protection of the individual’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

Therefore, for libertarians, liberty is conceived ex negativo: understood as the absence of interference in an individual’s action. The only legitimate sphere in which consensual relationships between individuals can occur is the free market. There is no need for government (except to maintain order, although authors such as Rothbard contest this as well) nor is there any particular need for democracy, for the mediation of interests occurs entirely within the realm of the free market. In this way, the barrier between the free market and social relations is blurred, as the market embodies not merely the domain of the economic but the very field of the social. Friedrich von Hayek goes as far as asserting that the free market and economic liberty are indispensable preconditions for any kind of civil or political liberty. Economic liberty reduces the risk of tyranny because it does not allow the government to take over crucial dimensions of private life such as health, education or employment (Vernaglione, 2003).


Murray N. Rothbard, the intellectual who created the notion of Anarcho-Capitalism, grounds the principle of self-ownership in a specific understanding of man’s state of nature. This is constituted by single individuals, isolated, non-associated, whom act following instinct, passion and above all personal interest. The human is not a “social animal”; rather, it is a being which makes choices based on the competition for scarce resources. Society and communities arise spontaneously following the association of different interests within the free market. Therefore, for Rothbard no service should be public, attempts at redistribution equate to theft and any form of government is illegitimate and therefore criminal. In this way, self-ownership implies a conception of society completely based on the individual, where the private pursuit of happiness will spontaneously lead to social harmony (Vernaglione, 2003).

There are many benefits accruing from individualism. For libertarians, individual autonomy is the necessary precondition for the possibility of creativity, as it is solely liberty which permits the unconstrained manifestation of individuality and originality. This, in turn, is what allows the individual to bring innovative products to the market and thus increase his/her competitive advantage. Self-ownership ultimately secures the right over private property, and the right to decide what to do with the fruit of one’s labor. The power deriving from private property is absolute, as property creates a sphere of sovereignty which protects the individual from external interferences (Vernaglione, 2003).

Therefore, the individual is free in the most absolute sense, it is effectively liberated from any externality. He/she is more flexible, dynamic, efficient and competitive as the duties of social responsibility and taxation are inexistent. The “free self” becomes the very tool with which to conquer the highest peaks of the economy, ultimately becoming the entrepreneur of him/herself. All hail the advent of the Homo Oeconomicus, risen to restore the invisible hand of the free market from the ailing iron fist of the interventionist welfare state.


In his last lectures at the College De France, Foucault elaborated the notion of governmentality. This marked a shift from his past understanding of the effects power on the subject, in which the subject is conceived merely as a “docile body” on which power inscribes itself. Contrarily, governmentality recognizes the power that the “self” exerts on the subject. In the last years of his life, Foucault attempts to come to terms with the autonomization of the individual proposed by neo-liberalism and libertarianism. He effectively problematizes the notion of a liberated homo oeconomicus, inquiring if the free self is actually free from any form of government (Lemke, 2004).

Foucault states that the advent of neo-liberalism, with its stress on de-regulation, privatization and individual freedom, does not in fact represent the “retreat of the state”, but is simply a re-articulation of a mode of governance. In Neo-Liberalism power is not exerted directly over the individual; rather power is exerted over the rules of behaviour of the individual. In fact, Governmentality refers to the “conduct of conduct”: governing the forms of self-government (Lemke, 2001).

“Governmentality is not a way to force people to do what the governor wants; it is always a versatile equilibrium, with complementarity and conflicts between techniques which ensure coercion and processes through which the self is construed or modified by himself” (Foucault, in Lemke, 2004)

The self is thus rendered autonomous and responsible for himself. Security, health, education, employment and social risks which were previously under public domain are now the responsibility of the individual. For Foucault, the shift of responsibility is actually an instance of control: the individual is not free, but is subordinate to the conditions of capital (Lemke, 2001, 2004). Rose and Miller suggest that “personal autonomy is not the antithesis of political power, but a key term in its exercise, the more so because most individuals are not merely the subjects of power but play a part in its operations” (Miller & Rose, 1991).

How Free is Negative Liberty?
Foucault forces us to ask the questions: are we effectively liberated by neo-liberalism? Is negative liberty actually free? Governmentality attacks the libertarian notion of self-ownership and self-government by demonstrating that what the liberated individual believes to be freedom of choice is in fact constraining him to the logics of the free market. For Foucault, the intervention of the State into the individual sphere is replaced by the intervention of the Free Market into the very construction of the subjectivity. Free market logic has a set of norms, behaviours and presuppositions that are effectively imposed on the individual (Rose, 1999). These are presented to us as objective and empiric truths by the likes of Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism, and include the understanding of man as an homo oeconomicus, the supremacy of the individual over the collective and the criminalization of wealth redistribution (Vernaglione, 2003).

As individuals are rendered responsible for themselves Foucault suggests that a number of “technologies of the self” intervene to regulate personal behaviour. These include self-esteem, normalization and healthism (Rose, 1999). Barbara Cruikshank points out that the self-esteem movement in the U.S. attempted to shift problems such as crime, urban degradation, alcoholism and prostitution from the sphere of the social to that of the individual: crime is not a problem caused by socio-economic or racial issues; rather, it is a problem of self-government. If individuals conduct themselves correctly there is no need to resort to crime, as crime is ultimately the individual’s fault. Therefore he should exert control over himself: self-control or self-government (Lemke, 2001).

In addition, when the individual becomes “the entrepreneur of him/herself” the Marxian dynamics of worker-employer (and thus of class struggle itself) are rendered obsolete. The worker is no longer dependent on the employer for a wage, for now he/she is a free and autonomous entrepreneur with complete freedom in the economic domain, acquiring the capability to actively engage in the free market with a sense of agency. This entails that all social, economic and political structural preconditions, such as health, inequality, and access to any kind of benefit, are now the complete responsibility of the worker. In this way “Self-determination becomes a key economic resource and a factor of production” (Lemke, 2004).

What is crucial to understand is that for Foucault the worker is not in so much constrained by the inherent contradictions of capital; his is not a full-fledged Marxist critique. For Foucault the “negatively liberated” individual is not free because his world-view is in fact not objective: it is merely another form of power exerted over subjectivity. Nikolas Rose (1999) suggests that in order to create “free individual” and institute the “free market” there is the need to implement a series of intrusive devices (or what Foucault calls technologies of government and of the self) such as censuses, opinion polls, and analysis by a range of experts in law, marketing, finance or education. These are imposed on the individual in any kind of society be it State centred or individualist.

Freedom is not Free

I wish to make it clear that I am not deconstructing libertarianism in order to re-propose the social democratic project or the viability of the welfare state. The point here is to identify and tackle the deepest roots of American Individualism in order to better analyze social movements such as the Tea Party. Widespread discontent for health care reform cannot be explained through realist perspective, for the Tea Party does not have much to lose in the adoption of socialized health care. The Tea Party Movement is against redistribution because of its fierce attachment to libertarian tenets: thus the struggle here is sublimely ideological.

Adopting negative liberty as a world-view is dangerous because it precludes the possibility of difference. If the only legitimate rights are those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then the field of possibilities is restricted and thus is not free. Self-determination, self-ownership and the expression of individual creativity are not unrestrained; rather, they are chained to the logics and contradictions of capital. Libertarianism and negative liberty attempt to fence liberty into a confined discursive field which eventually allows the structural conditions of inequality and wealth polarization to be justified. Moreover, the crucial point is that libertarianism forces inequality to be the necessary precondition for freedom. By means of re-structuring society based on the individual, negative liberty is able to equate the condition of subordination to the exercise of freedom.


This is the paramount aspect and contradiction at the heart of the myth of individualism. However, it does not equate to what Marx called the “false consciousness” of the masses: it is not a mere brainwash. The great lesson Foucault teaches us is that power is blind and is not necessarily led by a group of elite. Individualism and autonomy are not devices created by libertarians and conservatives aimed at tricking society into a false sense of freedom. Quite the contrary: individualism and autonomy are values which have also been championed by progressives and lefties throughout history from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement; and this is exactly why the term liberty is so ambiguous and not “objectivist” as Rand, Nozick or Rothbard presuppose.

For this reason it is necessary to reclaim the term “liberty” ridding it of its essentialist and false-objectiveness. A worthy example is proposed by Etienne Balibar, with his notion of “equaliberty”, in which true “autonomy” can be achieved firstly by recognizing the inviolability of natural rights (as libertarianism proposes) and secondly by recognizing the “Reciprocity Clause”: the universal right to politics (and thus to some form of government). For Balibar, autonomy can be achieved solely when subjects are the source and ultimate reference of emancipation for each other, and where emancipation is not confined solely to natural rights (Balibar, 2002).

Conceptualizing liberty, as Isiah Berlin does, as constituted by the dichotomy of the positive and negative obfuscates the fact that liberty is infinitely more ambiguous. Berlin’s brilliant essay nonetheless allows for a restructuring of society completely based on the individual, which accepts poverty, famine and disease as the necessary price for freedom. Moreover, it does not allow us (for fear of totalitarianism) to wean ourselves away from the individualist paradigm, inhibiting the possibility of alternatives. The meaning of liberty, along with the meanings of equality and democracy must never be set in stone. Rather, our responsibility is to ceaselessly dissect and analyse them, forever condemning the legitimization of injustice and exclusion. As Derrida teaches us, deconstruction is justice.


Balibar, E., “Politics and the Other Scene”, Verso, London, 2002

Barstow, D., “The Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right”, 16/02/2010, The New York Times

Berlin, I. (1958) “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Isaiah Berlin (1969) Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, D., “The Wal-Mart Hippies”, 05/03/2010, The New York Times

Goldberg, J., “Reading the Tea Party Leaves” 18/03/2010, The Chicago Tribune

Liptak, A., “Tea-ing Up the Constitution”, 12/03/2010, The New York Times

Lemke, T., “Foucault, Governmentality and Critique”, in: Rethinking Marxism, 14. Jg., No. 3, 2002, S. 49-64.

Lemke, T., “The Birth of Bio-Politics: Michel Foucault’s Lecture at the Collège de France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality”, in: Economy & Society, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2001, pp. 190- 207.

Miller, P. & Rose, N., “Political Power Beyond the State: problematics of government”, in: British Journal of Sociology, 1992, 43, 2, 172-205

Rose, N., “Powers of Freedom: refraiming political thought”, 1999, Cambridge University Press

Vernaglione,P., “Il Libertarismo: la teoria, gli autori, le politiche”, Rubbettino Editore Srl, Soveria Mannelli, Italy, 2003

Von Drehle, D., “Why the Tea Party Movement Matters”, 18/02/2010, Time Magazine

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Filed under Libertarianism, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Tea Party