Tag Archives: Negative Liberty

Towards a New Definition of Liberty

Neo-Roman liberty: beyond positive and negative freedom

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information on the subject consult the following:

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

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

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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].

Conclusions

             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

Bibliography

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

Intro

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.

Conclusion

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.

Bibliography

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?

Intro

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).

Conclusion

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.

Bibliography

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

Introduction

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

Leviathan

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)

Conclusion

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.

Bibliography

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

Pledges, Declarations and Constitutions

The Mobilization of Founding Documents as a Reassertion of American Identity

Intro


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.

Hope

 

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.

Bibliography

  • 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 Democratic Deficit, Crisis and Participatory Democracy

Why is Participation Important?

In the past decade, the theme of participation has increasingly gained more prominence within the fields of governance and development. It is being mainstreamed within the policy making process, in public planning and in public monitoring, slowly gaining legitimacy and taking a place as a viable alternative (or valuable contribution) to standard development and political paradigms. Simply put, participation entails the right of citizens to be included within decision-making processes.

However, we must still ask the question of why participation is important, or, perhaps a more pressing question is: why is participation necessary in the first place? Participation is necessary because the modes of thought, disciplines and institutions which have traditionally informed the fields of governance and development in the past century are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and accountability. Moreover, novel contingencies such as the ecological crisis, food insecurity and the global financial meltdown are putting such institutions under unprecedented levels of pressure. Participation is thus seen as a way to render existing institutions more accountable, transparent and efficient. Mainstreaming a re-invigorated conception of democratic citizenship within contemporary governance institutions is therefore the answer to the economic and political crisis of liberal democracies.

Some, however, would still raise the question: but is our present system that bad? Does it actually need to be re-conceptualized? Does the frightening word “participation” (which evokes the terror of Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty) be included within the discourse of a system which, after all, has generated wealth for many, defeated totalitarianisms, instituted countless democracies and defended human rights? One might detect here a hint of Fukuyama’s thesis and reach the conclusion that our system, namely the capitalist liberal democracy, is not perfect but it’s the best system we have (as put by Churchill), and that giving it sufficient time to fix its present problems is better than risking a “citizen revolution” (see Ecuador) that could spiral out of control and into a totalitarian regime thereby losing our sacrosanct individual rights.

It is exactly these questions and deductions which we must contest by demonstrating that this system really is in a serious crisis, and that time is running out. I therefore agree with Zizek’s statement of how liberalism died twice at the dawn of the 21st century: knocked out firstly by the jab of 9-11 and secondly by the hook of the financial meltdown (Zizek 2009). To this we must add the utter failure of developed and developing nation’s governments of reaching any form of meaningful agreement aimed at halting global warming and dealing with the looming ecological crisis.

Yet, the problems are not only to be found in the realm of power politics and political economy. The root cause of crisis, I believe, resides not in a “mismanagement” of the political and economic institutions of the system per se, but in the very epistemological framework which upholds the system and its institutions in the first place; and, taking it a step further, in the symbolic framework within which democracy is exercised (Mouffe 2001). Fixing the system would therefore require us to challenge the very notions of what a democratic regime actually is. Without a radical challenge and critique of these notions, proposing alternatives becomes impossible, for the simple fact that they would build upon the faulty foundations of a system whose alleged “sustainability” is inscribed within the logics of crisis.

The Democratic Deficit

In the past decade there has been a growing consensus regarding the democratic deficit affecting the liberal representative democratic model. This is often referred to as a crisis of accountability, a crisis of legitimacy and a general loss of trust in political representatives and in democratic institutions (Cornwall 2001). Robert A. Dahl points out that citizen confidence in democratic institutions of the trilateral democracies (North America, Europe and Japan) has rapidly declined since the 1980s. Although citizens still believe in democracy as the appropriate model of governance there is a widespread feeling that key democratic institutions are increasingly removed from and unaccountable to the citizen. (Dahl 2000)

In the U.S.A., Theda Skocpol denounces the loss of civic political participation in government as a cause for the grave contemporary democratic deficit. For her, the loss of the Tocquevillian characteristics of civic association which had nurtured U.S.A. democracy in the past have been replaced by a conception of the citizen understood as a consumer rather than a member of society. As a result “early twenty-first-century Americans live in a diminished democracy, in a much less participatory and more oligarchicly managed civic world.”(Skocpol 2003)

Gaventa and Cornwall point out that within the context of the blurring of the lines between state, civil society and market actors we are experiencing a serious crisis of accountability. As responsibilities are transferred from the state to NGOs and the private sector the question of who is accountable to who for the provision of vital public services (particularly in the developing world) remains unanswered, therefore potentially threatening citizen and human rights (Cornwall 2001). This has contributed to a “greater crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the democratic institutions affecting their lives”. (Gaventa 2006)

Finally, in Voices of the Poor, a World Bank report by Narayan et al., surveys conducted on tens of thousands of people in the global south reveal that the poor of the world perceive a serious crisis in governance and are experiencing a growing loss of trust in domestic and international governance institutions. (Narayan 2000)

The Cause of the Deficit

We are, however, in need of a critique of the very foundations of the liberal model in order to explain the above mentioned loss of accountability, legitimacy and trust our democratic institutions are currently experiencing. We can find such a critique in the work by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Their most important contribution to our discussion lies in challenging the notion that democratic subjects possess an a priori identity. Liberalism attributes to the individual a conception of subjectivity which is inherent, objective, inalienable, which exists universally and is not created nor influenced by culture or society: humans are rational individuals before they are members of society. This particular articulation of identity is one of the root causes of why liberal democracy is now in crisis and cannot address the issue of the continuous alienation of the citizen from the sphere of decision making:

“The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject which sees individuals as prior to society, bearers of natural rights, and either utility maximizing agents or rational subjects.” (Mouffe, 2000)

For Laclau and Mouffe, the liberal conception of the nature of man is limited, and its acceptance (and at times imposition) defeats one of democracy’s main tenets: pluralism. The hegemony of the individualist framework precludes the possibility of existence of different forms of identification, namely a more communitarian one. If democracy is the realm of contestation amongst a plurality of different demands, identities, ideology etc. (legitimized by our inalienable right to freedom of expression) then the acceptance of only one form of identification defeats democracy’s purpose in the first place. Democracy, therefore, is the very terrain in which identification is constructed and articulated.

In this way, the cause of the democratic deficit resides in the crisis of the very individualist paradigm which has shaped, molded and informed democracy as we know it today. The tension between the conception of a rational individual and new (and potentially dangerous) forms of identification such as ethnic, fundamentalist, nationalist or religious ones are putting liberalism under incredible amounts of stress.

It is here that the dimension of participation enters the discourse of democratic theory. Participation, informed by radical plural democracy, embraces the moment of democratic contestation and condemns attempts at defining once and for all democracy’s ultimate nature. For Laclau and Mouffe, the very act of naming and defining what the terms democracy, liberty, equality or justice entail (these being prime examples of empty and floating signifiers) always involve an act of exclusion. Therefore the only legitimate democratic framework would be one which would consider the continuous contestation between different ideals to be the most “just” expression of democratic exercise rather than trying to fix meaning once and for all. Hence participatory democracy’s stress on inclusion, extension of rights and extension of citizenship so that the moment of contestation can be nurtured by as many different forms of identification and demands as possible. We will return to the specifics and consequences of participatory democracy later.

A Reflection

We must however still ask a paramount question: if liberalism is not delivering its promise for a bright new democratic future and the pursuit of happiness for all, then why are we not able change system? Why do we still consent? Zizek is right in pointing out the fact that we were able to mobilize billions of dollars of tax-payer money in the matter of hours in order to fix a financial system which is still dependent on booms and busts, yet we are unable to face up to the environmental crisis or world hunger (problems created by the inherent contradictions of the financial system in the first place).

The root of our consent lies in our total unconscious acceptance of the individualist paradigm with its strongest component being the inseparable binomial: individual freedom-free markets; and that is why, deep down in all of us, we thought it necessary to save a faltering capitalist order rather than seizing the opportunity to create meaningful and sustainable change. Within the liberal collective unconscious, changing or reforming free markets equates to giving up individual freedom.

In its struggle to emancipate itself from the yoke of tyranny (namely through the historical sequence: enlightenment-II WW-fall of the soviet bloc), I believe the West has lost its ability to confront problems collectively. Liberation discourse, in its purest sense, has effectively freed the individual from all external influence exerted on it. And free we are indeed, yet the process of liberation from government, from collective responsibility, from tyranny, etc. has left us, well, with nothing. We are free from all constraints: the individual has been emancipated and is autonomous…but what is he or she left with? This is probably one of the most important cruxes at the heart of the liberal crisis. All the individual creativity, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (actions which are possible only because of  the individual’s autonomy from the collective) cannot ever dream of dealing with the financial meltdown or the environmental crisis for the simple reason that individual action cannot resolve problems which are global. So what are we missing? What have we lost in our glorious pursuit of freedom? I believe we have quite simply lost the “we”.

The key point here is to realize that the crisis we are experiencing now is a collective crisis: it is affecting all of humankind across cultures, classes and continents. The crisis has not been caused by individual irresponsibility nor can it be fixed by virtuous individual behavior. Our unsustainable system can be transcended solely if it is understood that the problem is rooted in a “we” and not in fact in an “I”.

The answer, however, does not lie in the institution of a “we” as a tree-hugging “global village” where brown, yellow, and white children hold hands in a circle and sing “we are the world”. Nor does it lie, as Marxists and radical Libertarians alike see it, in freeing the “we” through the (violent) removal of a conspiratorial corporate elite which “puppeteers” the politico-economical infrastructure. The radical dimension of recognizing the “we” allows us to detect that the root of the problem lies in our consent to the liberal order, and, more specifically, in our consent to the symbolic, ontological and teleological dimensions of liberalism.

On Participation and Plurality

So we return to our initial question: why is participation important? Participation, in the terms proposed to us by the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, is important because it is not presented as a panacea. Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism have been presented as paradigms with which to achieve a “just society”, yet we have witnessed the disastrous consequences that all three ideologies have had on the past century. The relativist point here is that there is no panacea in the first place, and that the heart of democracy lies exactly in the confrontation amongst different interpretations of what constitutes the “we” in democracy. Recognizing the moment of contestation between differing demands is realizing the radical plural dimension of democracy. Especially in Laclau’s most recent work, it is increasingly clear that it is the very act of contestation (antagonism) and alliance building (equivalential chains) which produces subjectivity, identification and ultimately a hegemonic order (popular identities) (Laclau 2004). Denying healthy confrontation through the imposition of one “objective” and “universal” form of identification is dangerous.

Therefore we must resist saturating democratic theory solely with notions of representation, the rule of law and consensus building, and understand that extending rights and citizenship coupled with the inclusion of citizens within the decision making process is at the heart of democratic theory and can begin to provide alternative venues through which we can begin to solve our collective problems and reduce global injustices. Participatory democracy is therefore a perpetual process of democratic contestation which must provide a venue for all, and include all in democratic deliberation and contestation alike.

“And the fact that this must be envisaged as an unending process should not be cause for despair because the desire to reach a final destination can only lead to the elimination of the political and the destruction of democracy.” (Mouffe, 2000)

“It is only when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality.” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1989)

Bibliography:

Cornwall, A. Gaventa, J. (2001) “Bridging the Gap: Citizenship, Participation and Accountability” In PLA Notes No. 40: 32-35. International Institute for Environment and Development

Dahl, R. (2000) “A Democratic Paradox?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 1 PP. 35-40

Gaventa, J. (2006) “Triumph, Deficit or Contestation? Deepening the “Deepening Democracy” Debate”. IDS Working Paper 267. Institute of Development Studies

Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. Verso

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Verso

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. Verso

Narayan, D. et all (2000) Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change. Washington, DC. World Bank

Skocpol, T. (2003) Diminished Democracy: from membership to management in American civil life. University of Oklahoma Press

Zizek, S. (2009) First as Tragedy, then as Farce. Verso

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Filed under democracy, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Participatory Democracy, political theory, post-structuralism