Tag Archives: neo-liberalism

The Trajectories of Neoliberalism

How will neoliberalism change in the light of the “Pacific Pivot” and US energy independence?

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

We are all well acquainted with the narratives embedded in the ideology of neoliberalism. Its emancipatory promise of a globalized world where the free exchange of goods, ideas and cultures would lead to peace, interdependence, prosperity, and the spread of democracy are well known. On the heels of the fall of the Soviet Union, so the story went, no alternative was left other than to embrace that dynamic American mix of capitalism and democracy. Borders would increasingly blur, nations and nationalisms would be rendered irrelevant as the new world order would be benevolently guided by international institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. If only countries would deregulate, privatize and liberalize their economies democracy and prosperity would eventually follow. Human rights and free trade, we were told, go hand in hand.

Of course, the utopia came crashing down on 9-11, and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. It came crashing down in the financial meltdown of 2008. It came crashing down with the rise of nations such as China which demonstrated that authoritarianism can simply do capitalism better. Pundits now predict the end of the American hegemony and hail the advent of the “Asian Century”.  The future, as of today, seems pretty bleak for neoliberalism.

Two paradigm-shifting occurrences, however, might question the apparent neoliberal decline: the so called “Pacific Pivot” and the realistic possibility of US energy independence in the near future. In the light of these two issues, the global geopolitical panorama will of necessity undergo dramatic changes. Two key questions must be addressed here. Firstly, how will these changes impact the emancipatory narratives of neoliberalism? And secondly, how will they affect the military, financial and political institutions exercising neoliberalism’s global power?

The Pacific Pivot is the White House’s response to China’s growing military and economic clout. The Economist reports that China, although nowhere close to the US (yet), has upped its annual spending on defense from $30 billion in 2000 to $120 billion in 2010. In 2012 China will have spent $160 billion on modernizing its military. Analysts predict that China will outspend the US by more than half a trillion dollars by 2050 on defense related expenses.

Accordingly, as the wars in the Middle East wind down, the Obama administration has decided to revamp America’s reputation as a Pacific power. In its latest Strategic Guidance document, the White House states that “while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”. Pacific deployments of marines are well under way, while joint military training operations have increased with the region’s pivotal allies, namely Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. In the coming years, the DoD will be spending over $10.6 billion establishing a rotational force of 8000 marines stationed in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

EIA US Energy Production and Consumption

EIA Energy Production and Consumption. Photo Credit: eia.gov

On another front, energy analysts predict near energy independence in the US around the year 2050. According to the US Energy Information Administration, bolstered by technologies allowing the tapping of previously inaccessible shale gas and petroleum reserves, the US will dramatically reduce energy imports. In the adjacent graph, the EIA predicts a decrease in the gap between US energy consumption and production, resulting in a decline of energy imports of around 10% in 2040 compared to the year 2011. Within only three years the EIA estimates that the US will become a net exporter of liquid natural gas. It is no surprise that both presidential candidates of the 2012 Presidential election have made domestic energy production a priority of their respective electoral campaigns.

So what will these future changes entail for the emancipatory promises of neoliberalism? What of the world where free exchange of ideas and products would lead to international cooperation and render petty nationalisms and conflicts a distant memory of a barbaric past? Of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have overwhelmingly disproved neoliberalism’s promises of spreading democracy. But the Pacific Pivot does not even try to mask its ambitions with a concern for peace and democracy. There is no apology for the Pacific deployments: it is Machiavellian Realism 101 devoid of humanitarian underpinnings and defined by the pursuit of national interest. The Pacific Pivot is not justified by the ambitious projects of exporting human rights or engaging in nation-building as past US foreign policy so often has.

Energy independence could bolster this belligerent attitude, freeing the US from dependence on a turbulent Middle East and allowing it to increasingly concentrate its influence on Asia. Energy independence might actually fuel uniltaeralism and free the US from the need to calculate energy geopolitics within its foreign policy, potentially allowing it to forgo cooperation in international fora.

Moreover, this attitude is reflected in the key political, financial and military institutions which articulate neoliberal ideology. Let us take a brief look at these. Out of the financial crisis institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have emerged stronger than ever, with countries at the heart of Europe ceding them national sovereignty. The “too big to fail” investment banks responsible for fraudulent lending and illegal practices (LIBOR and HSBC scandals –to mention the most recent) have been bailed out and are continuously sustained by tax payer money worldwide. Multinational corporations have posted record profits and are presently sitting on enormous piles of cash, with many of them refusing to raise wages and accept higher taxes. Military operations such as drone warfare and Special Forces incursions increasingly operate unaccountable and well out of the reach of international law. Neoliberalism’s most powerful players are probably stronger today than they were in the previous decade.

The ambivalent binomials inherent in neoliberalism, namely those of globalization and prosperity, of free trade and human rights, of military interventions and free societies have unraveled. The US neoliberal project has shed its emancipatory promises and embraced the pragmatic pursuit of military and financial interests. What it has left behind is an architecture of world government devoid of the spirit of Wilsonian idealism which had incipiently conceived it; bereft of a democratic ethic and fuelled by its unsustainable hydrocarbon bonanza.

So even if neoliberalism has crashed and burned, and, as stated by Slavoj Zizek, amply demonstrated that the marriage between capitalism and democracy has effectively ended, it is nonetheless emerging stronger, leaner and meaner than ever. The Pacific Pivot along with energy independence will be the chief contributors to the rebound of a new neoliberalism which will have definitely abandoned its humanitarian and democratic justifications. Perhaps, it will be incorrect to refer to it as neoliberalism at all, for there is nothing “new” nor anything “liberal” left in it any longer.

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Occupy Hegemony: Gramsci, Ideology and Common Sense

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Why do we consent to the status quo of the neoliberal hegemony?

It is simply baffling that citizens in both Europe and the US continue to tolerate the neo-liberal agenda. After the unrestrained greed of financial institutions brought the world to its knees, and after tax-payers bailed out those same institutions responsible for the crisis, the rules of the game appear more or less unchanged. Moreover (and even more baffling), the culprits of the crisis seem to be no longer the unaccountable financial institutions but the citizens responsible for sovereign debt. We are told that “we have lived beyond our means”, that “we are all in this together” and that these are times of sacrifice and austerity for the sake of financial stability.

And the vast majority of citizens consents. We tolerate unelected technical governments (Greece, Italy) and we elect conservative administrations (Spain, England) whose main objective is that of not arousing the ire of financial markets with talks of progressive taxation, labor rights or welfare services of any kind. The only cure for the crisis, we are told, is the well-rehearsed neoliberal mantra of deregulation, liberalization and privatization. Why, may I ask, are we accepting the preposterous idea that the sole cure to a failed free market is more free market theory?

The answer, I believe, lies in the particular way in which the neoliberal hegemony has been able to saturate contemporary political discourse. The way neoliberalism has positioned itself within the field of political theory has effectively displaced alternative political paradigms capable of challenging its hegemony. And it is specifically the alleged lack of political alternatives which functions as a primary generator of consent to an imposed status quo.

An important issue that any movement committed to structural change should consider is to challenge the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts on political discourse, for it is precisely there that consent to its worldview is produced. A brief look into the ideas of the great theorist of hegemony Antonio Gramsci, will reveal the dynamic relationship between the power of hegemony and the consent of the governed.

According to Gramsci, hegemony is a disposition of power which does not merely coerce its subjects into submission through top-down impositions. For Gramsci, hegemony is a power which saturates, influences, and permeates all aspects of one’s life:  the economic, cultural, social, ethical, political, and so on. In doing so, it shapes and moulds consciousness, conceptions of common sense and world-views. More importantly, it creates an “ideological terrain” by positing which are the acceptable political alternatives that may be expressed within the particular world-view it is advancing.

“The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates new ideological terrain, determine[s] a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge … when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world, one finishes by introducing the conception as well; in other words, one determines a reform of the whole philosophy.” (Gramsci, p192)

Consent to the hegemony, said Gramsci, does not arise solely out of the elites coercing the masses, but through the denial of alternative world-views with which the oppressed can conceive of their positions as subjects. Writing between the two World Wars, Gramsci, a communist, could not understand why the peasant masses of southern Italy were unable to organize and join the militant communists of the industrialized north. He concluded that their plight and immobility were not only caused by the post-feudal domination of the rural bourgeoisie, but rather by the peasants’ lack of a language, of a vocabulary, and of a philosophy capable of explaining the causes of their material conditions.

The peasant masses of the south lacked their own intellectuals, and relied only on their notions of common sense and folklore to conceive of their every-day travails. Gramsci maintained that “common sense” was a piecemeal composition of life experiences, of religion, and of popular morals. Common sense was also heavily influenced by the dominant ideology. In fact, the ability of the hegemonic ideology to mould common sense was of particular concern to Gramsci. Ideological influence did not occur in the form of a coercive “brainwashing” of the ignorant peasant, but was rather a subtle exercise of power which induced a fragmentary and inchoate conceptualization of one’s life experiences. Moreover, this confused worldview would inhibit individuals from thinking outside of the “ideological terrain” predisposed by the powers of hegemony. In sum, a fragmented world-view coupled with the lack of an alternative language with which to vent political contention generated consent to the status quo.

A similar scenario presents itself to us today. Out of the dust and rubble of the Berlin Wall, neoliberalism has proclaimed itself “the last game in town” and politicians for the past twenty years have merely presented variations of the same neoliberal game to which we have consented for too long. If the Occupy and Indignados movements wish to win the hearts and minds of US and EU citizens they must break this mass consent by demonstrating that neoliberalism is not in fact our only option and that mainstream political discourse must be pluralized.

In the same way as the occupation of public squares opens up a new space for democratic participation, occupying hegemony must open up political discourse to a plurality of alternative political ideas. It must explode the hegemony’s veneer of inevitability by exposing its uses of ideology as strategies for sociological subjugation and political displacement. Neoliberalism is not inevitable nor is it the last game in town. In truth, it has failed in both of its privileged sites of intervention: capitalism and democracy. The first step in breaking its hegemony is therefore to demonstrate that alternatives to a world-view founded on the myths of rugged individualism and rational free markets do in fact exist. We are in desperate need of a radical pluralization of the ideological terrain, so that new ideas may emerge and contest the neoliberal hegemony over political discourse. As Gramsci put it:

“Ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are the result of historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality etc.; but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another one.” (Gramsci, p196)

Bibliography

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

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Why Occupy?

Neo-liberalism’s false choice

The politico-financial system which has led to the present crisis has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. People have lost their homes, students are beholden to enormous amounts of debt, rating agencies downgrade our bonds, and unemployment remains stubbornly high –just to name a few of our ailments. But perhaps the greatest violence perpetrated by this unsustainable system is presenting itself as the only solution to the problem it was responsible for in the first place.

By Barcex (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Under the pressure of financial markets and supranational institutions, sovereign nations were forced firstly to bail-out a system on the brink of collapse and secondly forced swallow austerity measures devised with the aim of easing the markets’ fears of sovereign debt insolvency. The complex “packages” the European Central Bank is concocting to save debt-ridden countries in the Euro-zone are aimed not at reforming an unsustainable system but at keeping the show going on just as it has. We are still working within the “business as usual” paradigm, accepting harsh measures with no strings attached.

This occurs because of the false choice presented to us by our political and economic institutions, namely that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal hegemony: we must therefore choose between saving an inherently unsustainable system on the one hand, and an Armageddon of financial meltdown, chaos and anarchy on the other.

Such a false choice is nurtured by a well-rehearsed narrative: since the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union, we are told, capitalism has remained the “last game in town”. Increasingly, more and more nations have followed Huntington’s fabled “third wave of democratization” and embraced the American model of the liberal capitalist democracy[1]. The triumph engendered by this progressive trend has led some to proclaim its universalization and to declare the end of history, for no better system could possibly be devised by human intellect[2]. The lesson is clear: there is simply no alternative to this political and financial system.

The Logics of Occupying

In the light of this situation, the American and British Occupy movements along with the European Indignados merely appear as a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis. They are portrayed as having no demands, no propositions and as a ramshackle puzzle of heterogeneous identities unable to formulate a common statement of intent. It seems essentially an anti-capitalist mobilization simply venting out its “rage against the machine”, no different from the 90s no-global movements of Seattle and Genova. However this time it’s different.

Naomi Klein has pointed out one important characteristic of this new phenomenon. While past protests against neo-liberalism have targeted periodic meetings such as WTO and G8 conventions, this time the Occupy movements are here to stay indefinitely. This means that the protest against the system is not transitory but sustained[3]. There is therefore a particular logic behind the act of indefinite occupation: it is a symbolic re-appropriation of democratic space in which to exercise our rights as democratic citizens. Reclaiming that space therefore openly challenges the false choice presented to us by neo-liberalism.

Occupy: a space for difference and social plurality

The Occupy and Indignados movements are indeed a collage of heterogeneous identities. Pacifist, feminist, gay, environmental, and all sorts of other movements have pitched their tents together in hundreds of cities worldwide. This is often seen by the media and political pundits as an inherent weakness, as it contributes to the inability of producing common statements and proposals. Yet, this is no weakness. Contrarily, it is a conscious expression of difference and has at its heart a precise message, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong with our democratic institutions: political representation has ceased to reflect  the multiplicity of identities and demands found in society. Our political delegates are distant, unaccountable, over-privileged and in many cases corrupted by the power of organized crime and/or of campaign contributions and donations from the private sector.

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The act of occupation by this multitude (I am referring to Hardt and Negri’s multitude) of social movements and private citizens expresses the discontent caused by years of government by unresponsive, dysfunctional and far-removed legislative assemblies. Occupying the public square means reclaiming a space in which diversity may be publicly expressed: a space which is not provided by our liberal-democratic constitutional orders and our representative system. The occupied public square reflects social plurality: it shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. Occupying the square provides a platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: a space for transparency

Occupying a square is also an act of openness. Inclusion and participation are the main attributes of the public assemblies of these movements. Every action, decision, thought or idea is formulated collectively and openly in the square[4]. The fact that the decision-making process is exercised in a public location and on public property is a symbolic assertion of the need for transparency in our political and economic institutions.

In this way, not only is the occupied square a democratic space in which diversity is adequately represented, it is also a space in which power asymmetries (gender, cultural, economic, etc.) are laid bare and may be denounced precisely because of its inherently open and transparent character. This is in stark contrast with the obscure, distant and unaccountable ways our governing bodies are run. It is the reclaiming of a transparent space which is not provided to us under the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: as space for an alternative

Above all however, occupying the square intends to reclaim a space in which an alternative to the status quo may be constructed. This is by far the most radical and successful achievement of the movement. Its success lies not in the presentation of a fully defined new paradigm which will serve as an alternative to the neo-liberal status quo, but the demonstration that there is the need for a space in which alternative ideas may be expressed, deliberated, contested and experimented. How can any alternative to, or reform of, the present system ever emerge if we lack the space in which to express them?

Through the reclaiming of public squares the Occupy and Indignados movements have shown us that our political orders are lacking the democratic institutions and the democratic instruments through which new ideas may be proposed. They have shown us that our western democracies are in desperate need of institutions which foster participation, transparency and inclusion so that new ideas may emerge and change this system which grotesquely feeds on its own inherent contradictions.

In this light, the over-rehearsed slogan “another world is possible” does not present itself as a naïve hippie’s dream of a tree-hugging utopia, but as an active challenge to the idea that neo-liberalism is “the last game in town” and that no alternative may even exist. None of these nascent movements will propose a new economic or political system to replace this one. But they will invite us all to participate in an open, transparent and inclusive public space so that we may collectively debate, converse and construct it together through democratic deliberation and  political participation.

Conclusions

Ultimately, the very fact that such a movement is actually in the squares occupying indefinitely is presently the only check on the un-democratic excesses of this unsustainable system. There is no political effort on behalf of any elected government in the world (except Iceland probably) that is willing to reject the false choice of neo-liberalism – which increasingly looks more like an ultimatum. Bailouts, austerity measures and these so-called un-elected “technical governments” are giving up the hard-earned democratic rights that define us as democratic citizens: they are giving in to the neo-liberal ultimatum.

In this context, the Occupy and Indignados movements are the only mobilizations  standing up to this blatant assault on popular sovereignty and human dignity. They are the only movements which have rejected this false choice and reclaimed a public space in which people may be truly represented, where an effort for transparency reigns, and in which to collectively construct an alternative through democratic confrontation. And this fact alone, for me, has won half of the battle already.


[1] Huntington, S.P. 2003 “Democracy’s Third Wave” in eds. Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub. The Democracy Sourcebook. MIT Press: Boston

[2] Fukuyama, F. 1992 The End of History and the Last Man. Penguin: London

[3] Klein, N. 14 Oct. 2011 “The most important thing in the world”, The Occupied Wall Street Journal [online] available @ http://occupiedwallstjournal.com/2011/10/the-most-important-thing-in-the-world/

[4] takethesquare.net 2011 “Quick Guide on Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies” [online] available @ http://takethesquare.net/2011/07/31/quick-guide-on-group-dynamics-in-peoples-assemblies/

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The Retreat to the State of Nature

The Tea Party’s Denial of the Enlightenment

Taming Leviathan

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

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

The Nightwatchman State

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

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

The Retreat to the State of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

The Libertarian State of Nature

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

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

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

The Invisible Hand vs. the Social Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Hayek 1944, p 79

[3] Steger & Roy 2010, p 14

[4] Rousseau 1984, p 98

[5] Rousseau 1984, p 101

[6] Locke, Second Treatise §6

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

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

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, §4

[10] Nozick 1974, p 17

[11] Nozick 1974, p 18

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

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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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