What’s Wrong with Republican Political Theory Today? Force, Conflict and the Moment of Decision

Growth of Republican Theory
There has been a recent growth in Republican political theory, though the earliest aspect of it in J.G.A. Pocock goes back some way now. Pocock worked on Civic Humanism in Renaissance Italy and Early Modern Atlantic Republicanism. In the former field, he worked particularly on Machiavelli; and in the latter on James Harrington and the continuation of Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s line of influence obviously goes up to Rousseau, after which the idea of a direct Republican line of influence is harder to maintain.

Kinds of Liberty
More recent work on Republicanism has included Phillip Pettit’s work of normative (analytic) political philosophy of that name, Quentin Skinner’s work on Roman Freedom/Liberty and Machiavelli, and Samuel Fleischer on a third liberty, between the negative and positive liberty I discussed in a recent post, ‘Negative and Positive Liberty: A Short History’. That idea of the third liberty corresponds to the idea of ‘non-domination’ in Pettit. In a comparable manner, Skinner opposes ‘Roman Liberty’ to ‘Liberalism’ which he defines a pure negative liberty, on utilitarian grounds.

Tocqueville and Egalitarian Liberalism
Here I am continuing themes in a recent post on Tocqueville on Republican Politics and the Tyranny of Small Communities, where I suggested that Republicanism recently has been a form of social democracy, a development out of Rawlsian egalitarian liberalism. The recnet Republicans continue Rawls’ theme of defining harm resulting from inequality very broadly, and defining necessary compensation very broadly. For Tocqueville Republicanism is more about maintaining institutions that prevent those with lower incomes from seeking to compensate themselves through limiting the property rights of those with property. That goes along with the wish for institutions that prevent a temporary majority from undermining liberty through any kind of attack on unpopular minorities. Tocqueville’s version of Republicanism has clear precedents in Montesquieu, Locke, and Aristotle. Considering that Tocqueville was inspired by the emergence of democracy as we know it now, in the USA, we could say that this kind of anti-egalitarian Republicanism is at the heart of modern liberal, or representative, democracy. The issue is somewhat more ambiguous than that. Though Tocqueville was against strong egalitarian social measures, he recognised that modern liberty was democratic in the sense that a broad equality of conditions was emerging between citizens of all classes.

State Force
There is another question here. We can place Tocqueville in the context of more egalitarian style liberalism, but we would still need to notice something else about Republicanism, it does not just uphold moral community action, it upholds the state and the authority of the state as something that rests on force as well as consent. That is the dimension that Lockean liberal republicanism and Rousseauesque egalitarian republicanism are overlooking. The state has a an active role in establishing and maintaining republican beliefs, and it uses force against those who threaten those beliefs. Centralised force is necessary to restrain the conformist force which can build up to an irresistable intensity at the local level. as Spinoza suggests, democracy rests on the force of the majority of the people.

Elites and Aristocracy
The point of Machiavelli’s Republicanism is not not just the moral advantage of a community of citizens. While it is important to avoid the still prevalent image of ‘evil Machiavelli’, we should not ignore that recognition of force and coercion in Machiavelli, which does sometimes have a gleeful edge to it. It can be like Nietzsche’ enjoyment of wickedness, which is certainly not an enjoyment of evil for its own sake though. Nietzsche expresses admiration for those states which institute a great political aristocracy, or elite. Tocqueville considered the formation of a modern democratic substitute for aristocracy as necessary in order to maintain liberty under democracy.

Natural and Positive Law
Republicanism in Aristotle is the idea that the political community is a natural good in its own right beyond the aggregation of individual interests. Republicanism in Machiavelli adds the recogniiton that state power is not ‘natural’ and must be instituted, and maintained by force. Tocqueville’s own thought is rooted in Pascal who emphasised that law is based on force in a godless unjust world, as Derrida also emphasises. Pascal finds positive law (law created by institutions, by the sovereign) is not rooted in natural law (objective moral order outside individual interests and historical constructions).

From Mill to Machiavelli

In John Stuart Mill, liberalism retains some elitist-aristocratic aspects, but is on the way to being a doctrine of politics based on consent, discussion and rationality which has difficulty with discussing what makes such activities possible. It is the sociologist Max Weber, who was more able to deal with this because he saw politics in terms of a ‘realist’ theory of pursuing power. Though current Republicanism emphasises politics as a human activity and goal, it lacks any sense of power and the foundations of the state in force. Despite Skinner’s references to ‘Roman liberty’, it lacks a sense of the absolute devotion of the classical citizen to the sovereignty of the state and its laws. They push the more realist ‘wicked’ aspects of Machiavelli aside as they see Machiavelli in rather Rawlsian terms. Machiavelli did not see politics in those terms, he thought that interests permanently clash and not in the sense of constant dialogue, just as Tocqueville thought that politics must be rooted in human pride and the necessary conflicts in pursuing pride. There is something Realist in Machiavelli and Tocqueville, and there is something ‘decisionistic’, that is politics refers to the moment of decision which is never completely justified and is never completely rational.

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