Liberating Republicanism

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

What do I mean by liberating Republicanism? A few things.

I mean liberating Machiavelli the Republican theorist from the crass parody of him as an opportunistic servant of tyrants, a cynical engineer of despotism, even a version of the devil. Here I can only say, read The Discources, then read or reread ,The Prince. If you think you know Machiavelli, but you haven’t done this, you are very mistaken.

Republicanism is a theory of freedom. A theory in which the state is limited and upholds liberties, but also a theory in which freedom in a society is enhanced by political participation and political rights, by the existence of a political sphere. As Machiavelli notes, there is lot of self-interest at work in that sphere; as Machiavelli also noted, given good Republican institutions that self-interest can be turned into a freedom enhancing struggle for relative prestige. So Republicanism is something liberating.

On the whole Republican theorists have been concerned with the protection of individual rights, including property rights, from the state and from the more extreme decisions of temporary majorities. The two main exceptions are Spinoza and Rousseau, though I wouldn’t want to go down the sad and sorry road of blaming Rousseau for everything bad in politics since the Jacobin Terror, and there are certainly things a Republican concerned with individual rights can learn from those two. On the other side, we have Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, Sydney, and Kant, as the clearest examples, I would also add Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Jefferson, Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.

The obvious thing about that last list above is these are people often listed as Classical Liberals. I think it bizarre that Kant is often not listed among the Classical Liberals, but more on him a bit later. Current Libertarian thinking tends to take those Classical Liberals as all united by a view of individuals and their property as absolute self-contained capsules. On this basis, voluntary contracts and exchanges between individuals are regarded as the only legitimate social relation. The political sphere is seen as valueless in comparison, and at best something to be tolerated as a necessary evil.

This view is most strong in the United States, and is tied up with a disguised nationalism in which it is presumed that the US Constitution rests on the same assumptions. As even some hard core libertarians have acknowledged, this is not a realistic presentation of the US Constitution, or the people associated with its political and intellectual origins (Jefferson and Madison, we could also add Montesquieu and Locke as ghostly intellectual presences). Indeed the most hard core libertarians, particularly the minarchists and the anarcho-capitalists, are bound to concede this if they are at all honest. There is no way that the Constitution presents a night watchman theory of the state, and how could it be am anarchist document?

An honest approach would lead to dumping claim to the thinkers I listed from Locke to Mill, except with regard to particular passages and aspects, which are compatible with hard core libertarianism. I have addressed this recently with regard to readings of Locke and Étienne de La Boétie.

The earliest thinker who really fits in with hard core libertarian thought is Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) in Limits of State Action, but even Humboldt didn’t follow the prescriptions of the book as a Prussian education minister. The next proto-hard core libertarian thinker is Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), a notable economic thinker. A really admirable and sometimes funny writer in the advantages of markets. I would say the same, as I would say about various libertarian economists since Hayek, great economic ideas, how very unfortunate that the view of politics and political liberties is so dismissive.

The intermediate step there is that economic ideas, which are great for explaining how social rationality emerges from free economic decision of individuals, are not so great for dealing with situations where the good is intrinsically collective, whether it’s transport planning or building a constitution. Both of those can, and should be, informed by market thinking, but the market cannot create a decision about whether or not to route a road somewhere, or what the voting system should be. In principle a non-state agency formed by economic agents could have the power to route roads, but then that would not be operating as a purely economic agent and would have acquired a political quasi-state role, and we’d have to ask who gave it this power and excluded other claimants.

One part of this is about showing that Republicanism promotes liberty. Another part of this is about showing that the Republican element in various Classical Liberal thinkers should be liberated from a large part of libertarian thinking. Another part of this is about showing how libertarianism needs to be liberated from the worst aspects of libertarianism. The last part is about liberating Republicanism from left-liberals, social democrats, and socialists.

Republicanism is big in political theory now, but not with people who aim to find some way of combining political culture with property owning individualism. It has become socialism for a period in which the idea has lost a lot of its force. On the political level, Republicanism has been picked up by Demos (a New Labour linked think tank in Britain, founded originally by hyper revisionist Marxists) and the Spanish Socialist Party, and probably some other left leaning groups and parties.

On the theoretical level, the most influential people are Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner. We could also mention J.G.A. Pocock who preceded them with important studies of Early Modern Republicanism, but we’ll leave him aside in this context, Pettit’s idea of Republicanism is very much in the tradition of the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, but wishing to add more something, that is a right of non-domination which is one way of describing the idea of Republican self-government. But Pettit’s interest is in egalitarianism, of a kind which does not look very compatible with the kind of property rights and individualism of concern to Montesquieu and Locke. He has very little to say about political process and political culture, Skinner’s work is mostly on Early Modern political thought. Where he writes about the 19th Century, he produces a contrast between ‘Neo-Roman Liberty’ and liberalism of a kind which would leave us unable to account for a figure like J.S. Mill who believed in civic virtues as well as individual rights.

The left leaning use of Republicanism goes even further with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri where it has become a part of neo-Marxism, drawing on Spinoza, Jefferson, Machiavelli etc. For Hardt and Negri, Republicanism itself is not the answer, but the proper reading of it as the precursor of some transformed version of Marism and communism for the present age. This picks up on well established tradition of seeing Kant as the precursor of Marx, not as a whole but through the reading into Kant’s ideas of transcendental production and unity, of a prefiguring of Marx’s ideal of an emancipated community. There is a whole current of cosmipolitics around in post-Marxist post-Modern political theory, which interprets Kant’s ideas about world federation as fitting into that frame. I’ve even heard these people use Kant as what they regard as an alternative to liberalism and a critic of it.

This kind of reading of Kant can be found in Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) in Socialism, Mises is one of the inspirers of current libertarianism, a free market economist who interpreted liberalism as being about property rights in the most non-political, and even, anti-political way. Kant’s tendencies to talk about a kind of transcendental unity of humanity and history, are interpreted by Mises as socialist, proto-Marxist talk. This is bizarre, Kant is clear enough about property rights, the division of powers, the danger of unrestrained majoritarianism, the role of commerce. Why should Mises and the Neo-Marxists want to agree on reading Kant this way? Kant who thought labourers should be be excluded from the franchise? It suited Mises to turn against anything which shows Classical Liberalism gave value to the political sphere, that Classical Liberalism overlaps with Republicanism. It suits the Po-Mo left (in between mangling Foucault) to find a thinker about the political sphere against a liberalism they have parodied as Mises type anti-political libertarianism. An extraordinary alliance.

Maybe the phrase Libertarian Republicanism could provide a better approach.

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