Like the last post, this is a follow up to a post of a few days ago ‘Emptying Republicanism: Hegelianism Pettit and Skinner’. The point I’m picking up today with regard to the ‘Neo-Roman liberty’ argument is the belief of Pettit and Skinner (though it is Pettit who really emphasises these kind of current political theory concerns) that Neo-Roman liberty is distinct from, and a barrier to communitarianism and a despotic civil humanist form of republicanism. The real point of the Neo-Roman liberty thesis is that the wrong kind of republicanism leads to a form of politicised communitarianism, which leads to totalitarianism. Communitarianism in political theory is the position that common ethical values found political rights rather than an individualistic conception of rights. Such a belief could be pursued independently of the state, in attempts to deepen community in a voluntary way, however, it could also provide the basis of state enforcement of total obedience to a set of communal values, or to the authority of those who claim to represent such values.
Pettit and Skinner presume than Roman republicanism provides a better model than Athens of a republicanism that respects individuality, which is a bit strange since it is not at all obvious how Rome was more respectful of individual rights than Athens. The meaningful distinction for the Neo-Roman argument is that between the citizens’ assemblies of Athens and the more dispersed nature of sovereignty in Rome. That is in Athens at its most democratic,just about all governmental and legislative business is decided by the ekklesia, the gathering of all citizens. Rome also had such meetings, though unlike the Athenian gatherings votes were counted in such a way as to benefit the aristocracy. Rome dispersed power between the assembly, the senate (the aristocracy), consuls (two of whom shared the powers of a king for one year), and in the later republic tribunes elected by the Plebians, so a part of the state which was plebian to match the aristocratic senate. In practice, at various times in later republican history the mood of the mob or the prestige combined with military muscle, off a distinguished general could outweigh constitutional authority, and the whole system became permeated with corruption.
What other ancient city state model contrasted with Athens? Sparta, which is something of an embarrassment to the Neo-Roman position. Power was divided between an assembly, a senatorial body, two life time kings, and 5 ephors who served form one year each. Polybius, the Greek historian and political thinker, who was brought to Rome as a hostage, compares Sparta and Rome as the candidates for best state. Both had endured for centuries with the same laws, apparently. Sparta, unlike Athens, was known for the extreme military life style and training of its men from the age of 7, and also unlike Athens was not known for commerce, freedom of expression, or culture. The Roman republic lasted for about 4 centuries, but then gave way to the ‘Empire’ to the supreme power of one man given various titles at the time, but known to us as the Emperor. Athenian democracy lasted until Roman domination of Greece emptied Athenian political institutions of any meaning.
The bad political system identified by the Neo-Romans is one in which republicanism becomes a totalitarian state ideology. The obvious example of this is the time of the Jacobin Terror in revolutionary France form 1793 to 94. So did the Jacobins look back to Athens? No, not as such, in fact they looked back to Rome, and very consciously modelled themselves on the austere virtuous aristocrats of Republican Rome. The real target of the objections to Civic Humanism and Athenian republicanism is Marxism and to some degree the extreme right, though this is less present in contemporary thought. Non-communitrian and non-Jacobin thinkers like John Stuart Mill have looked approvingly at Athens.
The idea of Neo-Roman liberty is meant to provide a differentiation for Republicanism from libertarian forms of liberalism and totalitarian forms of political community. It does neither at all well.