Me on Rousseau at the July ‘Rousseau’s Republics’ conferences in Bristol

My abstract has been accepted and my registration has been completed for the Seventeenth Biennial Colloquium of the Rousseau Association, Rousseau’s Republics.  

I have no claim to be a Rousseau specialist, but I hope to have something of value to offer as someone very interested in Rousseau, and who is working in political theory.  I tend to work in various things, but at present if I’m a specialist in any one figure, or aspiring to be in my current research, it would be Foucault.  Things I’m working on in Foucault will have some relevance to the Bristol paper, but I will only refer to him in passing.  Machiavelli, Montaigne, Pascal, and Hobbes will be my main references apart from Rousseau. These are not full discussions, other wise the paper would take hours to read, but aspects of their thought which illuminate Rousseau’s position on sovereignty and law in a modern republic, compared to an ancient republic   I should be speaking on Foucault at an event later in the Summer, more on that when everything is confirmed.  

The title and abstract are at the bottom of the post.  Broadly, I’m looking at Rousseau in the light of the contrast between ancient republics and modern republics.  The contrast was set up in the eighteenth century, though most famously by Benjamin Constant in the early nineteenth century (‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’).  I consider the contrast to be illuminating buy question it in its sharpest forms.  The more rigid forms of this contrast tend to make Rousseau the modern enemy of modern liberty, on the grounds that he wanted to revive the total authority of the social body over the individual in the ancient republic.  That this is a brutal portrait of Rousseau would come as no surprise to Rousseau scholars, but I think there is more to be said about how Rousseau both idealises Ancient Republics particularly Rome, and how he is distant from them in important respects, largely to do with his view of law as will by a political sovereign rather than emerging from local customs, and the ways in which law comes from the divine and natural realms in antiquity.  That modern emphasis on the relatively arbitrary nature of law making, and its source in a political sovereign will connect with issues I looked at in a workshop paper on Hobbes from a couple of years ago (and which I have failed to work on since),  and in which I bring in Pascal on the paradoxes of law.  That is the way that human willed law lacks absolute justice, which it must claim, since it is historically contingent and dependent on political will.  Montaigne also comes in here with regard to the foundations of law, and Machiavelli with regard to a view of politics in ancient Rome which Rousseau draws on, but which is much less rationalistic and abstracted.  

As I am not a real Rousseau specialist, unsurprisingly most names at the conference were previously unknown to me, but I am looking forward to hearing all the papers, given the conference is organised round a clear theme, and all the paper titles look connected to me.  The only speaker known to me before as a Rousseau specialist is the conference organiser, Chris Bertram.  I recognised two other names, Charles Griswold and Ryan Hanley, with regard to their work on Adam Smith.  That is certainly an interesting connection for me (Smith and Rousseau) and brings up a major preoccupation for me, the relation between libertarian political theory/classical liberalism (emphasising individualism and voluntary cooperation in the economy and civil society ) and republican political theory (which emphasises the value of politics).  There is a widespread view that more of one means less than the other.  Though I agree that a lot of one excludes the other, I don’t believe that it is always a question of mutual exclusion, and within moderate limits more of one can mean more of the other.  If anyone finds this strange, for the moment I will just refer to: Ancient Athens, most democratic, most individualistic, and most commercial, of the Ancient Greek republics; Renaissance Italian city states; nineteenth century France, Britain and America (not to idealise any of these examples).  






Rousseau’s political thought is in large degree an attempt at a purified version of the Roman Republic.  Rousseau discusses the history of Rome, including Cicero’s account of the Republic, and engages in a more implicit discussion of Machiavelli’s understanding of Rome.  Rousseau finds that the Roman Republic is established on the basis of general will, and on his understanding of government under general will, but also deviates from the general will.  The Ciceronian understanding of the republic is of a mixed mode, a form of government rejected by Rousseau.  Though Rousseau is close to Machiavelli’s Discourses in some respects, e.g. praising the institution of dictatorship, he is also implicitly opposed to the value Machiavelli places on political conflict.  The distance of Rousseau from both Cicero and Machiavelli, is the outcome of the the emphasis on the ‘general will’.   The foundation of ideal republican law, on the purity of the general will, makes Rousseau distant from the Ancient republics he praises, since the laws they have are relatively impure, and do not rest on the purity of the ideal of the general will.  Rousseau looks for the work of the general will in the law codes of ancient legislators, and in this falls back into justificatory myth comparable with his view of religion as civic religion.  The kind of law Rousseau aims for has a universality, and fixity, lacking in ancient republics.  Ancient republics referred to the sanctity of supposedly unchanging law and tradition, but not of an unchanging formal set of laws decided by a deliberating sovereign body.   Cicero thought that the best republic was Rome, because Roman laws and institutions developed in stages.  Rousseau prefers to emphasise that law as given in a pure form by Numa, whom he equates with ‘nomos’.  Rousseau’s conception of law is distinctly modern rather than ancient, and comes from the difficulties early modern thinkers discussed in defining law, and the foundation of law, as purely just.  Montaigne, and then Pascal, gave particularly well defined accounts of the problem of equating state enforced law with justice.  The general will, in Rousseau, is an implicit answering claim that there can be law which is just.  Rousseau is also implicitly answering Hobbes’ suggestion that there is no republican liberty, except as an anarchic threat, because all states rest on law issued by the sovereign, which constrain all citizens.  The Hobbesian condition of being under law is a restraint on liberty in all states.  Rousseau needs to show how the sovereign must be the whole people, which is the general will, and that the people cannot delegate the general will to any individual or institution.  In this, Rousseau partly follows Hobbes’ account of how the initial compact is formed, but resists Hobbes’ next step of the creation of an artificial man as the law making sovereign.  Hobbes argues against the cogency of ancient republicanism.  Rousseau can only defend Roman republicanism by instituting a modern republicanism based on the purity, and inalienability, of law, distinct from ancient republicanism.  

Myth Busting: Britain’s World War One Commander Haig Elevated

It is still widely believed that Britain’s generals in World War One were incompetent upper class effete buffoons, who condemned British soldiers to four years of hellish trench warfare through laziness, fear and general ineptitude.  This was built up for obviously self-interest reasons by the Prime Minister Dave lloyd George, and Winston Churchill, who dominated political war planning from 1916.  Of course it suited them to blame all problems on supposed aristocratic idiots in the upper echelons of the armed forces.  The biggest target of abuse has been Douglas Haig (often referred to as Earl Haig or Field Marshall Haig) who led British forces on the  Western Front from late 1916.

It  It is interesting that this negative stereotype always includes the idea that the generals were effete as in the famous (and to my mind highly over rated) BBC series Blackadder, where a stock World War One General is played by the gay broadcaster, writer and actor, Stephen Fry.  Fry cannot possibly have wished to contribute to gay bashing stereotypes, and I’m sure the writers did not either, but now looking back it is surely obvious that there is something very wrong in presenting someone as incompetent and obnoxious, with reference to negative images of gays as inherently cowardly and dilettante in personality.  The negative presentation of Britain’s World One Generals has even sometimes included suggestions of gay cliques running the army badly.  There is certainly no reason to believe that Haig was gay, or even at all camp, and certainly no reason to believe a gay clique was dominating the army.  There would be nothing wrong if Haig had been gay, or just camp, but the fact is he was not, and it is all very irrelevant.

What led me to these thoughts was a piece by Richard Dannatt, who was cently commander of the British Army (in the sense of the land forces, not all the armed forces) in today’s Daily Telegraph about the five great generals in British history.  He refers to debate tomorrow (9th April 2011) between eminent military historians about the greatest generals in British history.  He does not give further details except to mention the five generals under consideration: Oliver Cromwell,  the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill, ancestor of Winston Churchill), the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley), Haig, William ‘Bill’  Slim (often know as Field Marshall or Viscount Slim).  Dannatt selects Slim as his favourite, but also makes it clear that the mockery and condemnation of Haig is a gross injustice.  This is certainly the view of current historians, and was the popular view at the end of World War One.  Haig’s reputation became the victim of self-serving political memoirs, the growing unpopularity of World War One as a senseless bloodbath, and the myth that the United States of America won the war.  That last one is certainly still far too widespread.  The Armistice which ended the war was signed before United States troops could play any role in  the Western Front at all close to the contributions of France and Britain (and their various colonies and dominions), and it was the opinion of the German High Command that they could not resist further advance by those predominantly British and French forces which led to a request for an Armistice.

Haig was a conscientious and brave man who (like Churchill) got as near the front line as his aides would allow him.  He was not able to stage an immediate breakthrough on becoming British Commander as Germany had the superior army, the best land force in the world at that time, for reasons going back well before Haig.  Britain had no large standing army in peacetime (though it did have the biggest navy in the world), and it took time to organise the army properly as a huge fighting mass on the Western Front.  Haig was also faced by a big relief of pressure on the Germans from the Eastern Front, as Russia’s effort declined after the February 1917 Revolution overthrow of the Tsar, and the withdrawal of Russia after the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.  Nevertheless, he was able to resist sustained German breakthroughs and plan an offensive with the French, which changed the strategic balance in the autumn of 1918.  It inevitably took years of experience to work out how to launch a successful offensive against an enemy deeply dug into a extensive system of trenches and defences.

The image of Haig as a psychopathically snobbish member of the upper classes, careless of the lives of his men, and unconcerned about their fate is perhaps the most grotesque distortion.  The reality is that after World War One he devoted his remaining years to raising money, and helping to administer assistance, for military veterans.



>A few interesting links: Finance, History, Political Thought

>Some things I saw online today, I think are worth sharing, but  I don’t have much to add.

Hedge Funds moving from London to Malta
Jan Boucek at the Adam Smith Institute on why hedge funds are shifting from London to Malta
Article in the Financial Times referred to by Boucek

As Malta is in the EU, this somewhat undermines Eurosceptic free marketeers who think the EU kills business compared with a the UK as it retains its own currency; and undermines left-wingers who think the coalitions government in the UK is too market and pro-financial sector in the most extreme way.

British Liberals Discuss Giving Shares in Nationalised Banks to Everyone
UK Liberal Democrat oriented political policy foundation CentreForum, publishes pamphlet by Lib Dem MP, inspired by Portman Capital Partners to distribute shares in banks nationalised after the financial crisis to everyone in the country, giving everyone some pay back for bailing out these banks.  Of course in practice most shares would end up with institutional and wealthy individual investors, but it would give some benefit to the whole population, and would probably leave a few people with a taste for share ownership and stock markets.

Italian War to Conquer Libya in 1911-12 from the Ottomans, First to Use Airplane Bombing
Brendan O’Neill at Spiked Online.  Not someone I agree with about everything, much to inclined to take a blame western imperial powers for all problems in post-colonial countries line, but great points about Italian conquest, partition between France and Britain after World War II, Anglo-French manufacture of Libyan state and monarchy in the 1950s.

Classical Liberal/Libertarian Attack on Neo-Conservatives and Leo Strauss
An important issue since libertarianism and neo-conservatism have evidently merged in some people’s minds.  C Bradley Thompson posts ‘Neoconservatism Unmasked’ at Cato Unbound.  Particularly an attack on Leo Strauss, the German-American political theorist who influenced some notable neocons.  Rather sweeping and intemperate, but certainly correct in emphasising the authoritarian anti-individualist Platonist element in Straussian thought.  Thompson accuses the Strauss and the Neocons of Fascism, going too far to my mind.  However, there is no doubt that Strauss started of as a supporter of the more moderate forms of Fascism, and he ended up influencing thinkers on left (Mark Lilla and William Galston) and right (Peter Berkowitz and Allan Bloom) with communitarian, traditionalist and anti-individualist tendencies.  In the end Strauss can be described even by his contemporary American apologists as no more than a friend of democracy and modern liberalism, and certainly not a a democrat or modern liberal by deep conviction, only in the sense of supporting them in an ‘occasional’ way, like the Catholic based parties in early 20th century Spain and Germany, which paved the way for Franco and Hitler with their lack of deep commitment to liberal democracy.  Of course current American Straussians are no creating a similar situation, but their influence is certainly not to the benefit of liberty or a vigorous democracy of strong open antagonisms and challenges.  Straussians tend to attack Nietzsche as an immoralist and nihilist, I learned a lot more about liberty and virtue from Nietzsche than from Strauss.