Kierkegaard on the Limits of the State II: Religion to Politics

The last post looked at Kierkegaard’s highly critical views of the state church in Denmark to establish his negative view of the idea of a Christian nation or a state led church. Carrying on from the points more addressed to Christianity to those points more addressed to the nature of the state, Kierkegaard is strongly condemnatory of the employment of 1 000 clerics by the state.  I can’t see any basis for that figure which is presumably at least as much used for its symbolic convenience as for its reference to the actual number of priests funded by Danish tax payers. The claim is made, going beyond church issues alone, that 1000 poets employed by the state would not be good for poetry. The comparison between poets and priests is particularly signifiant for Kierkegaard who was strongly concerned with the relation between the aesthetic and the religious. The decision to compare priests and poets is suggestive of an assumption that while religion might be higher than aesthetics, it is not the abolition of the aesthetic, and the religious point of view is always confronted with the kind of subjectivity that appears in poetry, and is necessary to poetry. There is a general suggestion that the state has a killing effect on areas in which it becomes involved. This applies most directly to the poetic and religious as what has the most individualising appeal. The importance of individuation runs throughout Kierkegaard. To some vey significant degree, Kierkegaard’s arguments for Christianity include the idea that this is the only, or certainly best, way of becoming an individual in the strongest sense, though it only does by placing extreme demands on individuality.

These considerations on the negative effects of the state being present in poetry and religion, might still leave a lot of possibilities for a large and interventionist state. There is little in Kierkegaard to suggest that he thought in that way though. He gave large amounts to charity, and though he did not demand an end to any state role in maintaining the income of the poorest, he does not demand more such activity from the state either. He does compare the church with law courts, without any suggestion that the state should withdraw from the provision of a criminal justice system, or any aspect of administrative and civil law covered by state courts at that time. There seems to be an implicit distinction between what belongs to the state and what belongs to civil society, particularly with regard to the interaction of subjective individuality within civil society.

State sponsorship of Christianity produces the wrong kind of Christianity,  which is not that of the development of individuality, and that is the implicit fear about a generally extended role for the state. The argument is not then oriented to the growth of commercial life, or even the security of individual rights, which classical liberalism  argued would be enhanced by an appropriately limited state. However, the idea of a general strengthening of personality and growth of culture (the ideas of growth and culture are of course closely linked in basis), was part of such arguments in Humboldt, Hume and Smith. Kierkegaard can be seen as radicalising those arguments, so that the growth of the most inner driven aspects of cultural expression, of the forms of communication most obviously caught in a tension between subjectivity and communication, is what is enhanced by the limitation of the state. We might looks for some precedent in Kant’s discuss ion of the sublime and the beautiful as part of subjective reflective judgement.

Ideas of state form are not very important to Kierkegaard, or not in any direct way, but we can see some engagement with that question. Kierkegaard’s default seems to be preference for a strong monarchy, even an absolute monarchy, but he does at times acknowledge that the relations between ruler and ruled need to change, suggesting a recognition of consent, and evolution in how that consent is given, as necessary to political life. Eve n revolution sometimes gets a favourable thought as a way in which individuals try to find the kind of absolute political unity, provided by absolute monarchy. Not that Kierkegaard ever advocated any form of government unlimited by law and custom. Monarchy he sees as something to be separate from religion, removing a pillar of the Danish monarchy, and of monarchy in general.  He has an attachment to Copenhagen as a world in itself, which is often just part of the background, as in his repeated use of the tension between the duty to go to church, and to visit the Deer Park, then as now a major feature of the city. Sometimes a deep sense of belonging to Copenhagen as the kind of community where the individual can belong emerges. Looking for an implicit political theory in Kierkegaard, we can see a limited monarchy and strong communities at more local level, presumably incorporating forms of city or local self government.

Some Good Links: Persons, Ethics, Politics, Economy


1.  Persons (and ethical agency)

‘The I in Me’..  Thomas Nagel reviews Galen Strawson’s  book Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics.  London Review of Books.  5th November 2009.

Nage; a distinguished figure in metaphysics and ethics discusses Strawson’s view that there is no deep ‘I’ or ‘self’ that endures over time.  Nagel does not add much of his own views, but an excellent account of Strawson.  One thing Nagel does not mention is that the title of the book is a riposte to Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959), well known book by his father Peter Strawson.  P.F. Strawson though metaphysics should be descriptive, that is should be close to our common sense and everyday language, and was a strong defender of the view that the ‘self’ or ‘person’ is a basic substance of metaphysics.  G. Strawson is a critic of common sense and everyday language, claiming that these are responsible for misleading notions like the substantive ‘I’, leading him towards what his father called ‘revisionary metaphysics’, that is a metaphysics which looks for structures concealed by common sense and everyday language.  There are questions of moral responsibility that arise in discussion of personal identity, that Nagel only refers to briefly.  G. Strawson’s view poses a challenge to ideas of moral responsibility, by questioning the existence of a person who can be held responsible.  The next link refers to the issue of personhood and ethics from another direction.

Ethics (personhood and virtues)

‘Integrity and Fragmentation’ by John Cottingham. Clicking on the link starts automatic download of .doc file from Cottingham’s website. The paper will be published as an article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in 2010.

Hat tip philpapers

Cottingham looks at the role of integrity in ethics, drawing on the virtue theory tradition, which is concerned with the kind of character and habits conducive to human flourishing and ethical actions.  Drawing on ‘Athens and Jerusalem’ (Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Christian religious texts), Cottinghman finds an implicit role for ‘integrity’, partly captured by Aristotle as ‘the unity of the virtues’.  From these sources, and their coming together in Aquinas, we understand that the unity of live over time, and the unity of our character traits, is necessary to the good life, if not all that is necessary.  Cottingham brings the more recent ethical philosophy of Bernard Williams and Harry Frankfurt into the discussion, particularly with reference to the inadequacy of integrity on its own, to fill us with a sense of obligation.  As Cottingham points out, this is a central insight of Nietzsche’s.  G. Strawson takes Nietzsche as the source of arguments against the idea of a deep self over time, so we see here how metaphysics and ethics connect.

Politics (ethics and economy in republican political theory)

‘Freedom in the Market’ by Philip Pettit, a freely available pdf of a 2006 article in Politics, Philosophyy & Economics.

Hat tip philpapers

Pettit’s best know book Republicanism produces a theory of freedom in which the ethical value of individual freedom is not just freedom from constraint , but freedom from ‘domination’, where domination means being bound by laws or commands to which we have not consented, directly, or indirectly through representative political procedures.  That leads into ‘republicanism’, the tradition in political thought, which refers to freedom, and human flourishing, as including political rights and participation, at their centre.  Pettit approached this tradition in Republicanism in a perspective which seems indifferent to the freedom of individuals in the market, and very concerned with rectifying apparent threats to freedom in capitalist society.  I sometimes get the impression in that book that the republican critique of a minimal liberal commitment only to freedom from direct coercion, is embedded in a negative attitude to the liberal market economy.  However, in this paper Pettit does pay tribute to the importance to freedom in the market place, he notes the importance of property rights and free exchange in the economy as ways of escaping the coercive subordination to a master that is the fate of many in a economy lacking in markets.  Markets create choice including a choice of employer/master.   Pettit distances himself from ‘libertarian’ notions that all regulatory constraints on exchange and property are wrong, but he puts himself in the same territory as moderate libertarians (in recent political theory Jerry Gaus, going back a bit further early Hayek,and going back even further most of the Classical Liberals) by referring to trade offs between property rights and the more collective public kinds of goods.  That is we have to choose which combination maximises liberty.

Politics (Political and Economic Liberalism)

‘From Liberalism to Social Democracy’.  Geoffrey Kurtz reviews Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson.  Dissent.  26th August 2009. A bit late with this link, but the story is still on Dissent’s homepage. so I can just about include it.

`Kurtz, following Kalyvas and Katznelson, refers to the way that Classical Liberalism of the late Eighteenth and very early Nineteenth century, was constituted through a move from Antique Republicanism to a consciousness of a more modern individualistic kind of liberty.  Thomas Paine, James Madison, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant are considered,  That is an advocate of the American and French Revolutions, one of the main figures in the early American Republic as a President and political writer, a Scottish Enlightenment historian and political thinker, a Scottish Enlightenment professor of moral philosophy who wrote a great work of economics, two French writers of literature and political thought.  These were all people concerned with the kind of freedom pertaining to the ancient republics, based in civic duty and participation, the death of those republics, and the kinds of liberty possible in a modern individualistic commercial society.  Completely the right context for discussing the origins of liberalism.  The argument goes onto the suggest the inevitable evolution of classical liberalism into social democracy, which to my mind is not as necessary an evolution as claimed, but it is certainly an outcome of that republican-liberal moment, rooted as it was in appreciation of the liberty of commercial society.

Economics (a return to Political Economy)

Econ Journal Watch

It’s free to download, economists of reputation write in it, and it contains no equations.  It can certainly be read by anyone with a basis understanding of political and social issues.  Any reader of Adam Smith would have gone beyond it in dealing with economic complexity.  The basis of the journal is that contributors criticise articles in established economics journals, and the author(s) of the piece under criticism are offered the chance to reply and have the final word, which they often take up, if not always.  I haven’t had to go through it systematically yet, but so far I’ve read some very interesting debates about interpretingAdam Smith and the success of Swedish welfarism.  Something else that caught my eye, but have’t read yet is a debate with Bill Easterly, one of the world’s leading development economists.  and a major contributor to debates about ending Third World poverty.

The journal has a methodological bias and a political bias.  The methodological bias is towards non-mathematical economics, the belief that economics is a broad discussion of individual and social rationality and action, in which maths may be useful but which is distinct from mathematics.  The political bias is towards free market classical liberal and libertarian thinking.  The methodological and political orientation come together as ‘Austrian Economics’, most famously represented by F.A. Hayek, who was preceded by Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Ludwig von Mises (the latter is the most important figure for many ‘Austrians’).  The beauty of the journal is that in some ways it gives the advantage to those who are most against the journal’s approach, so in some ways it’s the Keysians and non-free marketeers who should read the journal to see sympathetic views, rather than ‘Austrian’ liberals and libertarians.

The editor, and founder, Daniel Klein, is someone who is very interested in, and aware of, bias in economics and takes very seriously the idea of exposing bias in the most serious and consistent way, of admitting to his own biases, and finding ways of formulating discussion between those with differing biases.

This journal deserves to be read by a broad audience.  Please have a look.

UK Classical Liberals Commemorate Foundation of Turkish Republic



29 October 1923: Republic of Turkey is founded following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

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Foucault’s Two Perspectives on Liberalism: 75-76

Also available at

Barry Stocker’s Weblog ( with visual content

Bosphorus Reflections (Blogger)

This is a somewhat delayed thought coming out of the Beyond Boundaries conference on European studies at Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul earlier this month (check blog archive for earlier posts).  In between leaving the conference, and giving my paper, a conversation came up about the relation between Michel Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish and what I said in my conference presentation about Society Must be Defended based on lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-6.  The books appear to overlap in time, though presumably Foucault did most of the work for Discipline and Punish before 1975.

Even if we take the two books as sequential rather than simultaneous, comparison between them suggests a dual attitude to liberalism, which illuminates his attitude to liberalism from 1975 until his sadly early death in 1984.

The political understanding of Foucault has on the whole been to take him as very left inclined, and as both Marxist influenced, and as establishing the grounds for a Post-Marxist radical left, maybe under the name of radical democracy.  There has been a gradual shift away from that in the understanding of his work from 1975 onwards, but the shift is far from complete. Discipline and Punish was the key text for most of this kind of understanding of Foucault as it puts sovereignty, power, law, and coercion at its centre, and could be taken to endorse a strategy of localised struggles against alliance between state power and economic power.  Even that has an ambiguity not noticed by many, which is that classical liberal/free market libertarian thought is also against that alliance.  Left wing Foucault followers are not likely to notice that, since like most left thinkers they assume market liberalism is about defending the corporate-state alliance.  This is partly because self-styled libertarians and classical liberals have often done that in practice, however, that is in contradiction with the principles of classical liberalism.  The most radical parts of that spectrum share with Marxists a utopian belief in the abolition of all state connections with economic interests, in a completely spontaneous socio-economic order.

At least one commentator noticed that the Foucault of that time was open to the free market kind of liberatarianism, Martha Nussbaum.  That’s a rather awkward example since Nussbaum has a very dismissive attitude to French ‘theory’, regarding Foucault as no more than the best of a bad bunch.  Still, she gives Foucault some credit, and sometimes the person outside the community of enthusiasts is better equipped to pick up on aspects of the thinker concerned.

There is a critique of liberalism in Discipline and Punish, but in retrospect that can be seen as critique in the Kantian style, that is the way that Kant thought of critique as establishing the foundations, and limits, of thought.  Here is a list of what we might regard as criticisms of liberalism in Discipline and Punish

Enlightenment concern for the sufferings of those exposed to torture and execution in the judicial process, is a step on the road to the greater coercion of long term imprisonment and attempts at inner ‘reform’ .

The struggle of the accused, and the convicted, with torture and execution, gave them more power to resist power, that the hidden process of the prison regime.

Public execution provide opportunities for popular revolt against sovereignty, which are eliminated in the world of ‘humane’ punishment.

The claims to rest punishment, and all laws, on internalised ‘norms’ of reason is a greater aggression and coercion than judicial torture, and public execution, on the body of those facing sovereignty.

The most direct critique of liberalism maybe in the account of the ‘panopticon’, the model prison designed of Jeremy Bentham, a major figure in early British liberalism.  The panopticon is analysed by Foucault as a diagram of modern power, which rests on the internalisation of norms.  All prisoners can be observed at any time from the central observation of tower, and them ‘internalise norms’ by following rules at all time and they could be under observation at any time.

Politics as war

The first thing to note here is that ‘liberalism’ has not necessarily ignored these issues.  The idea of the movement to universal social rationality was very much noticed by Max Weber, the great sociologist, who played a role in German liberalism.  He did not regard this as an entirely good thing, and Foucault’s account is dependent on Weber’s though I am not sure if this is directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously.  Confirmation can be found in David Owen’s 1994 book, Maturity and Modernity:  Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault and the Ambivalence of Reason, though I doubt that Owen would support the political conclusions I am drawing.

Society Must be Defended, and other books based on Foucault’s Collège de France lectures,  suggests that for Foucault, disciplinarity and other forms of modern power, like biopolitics, can occur in more despotic state and more moderate state systems.  It’s difficult to see any political project for a going beyond the moderate state, which can also be called the liberal state.  There are things going beyond liberal politics as previously understood, such as the self-creation of the self, or selves, and the interest in the rebellious actions of the most marginal groups.  Neither of these things are in contradiction with liberalism though, particularly as Foucault puts them in the context, respectively, of antique republican government and resisting state power as such, even where justified by Marxist and other radical left discourses.  Liberal thought contains accounts of the value of differing and varied personalities.

On war, Locke recognises that the state is always close to the point where it is war with the population, because it breaches natural rights and government by consent, Humboldt saw war as having value in he formation of independent personalities.  Weber emphasised the irreducibility of force and violence in the existence of the state.

In general, what emerges in Foucault’s 75 to 84 phase is a dual attitude to liberalism.

A strong critique of  any idealisation of abstract norms and universal laws; and any humanist ideal of a unifying ideal human direction in history.

A strong critique of all non-liberal politics, and the recognition of the value of a civil society which has a market economy at its core in limiting state power.

Liberal and Libertarian Foucault III: Physiocrats

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

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lecture Two (page 207)

Actually, we can say that thanks to these measures, or rather thanks to the suppression of the juridical-economic straitjacket that framed the grain trade, all in all, as Abeille said, scarcity becomes a chimera.

The context of this quotation is a discussion of the impact of Physiocrat doctrines in 18th Century France. Quesnay, Turgot and others argued that grain shortages could not be cured by the measures the French monarchy had been using, that is measures of state coercion to keep down prices and prevent hoarding. The measures of the absolutist French monarchy to prevent farmers from storing grain and pricing it according to demand, are still the kind of things a lot of people find immediately convincing. Many states in the United States now, have laws against ‘gouging’, that is charging high prices for goods in an emergency which causes shortages. The issue of hoarding is linked, since those selling grain, or any other good, will not hoard it unless they expect to charge high prices for it in some future shortage. A reaction popular now, shared by despotic French monarchs is that shortages arise from hoarding, and shortages arise from sellers charging too much during an emergency.

Foucault endorses the Physiocratic policies, which anticipate Adam Smith who met the Physiocrats in a visit to France. As Foucault points out, it’s the Physiocrats who coined the phrase ‘laisser faire’ (letting it happen) in economics, and linked phrases like ‘laisser aller’ and ‘laisser passer’; and as Foucault implies, that policy worked. Allowing farmers and merchants to ‘hoard’ and ‘gouge’ ensures that enough grain is produced, and stored, to mean that there is no starvation even in times of relative shortage. As Adam Smith pointed, France was much more prone to hunger than Britain with less measures to restrain prices and prevent large scale storage ‘hoarding’. As Foucault recognises, the starvation of the poor was alleviated by following English style policies, which allow prices to go up. That benefits the poorest, since such market incentives mean there will still be grain available in times of relative shortage and much more cheaply at those times, than if the price of grain has previously been restrained.

In these lectures, Foucault is as much describing, or analysing, as judging or evaluating. The evaluations often have to be inferred, nevertheless the context really does not allow any interpretation other than that Foucault thought that the Physiocrat policies were an improvement on Mercantilist regulation. The quote above makes it clear that Foucault thinks such policies limit the power of the state in a desirable way.

It would be wrong to present Foucault as simply celebrating the market policies of 18th Century governments; he is constantly concerned with the way that limits on the ‘juridical-economic straitjacket’, or more generally sovereignty, biopolitics and disciplinarity, are consistent with their expansion. The French monarchy accepted Physiocratic policies in order to keep its power. That does not change the reality that Foucault recognises a preferable kind of power where state regulation is limited.

On a more general note, I ma titling this series of notes ‘liberal and libertarian Foucault’. Making this more precise, I would not link Foucault with those who insist that Classical Liberalism, or Libertarianism, means the end of all welfare and all regulation; and certainly not with those who think the state should be abolished or turned into a nightwatchman only, minarchist entity. Somewhat earlier, when Foucault was in contact with Maoists was the time he was closer to anarchism. Later text display anarchistic tendencies, but are overall disposed to look for a reasonable limitation on state power, and more dispersed forms of power, rather than abolition.

Foucault was always a man of the left, but I would argue on the basis of his later texts, that he was moving closer to an earlier sense of ‘left’ or ‘radical’ which regarded state intervention on behalf of sectional interests, or increased statism in general, as the enemy of liberty and of opportunities for the poorest to improve their living standards. Again, we must recognise the critical side of this; Foucault also points out that the original radicals, along with later socialists and anarchists, had attitudes based on ‘race war’, that is identifying the state and privilege with a non-national entity. I also doubt that Foucault thought all the forms of growth in state intervention since the early Nineteenth Century could, or should be, terminated. Extrapolating from these late texts, what others close to him have said, and so on, I would say that Foucault moved towards a position where he was in broad culture and allegiance on the left wing of politics, but in details on the left, or more moderate, side of free market libertarianism, allowing for state welfare but suspicious of the consequences of allowing state activity beyond very strict limits. I should also add that his concerns with disciplinarity and the dispersed nature of power, precludes a position in which the presence or the absence of the state is the definitive issue.

Foucault, Libertarianism and Europe

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

I’ve pasted in a conference abstract below. It’s an expanded version for the conference book of abstracts and serves as a summary of themes I am interested in around liberal political philosophy, European identity and politics.

‘Political Theory and the End of Europe: Foucault against Habermas’

I’ve taken the opportunity to look at Habermas’ status as a philosopher of the European idea, examine his political concepts critically and take up Foucault from a Classical Libertarian political point of view. Thee Foucault versus Habermas debate is well established, but the the best of my knowledge no one has looked at them in these terms before. I’ll look at how the anarcho-conservative Hoppe takes up Habermas, and the areas of difficulty that suggests in Habermas’ progressive liberal-Marxist synthesis; and look at Foucault’s relation to Antique Republican and Classical Liberal ideas in his later texts. This is in the cause of suggesting that Foucault provides a better basis for European political integration, because it is less reliant on ideal harmonisation than Habermas.

The conference is Beyond Boundaries: Media, Culture and Identity in Europe, hosted by Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, 2nd to 3rd October 2009. The conference is supported by an EU funded project run by Bahçeşehir University, University of Potsdam, and the University of Applied Sciences, Potsdam.

Jürgen Habermas is almost the uncrowned Philosopher Prince of the emergent European polity (the European Union, and more loosely the Council of Europe, with the EU as its ‘hard core’); and its cultural and media ecology. Habermas’ analysis of deliberative democracy, and cosmopolitanism, is of obvious relevance in constructing a European polity; and is embedded in theories of discourse ethics and communicative action which provide strong, ethical, and epistemological context for his political theories. Habermas tries to overcome two polarities: hierarchy of the political system versus democratic participation; individual rights versus economic egalitarianism. He works on this through notions of ethics, and rationality, in which it is assumed that both lead the individual to act according to the rules of the public sphere and a cosmopolitan political order. Habermas is sometimes troubled by the relation between the consensual aspect of the state and its more coercive ‘steering aspect’; and the difficulties of instituting democratic, and legal, accountability for the complex bureaucracy, which administers the social state through administrative orders, rather than to democratic political decisions, or court judgements, in accordance with legal norms. Habermas’ analysis also, more indirectly, suggests a problem with harmonising democratic decision with the power of judges in a law governed democracy. These tensions in Habermas’ work find expression in the work of Han-Hermann Hoppe, who wrote his doctorate with Habermas, but has since turned discourse ethics into a foundation for a ‘propertarian’ anarcho-conservative position. Without endorsing Hoppe’s position, it does give a very useful indication of how Habermas touches on areas of concern to Classical Liberal and (free market) Libertarian thought. Foucault’s thought is better adapted to these problems. From Society Must be Defended onwards, Foucault distinguishes between the more despotic forms of power and the more limited form of power; between absolutism, or totalitarianism, and govermentality. The idea of governmentality is not the idea of a perfect liberal consensus based on government by consent; it is investigated itself with regard to attacks on the body in biopower and disciplinarity (power over life and death; imposition of regularised activity). Foucault’s approach to liberal government is highly critical, but his analyses of political and ethical thought, and practices, since Antiquity, strongly suggest that he finds individualistic liberty, market economics and limited government to be the best possible counter to the most coercive aspects of power. Comments by associates like Jacques Donzelot on Foucault’s later thought, and the social theory of associates like François Ewald, confirm the impression that Foucault was aiming for balance of individualistic market liberalism, and welfarism. His late comments on Austrian School free market economics, certainly suggest Classical Liberal, and Libertarian, sympathies. The cultural, and media, legitimacy of the emergent European polity can be best elaborated through this kind of analysis, which address those aspects of trans-national European sovereignty which cause most disturbance to critics of European integration. Foucault allows us to avoid the utopian dream of a seamless relation between individualism and collective welfare, between democratic participation and political hierarchy, because he sees legal sovereignty and coercive power, autonomy and mastery as intertwined, in an unavoidable paradox. This establishes a way of thinking in which European sovereignty, including its cultural, and media context, can be both affirmed and seen as in need of restraint, and dispersion. Though Foucault did not directly address issues of the emergent European polity, his later texts are deeply concerned with pan-European ideas of sovereignty and government, including the way that modern European nations emerged as fragments of Roman sovereignty, which they saw themselves as preserving.

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.

How Locke uses Money to Solve the Land Problem

In chapter 5 of his Essay on Civil Government, ‘Of Property’ Locke famously refers to property as emerging from the land mingled with labour. Presumably he would have been rather startled to find that one line of interpretation of that remark leads to Marx’s labour theory of value. What he says about property is certainly very influential. In one aspect, it is an early sketch for political economy, some of what he says anticipates Adam Smith, particularly with regard to currency and trade, and that would be because Smith had read Locke, though he had other sources for those ideas as well.

A major issue is the way land is turned into property, beyond that moment of labouring on the land. At first Locke seems to be relying on the idea that land is infinitely available, and there’s no need to worry about someone having a lot because there’s always more land somewhere. In the end, that somewhere is America, Locke being sadly careless about the rights of existing inhabitants, but he was far from the only one. America made a deep impression on Locke, he did remember Native Americans when claiming that their political structures confirmed his idea of a compact (i.e. contract) at the foundation of political society. The emptiness comes back when he refers to the right to withdraw from a political society and to go elsewhere to help form a new political society with better rules, he is certainly thinking of the New World as the place for that.

Land clearly has some limits. How have those who claim to be heirs of Locke reacted to that in recent years? The most famous ‘libertarian’ would be heir to Locke was Robert Nozick, in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia. As far as Nozick is concerned, land running out is not a problem. The only issues are to do with freedom of contract and markets. Nozick refers to a ‘Lockean proviso’ that taking land should not harm anyone and comes to the conclusion that no harm is done by accumulating land of everyone is still free to buy and sell in an open market, and presuming we are not in some highly unusual situation like a small desert island where one person controls the only fresh water supply. The Lockean proviso is therefore irrelevant outside such peculiar circumstances.

There is a ‘left-libertarian’ response from Michael Sandel in Libertarianism without Inequality, which is that Nozick’s ‘Lockean proviso’ is to weak to capture what is in Locke’s original intuition. This leads Sandel to argue that property should be distributed, and redistributed, so that everyone starts with an equal amount at birth, and that would largely eliminate the need for a complex tax and benefit system administered by a large state apparatus to achieve egalitarian goals. A variation on that is the argument stemming from Henry George for a land value tax, which would be a rent on the collective good of land, and which would pay for basic public goods (things everyone benefits from like freely provided police services). These are attempts to have libertarianism, a minimal state, combined with economic equality.

Strangely both sides of the argument have overlooked the way Locke develops the argument from paragraph 37 onwards in Chapter V. Locke refers to the emergence of money as a way in which everyone can benefit from everyone’s production by having a convenient instrument for swapping the product of my labour with the product of anyone else’s labour. What Locke gets out of this, in relation to the land problem, is that money means that unequal land appropriation is not a problem. So long as the proprietor sells the products of the land, then everyone benefits because the range of things that can be bought has increased and everyone has gained.

What Nozick is essentially doing is appealing to the idea that in Essay on Civil Government, the right to have and increase property is such an over-riding idea that it must override the problem of land running out. There is a more immediate argument to hand which suggests that the land problem is only a problem in a non-money economy. Just the willingness of the proprietor to barter the products of the land is enough for Locke.

That looks like victory for Nozick over Otsuka, though we really should not use exegetical arguments as a substitute for arguments of principle. In these exegetical terms, I think Otsuka does have an advantage overNozick, which is that Nozick underestimates the degree to which there is ‘public good’ in Locke, which is decided by a representative assembly. How far public good can override property rights in Locke is a tricky question from an internal point of view. So let’s introduce an external point of view. Where is Locke coming from politically? Support for the Whigs who where dominant at the time that the Essay on Civil Government was published (1689). Was there a system of the kind proposed by Nozick where the state is purely an agency for enforcing contracts and punishing violence? No, in many ways, and accordingly taxes were much higher than would be acceptable from the perspective of a Nozickian absoluteness about property rights. I would say, we need to interpret Locke as allowing a lot of latitude to ‘public good’, certainly enough to impinge on property rights though not enough to undermine the right to have property and keep it. Locke, and Nozick, are right to believe that in a free trading economy with money everyone benefits from the use landowners make of land.

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

I said that we should not confuse exegetical arguments with arguments from principle. I will nevertheless say that Locke’s text, with the hermeneutic aid of the political settlement he supported, is against both

restricting the right to acquire property

the notion that property is outside regulation and taxes which benefit the public good.

I presume that from a Lockean perspective that the amount of regulation and taxation should be very modest, and that those proposing such measures need to demonstrate their benefits very clearly. This all seems correct to me, something I would take up in my political perspective, and that this is the right way of taking most taxes in Classical Liberalism, despite what endless numbers of (mostly American) ‘libertarian’ keep claiming about Classical Liberalism leading to almost no state and little idea, or culture, of a public good. I don’t think their readings are worse than Rawls, but I have already addressed that a few times.

John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche on Individualism

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Mill, not just the link.

John Stuart Mill picture in the image above.

I always find it creates a bit of a shock if I suggest that John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche had much in common about anything. It’s true that Nietzsche was rather rude about Mill and that they expressed contradictory views about parliamentary democracy and the women’s movement. However, it is also true that it would be absurd to interpret Nietzsche according to the first impression his provocative rhetoric gives; and it would be absurd to say that two philosophers who disagree could not have underlying agreement in the area where they have some disagreement.

Nietzsche’s criticisms of 19th Century liberalism need two major qualifiers:

He expressed admiration for liberal figures like Voltaire, Mirabeau (a leading moderate in the early stages of the French Revolution) and Kaiser Friedrich (very briefly German Emperor between William I and II, and unlike them a supporter of liberals in German politics).

His criticisms of parliamentary democracy, and democratic culture, are expressions of the same criticisms that 19th Century liberals had of the culture and politics of the time.

The general context for this, is that 18th and 19th Century liberalism was very anxious about the consequences of a democracy which incorporated voters with little, or no education and property. As much as anything, liberals of that time were concerned with restricting the possibilities of levelling down egalitarianism and incoherent populist surges in democratic politics threatening individual righys, and in the earlier part of that period tended to prefer limitations on voting rights. I would say that idea broke down with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40), a major influence on Mill, which really established the idea that it was only a matter of time before all developed countries became fully democratic. Mill himself thought political rights should be denied to ‘barbarous’ peoples, like Tocqueville he thought such peoples should be educated for civilisation and democracy through colonialism. Even in the advanced countries, Mill was concerned with uneducated voters participating in the political process and suggested giving more votes to the more educated. Sometimes, Mill comes very close to suggesting a new aristocracy of education, and intellect, should be ruling in ways that insulated them from waves of popular feeling, amongst the uneducated. In some sense, the existence of a constitution and laws, interpreted by judges not popular assemblies, makes that true of all modern democracies; something Tocqueville who was from an old aristocratic family noted with great interest.

That’s the background, let’s list some specific points where Mill and Nietzsche agree

Modern society promotes conformity and uniformity which undermines the existence of strong and diverse individuals.

Traditions and customs, particularly religion, are chains on the mind which should be cast off.

Traditions and customs, including religion, produced the great, strong, and varied individuals of the past.

We need to find ways of producing great, strong, and varied individuals for the future.

A society is at least partly justified by its creation of particularly notable strong and varied individuals.

Higher cultural values should be recognised, and defended against uniformity in culture, which always descends to a low level.

State decisions should never be based on the immediate desires of an uneducated mass.

I believe that clearly establishes some common ground. Further commentary on this would looks further at themes common to Mill, Tocqueville and Nietzsche; and would consider the relation to Mill and Nietzsche to the kind of liberalism established by Wilhelm von Humboldt in The Limits of State Action. Mill refers directly to this text. and while I’m not aware of any direct references in Nietzsche the parallels are most striking. These issues should be coming up in future posts.

Nietzsche’s Friend Jacob Burckhardt: How a Conservative 19th Century Historian Anticipated ‘Poliitcally Correct’ views of Antiquity.

I’ve just started reading The Greeks and Greek Civilization by Jakob Burckhardt. Burckhardt was a friend and colleague of Friedrich Nietzsche at the University of Basle. Unlike Nietzsche, Burkhardt was a native of Basle. He turned down the chance to succeed to Leopold Von Ranke’s chair in Berlin. Ranke was a great historian, who preached objectivity and the importance of archives, but also wrote history from the point of view of the Prussian dynasty. Burckhardt rejected Ranke’s Prussian-German nationalism, but from a conservative point of view. In this he followed the precedent of Goethe. The emphasis Burckhardt puts on the individual above national state ideology also gives him a liberal aspect, like Nietzsche. They were both suspicious of democracy and mass culture, from the point of view of an individualism which stands above conservative tradition, particularly in its religious aspects. At the very least Nietzsche and Burckhardt turn conservative tradition into an instrument of individualism, and Nietzsche certainly found it possible to take the same view of democracy. Both of the Basle Professors shared an early enthusiasms for the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Both were attacked by the brilliant but narrow minded philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorf.

I was previously familiar with Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which looks at the individualism of the Renaissance as a movement in politics and statecraft as a well as art, and which clearly bears comparison with Nietzsche. In fact both books by Burckhardt are essential companions to Nietzsche’s philosophy (that is not to say they are the same in all respects).

The focus of today’s post is the way in which Burckhardt anticipates attitudes to antiquity from a ‘politically correct’ point of view since Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. I do not have a firm view right now of Black Athena, or any text influenced by it. I may return to this in the future, all I have to say for now is that I am sure that Bernal addressed issues that need to be addressed about the place of Greek antiquity in the broader antique world. It may or may not distort history for political reasons. It may or may not mix such distortions with valid points.

The issues that are associated with Bernal and his followers that matter regardless of the value of what they wrote: the Greek polis (city state) follows the example of earlier states in the Near East; there are ways in which aspects of Ancient Greek thought that take things from the Near East: some aspects of Near Eastern culture and thought were in advance of Greek culture and thought in antiquity.

Where does Burckhardt come in?
1. The Greek polis, to some degree, was preceded by Phoenician city states in which the supreme power of rulers was limited by an aristocratic council.
2. Ancient Greek culture took many things from the Ancient Assyrians and Egyptians.
3. Ancient Greek culture seemed immature to the Ancient Egyptians due to its faith in immediacy and lack of any real transcendence of perception.
4. Ancient Greek culture had an instrumental attitude to truth and oath taking whoch shocked other Antique peoples and this is not just a case of seeing the worst in another culture.

Burckhardt emphasised other things that undermine the idealisation of Ancient Greece, particularly the view of the polis as the goal of human existence. Burckhardt emphasises that the polis emerges from extreme violence on villagers. A polis was formed by forcing inhabitants in a group of villages to leave their homes and live within fortified walls. The reasons for this were militaristic. The process in which villagers were forced to live in a polis in constant military conflict with rivals is what lies behind Greek myths of sacrifice (voluntary and involuntary) to the interests of the state and the harsh punishment of critics of the state. Villagers had the cruel experience for Ancient Greeks of being torn from the graves of their ancestors. Legal codes were designed for the aristocracy who struggled to protect original laws against amendment and addition by the people. ‘Democracy’ was based on one group forcing itself on other peoples and subordinating them to itself. This could happen because citizenship excluded slaves and those of foreign origin, as well as women. Greek gods were immoral and this limited Ancient Greek moral understanding, which included obsessions with revenge, though this was mitigated to some degree by philosophy. However, even philosophical ethics was primarily concerned with the health of the individual self, not obligations to others.