‘Another Canon of Liberty’

My first post at the group blog Notes On Liberty. I explain the canon, and discuss Machiavelli as the first member.


Liberal and Libertarian Foucault II: The Bosphorus

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

Michel Foucault

Security, Territory, Population. Lecture Two. 18 January 1979

To tell the truth, this structuring function of space and territory is not something new to the eighteenth century. After all, what sovereign has not wanted to build a bridge over the Bosphorus or move mountains? Again, we need to know the general economy of power within which this project and structuring of space and territory is situated. Does it involve marking out a territory or conquering it? Is it a question of disciplining subjects, making them produce wealth, or is it a question of conquering something like a milieu of life, existence, and work for a population?

(page 29)

The Bosphorus stands here for chance which government attempt to overcome. For Foucault, a major feature of the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries is the growing awareness of chance, and the need for an art of government which can master it. This is embedded in the rise of commercial life, and its analysis through ‘economy’. and with the growth of interest in chance and the analysis of probability. Foucault notes the 16th century rise of books of government, advice on how to control chance in affairs of state. Machiavelli’s The Prince is taken as the main example. Foucault seems to ignore the republican aspect of Machiavelli, which would have suited his argument perfectly well. He treats Machiavelli’s book as guide on how the Prince can maintain, and extend his estate. What he fails to note, as far as I can see, is that Machiavelli is also referring to a notion of public interest which the Prince ought to serve, as well as failing to note Machiavelli’s wish to recreate Roman republicanism. This fits with Foucault’s analysis because he sees the move to state control as fitting with the growth of some forms of freedom. The interest in state control for thinkers like Francis Bacon and thinker-statesmen like Richelieu, or even writers of tragedy like Jean Racine, arises from the growing sense of uncontrollability. The people are always inclined to rebel, as is the upper class. Attempts to subordinate the economy to state edicts, as in price controls on wheat, prove to be counter productive: enforcement of a lower price for wheat reduces supply and causes starvation.

In the reference to bridging the Bosphorus, Foucault may have the story of the Persian King Xerxes, recorded by Herodotus, bridging the Hellespont (Turkish Straits) during his attempted invasion of Greece. Xerxes succeed in the building the bridge, but not in subduing Greece. The point of the permanent desire to bridge the Bosphorus (which now has two bridges), is that dramatic efforts to master nature may sometimes produce great results, but this may create an illusion of complete mastery of fortune. Xerxes could not conquer Greece, and the mighty absolute monarchs of early modern Europe could not guarantee sufficient bread for all by attempting to conquer the forces of markets and prices

Adam Smith: Republicanism and Military Virtue

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

Yesterday I looked at how Smith links the progress of commercial society, with all its virtues of education, culture, politeness etc., to the rise of guns used by professional armies. Reading on to An Inquiry into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations V.i.e, antique republican military virtues make a return in Adam Smith’s account of modern education. Smith thinks everyone should be educated to some degree, and this should be legally required, but with a multiplicity of providers. He’s very critical of the provision of education by schools and universities, which he argues is arranged to suit teachers not students. He prefers a more personal relationship between students and teachers, based on the availability of different instructors who have passed a public examination but are not employees of the state.

Smith’s model for this is education in Ancient Greece and Rome, particularly with regard to gymnastic and military instruction, both required for all citizens in the ancient republics, and linked with each other because as Smith has already pointed out, ancient warfare rests more on physical strength than war with guns.

At this point Smith is full of admiration for the military courage and capacities of the citizens of ancient republics. He compares this unfavourably with the spirit of modern militias (that is locally raised units of non-professional soldiers who are part-time outside a state of war). Smith has just explained approvingly how military spirit diminishes, and becomes more specialised, as societies move to commerce, prosperity and liberty.

There was an ambiguity in that I didn’t mention which is that Smith suggests the army chief and head of state should be the same, and that the army generals should be those associated with the head if states. This seems to justify early modern monarchical absolutism, which does rest on the idea that the king is the military chief in a very strong sense, and that his aristocracy provides the generals. It might just mean a return to ancient republicanism where military chiefs might be the main elected state official (e.g. Pericles in Athens), and holding a military post was a political honour.

The passage I’m currently considering pushes in the direction of ancient republicanism. Smith belongs with Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (which he often invokes), Wilhelm von Humboldt (in Limits of State Action) and Benjamin Constant in an ambiguity about ancient and modern virtues and liberties. In their different ways, all these ‘Classical Liberals’ are admiring of the freedom and virtue of ancient republics, driven by the struggle for life against nature, the struggle for the city in war, absolute respect for law, and the institutions and traditions of the city. Smith, for example, is very admiring of the importance the Romans gave to the keeping of oaths (Nietzsche suggests in Genealogy of Morals that human history is about breeding an animal that can keep promises). Smith, Montesquiue, Humboldt and Constant also regard the modern world as better than the ancient world in its individual freedoms and the growth of commerce, which reduces military spirit, respect for ancient customs, and love of the state. There are many deep ambiguities in all of them on these issues.

The one way we should definitely not approach this question, is to think the Classical Liberals can be defined as people who were only concerned with ‘negative’ or ‘modern’ liberties, that is of freedom from external constraints rather than freedom which comes from participation in a community, its politics, and civic values, including courage in war and willingness to die for the common good.

Link of the Day: Philip Gerrans on Montesquieu

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

The Disposition of Things: Spontaneous Order in the Esprit des Lois, by Philp Gerrans.

This is not a very new piece of work, Gerrans published it a few years ago in European Legacy, but has now made it freely available to download as a a pdt, through his home page at the School of Philosophy, University of Adelaide.

Gerrans looks at a few hypotheses about how to interpret Montesquieu Spirit of the Laws (1748), an Enlightenment masterpiece of what we would now call philosophy of history, social science, and political theory. The political theory is sometimes described as liberal and sometimes described as republican. Gerrans interprets that as the difference between liberty defined as freedom from limitations on action, and liberty defined as participation in the community and the political process. I’m rather dubious about how absolute the distinction is and Gerrans seems to accept an absolute distinction, coming down on a purely ‘liberal’ interpretation of Montesquieu. Anyway his account if clear and economical. As Gerrans points out, Montesuieu was highly revered by the framers of the American constitution, though I think he could have said more about the distinction between claiming to incorporate a position, and the

Gerrans looks at how the readings of the separation of powers in Montesquieu, one of the most famous issues in the Spirit of the Laws, referring to divisions between different branches of government. As Gerrans points out, the context is a wish to limit the power of the absolute monarchy in France, and to follow the example of English parliamentarianism. One point I really like in Gerrans is that he refers to Montesquieu’s economic reasons for preferring close relations with England, he wanted to be free to export wine to that country from his domains. That is strictly speaking a trade issue rather than a political system issue, but the English system, then as now, was more free trade oriented. Montesquieu believed in free trade as a matter of principle, but there is no need to detach great thinkers from their economic interests and context. More political economy of he great thinkers would be a good thing, but not in the sense of simply condemning them for having individual economic interests, or for upholding class interests.

The division of powers can be read in different ways in Montesquieu because of he way he is caught between understanding political systems according to Aristotle’s categorisations and a social scientists’ concern with the reasons that institutions exist as they do. There is a third factor, Lockean contract theory in which the executive is limited by the neutrality of judges and the creation of laws by an elected assembly. I think it is a bit of a mistake to get a fully formed theory of separation of power in Locke, that comes from later extrapolation and the persistent tendencies of all interpreters to think their interpretation is present fully formed in some text they particularly revere. Another reading could be on the socio-economic interpretation that as a member of the aristocracy, Montesquieu wanted to protect particular local aristocratic privileges from the threat of a centralising monarchical state. The Aristotelian aspect is the notion of the ‘polity’, the proper political state as a ‘mixed constitution’ combining elements if democracy, aristocracy, and oligarchy (Gerrans leaves out oligarchy).

Gerrans decides to cut through this by putting the interpretative weight on ‘spontaneous order’. This phrase is particularly associated with the free market economist, and limited state, political thinker, F.A. Hayek. Unfortunately I can’t right now find if Hayek invented the phrase, anyway he was developing a way of thinking found in the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and David Hume. This is the idea that human society and economic welfare advance through the effects of an aggregate of freely made individual actions rather than through planning. It’s a matter of discussion whether Hayek has the best handle on those thinkers, as a I’ve pointed out in a number of posts on the egalitarian liberal political theorist, John Rawls. Since Rawls believes in a a market economy, he must agree with Hayek to some degree. Gerrans associates the idea with Hayek and the Scottish Enlightenment, and also with Bernard Mandeville, Michel de Montaigne and the Jansenists (presumably mostly thinking of Blaise Pascal).

The interesting leap Gerrans makes is to link spontaneous order with Newton’s mechanics which do explain how the universe works according to laws of physics without outside intervention. As Gerrans concedes there is no direct evidence that Montesqueiu was interested in Newton, but Gerrans argues for a link on a logic of the text basis. The bits of the text which look Newtonian are the early references to a Malebrancheian philosophy of universal laws, applied to societies, Malebranche’s thinking was close to the Jansenists, so maybe Gerrans could have said more about Pascal’s view of science, but broadly speaking he is correct to draw attention to the link between Montesquieu and the physics of the time.

What Gerrans could have added is that ‘spontaneous order’ is more obviously connected with biology than physics, after all Darwin picked up on Scottish Enlightenment and early political economy ideas. That was well into the future for Montesquieu and his project of a ‘Newtonian’ theory of society does inform his view of separation of powers. Gerrans argues that separation of powers can be seen on the basis of how individuals interact under limited government, so that provides a social basis. That does not explain everything, but I think it is valuable to incorporate this aspect, particularly with regard to what Montesqueiu says about the ‘spirit of monarchy’ which refers to a social mechanism running on individual pursuit of wealth and status.

From Montesquieu’s point of view a ‘moderate monarchy’ on this foundation can accept limitations from the law and from representative bodies. He seems to think in terms of a synthesis of republicanism and monarchy, without making it clear. As Gerrans points out, for Montesquieu a republic relates to classical notions of virtue which don’t seem appropriate to modern commercial society, In Montesquieu’s theory a republic becomes decadent and collapses when it’s citizens pursue wealth, A republican-monarchical synthesis might establish ‘liberal’ and ‘republican’ liberty in the modern world, though that thought is never there in a very direct way (not that I remember).

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.

Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Foucault

Foucault’s work from Society Must be Defended onwards needs to be understood in relation to Montesquieu and Tocqueville. We could even read Foucault as the third figure in a French liberal triumvirate spanning three centuries. This reading may have some problems attached to it, but no more than the other readings of Foucault around and less than most. Foucault’s reputation has been taken over by Post-Marxist/ Post-Modernist/Post-Structuralist leftists for whom liberalism is a dirty word. However, Society Must be Defended coincides with a liberal revival in France which includes a Tocqueville revival. It uses the terms and references of the two great French liberals (and republicans). It’s concerned with the kind of liberty that can exist under different kinds of regime. It’s concerned with the limitation of society in relation to the state. It uses Montesquieu to establish the evolution of the French state, bureaucracy and aristocracy in the Eighteenth Century. The understanding of the relation between the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution follows the analysis of Tocquville’s book of that name. Foucault refers to majoritarian and demagogic aspects of the emergence of left wing and democratic politics, very much in line with Tocqueville’s understanding of the possible dangers of democracy.

The reading of Foucault’s later work will be very incomplete until it is thoroughly understood and discussed in the terms of his two French predecessors in social and political thought devoted to liberty.

Why Buffy and Joss Whedon’s other work matter

Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after three series this lead to the spin off Angel. Buffy ran for 7 seasons, Angel ran for 5 seasons. Towards the end of that period Whedon made 14 episodes of Firefly before it was cancelled by the network. The sequel to Firefly was the film Serenity. All these things have sold in massive amounts on DVD, unfortunately TV and cinema have been more mixed in their returns.

I’ll be returing to the Whedonverse. First of all, why does it matter? Today we’ll concentrate on Buffy. A series with a silly sounding name. The full name of the series, as Whedon points out, combines comedy, horror and drama. The silliness already indicates an interest in combining genres and crossing boundaries. What are the themes that appear and make Buffy important 8and which appear in the rest of the Whedonverse).

Buffy is an icon of female power, often defeating patronising enemies.
Buffy is also an ambiguous character: the hero and the disturbed individualist
The apparently simple conflict between good and evil moves switches back and forth between moral ambiguity and moral absolutes.
Buffy is drawn in different ways to 2 vampire characters (Angel and Spike) who make journeys from good to evil.
Buffy, Angel and Spike finds that despite the elemental conflicts she participates in, that the world has no meaning. The only morsl perspective is what the individual brings.
These characters refer to alientated states of mind and the struggle to overcome subjective alienation.
Characters find that passion drives them and is the basis rather than moral judgement.
Spike shows a moral evolution driven first by the restraint of a violence inhibiting implant, then by love for Buffy and then by regaining his ‘soul’ (soul=conscience in the Whedonverse). Many questions arise here about what morality is and what moral motivation is.
Individual difference and liberty are promoted along with an awareness that they can become alienating and disturbing.
Buffy is drawn towards ‘the dark’, towards violence, aggression and chaos in her own struggle against them.
The struggle against demonic chaos is a struggle to impose the order that Buffy resists.
Characters go through remarkable changes from apparent good to evil, and from evil to good. This is made very material in the vampirasation of Spike and Angel, both events are shown in flashback, and in the ways in which Angel and Spike get their souls back. For Angel, a soul is a punishment, for Spike it is a reward he seeks to make him worthy of Buffy. These tranformations and many others, raise questions about the limits of personal identity and the posisbility of change within continuous identity.
It deals with different possible worlds, as do many philosophers.
It’s very funny, all serious themes are ironised and everything is ironised. This is an important message in itself. Comedy and tragedy are always close together.