Defending Political Liberty in an Administered World

This is a very rough work in progress continuing on from my recent post on ‘Law, Judgement, Republicanism’.

The problems with a free and open political and judicial culture were diagnosed by Max Weber in his discussion of bureaucracy, which itself draws directly and indirectly on various accounts of the problems of bureaucratisation and administration of the social world (which itself began in the 18th century, at least in terms of explicit discussion  of bureaucracy). Wilhelm von Humboldt’s comments on bureaucracy in Limits of State Action is, as far as I can see, the first clear instance. Before that, the closest precedents are, I believe, in comments on the rigidity of Roman law in Montesquieu, which may have been at least in part against the laws and legal institutions of France in his own time.

Bureaucratisation and an administered world can themselves be seen as resting on the necessity of an integrated, hierarchical, rigid, and institutionalised legal system of a ‘Roman’ model, which is true even when thinking of ‘common law’ jurisdiction in England and its off-shoots (England, not Britain, because Scotland has its own more Roman system, and differences between English and Scottish legal institutions survived political union). This process, described in various ways by Weber, Schmitt and Foucault, Austrian school liberals and Frankfurt School Marxists, also rested on the simultaneous formation of commercial society and national economy described by Arendt. Arendt’s account is particularly enriched by comparison with Foucault on the emergence of the art of government. 

The consequences of these legal, administrative, governmental, and economic processes  is that the political sphere is deprived of content as a means for addressing the community as a community of judging, reflective individuals. Politics becomes competition for control of administration and the distribution of economic benefits that come with with this control. The political world is influenced by a drive to the kind of homogenisation favoured by the world of administration and positive law, which turns into struggles about identity and ‘political correctness’. That is, the struggle to define the dominant identity, with claims to a pluralist position still governed by the wish to establish the dominating identity as more tolerant (which can happen in a ‘progressive’ manner), as in a community seen as a community of communities or a ‘conservative’ manner, where there are distinct communities tied to nations or possibly non-interacting historical communities within nations. 

Arendt suggests a perspective aristocratic contest in politics taken from Greek antiquity, particularly Athens, as the antidote to the above. Foucault also has a perspective taken from Greek antiquity, of care of the self, which can also be understood as aesthetic techne, in which our capacity for self-affection is developed in self-creation and recreation, though not as a purely aesthetic play. Machiavelli was in some respects the advocate of the modern integrated state, of sovereignty concentrated in an individual who integrates society through the power of his political skill and creation of a dominating rhetoric or symbolism. In Machiavelli, though, we can also see much that comes from Ancient republicanism filtered through the republicanism of the late medieval city states of northern Italy.

There is not just the remnants of ancient republicanism but its transformation in a world where the state is increasingly invested in territorial control, distinct from the personalised nature of the state as understood before (either in the person of the monarch or the persons making up a republic). The ‘cynicism’ of Machiavelli has its starting point in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, where reason is applied to speech in public places, particularly the courts of law and the political assembly. Though Aristotle distinguishes between the rhetoric of courts and assemblies, he does show a commitment to the idea that they belong to a common world of persuasive speech. Rhetoric appeals to the less deductive parts of human judgement, even the parts of human judgement which come from immediate emotional reactions, but never just that.

The prince who is human and animal, moral and self interested, is also the strong lion and the cunning fox, within his animal self. There is a sense of the total possibility: symbolism and self invention of individuals engaged in the political world. The judicial connection with politics and the social world for whom law is in some sense dead, an accumulated wisdom from the ancients now codified and open to commentary, but not part of political life except in the administrative and governmental roles that Machiavelli himself had for a while on the basis of his legal training, mingled with humanistic (Latinate and literary) education.

Even so, we can see some ideas lingering in Machiavelli of the importance of law in political life, so that it is the ‘parlements’, partly independent and locally representative law courts, of France which gives its monarchy some of the liberty of a republic. In The Prince it is the case that the energy of the people defending its state and its liberties, where they have some history, outweighs the power of the princely ruler, so that classical Polybian republicanism of the Discourses is never completely absent from The Prince.

Most significantly, Machiavelli leaves a legacy which can be seen behind the 20th century attempts to find an alternative to an administered social world. There is the charismatic leader in Weber, the agonistic aspects of politics in Arendt, and the ethics of self-creation and transformation of the self in Foucault. The charismatic leader in Weber should not be understood as a dictator or a person above politics, but as the way in which legally and formally constrained politics can still engage with the social world and the free judgements of individuals. The agonistic politics in Arendt is not just nostalgia for Athens, but an account of what it is to have individual goals and public awareness in a political community. Ethics in Foucault is not just self-creation out of nothing or a non-political playfulness, it is about how we can have free judgement in politics and law. The glory the prince seeks in Machiavelli, and by the citizens of a republic, is a way of seeing that politics combines autonomy and prestige as driving forces in a historically located and contingent political community. Machiavelli anticipates the ways that Arendt understands political freedom to be related to a Homeric culture of seeking fame in public life.

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