Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): Second of Two Parts

Oceana is a long piece of ‘utopian’ political fiction writing, which does not really work as an exercise in literary fiction as far as I can see and barely keeps up the pretence. Oceana refers to a thinly disguised version of Britain and a lightly fictionalised account of its history, as a means for expounding Harrington’s thoughts about the best political system. A System of Politics is a more concise and economical account of Harrington’s thought than Oceana though its list form tells you something about Harrington’s limits as a writer.

Harrington is in a friendly dialogue with a major sixteenth century writer, the Florentine republican Niccoló Machiavelli and sometimes in the  earlier part of Oceana in a critical dialogue with a major English writer, Thomas Hobbes, from his own time. The idea that sometimes still circulates of a liberal England/Britain versus an absolutist continental Europe is rather challenged by this. One of the most influential advocates of liberty in British history was inspired by an Italian against an English writer. Though Harrington does refer favourably to Hobbes’ own mentor, Francis Bacon, philosopher, chief minister to the monarchy, jurist, and writer of utopian political fiction. Harrington does not mention the Hobbes-Bacon relation, and his his use of Bacon’s thought suggests a fascination with the kind of monarchism advocated by Bacon which mixes legalism with the application of scientific method to the prudential art of government. Harrington, it appears, wanted republicanism to incorporate such aspects, creating some distance from ancient republicanism in which law comes from tradition and wise individuals rather than the kind of centralised accumulation of new laws and a judicial apparatus to apply them which is what Bacon was dealing with and which also influenced Hobbes. Harrington’s interest in what well run monarchies with some respect for law can teach republics also expresses itself in remarks on the Ottoman Empire and on the famous chief minister of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu, one of the key figures in the development of the modern state and modern statecraft. Harrington regrets lack of knowledge of the principles underlying Richelieu’s formidable achievements in promoting peace within France and taking France above Spain as the leading European power of the time.

When Harrington is focused on republics strictly speaking, he has two main concerns: land distribution, formation of the right kind of aristocracy. These concerns overlap as questions of concentration of land are also questions of what kind of aristocracy might exist. Harrington resists what he regards as the too extreme devotion of the Ancient Athenians to democracy, which did not allow an effective aristocracy to form. As with early modern attitudes to Plato, his preference for Sparta is rather against modern sensibility. However, that preference ran up to the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States which was deliberately designed to prevent the ‘excesses’ of Athenian democracy and promote a ‘balanced’ republic like those of Rome or Sparta which had a long life based on reserving some powers for the aristocratic parts of the political system.

Harrington’s thoughts about aristocracy are directed towards forming a changing open class of people who provide political leadership and resist the wilder extremes and instability of popular opinion. This is more or less a project for the formation of an effective version of what is now generally referred to as a political class or a political elite. Harrington’s belief that the aristocracy should change in composition and exist in balance with the preferences of the common people lead him to oppose land distribution of a kind which created a rigid permanent oligarchy aristocracy of the richest landowners. Laws to prevent this are referred to by Harrington as ‘the agrarian’, with consideration of examples from antiquity and from his own time. He argues against primogeniture (land going to the eldest son) and in favour of equal division of land between the children of landowners which he suggests as well as having political benefits will reduce loveless marriages designed to get propertyless daughters of the aristocracy married to a major landowner. In a rather more general way, he seems sympathetic to schemes to prevent concentrations of landed property. Such apparent interference with property rights may look at odds with how ideas of liberty develop in the classical liberal and libertarian tradition, but Harrington was living at a time when it was very difficult to disassociate land ownership and political power, and more generally difficult to disassociate economic status and political rights.

It takes the continuous  greater development of commercial society which Locke reacts to at the end of the seventeenth century to see that property ownership should be seen in terms of transferable rights and the public benefits of land owned by whoever being part of a commercial system in which its products are traded to everyone’s benefit. The other side of Harrington’s assumption, highly normal for the time, that political power comes from land ownership, is that servants and the economically dependent cannot have full political rights and are not part of the democratic political system. The democratic system that elects an open changing aristocracy in some form of senate along with a a very complex series of other elections of public officials advocated by Harrington. This was enough to make Harrington seem like a fanatic for extreme democracy until democracy did begin to appear in the British political system, with the extension of the franchise in the late nineteenth century following on (but not immediately at all) from earlier agitation on the part of the new industrial working class. His writing is bit frustrating and can seem a bit remote from current ideas of liberty, but in historical context he made a major contribution to the growth of law and liberty in Britain. He deserves to be read by anyone who wishes for a really deep understanding of the development of ideas of government constrained by law and liberty.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.

Why Republican Libertarianism? IV

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

(I took a break from posting this over the holiday period when I presume some people are checking blogs, rss feeds, and the like, less than at other times of the year. Catch up with the three previous posts in the series, if you missed them, via this link.)

The most important advice Machiavelli gives with regard to maintaining the state, is to respect the lives and honour of subjects, refrain from harassing women, avoid bankrupting the state with lavish expenditures, uphold the rule of of law outside the most extreme situations,  and concentrate on military leadership, which is to turn monarchy into a hereditary command of the armies, a republican idea, if the monarch withdraws from other areas of state business and certainly from law making. That is certainly how John Locke, at the beginning of classical liberalism saw the role of kings.

It is true that unlike antique thinkers, Machiavelli does not see human nature as essentially ‘good’, at least when guided by reason and law. What those thinkers meant by good was a life of self-restraint difficult to make compatible with commercial society. Machiavelli understood the benefits of commercial society compared with feudalisms, and though there was an element of antique nostalgia in his thinking, he understood like the political economists of the eighteenth century that public goods come from self-interest, softened but not eliminated, by some sense of our connections and obligations to others.

Machiavelli’s longest book on political thought is The Discourses, a commentary on the Roman historian Livy’s account of the earlier periods of Roman history, covering the early kings and the republic. Here Machiavelli makes clear beyond any doubt that his model state was a republic and though it was Rome rather than Athens, he takes the original step of seeing Rome as great not because of Order, but because of the conflicts between plebeians and patricians (the poor or at least non-noble masses and the aristocracy), which resulted in a democratisation process where the plebeians learned to think about the common good and where everyone shared in a constructive competitiveness which developed individual character through civic conflict under law (well a large part of the time anyway). His view of the republic requires both a sphere of common political identity and action and a competitive non-conformist spirit.

Machaivelli’s republican hopes for Florence, and even the whole of Italy, were dashed by the Medici princes and a period of conservative-religious princely absolutism under foreign tutelage in Italy, but his ideas lived on and not just in the one sided stereotypes. He had an English follower in the seventeenth century, James Harrington, author of Oceana. Harrington hoped for republic in England, though a more aristocratic one that Machiavelli tended to advocate, and was too radical for his time, suffering imprisonment during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of a republican revolution who became a new king in all but name. There was a British republic, or commonwealth, after the Civil War between crown and parliament, lasting from 1649 to 1652, which was then not exactly absolved but became a less pure republic when Cromwell became Lord Protector.

Even so the republican poet, John Milton, served Cromwell as a head of translation of papers from foreign governments. Milton is more famous as a poet than as a political thinker, nevertheless he wrote important essays on liberty, drawing on antique liberty in Greece and Rome, as well his republican interpretation of the ancient Jewish state (important to Milton as a deep religious believer whose most famous poems are on Biblical stories). Milton helped change English literary language, almost overshadowing the ways that he furthered republican political ideas and did so on the basis of an Athenian model of law and free speech. His defence of freedom of printing, Areopagotica is named in honour of the central court of Athenian democracy (though with older roots) and draws on the idea of a republic based on freedom of speech and thought. Both Milton and Harrington were major influence on the Whig aristocratic-parliamentary liberalism of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth and so feed directly into classical liberalism in practice and the defence of liberty of speech and thought to be found in Mill’s On Liberty.

The development of classical liberalism and the libertarian thought of the present come out of the republicanism of antiquity and the early modern period. There is a strand of thought within libertarianism which is anti-politics or only minimally willing to engage with politics as a part of communal human life. However, the parts of the world where liberty is most flourishing, if far short of what we would wish for, are where there ‘republics’ in the original sense, that is political power is shared between all citizens, regardless of the issue of whether a royal family provides a symbolic head of state.

On the whole, historically commerce has been linked with the existence of republics, even within monarchist medieval and early modern England the City of London was a partly autonomous city republic focusing resistance to royal power as it protected its commercial gains from state destruction. Despotism, and the state that plunders civil society, wish for a depoliticised atomised society. Republican politics can go wrong, but the answer is republican reform, republics with less of the aspects of absolutist monarchy and traditionalist power structure, not an idealisation of states which exist to preserve and reinforce forms of authority obnoxious to open markets, individuality, equality before the law, and the growth of tolerance for forms of living not so well recognised by tradition.