June 29, 2013


Abnormals of all nations, unite! : On the exceptionality of political liberty (Catalin Avramescu, 12/10/07, Eurozine)

We hold "normality" to be something we should assume, if not cherish (providing we do not re-interpret normality as "mediocrity", which is very different). However the authors of the discourse on exemplary constitutions did not adhere to this view. For them, the exemplary constitution was by no means "normal". On the contrary: they considered it a highly improbable, if not unique, result of a number of causes and circumstances. Imitating or perpetuating this constitution, they thought, required exceptional strength, skill, and determination. 

The main reason, though, for this scepticism towards normality has to do with the analysis of the nature of man and of the body politic. According to traditional authors, individuals and states, left to their own devices, have a natural tendency to slide towards subjection of the worst kind. The best demonstration of this was provided by the jusnaturalists from Grotius and the Spanish Scholastics to Locke, Wolf, and Rousseau. The Law of Nature was not the immediate foundation of the law of civil freedom; Hobbes contended that life in the state of natural liberty is "nasty, brutish and short".

To simplify: we have two apparently opposed perceptions in the universe of traditional political theory. From the Greek orators, who praised the liberty of the polis to Hegel on the role of freedom in Western history, we discover on the one hand an emphatic defence of freedom as realized in the exceptional constitution. On the other hand, many of the same authors adopt a bleak stance on the capacity of "others" to raise themselves to the standards of the exemplary constitution. In particular, there is a strong feeling, first cultivated in Europe by the Greek observers of the Persian monarchy, that non-European states are un-free in the highest degree, and thus the opposite of an exemplary constitution.

These perspectives are, in truth, two sides of the same coin. They originate in the belief that political liberty, on the one hand, is exceedingly rare. Despotism, serfdom, oppression, and anarchy, are, on the other hand, commonplace. Either because these are consequences of the fallen nature of the human individual, or because the institutional arrangements required in order for political liberty to exist are extraordinarily complicated. Whatever the reason, religious or secular, numerous thinkers in Europe focused on a limited set of free constitutions that they considered worthy of emulation; at the same time, they rejected the "normal" political constitutions of European and non-European societies. In the development of European political theory, normality was not predicated as a political ideal, but on the contrary, something to be guarded against. 

Today, we believe that democracy is the "normal" state of a society. We are probably wrong. [...]

In the nineteenth century, exemplary constitutions fell out of fashion, especially in the emerging states of eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. A more optimistic mood prevailed. If modernity had succeeded in a few European states, then anyone could do it, right? Perhaps even do better, especially if one added a dose of socialism or nationalism to concoct an individual recipe of "emancipation". Pamphlets and manifestoes were written that showed how abnormal and unjust the situation of the nations at the periphery of capitalism had become.

Against this background, the standard references of classical political theory started to fade. The fate of liberalism is telling. In the eighteenth century, liberalism was essentially an aristocratic doctrine, infused with republicanism and preaching a responsible, grave, and ironic freedom, inspired by the Roman example. It was certainly very different from the faceless and amorphous doctrine we know today.

The rise of influence of the French model was also significant. While it is wise to guard against sweeping generalizations, we should, nevertheless, admit that the role of France has been largely malign. It is the origin of the two of the most warped ideologies ever visited on mankind: communism and fascism. After 1800, France also managed to export its administrative model to an unsuspecting world, above all to eastern Europe, where France was considered, culturally and politically, as a role-model. The Civil Code and the institutions of the French state became an inspiration for reforms. The result, however, was largely unappealing. A society swamped in bureaucracy, taxpayers saddled with punitive taxes in order to finance an inefficient and useless system of "social benefits", a corrupt and self-serving judiciary, and intellectual elites with a taste for etatism. Interestingly, France enjoyed a very different status in the writings of the theorists of exemplary constitutions. With very few exceptions, they believed France to be an example of bad polity, unlike Rome, Venice or England. 

Sadly, the End of History doesn't end happily for most people.  

N.B.  Be sure to check out the author's unusual book: An Intellectual History of Cannibalism

Posted by at June 29, 2013 4:42 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus