Boy Scouts, Bands of Hope, Football Clubs and Corner Shops

Jose Harris

  • Pluralism and the Personality of the State by David Runciman
    Cambridge, 279 pp, £35.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 521 55191 9

Throughout the history of political thought, attempts to imagine, classify and explain possible modes of political life have been characterised by starkly polarised and stylised antinomies. Among the most familiar are Aristotle’s nature and convention, Sir Henry Maine’s status and contract, Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Michael Oakeshott’s ‘Societas’ and ‘Universitas’, Durkheim’s ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic’ solidarity, and Hobbesian vertical ‘command’ models of authority v. Lockean theories of popular ‘consent’. Bertrand Russell described his conception not just of politics and society but of the whole physical universe as poised between a ‘pot of treacle’ and a ‘heap of shot’. In theoretical writings of the last twenty years theorists with often very similar political ends have been deeply polarised between models of ‘liberalism’, and models of ‘community’ that liberalism is widely deemed to exclude.

Just how far such bipartite models are mere heuristic abstractions, and how far they correspond to the facts of ‘real’ social structure and history, has been the stuff of historical and theoretical debate for many centuries. Unsurprisingly, intellectual and social historians have often found the waters more muddied – or more dialectical – than pure theory might suggest. Accounts of the growth of 19th and 20th-century government, for example, were long dominated by the supposed antithesis between ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’, advanced by A.V. Dicey as the master key to the evolution of the modern state. This tidy and convenient model is now largely rejected by empirical historians, not least because many of Dicey’s ‘state-interventionists’ turned out on closer inspection to be philosophical ‘individualists’, while many of his ‘anti-interventionists’ turned out to be supporters of a reified and all-embracing, holistic political theory. The more recent neo-liberal rhetoric of rolling back the state has similarly turned out to have less to do with ‘rolling back’ than with ‘shifting round’ the furniture of the state from some public arenas to others. And as a clue to policy, the conceptual polarity of negative and positive liberty has fared little better, since demands for enlarged state provision in all Western countries are now increasingly framed in terms, not of self-realisation and higher ends, but of consumer satisfactions and individualised private rights.

A rather different range of binary contrasts, but one that similarly links timeless questions of theory to more concrete issues in social and constitutional history, provides the theme for David Runciman’s modestly titled but far-reaching book. Runciman’s study deals not with pluralism in its current, largely sociological, sense of ethnic, cultural, sexual and lifestyle diversity, but with pluralism in its early 20th-century political sense (referring to self-governing groups within the territory of a state and the degree to which they owe their legal existence to that state or are in some sense autonomous). Runciman’s analysis, which ranges from Hobbes to Harold Laski, from the 17th to the 20th century, and across Roman, German and English law, engages with a matrix of closely interrelated and complex questions. These questions, posed by the great natural law theorists of the 17th century and reformulated by the Pluralists of the early 20th, have been almost totally eclipsed. Yet it seems inevitable that they will in one form or another soon be revived, in response to the current enthusiasm for dispersing power upwards, downwards and outwards from unitary national authorities.

The core of these questions may be summarised as follows. Is ‘sovereignty’ a starkly juridical concept with the same timeless properties in all conceivable political regimes, or is it a contingent entity deeply enmeshed in the historical process? Is sovereignty located in a meta-political sovereign who wields ultimate power, or is it reciprocally diffused among the institutions and citizens of the body politic? Is the state an institution superior to, and generically different from, all other forms of human association; or are there many different kinds of autonomous association, each with its own distinct sphere of legitimacy (ranging from churches, universities and trade unions, through to families, gangs, neighbourhoods, pubs and clubs)? And are states and other associations ‘persons’, endowed with ‘personalities’; or is this way of speaking misleading, dangerous and redundant (‘misleading’ because it invokes metaphysical hocus-pocus, ‘dangerous’ because of a slippery slope towards fascism and social exclusion, ‘redundant’ because it adds nothing to our understanding of these groups beyond what we already know)?

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