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Vol. 1 No. 5 · 20 December 1979

Alasdair MacIntyre claims that new dark ages are impending

Alasdair MacIntyre

Western Political Thought in the Face of the Future 
by John Dunn.
Cambridge, 120 pp., £8.50
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A few years ago there was a vogue in the social sciences for a certain type of real-life experiment. Experimental subjects were, for example, coached to exhibit the symptoms of psychiatric disorders and then presented themselves for admission to mental hospitals: could the psychiatrists tell which were the fake patients and which were the real ones? Some school-teachers were falsely informed that certain of their new pupils had high IQ scores: could the teachers tell which were the children with genuinely high scores from those about whom the information was false, what was the effect on their treatment of the children, and more important, the effect on the children? A skilled actor pretended to be a visiting professor and delivered a lecture on a subject of which he knew nothing and his academic audience was invited to evaluate it, to see if they could tell nonsense from sense in a subject other than their own.

Recently I have begun to suspect that the International Political Science Association has gone to hitherto unattained lengths in constructing such an experiment. Capitalising on the large number of under-employed actors in every major country, they have substituted them for the professional politicians and even for the members of governments, and are watching to see whether anyone will notice. These actors have been instructed to speak and to act in a convincing simulation of political behaviour, but without ever actually quite making sense, either in word or in deed. They are doing a magnificent job, although the organisers of the experiment may well be having moral qualms about its effect in such areas as American energy policies and Soviet behaviour in Afghanistan. (Britain has presumably been the subject of a pilot experiment for the last thirty years).

I find myself able to resist this hypothesis in explaining the cloud-cuckooland behaviour of contemporary politicians and governments, only because an even more plausible explanation has recently been provided. One source for it is John Dunn’s new book. Let me hasten to say that the explanation of contemporary political behaviour is not the primary task that he sets himself. What he is explicitly concerned with is the exhaustion of the resources provided by traditional Western political theory, and with the ways in which the theories and the concepts which we have inherited prove inadequate for elucidating modern political realities. But his book has an importance which goes beyond that primary task.

Political theory is an oddity among academic subjects, a kind of no man’s land between philosophy, history and empirical political science. It is the latter subject to which is conventionally allocated the task of explaining contemporary political behaviour, using survey data, studies of institutions, analyses of elections and the like. Political theory, by contrast, is generally defined so that its subject-matter is a series of texts on the nature of government from Plato to some time safely before the present. As if that were not enough to make the political theorist irrelevant to the politics of his or her own time, academic boundaries have been drawn so that the philosophical systems of which political theories are generally just one part are taken to be the province of the professional philosopher, while the history in which the writing and publication of a political theory was an episode is the province of the professional historian. The political theorist is thus summoned to be a kind of academic superman synthesising the skills of the historian and the philosopher, quite apart from mobilising the relevant pieces of knowledge provided by such kindred disciplines as law, anthropology and economics. The summons has been answered in recent decades by a series of dazzling academic performances: Plamenatz, Berlin, Pocock, Shklar, Wolin, Schaar, and more recently Kelly, Taylor, Ryan, Skinner and Simonds. It is a mark of John Dunn’s distinction that this is the company in which he belongs. But in one crucial way he has outstripped his peers. For he has begun to show cogently in a quite new way why conventional political theory is now a subject of great political relevance. He does so in a short book of immense learning, carefully organised around a central argument.

Dunn begins by examining our modern theories of democracy, how it works and how it ought to work, and shows that they are of two and only two kinds. There is one family of theories, whose ancestors include Rousseau, Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill, according to which a democracy in good order expresses at the level of government the rational preferences of its citizens. And there is a second family of theories, whose ancestors include Tocqueville and Schumpeter, according to which a democracy is a political arena in which a multiplicity of groups meet to maximise their often competing interests. The latter turns out, however, to be merely a rationalisation of the Western status quo – ‘dismally ideological’ is Dunn’s verdict; the former he condemns as ‘fairly blatantly Utopian’. The latter, that is to say, affords us no way of understanding and coping with the modern ostensibly democratic state except on what are its, rather than our, terms; the former offers us no genuine way of understanding and coping with it at all. The latter captures only the most obvious surface phenomena; the former captures only some of our most unrealistic ideals. And if our understanding of democracy is in a state of breakdown and crisis, so are our understandings in other areas also.

Dunn argues, for example, that there are at least two liberalisms abroad and that the problem, for liberals and for others, is how they are to be related to one another. On the one hand, there is liberalism as a set of beliefs about and attitudes towards a variety of what are taken to be goods and evils. This liberalism is impatient with tradition and hostile to any autocracy. But on the other hand, there is that liberalism which is, roughly speaking, the politics of the capitalist mode of production and, more particularly, of the politically dominant class in the great capitalist nations. And the two do not at all coincide. Liberalism as the governmental form of a capitalist order to some degree systematically violates the sensibilities of liberalism as a form of political culture. The liberal who recognises this has only two alternatives. Either he can, as Dunn puts it, shrink his liberal ideals to fit political realities; or he can retreat into an individualistic form of private life, saying with Max Stirner that he ‘has nothing to say to the State except “Get out of my sunshine!” ’

Dunn takes seriously a variety of attempts that have been made to negotiate an intellectual compromise between the two liberalisms. But he finds those that even begin to acknowledge the complexity of political realities internally inconsistent – this is his verdict on John Stuart Mill. And he finds those philosophical constructions that elaborately achieve consistency and coherence abstract and remote from political reality – this is his verdict on the contemporary works by John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Thus liberalism as a stance is liable to a variety of unsatisfactory oscillations and instabilities. Yet what alternatives are there?

Dunn is ruthless, and rightly so, with Marxism and any other contemporary doctrine of revolution. This is not just a matter of the way in which socialism has engendered tyranny, nor of the predictive failures of Marxism. Dunn invokes Plato against modern and especially Marxist illusions in order to argue both that ‘the moral queasiness of power, the perils and splendours of what can be caused to occur’, is a permanent feature of human life, and that ‘the vector of this collective destiny is the individual psyche, the field of choice, endlessly able to choose for the worse and endlessly able to strive for the better, and necessarily and ceaselessly in consequence at war within itself.’ But Dunn’s rejection of Marxism is not the comfortable and complacent rejection which has been so common in the West, which has provided an alibi for a quite unwarranted satisfaction with our own politics. For Dunn does not believe that our more than adequate grounds for rejecting Marxism provide us with anything like an adequate set of values or directions for our own political behaviour. Nor is this only because we have no adequate theory of democracy and our liberalism is incoherent.

We have inherited from the 19th century and earlier a set of ways of thinking about nations which are even more systematically unsatisfactory than our democratic and liberal beliefs. Dunn identifies an implicit ethical relativism in the different attitudes which we take to the interests of our own nation and to the interests of others, an ethical relativism masked by an ostensible allegiance to universal values. This relativism is nowhere more marked than in our judgments of the nationalisms of others: where in our own case we see cultural identity, in theirs we see threadbare ideology. And yet national sentiments are essential to the functioning of modern states: must it not then be the case that a deep underlying irrationality invades that functioning?

This is my way of putting matters rather than Dunn’s. But the fact that this question arises so naturally from his argument suggests its wider implications. For what, as he himself recognises in his introduction, we are entitled to conclude is not just that political theory is no longer a safe guide for us, the theorists or the men in the street, but that politicians and members of government no longer possess any adequate rational instrument for understanding those realities of which they themselves are key parts. It turns out to be the case, that is, that the conceptual idiom of contemporary politics is largely nothing but a set of survivals from past political theories. And the reason we cannot, by invoking those theories, understand what the politicians are doing is that the politicians themselves are using concepts and theories which are incoherent and irrelevant to the reality which they constitute. It is not just that we do not understand what governments and politicians are doing. It is rather that they no longer know what they are doing. Their resemblance to actors mimicking politicians, but not quite making sense, is after all no accident.

Why has this happened? Dunn does not adequately emphasise one central strand in his argument. It is that we have found no way to replace capitalism as an effective mode of production, and yet that capitalist society as it actually functions violates all defensible conceptions of a rational moral order. What is the relevance of this to Dunn’s political conclusions? To answer this question, let me go much further than he does, perhaps even in a direction he would not want to go. The modern Western state is today moving towards bankruptcy. Its economic base, capitalism, continuously generates forms of disorder. These forms of disorder the modern Western state tries to deal with by a variety of bureaucratic and welfare measures, to finance which it has to tax the most productive sectors of that same economic base. By doing so, it produces in that base less efficient modes of functioning which generate more disorder and provide less adequate resources for the state’s palliative measures. We thus find in every modern Western state a strong tendency towards an oscillation between stages in which the taxation and welfare theme is dominant in politics and stages in which the need to rescue the economy by taxing it less is dominant, a tendency which can be temporarily inhibited in a variety of ways, but which continually tends to reinstate itself at every level. Democrats and Republicans, Labour and Conservatives, Swedish Social Democrats and Swedish anti-socialists: these represent not so much or at all alternatives for rational political choice as moments in an alternating cycle. But of course our political culture cannot allow us to admit this: for to admit this would be to make nonsense both of the claims of the politician who believes that he is offering a choice between rational alternatives and of the response of the elector in voting for anyone at all. And, as Dunn points out, the alternatives to Western liberal politics are even less attractive.

Nonetheless, the tradition of Western political theory may have more resources than Dunn allows. In the 282 footnotes and 400 or so index entries which accompany his 117 pages of argument (Dunn is a master of that unrecognised genre, the academic footnote, and uses it to provide the necessary background to his central argument without obscuring it in a host of details), there are some notable absences, among them the names of St Augustine and St Benedict. Yet the moral of Dunn’s distinguished book is surely that new Dark Ages are at hand, and that we shall have to learn to construct communities which have some hope of surviving them.

Dunn’s own doubts are far more measured in their statement than my own drastic pessimism. But I would like to urge upon him that the outcome of his argument has to be an acknowledgment that our own age resembles more than any other that in which the fall of the Roman Empire began to be recognised as an inevitability and in which rational men turned away from the task of shoring it up. The difference is that this time the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers: they have been governing us for quite some time.

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