Mere Life or More Life?

Glen Newey

  • Great Books, Bad Arguments: ‘Republic’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by W.G. Runciman
    Princeton, 127 pp, £13.95, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 14476 4
  • Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy by Bonnie Honig
    Princeton, 197 pp, £15.95, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 15259 2

Here are the nominees for the greatest bad argument in political theory. They are: Thomas Hobbes, for Leviathan; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for The Communist Manifesto; and Plato, for the Republic. Why them? Each of the candidates is hallowed as a Penguin Classic. Each has been foisted on freshman generations in Pol Phil 101. And each could be thought to exemplify, after a fashion, the aristocratic style in political theory. Indeed, each of the three contenders either was a blueblood in his own right, or spent much of his life cheek by receding jowl with them. They have imagined a political theory that comports with their standing as ottimati in their own right, or their counsellors. Plato was an Athenian nob, connected via his mother, Perictione, to several of the Thirty Tyrants. Hobbes spent virtually all his adult life in the service of the Cavendish family, of the earldom (now duchy) of Devonshire. Even Marx, a Rhineland Jew, managed to cop off with the daughter of the Baron von Westphalen.

It can all make one feel a bit déclassé, or indeed jamais classé. And our form guide is Walter Garrison, 3rd Viscount Runciman, the former president of the British Academy, whose jacket photo shows him sitting, presumably in his study in Cambridge, fingers interlaced, gazing evenly at the reader. It’s fitting, then, that the three greats are dispatched with superb hauteur. Plato ploughs in the Pol Soc exam, as the Republic ‘turns out to be confused in formulation, illogical in exposition and implausible in application’. Hobbes goes one better, failing ‘twice over’ by his inability to explain co-operation without a sovereign, or dissension with one; his contentions are variously ‘weak’, ‘simply not true’ and ‘absurd’. Meanwhile, over in the British Library, Marx is making a pig’s ear of the history paper. His analysis of class societies proves ‘flawed’, ‘naive’ and ‘ludicrous’.

So what led people to think that these three supposed classics were so marvellous in the first place? Various explanations, such as Myles Burnyeat’s suggestion that a great text lends itself to multiple interpretations, are summarily entertained and dismissed. However commendable a lack of clarity may be in fiction or verse, Runciman points out, it ill serves these authors’ avowed aim of writing a how-to guide for aspirant guardians, autocrats or proletarian revolutionaries. Nor are they to be read primarily as religion, or literature. Given the title of Runciman’s book, a subversive thought suggests itself. Might it not be the hallmark of a classic text that it serves to edify later generations, or at any rate flatters their amour-propre, just by bungling memorably? No. Or, at least, Runciman doesn’t think so, and probably rightly. Since the greats have hardly cornered the market in non sequiturs, the question remains: what is it that makes these blunders stick in the memory?

The answer cannot, Runciman argues, be given by contextualism, also known as the Cambridge School, which treats historic texts not as readings for a timeless seminar on the philosophical verities but as interventions in local political debates. On Quentin Skinner’s reading, Leviathan aimed to reconcile waverers – especially erstwhile royalists – to the new republican regime in England after the civil war. But, Runciman says, contextualism is ‘antiquarian’: it treats canonical texts as breathless dispatches from history’s front line, to be endlessly recycled thereafter for reasons unknown.

Instead, Runciman puts down the texts’ durability to grammatical modality. They swap the indicative or imperative mood for what he calls, at the end of the book, ‘optative’ sociology. This neither describes nor directly enjoins, but imagines how desirable things could be brought about, given certain conditions: ‘They are masterpieces of anger transmuted into hope.’ Plato, Marx and Hobbes are not utopians: they take humans pretty much as they come. Accordingly, they don’t imagine us being replaced by morally regenerate androids, as in, say, News from Nowhere, William Morris’s spine-chillingly joyous vision of life in 22nd-century Hammersmith. What they do say, in Runciman’s paraphrase, is: ‘If only this were to come about, how much better a place the world would be!’

This sudden inauguration of optative sociology jars somewhat. For the first nine-tenths of the book, Runciman hauls Plato, Hobbes and Marx over the coals for various kinds of argumentative solecism. Arguments may be bad because they are invalid – that is, the conclusions don’t follow from the premises – or because they’re unsound: the premises are false. If the problem is that they are unsound, then the premises’ lack of truth is not remedied by acknowledging the fact and retooling them as optative rather than indicative claims. Similarly, arguments are valid or invalid regardless of whether or not their premises are true, in which case the sociological accuracy of their claims ought to be beside the point.

Anyway, it now seems that sociological credibility, as established by the historical record, is not really what matters. The Republic and the rest are permitted to claim that, given favourable conditions, humans are malleable enough to modify their behaviour. It is hard to know what standard of empirical veracity Plato and his fellow candidates are being held to. As these conditions are, in the nature of optative sociology, counterfactual, it is possible that one book’s conclusions could be true without the others’ conclusions being false.

In fact, the implied distinction between outright utopianism and optative sociology is not that clear. Part of the problem is that it isn’t obvious how one should take utopian literature. Does it offer up a promised land towards which we should set our course, or a plangent lament for what can never be? The wider the gap between it and us, the more it seems like a threnody for dashed hope; the narrower the gap, the less obvious it is that the fantasy is something to wish for. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887 foretells a third-millennium Boston where people are still bad enough to be offered plea-bargains under the threat of a doubled sentence if they plead not guilty. It’s not just a question of what counterfactuals need to be wheeled in to get the fantasy running. It is also about testing political or moral intuitions that commend the fantasy against a sense of what, practically, would be needed to realise it.

Like Machiavelli in the Discourses on Livy, Runciman stresses the political valency of institutional design: human beings can be rescued from adverse circumstances, and from themselves, by the right institutions. In Renaissance Florence these bore the indelible mark of the ottimati who dominated its republican politics, except perhaps during the Medici interregnum of 1494 to 1512. Machiavelli himself was clear that effective republican institutions bear the stamp of the men of virtù (‘prowess’ in George Bull’s rendering) who create them. But it’s not obvious what the democratic counterpart of this thought is. In part this is because democrats need the idea that political virtù can be spread around, whereas Machiavelli’s political virtuoso is a superman. Partly also, it’s because virtù either is already commonplace, or it is a rarity, and so institutions are either superfluous or useless.

Unlike out-and-out utopianism, Runciman’s optative sociology accepts that there is no substratum of human niceness that must out once the moraine of capitalism, the state or sacerdotal tyranny has been swept aside. Morally, as in other respects, humans can swing either way. But the right institutions can make a difference, and for Runciman this accounts for the exhilaration, and not just relief, that some have felt on getting to the end of The Communist Manifesto, or even the Republic (not many slog through Hobbes’s prolix biblical wrangling to the final pages of Leviathan without some voracious skipping). In line with his general position, Runciman argues that the concluding, and no less voraciously skipped, Part III of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice is in fact the best bit, as it dispenses with the duff argumentation of Parts I and II, and looks instead to how the principles of justice get implemented institutionally.

But whatever messages The Communist Manifesto conveys, salvation through political institutions doesn’t seem to be one of them. As Runciman notes early on, Marx has little to say in the Manifesto about the institutional regimen of post-revolutionary society, apart from nationalised banks and industry. Even there, the institutions are not prime movers in the transition from exploitation to Communism but outgrowths of the forces of production. The idea that the route to human betterment goes by way of institutions is not an obviously Marxist one. To see the modern state as simply a committee for managing the joint affairs of the bourgeoisie isn’t very accommodating of the idea that institutions can purge corruption while themselves remaining uncorrupted.

Indeed, that idea doesn’t have much going for it. The obvious questions are: where do the institutions themselves come from? And, if they can programme human behaviour, what programmes the institutions themselves? This is where Bonnie Honig’s argument starts, with Rousseau’s ‘paradox of political origins’. Honig debates the proposition that institutions, and specifically the law, are needed for humans to flourish. On one view, people have to be made good by good laws, but good laws need to be made by good people. This chicken-and-egg problem already moves us beyond the conception of institutional design as an unmoved mover acting on flawed but reformable human beings. Honig thinks this problem arises not just at the notional moment of political origin, but is endemic in political life. She regards this as the basic ‘paradox of politics’, and takes Seyla Benhabib to task for converting it into a second, less basic paradox, of democratic legitimation: the people’s will is the touchstone of political legitimacy, but the popular vote can be wrong. A few pages later, Honig introduces yet a third paradox, that of constitutional democracy, whereby the people are subject to binding constitutional laws without having given their say-so, despite being sovereign.

It is not obvious that the ‘paradox’ of political origins is properly so called, however. Maybe it is true both that humans need good laws to make them good, and that laws need good humans to make them good. After all, the notable thing about the chicken-and-egg problem is that there are chickens, and there are eggs. Maybe the mistake lies in thinking of the statements – that good laws call for good humans, and conversely – as contradictory. They aren’t: think of vicious or virtuous circles. The statements need to be augmented by the metaphysical claim that causation is a one-way street, not just in the sense that temporally reversed causation is impossible, but that one set of events can only either cause or be caused by another. There can, apparently, be two-way causation.

At any rate, Honig is right that insofar as these problems arise in politics, they do so endemically, and not just at a notional starting-point. The issue here is not how we get into politics in the first place – as distinct from, say, remaining at war – but how politics can be any good, once it gets going. At stake is the republican version of that problem: how to form the institutional matrix in which political virtue is engendered and kept alive. As Runciman would presumably agree, belief in a one-way causal vector between the laws and citizens’ virtue is sociologically implausible. Since corruption is a recursive process, original virtue, once thrown out of equilibrium by an external cause, may self-destruct. Political virtue requires upkeep.

So Honig faces a challenge similar to Runciman’s: in democracy, virtù needs to be dispersed among the populace, not merely modelled by tribunes. Honig aims to counter the vogue current in some quarters for Carl Schmitt’s top-down ‘decisionism’. Schmitt, the lapsed Catholic German jurist, argued in Political Theology that the sovereign has the power to decide on the introduction of the Ausnahmezustand, the ‘state of exception’ or, as it is sometimes maltranslated, ‘state of emergency’, where normal constitutional provisions are suspended. The real-world exemplar of this, which has not done much for Schmitt’s reputation, was the Nazis’ exploitation of the emergency powers in article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which they used after the 1933 Reichstag fire to accelerate the process of Gleichschaltung (as a constitution, Weimar was never formally repealed).

Schmitt’s political theology – his transposition of concepts of theological origin into politics – holds that the sovereign intervenes in the course of positive law just as God is thought of as intervening in the course of natural law. For the sovereign, as for God, it’s not just a matter of being the author of those laws. It is that what one has the power to make, one can also unmake. Hence the importance, for Schmitt, of the ‘miraculous’ as a theologico-political concept. For providentialist theology, miracles testify to the presence, in the course of nature, of the Maker’s hand, which can breach nature’s laws at will. By the same token, the sovereign who frames positive law can also breach it on the plea of Ausnahmezustand. As with divine interventions, it is an unavoidably moot point whether the sovereign’s edict is guided by principle or by the self-assertion of sheer power.

Honig’s counter to Schmitt, developed from a compelling reading of the lapsed and then returned Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, takes issue with the idea that miracles mark an exception to regnant natural laws. The miraculous in Rosenzweig’s thought marks not a suspension of the everyday running of nature’s laws, but a kind of heightened everydayness. So the counter-thrust to Schmitt might be seen as a retooled political theology of the miraculous. It is not the temporary lifting of natural law via a singularity that is the mark of a miracle, but a re-presentation of the known as something unknown. In this connection Honig uses the formula ‘more life’ as distinct from ‘mere life’, as in John 10.10: ‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.’ For Honig, a politics of the Schmittian decision means choosing mere life over more life, a clinging to the raft of mere existence when what makes life worth living has been tossed overboard.

The opposition of mere and more life provides a suggestive and original way of seeing the political economy of risk, an obvious example being counter-terrorism. The mere-life policy subordinates all other goods to that of bare survival, so that retrenchments of civil liberty, waterboarding and extraordinary rendition are justified on the plea of necessity – that of clinging to life, any life, whatever the cost. Or consider the over-regulation of health and safety, and the chaperoning of children under the illusion that they will fall victim to death, accident or molestation if let out unaccompanied. It’s tempting to think that these attitudes inevitably spread in secular societies, where belief in a world beyond has lapsed, so that mere life, however awful, outdoes no life at all.

At any rate, this nanny-statism responds to identifiably democratic pressures and turns attention to the locus of democratic sovereignty. Good laws need a good demos; a good demos needs good laws. There is no procedural matrix that will infallibly churn out good laws, so pure proceduralism proves a fickle friend of democracy. Given the ineliminable risk of procedural failure, a decisionistic moment may be needed. The ‘people’ then emerges as the ghost in the procedural machinery of the body politic: it needs procedures to give itself substance, but, if the procedures go wrong, the people as sovereign goes wrong too. Democrats can try to stave off this unwelcome conclusion by claiming that the sovereign, in erring, disappears. Rousseau thought the General Will could never be mistaken, a fate it was spared by evaporating at the moment when empirical political procedures, by going wrong, proved to have been hijacked by the Will of All. That of course leaves the question, in context, of what to do. But that question is always there. It acquires special urgency only if there is some way of showing that the revealed will of the people is wrong.

Rousseau and Schmitt were certainly right to scent a problem. Schmitt’s jurisprudential Prometheanism makes no secret of its hostility to democracy. But Rousseau’s purely formal solution doesn’t help much either. What happens when procedures show themselves to be fallible? One of the heroes of Honig’s book is Louis Freeland Post, US assistant secretary of labor during the first Red Scare in 1919-20. Leftist political activists – particularly those identified as anarchists and Bolshevik sympathisers – were being targeted and lined up for deportation and Post’s modus operandi involved subverting the deportations programme by turning the letter of the law against what scaremongers like the young J. Edgar Hoover at the Bureau of Investigation saw as its spirit. Hoover wanted those whose names appeared on Communist Labor Party membership lists, or who professed anarchist beliefs, to be kicked out, as Emma Goldman was in 1919. Post insisted on due process with such punctiliousness that few cases that came across his desk ended in deportation.

One of Post’s ploys involved acting as a freelance catechist to political radicals in an attempt to massage their political views, at least for official purposes, into non-deportable form. He might be seen as a heroic exponent of the judicial exception bent on spoiling Hoover’s persecutory fun. But jurisprudential fundamentalism can cut either way, depending on whose hand wields the sword of justice. It’s exemplified in theory by Alan Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, and the practice of George W. Bush’s office of legal counsel in remoulding the Geneva Conventions to square them with waterboarding and Guantánamo.

It isn’t so much a matter of where one’s sympathies lie in the showdown between Hoover and Post, as of what, in this situation, counts as a democratic resolution. Part of Post’s aim was to argue that those facing deportation under the 1918 Anarchist Exclusion Act should have the full constitutional rights of US citizens. But the democratic credentials of Post’s démarche could be challenged: a democratic case can be made for granting rights to citizens that are denied to non-citizens. More broadly, whatever the manifest democratic will is, it can’t simply be a smorgasbord groaning with choice liberal prejudices. A Mori poll in 2009 put public support in the UK for reintroducing capital punishment at 70 per cent; few political parties that attracted 70 per cent support in a general election would long scruple to claim a democratic mandate. Of course, plebiscitarian democracy is sometimes seen as tantamount to ochlocracy. But was the Mori vote simply the Will of All, fuelled by purblind self-interest? After all, the public interest, as interpreted by the public, may prove to be selflessly vindictive.

And herein lies the catch. As Honig says, Rousseau’s statement of the problem is more compelling than his solution. The demos is a procedural construct from otherwise disaggregated individuals; but no procedures are failsafe, so when they flub, their outcomes can be disavowed only by annulling the people that is nominally sovereign over them. As a persona at large in the lifeworld of democratic citizens, the demos is as ripe for ventriloquy as Jesus, or the moral law. Like any feat of voice-throwing, that requires a dummy. Anyone can have a stab at ventriloquising the people; but we need to know what gives any particular stab political authority.

The institutional outgrowths of democracy, especially administration and law, readily lend themselves to ghosting the vox populi. The work of Minutemen like Post tends to blur the line between decision and procedure. In Honig’s account, Post practised the demotic counterpart of Schmitt’s top-down decisionism. But Post’s activities at the Department of Labor might be seen as über-proceduralist rather than decisionistic, his aim being to honour due process – though some five hundred political undesirables were still shipped off US soil on his watch. Was this a benign irruption of extrajudicial diktat into straitjacketed administrative routines, or the subversion of those routines for personal political ends? Law is wrought from palimpsests flexible enough to be origamied into the shapes that its practitioners are paid to make of it. This does not mean endorsing legal conventionalism over realism. One can think that there is always a right answer in debates over legal interpretation while accepting that law is often a political football.

Despite its optative sociology, much political theory amounts to epigraphy on the crushing of hope. Since the Enlightenment, human beings have learned, at some cost, that revolution is history’s way of faking climax. Even so, meliorism proves tenacious. The idea that yesterday was a badness traversed on the way to a better tomorrow is the unavoidable result of the fact that beliefs have changed, that we have the beliefs we have, and that having a belief means thinking that that belief is right. What would it be to believe that humans are born equal, to know that we have reached this belief after people have long thought differently, but also to think the belief is wrong?

This foreshortening of historical perspective also blurs our view of democracy. Democratic thaumaturges like Post are no less creatures of whim than their autocratic counterparts. Democracy is not uncomplicatedly nice, and no realistic political theory can take seriously the idea that an institutional fix can guarantee its niceness. At least pre-deluge aristocracy enacted a theory, of sorts, about the nexus of capacities that tied those fit to run the show to a basis for determining the public interest – namely, their own interest. But no comparable theory lies to hand for us now, as participant observers jostling and jostled in the hubbub of democratic life. This is not just because the idea of natural aristocracy has suffered some loss in credibility of late. It’s also because democracy numbers among its casualties any very robust notion of virtue-reflecting and virtue-forging institutions. That has fallen prey to the anti-elitist idiolect of democratic politics – including its no doubt regrettable habit of institutionalising the mechanisms that tend to its own discredit.