What is to be done... in political theory?

Six things necessary for the development of the kind of non-reductionist political theory we need now.

Appears in Winter 2005 Issue: What is to be done?
December 1st, 2005

Although there's a ready readership for political memoir, and a captive audience in universities for textbooks on government, books of political theory are a tough sell. Yet people have engaged in political theory—or political philosophy, as some prefer—for at least two and a half millennia. Plato's Republic is a lengthy discussion of a question that still haunts us: What is justice? Aristotle's Nicomachaean Ethics and his Politics explore the relationship between the virtuous person and the obligations of citizenship in the ancient polis. More recently, the founders of the American republic established an independent, federal republic along lines charted by John Locke (1632-1704) and the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). In the 20th century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions were launched from theoretical foundations laid by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in the previous century.

Ironically, the most influential political theorists of the modern era held politics in low regard, and could even be said to have despised it altogether. Early liberals viewed the political order as ancillary to individuals' coming together by contract—perhaps, reluctantly—to flee the insecurities of the state of nature—a state of living without a state. Locke saw civil government's role as protecting private property. The failure of the state to protect private property would justify its abolition by those who called it into being in the first place. Marx, the other great influence on our era, saw the state as little more than the servant of economic class interests, a state that claimed—falsely, Marx believed—to be an impartial arbiter of the various groups in society. For Marx, the state employed its coercive instruments to support the bourgeoisie, a capitalist class growing in power and influence.

The two great shapers of the 20th-century political climate had little use for politics as such. As different as Locke and Marx were, both reduced politics to economics, seeing the state as either a necessary or an unnecessary evil, at the least to be minimized and, at most, ultimately dispensed with. Yet irony abounds: the heirs of both Locke and Marx were nonetheless responsible for expanding the scope of the state in a totalizing direction. This may be less evident in Locke than with Marx, but the seeds are to be found even in Locke, as I've tried to demonstrate in my Political Visions and Illusions. We must ask: What is the future of political theorizing, when even some of its key figures were anti-political, yet eventually excessively statist?

There is an ever present danger that theory will degenerate into totalitarian ideology. Architects and proponents undertake to implement their political theories to the detriment of flesh-and-blood human beings. For such theories, human beings express all-too-human conflicting interests and unruly aspirations which must be made subject to totalizing constraints. Twentieth-century examples are Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany, and Mao's China. In a very different way, political theorizing is hindered by the popular prejudice that theory is too abstract and too out of touch with the concerns of ordinary life. Even Plato admits that philosophers are useless to the city (the polis), mostly because the city declines to make use of them. The popular image of the ivory-tower theoretician, locked in her library and removed from the day-to-day concerns of people, doesn't help.

Far more than in Europe, in North America there is a deep prejudice against political theory, mostly due to the influence of two related, North American tendencies: pragmatism and moralism. Pragmatism favours practical solutions on an issue-by-issue basis over abstraction. Even the partisan disputes between so-called conservatives and liberals involve little in the way of systematic theorizing. Instead, "conservative" or "liberal" attaches to clusters of issues to be addressed pragmatically. Moralism tends to focus on a very few issues, usually those relating to human sexuality and the margins of life, failing to place these in a larger context of the diversity of responsible agents, of which the state is only one among many.

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