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.
Sadly, both approaches are inadequate. Pragmatists can’t tell us who is responsible for doing what, or whether a government’s attempt to address a particular issue might take it beyond its normative competence—beyond the limits of what it should do. Their slogan is: “If it works, do it.” Yet pragmatists offer no real criteria to indicate what it even means for something to “work.” Work for whom? To what end? And at what cost? Furthermore, all too often the goal-orientation of pragmatists entails a wilful inability to consider appropriate means and sound principles.
As for moralists, their hearts are in the right place. They are concerned with the weighty issues of abortion, euthanasia, marriage and family. Or, if they are closer to the political “left,” they may view poverty, homelessness, inadequate healthcare and the environment as moral issues. What all moralists have in common is a tendency to respond to perceived social ills by saying, “We must do something,” but without taking the time to ask first, “Who are we?” Vague references to society‘s taking the lead quickly turn to government action, whether appropriate or not to the state’s competence and limits.
What is the alternative? How can political theory be renewed in such a way as to make it serviceable to doing public justice in the real world of political communities? First, political theory must recognize the distinctiveness of the political, itself. Political theory is not about economics, although government does touch on economic matters. It is not about something vaguely labelled “social theory.” Political community is nothing less than a specific, differentiated, public, legal community, also known as the state, responsible for maintaining justice within its territorial jurisdiction. How well has recent political theorizing accounted for the distinctive institution of the state? We survey four recent efforts to renew political theory.
First, there is the neoliberal school, which takes more than one form. The libertarian free market ideologues are perhaps the best known on a popular level, including the likes of Friedrich A. von Hayek (1899-1992), Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Milton Friedman (1912- ). Yet because their focus on the market gives their political theorizing an obviously economic twist, their ability to renew political theory has been and will continue to be necessarily limited. Perhaps a more promising neoliberal approach is that taken by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) and his followers. Working in the contractarian tradition of Locke and Kant, Rawls anchors his politics in a certain type of detached rationality that claims to enable individuals to agree on the principles of justice. This approach has been picked up and further developed by proponents of deliberative democracy, like Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson. However, in addition to presupposing that rationality can function apart from a variety of a priori commitments, the Rawlsian approach does not demand the presence of the state, except as a clearinghouse and enforcer of principles which could easily be drawn up elsewhere.
The second category includes neomarxist and postmodern theorists, who see politics as a reflection of various group interests. While classical Marxists define the group by its relationship to the means of production, neomarxists and postmoderns define group in different ways, including by gender, sexual orientation, race and by ethnicity. The common currency is self-interested power. While this may get at one element of politics, this school—or family of schools—has difficulty accounting for the state as an institution with a normative, public, integrative role to play amidst social diversity. For members of this family of political theories, there can be no impartiality in the arbitration of civil disputes. Even criminal law can only be reflective of a particular group interest. Any effort to empower a disadvantaged group must depend on the group’s turning the tables through superior force. For members of these schools, theorizing must grow out of a commitment to the oppressed, including concrete praxis on their behalf.
A third school I label neoclassical, insofar as it undertakes to recover something of the Greco-Roman legacy of the west. Key framers of this paradigm include Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). Strauss distinguishes between different modes of political knowledge, lifting up political philosophy as a quest to replace opinion with genuine knowledge of the nature of the political. This school follows Plato and Aristotle in seeking the good political order. The Bush administration has attracted several Straussians to its ranks, leading popular media to smell a conspiracy. Even so, neoclassical political philosophers are best known, like Strauss’s most famous disciple, Allan Bloom, for engaging young minds with the classic texts that exerted a formative influence on political life in the western world. Their focus is pedagogical—educational—and not so much practical-political.
Yet for all Strauss’s incisive critique of positivism, historicism and the fact-value dichotomy, he too easily dismisses any political theory arising out of revealed religion as mere “political theology.” This puts the Straussian enterprise firmly on the side of Athens rather than Jerusalem. That all theorizing might be anchored in ultimate commitments has escaped Strauss and his disciples. Furthermore, a focus on classic texts, which clearly differ with each other, cannot tell us much about the nature of the state as a unique institution. These texts pose long-standing questions with which we must grapple. But these questions by themselves cannot produce a coherent political theory, any more than Paul Wolfowitz can pull Bush’s defence policy out of a reading of Plato’s Symposium.
A fourth school is rather more promising. It is less obviously associated with a specific philosophical tradition, though it manifests a curious dependence on both Aristotle and existentialism, as well as on the historical experience of Pericles’s Athenian polis. Hannah Arendt is the best exemplar of this approach. Arendt is less concerned with political theory as such than with politics itself as a distinctive enterprise rooted in the human capacity to speak and act in unprecedented ways. Unlike Locke and Marx, whose “political” theories are anti-political, Arendt’s political “theory” is anti-theory. For Arendt, much as labour and work should be kept separate from political action, so should the life of the mind be kept separate from political action, at least as it attempts to place theoretical constraints around the freedom of the public realm.
Others following Arendt in undertaking to defend the uniqueness of politics include Bernard Crick and Sheldon S. Wolin. Crick sees politics as a modest, non-utopian effort to conciliate diversity in a peaceful manner within a given territory. He defends this non-visionary vision of politics against those who would threaten it with ideology, technology or even democracy itself. Wolin sees the political as possessing a role for which other group loyalties can never adequately substitute. Arendt, Crick, and Wolin alike seek a robust, non-reductionist vision of politics. Yet in their writings conspicuous by absence is any reference to justice—of more than incidental significance to a proper understanding of the state. This school sees a government that adjudicates among conflicting interests without recourse to a principle transcending the wills of the various interests. Yet some form of justice inevitably comes in through the back door, even if they do not recognize it.
If each of these approaches outlined above is flawed in some basic way, what would a better alternative look like? What should a good political theory do that cannot be accomplished by other means? Here are some signposts toward good political theory:
- A suitable political theory must be based on recognition of the diversity in God’s world and on the “pluriformity” of human society. This is another way of saying that it must avoid buying into the various ideologies, each of which tends to reduce pluriformity to a single redemptive element, such as the free market, the victory of the proletariat, or national liberation;
- A proper political theory must be based on a correct anthropology, or view of the human person. If we follow Hobbes and his heirs who viewed human beings as little more than self-interested aggregates of matter in motion, then a particular view of politics, divorced from normative considerations, will inevitably follow. However, if we view the human person as created in God’s image with the capacity to respond to His call, then a quite different political theory will suggest itself—one recognizing the diverse character of this call and the responsibilities flowing from responding to the call;
- Once again, a satisfactory political theory needs to focus on the state as the unique institutional setting for politics. There is a popular usage of politics which situates it in a number of settings, as in “church politics,” “corporate politics” and the like. This stretches the definition of politics too thin, giving it little in the way of a distinctive meaning. By contrast, political theory must account specifically for constitutions, legislatures, executive bodies, courts, police and military forces, public legal frameworks, elections, citizenship, and international bodies;
- A solid political theory must recognize the place of both power and justice in the healthy functioning of the state. Those plunging too easily into a quest for justice without taking into account its basis in the possession of coercive power will likely play down the ongoing effects of human sin, embracing an airy idealism. By contrast, those identifying politics with power only, to the neglect of justice, will speak too easily of a supposed balance of powers, without recognizing that the language of balance already presupposes at least an implicit notion of justice;
- A fruitful political theory must demonstrate the connections between theory and practice, something which is not always easy to do, given the cleavage in so many fields between theoreticians and practitioners. Yet if under the influence of a defective political theory the state is construed as the ultimate source of all human authority, this will have a huge impact on the way the state relates to other communities and individuals within its jurisdiction. It will affect the way the state addresses the legal definition of marriage, the task of parenting children, the freedom of the economic enterprise, and the role of labour unions. Conversely, if we artificially limit the state to defensive and protective functions narrowly defined, we may be leaving our society exposed to an unbalanced development under the leading of a consumerist individualism; and
- Finally, a solid political theory—one that adequately accounts for reality and bears fruit as it is practiced—must recognize that ultimate authority belongs not to the state or any mere human institution, but to God who has called the state to its task of doing justice in the midst of societal pluriformity. In the words of an ancient, political authority, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).