Which republicanism are we talking about?

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Too narrow an interpretation of republicanism can rob us off many of the tools and insights we should now be employing. This is no time for elite paternalism.

Robert Jubb
5 March 2014

As an intellectual tradition, republicanism is a broad church. J. G. A. Pocock’s seminal charting of a particular part of that tradition, his genealogy of republicanism's role in Britain’s 13 North American colonies’ struggle for and consolidation of their independence in The Machiavellian Moment, takes in figures as different as Niccolò Machiavelli and Alexander Hamilton.

One of these was a Florentine humanist for whom the Roman republic’s class-driven political strife was central to its success while the other, a soldier married into the pre-Independence colonial elite, could not think of “the rapid succession of revolutions” in such “petty” republics without “horror and disgust”, and so was glad that the “science of politics” had received the “great improvement” which enabled it to go beyond the tools available in antiquity[1].

Yet Pocock hardly covers the whole republican tradition, even in the countries he deals with. Alex Gourevitch has ably shown the ways in which labour and other struggles well after the era Pocock is concerned with drew on republican tropes, for example. Nor is that to say anything of the Francophone or German republican traditions through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in which theorists as different as Fichte and Tocqueville can be located, or of the forms (anti-) colonial republicanism took outside the eastern seaboard of North America.

Any attempt to draw on the republican tradition for contemporary political insight needs to be aware, then, of the variety of thinkers who fall within it and the specificity of the problems they were trying to solve. Often their differences are considerably greater than their similarities, and in failing to appreciate those differences, much of the sophistication and plausibility of the lessons we might learn from the tradition can be lost.

Pettit’s republicanism

Much contemporary republicanism seems to me to fail to see this. Its standard bearer, Philip Pettit, undeniably leans on the authority provided by the republican tradition extensively, describing himself as trying to revive an “ideal” that, despite having “shaped many of the most important institutions… we associate with democracy”, “has not been given enough attention in contemporary debates”[2]. The ideal he tries to revive, however, is one that is supposed to be shared by both Machiavelli and Madison, co-author of The Federalist Papers with Hamilton, as well as Locke, Harrington, and many in between. More than that, the ideal is rather specific. Pettit claims that valuing freedom as non-domination requires what he calls ‘contestatory democracy’, which, in addition to being democratic in the sense of having governments selected through some kind of formally egalitarian political process, should satisfy a further three conditions. The first two, that the rule of law should be observed and that there should be some separation of powers, are relatively uncontroversial, but the third, that law should be “resistant to majority will”, is I hope not[3].

Pettit not only believes that the republican case for “counter-majoritarian protection” is “straightforward”, but that the means of providing that protection should be through something like the elaborate system of checks and balances we see in the United States[4]. His republican ideal consequently amounts to something very similar to that of Publius and The Federalist Papers. However, the counter-majoritarianism of The Federalist Papers is paternalistic and elitist, concerned to defend the people “against their own temporary errors and delusions” by dispersing and checking power[5].  In insulating representatives from the popular will, they aim to “suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority” – or at least reason, justice, and truth as decided by the members of the colonial elite selected as representatives[6].  Thus, Pettit’s reconstruction of the republican tradition does at least two unfortunate things. First, it adopts the recommendations of a clique of eighteenth century oligarchs as a set of guidelines for contemporary institutional design, and second, it casts this as the content of republicanism as such.

Yet it is not clear either that the ideal that Pettit claims characterises the republican tradition is in fact what unifies it or unequivocally supports the institutional arrangements he favours. This should hardly be surprising, given the breadth and depth of the republican tradition, but it is disappointing, given Pettit’s public role as, for example, an assessor of the republican credentials of Zapatero’s government in Spain. The lack of attention to the diversity and particularity of thinkers in the republican tradition impoverishes it and so makes it less useful and attractive to us as a source from which we can draw contemporary political inspiration.

The ideal Pettit claims characterises the republican tradition is that of freedom as non-domination, an understanding eclipsed by Bentham’s Hobbes-inspired polemics against the rebellious North American colonists. Pettit is certainly able to show that some figures like Harrington, opponent of Hobbes’ attack on the ‘democratical gentlemen’ who opposed government by prerogative, have something like Pettit’s account of freedom as resting in being free from subjection “to the potentially capricious will or the potentially idiosyncratic judgement of another”[7]. That some figures in the tradition talk in these terms though does not show that this is an appropriate way to characterise the tradition as a whole. It may not be their central idea, and it may not be any part of what other members of the tradition claim. In The Federalist Papers, for example, a republic is simply not a despotism, that is, a state which respects civil liberties and grants its citizens a role in law-making. This is not a quite specific claim about freedom consisting in not being exposed to the arbitrary will of another and only not being exposed to such a will. Equally, Rousseau’s discussion of living under laws you yourself have willed in The Social Contract seems motivated by a worry about the entitlement to authority of laws made any other way, not by a claim about what freedom as such is. A republican tradition without either The Federalist Papers or The Social Contract, texts which are clearly central to the two great republican revolutions of the late eighteenth century in France and North America, would be rather poor though.

Republicanism against democracy?

Further, even if we were to grant that Pettit is right to characterise the republican tradition as united by freedom as non-domination, the case for his preferred counter-majoritarian institutions would remain weak. Pettit seems to believe that if a democratic majority is prevented from imposing its will, then non-domination is secured, that non-arbitrary rule is ensured by counter-majoritarian measures of the sort he favours. Yet the record of those checks and balances is at best ambiguous. For example, for more than 150 years, the US Supreme Court acquiesced in, if not perpetuated, first slavery and then Jim Crow, leaving it to Congress to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and remedy the blatant injustice of the treatment meted out to African Americans. Given the centrality of slavery as the definitional opposite of freedom in Pettit’s account of republicanism, his preference for a kind of institutional arrangement that has shown itself capable of repeatedly holding, at times against democratic majorities, that the state-mandated oppression of minorities is perfectly acceptable is odd. Indeed, the relatively untrammelled central authority in the United Kingdom was able to abolish slavery significantly earlier, partly as a result of the kind of mass political campaign the political system of the United States was deliberately designed to resist.

This is not only an empirical question about what policies a political system full of actors able to slow or veto policies favoured by democratic majorities is likely to favour, or whether such a system will in fact make slavery less likely or more. There is also a more conceptual issue. When a democratic majority is thwarted, who rules? Whose will makes the law if it is not a democratic majority’s? Why are we not concerned about the domination of the democratic majority by those who prevent them making law, who after all must be less numerous than the majority they are opposing? How can non-domination require that, simply because they disagree with it, a minority must be offered the opportunity systematically to obstruct and frustrate the decided will of a democratic majority? Pettit suggests in his most recent book that institutions designed to check the majority’s will make decisions “likely to be the ones that the people… would make or approve if they had all the relevant information or expertise”[8]. This paternalistic defence of counter-majoritarian institutions turns not living under the will of another into being told that you do not know your own mind, and that experts with whom you disagree should interpret your interests for you, as you are not to be trusted to protect or promote them yourself. The people are being rescued from their ‘temporary errors and delusions’ again.

Learning from other republicanisms: Rousseau, Machiavelli

Insofar as figures in the republican tradition have shared something like Pettit’s ideal, they have been aware that political disagreement means that coercion is inevitable, and the question is who does it to whom. Pettit is consistently hostile to Rousseau, but in admitting that living under law involves forcing people to be free, Rousseau gave himself the conceptual apparatus to acknowledge the losses of liberty involved in law-making and so confront the problem of ensuring that loss of liberty is not dominating. His problem in The Social Contract is, after all “[t]o find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force, and by means of which each, uniting with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before”[9]. Being ruled by the general will answers this demand because it matches the laws its members are required to obey to their own wills by aiming at the protection of interests they share. Where wills do not align, either because of divergent or misunderstood interests, the general will ceases to exist and a just society becomes impossible. Rousseau’s answer to the problem of dissatisfied minorities Pettit worries about is to deny that a republic is possible once the problem exists and instead direct his attention to trying to find ways of preventing their emergence, to ensuring that citizens share enough interests to genuinely sustain a general will. Rousseau’s views about how a general will can be sustained may be unpalatable and we may need to re-think some of his assumptions and reject some of his claims to arrive at more satisfactory ones, but at least they are the confrontation of the right problem. Ironically, through their influence on Kant, they are one of the ancestors of Rawls’ idea of the overlapping consensus, which, to mix Rawls’ and Rousseau’s terms, allows for people to be forced to be free from within their own comprehensive doctrines, and so of the liberalism Pettit insistently claims cannot make proper sense of the relation between law and freedom.

Other figures in the republican tradition could be used to show the strangeness of Pettit’s view too. John P. McCormick has argued that the Cambridge School interpretation of Machiavelli that Pettit admits to relying on fails to see the extent to which Machiavelli is a theorist who relies on the class struggle of the popolo against the ambition of the grandi, the notables, to sustain a republic and is primarily concerned to find ways of empowering the mass against the elites. If this can be sustained, and Machiavelli does insist time and time again that the people and nobles have different interests, and that the people’s are less destructive of republican liberty, then it would also cut against Pettit’s counter-majoritarian instincts. Rather than entrusting the protection of liberty to unaccountable institutions like supreme courts and central banks, Machiavelli can be seen as stressing the importance of creating ways for democratic majorities to prevent elites capturing the machinery of the state and directing it towards their ends, much as the distribution of the proceeds of growth suggests has happened over the past thirty or so years in the UK and USA.

In order to provide the full range of insights available from this tradition, contemporary republicans need to look more deeply into a wider range of thinkers and the diversity of their views. We need to understand, for example, why Rousseau claimed that Corsica was the only European society capable of being just in The Social Contract, and what relation contemporary republican proposals stand in to his apparent utopianism, both as a critical perspective and as a kind of lament. Without doing that, we may struggle to understand how difficult achieving republican ideals could be, and so what their real appeal might be.


This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.



[1] The Federalist Papers, 9, paras. 1 and 3.

[2] Republicanism, pp. viii, 4.

[3] Republicanism, pg. 173.

[4] Republicanism, pg. 181

[5] The Federalist Papers, 63, para. 6.

[6] The Federalist Papers, 63, para. 6.

[7] Republicanism, pg. 5.

[8] In the People’s Name, p. 237.

[9] Social Contract, 1.6.4.

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