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Political obligation today - in honour of Judith Shklar

The self-destructive tendencies in western democracies in recent times Shklar would have found abhorrent, and it is in this context that her last lectures provide most food for thought.

Samantha Ashenden Andreas Hess
21 June 2019
Kirovabad Theater, 1976; Sophocles – Antigone.
Kirovabad Theater, 1976; Sophocles – Antigone.
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Wikicommons/Dimitri Tavadze. Some rights reserved.

Questions of political obligation are at the heart of both practical politics and political ideas. They deal with power, authority, right, rule over oneself and over others. When is one bound by collective decisions? On what basis rests this obligation? What are its limits?

Such and similar concerns were the main reasons why political theorist Judith Shklar chose to frame her last course at Harvard before her untimely death in the autumn of 1992 chiefly in those terms (these lectures, edited and introduced by Samantha Ashenden and Andreas Hess, have just been published with Yale University Press).

For Shklar it was important to convey to her students “the conviction that a complete person must be able to think intelligently about government” and that doing so meant finding out “how political ideas fit into the republic of letters generally, [and] into the political system within which they took place.”

She was aware that thinking about political obligation in the context of American democracy was not an easy task. Some caveats applied. Against the inclination to think about the US in exceptionalist terms, as many political scientists and historians did (and still do), and against seeing American democracy only in the light of ‘negative liberty’, as mere freedom from interference, Shklar insisted that such notions were somewhat reductionist. In the US context, she argued, democracy was not based on some imaginary struggle for recognition between master and slave, as a famous German philosopher once suggested, but emerged out of a real struggle for positive liberty and rights. The fight for emancipation from slavery and the civil rights struggle were clear proof of that.

Although some commentators and critics regarded Shklar’s own liberalism of fear as somewhat minimalist in orientation, her barebones liberalism wasn’t conceived entirely in negative terms. She argued that in order to be sustained liberal democracies needed citizens whose participation was facilitated by at least two important features ‒ voting and earning. This focus on two basic conditions didn’t imply that liberal democracies always had to aim at or work for achieving the best outcome, the summum bonum. Shklar’s liberalism of fear asks us merely to focus on the eradication of the worst, the summum malum, cruelty and fear.

This orientation meant that ordinary vices such as hypocrisy, betrayal, misanthropy and so on, against which democratic discontent is often directed, were simply not on a par with the worst vices; consequentially then these multifaceted phenomena should not occupy a prominent place when it comes to liberal conceptions of loyalty and political obligation. In a nutshell, Shklar’s liberalism was non-perfectionist, yet from this it didn’t follow that one had to give up on participatory elements.

Anybody who reads Shklar’s books and essays will notice that their author had always been reluctant to adopt any grand theory of justice, such as the one suggested by her friend and Harvard colleague John Rawls, for example. What was still missing though in her conceptualisations of a bare-bones liberalism was a discussion of what could realistically be expected from citizens in liberal democracies, particularly in relation to obligation and loyalty. How much obedience and loyalty can be demanded in a functioning democracy, or in fact, from any liberal political community?

In search of a political psychology

Such concerns obviously pointed to the fact that what was needed on top of functioning institutions was a political psychology that would provide reliable moral antennae for citizens. This, as Shklar knew, was difficult to conceptualize. She perceived old republican virtues as belonging to the past, impossible to resuscitate in a modern environment in which the collective formative process has largely been replaced by a multitude of individual choices and preferences. At the same time modern liberal democracy simply could not do without some reliable psychological ‘software’ on the part of its citizens.

When compared to past political regimes, obviously the emergence of democracy turned out to be the biggest game changer. A modern understanding of sovereignty meant that people now considered themselves as authors of their own laws. This does something to obedience since it implies recognition of oneself in the collectivity and self-mastery. In modern democratic states, Shklar argued, individual consciousness and opposition faced new challenges and dilemmas.

Henry David Thoreau’s and Dr Martin Luther King’s arguments regarding civil disobedience, including the discussion of the individual’s obligation, and the possibilities but also limitations of it under democratic conditions, were cases in point. From their example we can learn how conflicts between individual conscience and political communities can be turned into collective learning curves with positive outcomes.

To be sure, Shklar’s lectures on political obligation have their historical limitations. Given in 1992 they contain nothing about social media and its uses and abuses. There is very little about gender-specific notions of obligation, although the theme comes up, for example, in her discussion of Sophocles’ Antigone. There is also not much in terms of multicultural disharmonies and conflicts in the way we have come to understand these in the new millennium.

The self-destructive tendencies in western democracies that have come to the surface in recent times Shklar would have found abhorrent, and it is in this context that her last lectures provide orientation and most food for thought. Two arguments that form important threads in her political obligation lectures come to mind: first, her suggestion that we focus more on the condition of exile as a barometer for obligation; and secondly that we take proper political notice of the vulnerable status of refugees worldwide.

The exile’s and refugee’s precarious position helps to throw into relief some of the core problems of political obligation: When exactly is the point reached that forces somebody into exile; and can the point of ‘exit’ be clearly demarcated or spelled out? In terms of obligation and duties, there are obviously differences between a dictatorship and a democracy. How do a democratic state and personal conscience relate to each other? Does a community have priority over personal concerns and doubts?

The second point is related to the fact that a country like the US, was and still remains built largely on the exit of people from other nations. Over the last few years that has also been a trend that Europeans have come to recognise, yet without doing much about it institutionally. Having said that, for a long time to come the memories of what it means to leave a country will remain a vital resource and repository for rethinking the limits of loyalty and obligation of citizens in or democracies.

How exiles-turned-citizens and prospective citizens – the refugees and migrants of today ‒ are treated remains a prime indicator of the quality of a democracy. Neither the splendid isolation of Brexit, nor talk of walls, nor the attempt to build one, will abolish that ‒ at least not instantly.

Judith Shklar’s lectures On Political Obligation were published by Yale University Press in the US in March, and in the UK and Ireland in May.

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