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Right Thinking

The Pure Theory of Politics

by Bertrand de Jouvenel
Yale, 220 pp., $6.00

M. de Jouvenel is a writer of great historical learning, political imagination, and literary force. He is, I think, the ablest recent representative of a tradition of French libertarian thought stretching from Montesquieu and Rousseau through Royer-Collard and Benjamin Constant to Alexis de Tocqueville. It is not surprising therefore that in a period notable for its inability to produce political philosophies in the classical manner, works such as On Power and its sequel, Sovereignty, should find an eager audience. Nevertheless, M. de Jouvenel’s reading of history is so myopic, his dialectical confusions so serious, and his political nostrums so inapropos that the large claims often made for him cannot be sustained. Indeed, I suspect that his admirers are attracted by his ideological tendencies as much as they are by his philosophical gifts: for M. de Jouvenel is an unrelenting critic of democracy, socialism, and every form of modern “radicalism,” and his typical admirers are notable more for their political allegiances than they are for their devotion to philosophy. If the democratic Prince requires an anguished aristocrat as his court philosopher he would do better to call Tocqueville to the post. For Tocqueville offers a juster analysis of the problems involved in plucking the flower of liberty from the nettle of equality.

The ostensible topic of M. de Jouvenel’s most distinguished work is the growth of Power. But his actual topic is more restricted: it is the growth of public Power or Authority. M. de Jouvenel takes it as axiomatic that Power tends to magnify itself, and he sees this tendency confirmed in the multiplication of laws, in the augmentation of bureaucracies, and in the growth of armed forces which characterize the modern state. War is, he thinks, Power’s business, and the capacity of democratic states to impose progressive taxes and to exact universal conscription (capacities never possessed by even the most absolute of monarchs) permits them to engage in the “total” wars which afflict our period. If democracies are the natural antagonists of peace, so are they, contrary to the general view, the natural antagonists of liberty. In the Middle Ages God was deemed Sovereign, and the Power of the king was limited by Divine Law and ancestral custom. But in the modern democratic state the people is sovereign, and the power of the people, unlike the medieval king’s, is unlimited. “The authorization of Power passes from parliament to the victorious machine, and elections are no more than plebiscites by which the people puts itself in the power of a small gang.” The only possible issue is submission to a power-hungry clique, deploying the powers of the state and acting in the name of a sovereign people.

At a time when the destructive powers of the state derive from modern technology, rather than the size of the citizens’ militia, M. de Jouvenel’s demonstration of the connection between total war and the sovereignty of the people may be set aside. But his contention that the advance of democracy is incompatible with the preservation of liberty should be argued. To be sure, as Montesquieu claimed, power of the people, cannot be identified with their liberty. There are, indeed, freedoms other than the “political” freedom to participate in the formulation of the sovereign will. Yet democratic suffrage is the effective source of other freedoms, and is itself an essential element of a more comprehensive freedom. Thus, M. de Jouvenel’s contention that the libertarian ideal is indifferent to the form power takes must be unacceptable to anyone who finds in the libertarian ideal a justification for democratic procedures. Benjamin Constant, with whom the doctrine of indifference is often associated, distinguished ancient liberty, the active and enduring participation in collective power, from modern liberty, the peaceful enjoyment of private independence. But he regarded both as forms of liberty just as he regarded both essential to the good life. It is difficult to understand how M. de Jouvenel, who regards liberty as dignity, can avoid Constant’s conclusion. The Roman aristocrat is his prototype of the free man; it is revealing that Jouvenel should consider the essence of the Roman’s condition his exercise of “ancient” liberty.

M. de Jouvenel’s assertion that any increase in state power diminishes the freedom of the people is also untenable. If the democratic political “form” makes a contribution to the liberty of the people, so may the exercise of public Authority. M. de Jouvenel is consistently guilty of confusing Power with Authority. They are distinct concepts; it is one thing to possess power and another thing to be invested with the authority to exercise it. For example, the police often have the power, but not the authority, to cavesdrop on private conversations. And, in general, the officials of modern democratic states do not possess the authority to do everything within their power; when they are invested with the authority to act, the freedom of individuals is often protected or even extended. For instance, their freedom may be protected from economic or ecclesiastical pressures and coercions. M. de Jouvenel is, of course, aware of this argument; but since he assumes that any increase in the State’s power or authority represents a threat to liberty, he regards the argument merely as ideological camouflage designed to conceal the advance of tyranny. One of his weaknesses is that he does not persuade us that this is mere camouflage. Contrary to his contentions, even now, when belief in the divine origin of immutable laws has dissipated (and for Jouvenel this belief is the sole guarantee of liberty), limits have normally been maintained on the authority of secular democratic states. It is also plain that extensions of their authority have often increased the liberties of their citizens.

If On Power describes the growth of Public Authority, Sovereignty is an inquiry into the political good at which Authority should aim. The function of political philosophy, as Jouvenel tells us elsewhere, is “to civilize power, to impress the brute, to improve his manners, and harness it to salutary tasks.” M. de Jouvenel would like above all to impress the brute with the fact that the “liberal” or “socialist” state ought to renounce its characteristic aims—the promotion of personal goods, for example, or the achievement of social justice. He takes as axiomatic the doctrine (certainly disputable) that the proper end of governmental action is the pursuit of the common good. He then tries to prove that “radical” goals are improper by demonstrating that they are not components of the common good. Unfortunately, he never clearly defines “the common good”; he seems often to mean the realization of those conditions that are in the interest of all. But if we suppose Thrasymachus correct in claiming that justice is the interest of the stronger (or Nietzsche, in claiming it to be the interest of the weaker), it is not difficult to see that justice is not in the common good. Jouvenel, however, never shows that such conceptions of justice must be conceded. And he never clearly refutes the view of philosophers, from Aristotle to the Utilitarians, that justice is an element of—or even constitutes—the common good. He is particularly at fault in failing to consider, in any form, the doctrine that justice does indeed meet even the rigorous conditions he sets on the common good, and is not only in the interest, but in the equal interest, of all.

Instead of attempting to demonstrate that the political objectives of the “left” are not components of the common good or even that these objectives are logically incompatible, M. de Jouvenel concentrates his dialectical energies on showing merely that it is undesirable to pursue them. He merely insists on the prohibitive political price that must, as a matter of historical fact, be paid to achieve these ends. The ruinous conflict of selfish interests is the price paid for the pursuit of personal goods, and Jouvenel’s denunciations of terrorism and revolutionary violence no doubt lead him to agree with Father Zossima that the price of earthly justice is blood on one’s hands.

The difficulty with this kind of argument is, however, that there are times when the price will seem right, when it will seem reasonable to sacrifice some liberty, or tranquility (or even the satisfaction of the nostalgie de la boue) to eliminate an intense personal evil or to rectify a grinding injustice. M. de Jouvenel therefore seeks to discover an overriding objection to the characteristic intentions of modern political action, and finds it in the dogmatic assertion (which he incorrectly supposes to have the support of Aristotle and Aquinas), that justice is not a state of society, but a state of the soul. The consequence of this argument is meant to be, I take it, that justice must be sought by private rather than by public means. For Jouvenel is most deeply concerned to prove that the initiation of change—in the name of justice or in any other name—ought to be renounced by public Authority, since it is in the stabilization of society—through the laying down of rules, the enforcement of contracts, and the arbitration of disputes—that the common good is to be found. M. de Jouvenel offers no reply to the objection that what he names as the constituents of the common good are, in fact, the special interests of just those “authorities” whose freedom he is so anxious to preserve. As he fails, in On Power, to prove that the public Authority is inevitably the enemy of liberty, so he fails to show, in Sovereignty, that the public Authority ought not to seek personal goods, to advance the cause of justice, or to secure the common good by the changes it initiates.

It is possible to say that Henry Adams’s pseudo-science is the supreme expression of his irony. Unfortunately, Jouvenel’s Pure Theory of Politics insists on being taken literally, and its “scientific” pretensions only serve to disguise platitudes and partisanship. M. de Jouvenel wants to broaden what he takes to be the present concern of political science with the relation of public Authority to the individual; he would include the operations of such social “authorities” as (on the right hand) economic and ecclesiastical agents and (on the left) trade-union leaders and terrorists. Consequently, he defines politics as the study of man moving man or, as he puts it elsewhere, the study of “authority” in general. We may protest that the subject is now so broadly conceived as to include the nonpolitical relations of the child to its parent. But Jouvenel will take the bull somewhat irrelevantly by the horns and declare that it is precisely here that the political scientist will find an explanation of the political infantilism displayed in the desire for paternalistic public Authority.

Having identified his subject as “authority,” Jouvenel undertakes to prove a few theorems about it. Anarchism is confuted with a circular proof of the need for Authority, and repressive Authoritarianism with an openly “normative” demonstration of the need for authorities. A “dimensional” law derived from Rousseau states that the role of Authority must inevitably increase as the body politic grows in size, complexity, and heterogeneity. In fact, this law might be proved incompatible with Tocqueville’s acute observation that the pressures toward conformity, which under earlier political forms were exerted by public Authority, will, in modern democracies, be exerted by “social” authorities. Indeed, it might be argued that this is why advanced democracies are able, at least legally, to be so liberal. But this is not a side of Tocqueville that Jouvenel is anxious to follow up, and the moral he would have us draw is that modern polities cannot reasonably aspire to a fraternal society such as Rousseau envisaged. The attempt to achieve it (like the related attempt to achieve social justice) will, he thinks, serve only to provoke extreme Authoritarian repressions.

As, in Sovereignty, Jouvenel distinguished between the authority who initiates (the dux) and the authority who stabilizes (the rex), so in The Pure Theory of Politics he distinguishes the Intender from the Attender. And it is for the Attender, whose activities he would like us to regard as having the innocuous qualities of attention itself, that M. de Jouvenal reserves his lonely political admiration. For the crowd loves an Intender, and he is, the author tells us, the very type of the politician. Thucydides and Shakespeare are Jouvenel’s political masters, and it is no surprise that he locates Thucydides’ study of The Politician in Alcibiades rather than in Archidamus or Pericles or Nicias, and Shakespeare’s in Mark Antony rather than in John of Gaunt of King Lear, Hal or the Duke of Milan. For the politician is by nature designing, inflammatory, noxious. He generates conflict, and it is one of M. de Jouvenel’s most interesting and ambitious claims that a political problem is a conflict to which there can be no solution, only a settlement. This apparently theoretical observation is intended, I take it, to warn us off the utopianism and intransigence that conservative thinkers regard as the bane of radical politics.

A settlement, he thinks, is all that a civilized person will demand in a conflict. But surely there are political problems in which neither the interests, nor the claims in which they issue, are incompatible; each side may espouse, and want, peace. And there are others in which, although the claims made are indeed incompatible, the interests at stake are not; one party demands inspection in a nuclear test ban, the other refuses it, and a technical advance allows for a satisfaction of the underlying interests of each. It is therefore not the case that all political problems are cases of insoluble conflict, and the hope for a solution is not necessarily utopian.

But, equally, some political problems do not admit of solution in this sense. M. de Jouvenel reserves his finest contempt for those who then form “factions” and refuse “settlements.” “It is deplorable,” he says, “that the animus which unites them should turn to animosity against those who do not favor their purpose; it is detestable that they should develop bellicosity toward their compatriots.” No doubt there are occasions on which this is true. But “detestable” seems an excessive, and certainly an imperfectly scientific, epithet for those who develop a “bellicosity” toward, say, racist politicians. And intransigence, if generally an undesirable political attitude, is sometimes demanded in the defense of justice, or in the assertion of certain fundamental rights—facts unaffected by M. de Jouvenel’s proof that justice is a private virtue, or his suggestion that those who claim rights from society had better put themselves in mind of the extent of their debts to it. Some causes deserve a better name than faction, and bellicosity is occasionally the most civilized of attitudes. One may wonder whether these, or any other of M. de Jouvenel’s politically tendentious doctrines, could possible be the conclusions of a Pure Theory of Politics.

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