Saturday, May 21, 2005


Some thoughts on political theory

The classic premodern form of state was the Empire. An Empire was a group of territories united by the fact that they were governed, willingly or unwillingly, by the same sovereign. Political power was almost a type of property right possessed by the sovereign over his subjects.

During the Enlightenment, dissatisfaction with the Empire grew. An alternative form of government was proposed to replace the Empire. This was the Republic. In the Republic the sovereign was the body of citizens themselves, who exercised their sovereignty by electing a government which had limited specific powers conferred upon it. Political power was now to be exercised for the common good, not as a property right. All citizens participated equally in a state which was blind to their ethnic characteristics.

The primary concept used in the governance of the Republic was the rule of law. Each individual citizen was subject to the same laws and possessed the same rights.

During the mid to late 19th century the Republic went out of fashion, in its place the Nation became the fashionable form of government, at least in parts of Europe. The Nation was radically different from the Empire or the Republic. The Nation was essentially an ethnic unit of some sort. It was logically prior to the state and the essential purpose of the state is to function as the political incarnation of the Nation. The state which fails in its ethnic duties to the Nation is an illegitimate entity.

Unfortunately the Nation of nationalism poses no ideological constraints on the persecution of minorities. In fact if such persecution is rationalised in terms of advancing the will of the Nation, nationalism actually provides a justification for such activities. It is apparent therefore that there is something missing from nationalism. A society governed solely by nationalist principles cannot offer any real protection to minority groups.

In recent years the concept of the Nation has itself been further refined to create Postmodernism, also known disparagingly as political correctness.

Postmodernism is effectively a multicultural form of nationalism. Like nationalism it regards the primary function of the state as being to give political expression to ethnic sentiment, however unlike the Nation it tries to advance the idea that multiple forms of ethnicity can be given equal expression and have equal validity within the state. Its primary method of achieving this goal has been by the replacement of individual rights and duties by group rights and duties. In giving equal status to groups it tends to reject the equal status of individuals.

My own view is that the Nation and Postmodernism have both been very bad ideas. In placing the expression and accommodation of ethnicity at the core of the functions of the state, these philosophies have eliminated the possibility of a state which transcends ethnicity. All statecraft within this framework tends to be a squabble between ethnic groups for resources without any overarching conception of justice to evaluate and determine these squabbles.

The absent element, in my opinion, is any sense of the rule of law. The idea that the same rules ought to apply equally to "us" as well as "them" seems to be completely missing from both the Nation and Postmodernism. The idea that individuals ought to be judged by the law for their own actions is regarded by supposedly sophisticated political theorists as a naïve myth, yet their alternatives seem to reduce all politics to a naked ethnic power grab.

"yet their alternatives seem to reduce all politics to a naked ethnic power grab."

David, can you name any examples of where this has happened?!
I'm really only talking about the academic theories.

The US postmodernist academics tend to say that law is merely a form of politics. In other words they see it as solely about controlling people. The idea (that seems to undergird the US constitution) that the rulers are subject to the same laws as the ruled and that constitutional law therefore is something that actually limits the power of the state is one that they would reject as a myth perpetrated by the ruling classes.

My own view is that when the theory is stated baldly few people follow it, but the academics who advance it tend to disguise their views under genuine criticisms of the current system.

An example might be anti-discrimination laws. A law which is "color-blind", ie that treats everyone alike, may still be discriminatory in its effect. To take a hypothetical example: a score of 100 in Confederate Studies is needed to get into Honkey State University. Confederate Studies is usually only taken by white students. Honkey State has on paper a non-discriminatory policy on admissions, yet de facto only white students ever get in.

Postmodern academics would tend to extrapolate from exceptional situations such as this to the conclusion that "color-blind" laws are inherently discriminatory as they butress the discriminatory status quo. They would then use this as a justification for abandoning the idea of individual rights and duties for group rights. Instead of changing the color blind rules they would usually propose anti-discrimination laws such as racial quotas.

These are merely examples from one area of law. The theorists tend to use this type of example to say that the idea of the rule of law itself or of color blind laws is discriminatory. Unfortunately their alternative isn't really worked out. It seems to involve some idea of inter-racial or inter-ethnic or inter-gender equity that does not rely on the idea of the rule of law but does rely on a much invoked but never defined "empowerment". That is what I meant by it reducing politics to an ethnic power grab.
You mention the US constitution as something that limits the rights of the rulers. How does that square with recent decades' judicial activism, where it's not so much the constitution as the judiciary itself, creatively interpreting the constitution, that limits the rulers?

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