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Two Cheers For Politics


Two Cheers For Politics

September 25, 2006
Urban PolicyOther

In this dazzling book, French political philosopher Pierre Manent tries to provide an “impartial overview of the political order—or disorder—of today’s world.” Few living thinkers could hope to pull off such an ambitious undertaking, but Manent is surely one. In earlier works, including An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, and The City of Man, this former student of Raymond Aron excavated the deep intellectual sources of modernity in the writings of Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Smith, and other great minds, with whom he effortlessly converses. In A World beyond Politics?—which is based on lectures delivered several years ago at Paris’s prestigious Institute of Political Studies—Manent shifts his emphasis from intellectual archeology to spiritual topography: What does it mean to be a citizen of a present-day liberal democracy?

Not that Manent abandons the long view. To understand the modern liberal world, he argues, you need to see how it emerged—in the ideas of the philosophers first, then in practice—along the “theological-political vector” of Western history. To escape priestly political authority and religious warfare, liberal societies sought to disconnect religion (and even strongly held opinions of the good) from politics. Politics would no longer focus on ideal ends; these would now be considered private concerns in civil society. Instead, politics would seek to secure the best conditions to meet needs and protect rights. Men could thus busy themselves making some cash, cultivating their property, and pursuing happiness as they saw it instead of butchering one another over clashing conceptions of the good. Liberal modernity would arise on “low but solid ground,” as the philosopher Leo Strauss famously observed.

The bourgeois order, born with the Enlightenment and the national political revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, has offered “the most stable, therefore the most satisfying putting into practice of political liberty that humanity has ever known,” Manent rightly points out. But it has faced fierce critics. Because it separates power from opinion, especially religious opinion, the liberal regime frustrates a natural instinct to see our highest ideals reflected in political life. It is, in this sense, permanently dissatisfying. It invites utopian efforts to do it in and replace it with a pure “politics of meaning.” The two deadliest threats to liberal democracy—Communism and National Socialism—were monstrous, hyper-political projects of this kind, Manent says. The Islamist terrorists who struck on 9/11 represent another.

A subtler threat to liberal democracy seeks to leave politics behind entirely, to embody a universal civilization of pure rights or commerce. Manent sees this post-political trend at work in the European Union, at least in its current form. Aristotle described citizenship as an act of putting forth words and deeds in a common space. But Europeans don’t know what they share, in that common space: They forge new shared institutions but leave the old national ones still in place, creating a bizarre “juxtaposition of old and new institutions” that guarantees maximum confusion and political alienation. Even the EU’s territorial boundaries—essential to all forms of politics—remain blurry. Should the EU include Turkey? Russia? Where does one draw the line? Who’s the boss?

Manent believes that the EU project is, in its own way, as utopian as the 20th-century totalitarianisms. To be real, democracy “needs a body, a population marked out by borders and other characteristics, namely a defined realm.” The nation-state, discredited in Europe by the brutality of megalomaniacal nationalism—gave democracy a body. Europe’s dream of tossing the nation on history’s dust heap is understandable, given the history of the 20th century. But what “political form” takes its place? Unless the EU becomes a kind of United States of Europe, with clear territorial limits and a will to act politically—so far utterly missing except when it is thwarting the United States—its woolly, confused nature ensures collapse. The EU’s anti-political drift is most evident in its hallucinatory belief that war is obsolete and that all conflict can give way to rational negotiation and consensus. The lessons of history—including Europe’s own recent history in the Balkans—tell otherwise.

A conservative, Manent is keenly aware of modern democracy’s discontents. A defining feature of our societies, he observes, is to make man “the sovereign author, in fact and by right, of the human world.” Back in the old days, you got up in the morning, looked around, and saw bonds everywhere: your mother-in-law lived, if not under your roof, then right next door; the church told you what to do; you had duties, duties, duties. This moral density defined men and women, shaped their lives. It could also be a burden, of course. The “logic” of democracy, as Manent calls it, loosened these thick attachments—and hasn’t stopped loosening them. “Democracy aims to have its citizens go from a life that one suffers, receives, and inherits to a life that one wills. Democracy makes all relations and all bonds voluntary.”

Sounds liberating—and in many ways it is liberating. But there’s been a cost, too, increasingly evident in recent decades. “The empire of consent spreads, the process of individualization intensifies, and thus the authority of the communities of different orders in which human beings hitherto found the meaning of their life — the nation, the family, the church — declines more and more each day,” Manent maintains. The family becomes optional, a mere voluntary association. Church becomes the place where one “tentatively looks for meaning, no longer where one receives it.” Patriotism becomes a laughable relic. Pushed to excess, this process culminates in a Sartrean existentialism, where nothing — not even my own voluntary agreements, like, say, my marriage — means anything unless, right now, this instant, it means something to me. All that is solid melts into air, as the saying goes.

Accompanying the empire of consent, somewhat paradoxically, is the modern liberal demand that all my choices receive “respect.” But this renders freedom empty, purposeless. “If all choices must be approved by everyone, life would become truly boring and even sinister, for that would mean that our own personal choices are without importance or meaning,” says Manent. “The choice I make can have no value for me unless you react to that choice, with approval or disapproval, even indignation or comprehension.” Still, this nihilism is only a tendency of modern life, not a fate. The old order was not as oppressive to liberty as sometimes thought: Marriage in Christian Europe, for instance, always rested on the principle of consent. Similarly, thick attachments remain an active possibility in our free societies. “In the new democratic order, free personal searching is now a right but it can lead to deep and lasting adherences, whether it be the formation of a couple or participation in a religious or other type of community.” Ordered liberty isn’t out of date. We all still argue, too, about right and wrong ways to live.

The prudential “art” of democracy, Manent advises, striking a very Tocquevillian note, is to correct for the relativizing tendencies of democratic modernity — and to do so without succumbing to the potentially abusive temptation to prop up any one experience or worldview as civically absolute. A healthy democratic politics is vital in this regard. Such a politics, he writes, “prevents any experience from saturating the social arena and the individual consciousness; it requires any experience to coexist and communicate with the other experiences. In this way, politics is the guardian of the wealth and complexity of human life.” There is in Manent a classical sense of politics as architectonic, and of human nature as in some sense political. Religion (Manent is a believing Catholic), a decent, informed love of the nation, and a renewed commitment to classical education can also help moderate the individualizing trends of liberal modernity, getting our heads out of our navels.

The reader will find much more of interest in this heady book: meditations on egalitarianism, modern art, the French novel, sexual identity, science and faith, the French and American revolutions, the morality of international relations — on and on, all delivered in Manent’s glistening prose, ably translated by Marc LePain. American conservatives shouldn’t ignore A World beyond Politics? despite their aversion to all things French these days. It’s an ideal introduction to political philosophy in the new millennium.