Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Response to Vincent Browne

Vincent Browne's lament for lost sovereignty - invoking Rousseau in the process, who was born three hundred years old this week - adorns this morning's Irish Times.  It's an aspirational piece, without resolution and reactionary.  The language of what he would see as European neo-imperialism is versed in words like sovereignty and democracy, and this requires an examination of those principles.  The article is to be lauded for that.  But let's look at some of the themes - "freedom", the "arbitrariness of market forces", and the "common good".

First, on the notion of freedom, and man being born "free".  There is no such thing as absolute freedom.  Thomas Hobbes, a predecessor of Rousseau, argued famously on the state of nature that mankind was in before political order took hold.  The life of a man in that state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," Hobbes wrote in his magnum opus, Leviathan.  Man is born dependent on mother, then family, then society.  His existence is relative, and social.  

Before private property, a relatively recent phenomenon, mankind was nevertheless tempered in his "freedom" by what might be termed "the arbitrariness of social forces".  How are such forces any more or less punitive, than market forces?  For example, most pre-modern societies were kinship based.  They were essentially dominated by blood.  Power was hereditary, social mobility was non-existent, and even if private property did not prevail, so-called freedom was very severely limited.

Rousseau's most trenchant criticism came from those who attacked his notion of a General Will, or the Common Good as Browne refers to it.  Hamlyn in his History of Western Philosophy sums up the problem well (p. 213-214): "The sum of individual wills may not in fact be for the common good, although Rousseau maintains that, in a democracy, the differences between the individual wills may somehow cancel out, leaving a result which is an expression of the general will....[this] involves the personification of the state...To presume that there is such a will, something that people really want, as distinct from what they want individually, is not only a mystical doctrine; it invites the identification of the general will with some individual's conception of it, and ahead of that lies the totalitarian state."

Sovereignty and Freedom cannot be equated.  Freedom is itself a nebulous concept, and to challenge a loss of sovereignty, or a loss of economic sovereignty, as compromising freedom is to deny freedom its broader interpretation, and to presume that state (whatever it is) is desirable for everyone.  People are always subjects at some level - as that other philosopher Bob Dylan said, 'It might be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody."

No comments: