Republicanism: a trap for progressives?

Alastair Davidson, University of Wollongong

John W. Maynor Republicanism in the Modern World, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2003 (248 pp). ISBN 0-74562-808-7 (paperback) RRP $61.55.

Rogers M. Smith Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003 (248 pp). ISBN 0-52152-003-7 (paperback) RRP $59.95.

We live in a globalised world and our destiny is decided by neoliberals. Their mantra is that social reproduction should be left to the market and that the state’s role should be limited to creating and enforcing rules that allow free play to market relations in all aspects of life. For neoliberals, the best of all possible worlds is attained when individuals compete in the market and the best man wins. There is no real concern that a loser often loses through some built-in inequality between the players. Consequently, there is no place for social support for such people. Rather, social support is believed to sap their initiative. In other words, it is not a matter of concern among liberals that the state does not actively seek the common good of its people.

The result has been the emergence in the last twenty years of vast numbers of people who now feel excluded from the economic, social and political life of the globalised societies. This is an experience not only in the under-developed parts of the world but also in ‘advanced’ societies.

When neoliberals seek intellectual underpinnings for their views they find them in a tradition of liberalism that goes back to Benjamin Constant’s famous essay of 1819 on liberty among the ancients and the moderns (Constant in Fontana 1990) but whose hegemonic expression in recent decades has been in the work of John Rawls (1971; 1996). These thinkers see state power as a potential threat to freedom of the individual so they propose the erection of a barrier of sacrosanct rights behind which individuals and, increasingly, groups are free to pursue their private concerns without interference by even a democratic state. Rawls and his followers go further to show how they think that individual rights can be consistent with justice for all.

New liberals justify their policies by pointing to the danger of social engineering, epitomised in the failed Communist experiments that attempted to achieve social justice by regulating all aspects of social life. Better, they suggest, to let individuals cope with the pitfalls and anxieties inherent in taking risks and to let them be free to make choices in a market than to have them subordinated to the common good by an all-knowing representative state. In this they also take up Constant’s liberal condemnation of the ideas of ancient Greek republicans, whether democratic or not, because they are inappropriate in large scale modern nation states.


Against this liberal hegemony, in the last two decades progressives who worry about the implications and (less commonly) the cruel, real outcomes of neoliberal views have proposed a new or modern republicanism as an alternative to liberalism. They claim that this new republicanism avoids the pitfalls of social totalitarianism by protecting the individual from state tyranny while also making the common good the overriding concern of every citizen. Against the logical, philosophical approach of the modern liberals, they argue that if we look at history, and are guided by earlier example, we will choose republicanism over liberalism. Both the books from which we start our discussion fall into this category. John Maynor and Rogers Smith put the two ends of the modern republican argument.

New liberals justify their policies by pointing to the danger of social engineering.

Maynor builds directly on the influential Phillip Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1997). Pettit (and Maynor) argue that to avoid anxiety and fear about natural and social threats men and women have lived together in communities. Since they fear the arbitrary—the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—they want to live in rule-governed, predictable worlds that minimise risk and anxiety. Politically, this means they seek to establish rules of law (and not men), which are constant, which they know and before and within which they are equal. As equals, to ensure that the common good is the main criterion for the laws established, they have set up polities where power comes from below and so tends to be democratic, along the lines described by Aristotle and Pericles in the Greek republics.

Thus the state becomes the expression of its citizens and not the enemy of private individuals that liberals see and fear. For Pettit and Maynor, republican polities balance the unequal interests, wealth and power of their citizens (those with the power from below) by evolving mixed governments or constitutions in which power is spread between the different classes and the institutions that they have developed. To ensure that anxiety does not re-emerge because of the constant real inequalities between individuals that could confuse the interests of those individuals or groups with the common good, people seek, through the state that is their expression and that makes the common law, a host of laws and rules and internalised virtues that ensure the reality and the common goal of non-domination. This reality was described by Pettit (and Maynor develops it further) as existing when the people need not fear arbitrary interference or the non-contestable exercise of power (Pettit 1997, p. 31; p. 68ff). Concretely, it means some economic and social redistribution of wealth to avoid anxiety about such matters or preoccupation with private concerns rather than how, as a community, a common good that benefits each member can be sought.

When we unpack their labyrinthine arguments, what distinguishes the modern republicans from the liberals? Republicans trust the modern state to do what its citizens want at least potentially because of the control from below through a democracy of institutions that never put too much power in one place. By contrast, liberals see the state as always a threat to individual interests, which must be protected by rights that override any claim of a collective (say a democratic majority) to seek a common good. Republicans also believe that the state, as representing the common good or as embodying its citizens, should step in and rectify injustices wherever they are, regardless of claims to individual rights, say, to unbridled property. Ultimately, the core category of a republic is a citizen who is part of the collective polity. For liberals it is the individual who is in no way subordinate to any community (see, for example, Pettit 1997, p. 120).

The core category of a republic is a citizen who is part of the collective polity.

Since for a republican, each of us should not be considered as more than a citizen, none of us would have an untrammelled right not to consider others who are co-citizens in, say, the acquisition of great wealth. A republican should consider (and Maynor and others argue that this must be so) whether his ‘right’ to win in a market place would harm others, and thus the whole political system within which he operates. The concern for the city (civics) that should animate all citizens of a republic in turn fosters (and is rewarded by) a feeling, sometimes called civic patriotism, that each citizen has a patrimony and a present and future shared with all other citizens. They acknowledge their interdependence (reciprocal non-domination is Maynor’s equivalent) and their need to work together to secure optimal outcomes for all. Only those who do not subordinate themselves to the common good as decided (or at least potentially decided) by the citizens in free debate are excluded and harmed by the superior claims of the collective.

Rogers Smith argues that we can find the feeling of civic patriotism and the virtues that it supports in the stories of peoplehood we know from history. If we are to learn from history we cannot ignore that all peoples have a story of where they come from and what they stand for. Sometimes these stories can be too exclusive—today we might think of the myth of Kosovo around which Slobodan Milosevic defined what it was to be Serb—and lead to dreadful slaughters of the other, but they can also be ‘ethically constitutive’ in a good or open civic sense that should be fostered.

Smith is distinguishing here between what some republicans have called natio, an ethnic sense of the place a person is born and grows up in, and patria, or the civic community of shared rules, procedures, and values. Each makes up a community in a different way. For example, he typifies the American story as that of pioneers in the patria. In this vision, the United States is an open republic: a place in which anyone is welcome who is committed to its ethos as laid down by its Founding Fathers, an ethos of liberalism, the separation of powers, and democracy together with a respect for the civil rights of all persons. It is a national narrative of federalism based on popular self-government. If the bad side of its history, in particular slavery and racism, were eliminated and human rights used to reinforce a devolution of power to imperial possessions (for after all the United States is an imperial power), then America should ‘seek to play a leading role in helping construct [the] world in desirable ways’ (Smith 2003, p. 210). While Smith clearly sees ‘us’ (the American people) facing a changing world, it is a pro-active rather than a reactive role they play. They would be able, he hopes, to foster a world of plural and not single citizenships, of many harmonious nation-states.

Smith states firmly that the democracy-plus-rights approach of modern liberals is not enough.

Smith states firmly that the democracy-plus-rights approach of modern liberals is not enough because it ignores how peoples really gain a sense of themselves through their myths of peoplehood. In this he is reminiscent of Pericles with a twist, turning the readiness to die for one’s polity into a sort of neo-Kantian project of world peace.

At first sight this popular republicanism seems a much more human and attractive model than neoliberalism, even liberalism, especially for progressives, or lefties in search of a home after the failure of certain Gods. It apparently does more for each person than a regime of rights because it adds to rights the positive obligation and, perhaps, the duty to seek constantly to live in such a way as to achieve the common good. Anyone who wants to play according to these rules is guaranteed a world that seeks to end their anxiety about arbitrary harm. In some of the better versions today, republics seek a minimum of economic and social well-being for all citizens and do not leave them to the vagaries of the market.

All that is required, it appears, is more democracy in more places so that individuals feel that it is their state that they control from below and that they, as citizens, work to achieve common outcomes that advance the well-being of all. In Australia, where the tradition of local government has been weak and is not constitutionally entrenched and political apathy is strong (hence the compulsory vote), republicanism seems very attractive.


But is it? There is a fundamental difference between the new republicanism and that of the Greeks and Romans in Ciceronian interpretation. The Greeks and Romans saw a republic as a sort of large family in which ethnicity and citizenship were mixed and harmony was both a starting place and a goal—as in the concordia ordinum of Cicero. Modern republicans start from the reality of agonistic and continuing never-ending difference. They are obliged to do so because globalisation brings constant and fragmenting difference into all national families. Indeed, they make much of Rawls’ failure to cope with continuing difference as the problem of today’s world. This is why they claim that their republicanism starts from the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, supposedly the first great statement of modern republicanism (see, for example, Smith p. 74 and Maynor p. 121ff). This needs emphasising since their entire theory is like an inverted pyramid whose point rests on one book of Machiavelli’s: the Discourses on Livy. Why such a privilege for the Italian city states against the earlier Greek models? Maynor writes:

While Machiavelli’s experiences with difference and diversity cannot be said to be of the same kind as the radical and deep diversity comprising the modern polity, it is my belief that we can take the main thrust of his thoughts and construct a compelling modern republican account of pluralism (p. 133).

The Greeks and Romans saw a republic as a sort of large family.

In this Maynor follows closely and expressly Pettit’s earlier book. What attracts them to Machiavelli is his insistence that nasty, disputatious, different human beings bring forth a rule of law out of that very disputatious market world and end up seeing the virtues of the rule of law for all. This goes for the Prince, the optimates, and the people. The model the Florentine proposes as most viable in a large imperial state is that developed in Rome. He typifies this model as having a mixed constitution based on popular power from below, its institutions being biased to give the last say to a popularly created and/or endorsed rule of law.

It is curious, then, that with a theory that Maurizio Viroli (1999, p. xiv) confirms is ‘an Italian tradition more than anything’, Maynor and Smith do so little to follow up its history in Italy. If they had they might have discovered a few problems for their scenario. This not to say that one cannot, like Viroli, remain a republican after examining that tradition, since Viroli too recommends strong republics based on civic virtue as a utopia for today. But, starting with Machiavelli himself, they would have seen nuances that raise questions about the appropriateness of their model today. The first is that the purpose of a republic is to reinforce the state by ensuring popular support for its policies.

Machiavelli suggested the Roman model to Lorenzo de Medici because it fostered the military virtue in citizens necessary to maintain an empire. The dedication in the Prince starts:

I do not want it to be regarded as presumption if a man from below and of no importance is driven to write and rule on the government of princes, because just as those who draw the countryside and take positions on the plain to consider the nature of the mountains, to know well the nature of a people it is necessary to be a prince, and to know that of a prince it is necessary to of the people (in Bonfantini 1958, pp. 3–4).

In sum, the other face of the people and power from below is the leader. It is to make the leader strong and pre-eminent that republics should be fostered. And to keep it going the leader should foster a warlike people.

Neither Maynor nor Smith give Alexis de Tocqueville much space.

This was all that was possible in a large republic. Small republics, like Venice and Florence, had fallen, or were falling apart, due to internecine faction fighting. Their survival had depended on the exclusion of all foreigners. Their boundaries were, so to speak, hermetic (Bonfantini 1958, pp. 108–109). What had made Rome successful was that it was always extending its boundaries and incorporating new peoples in its empires. The peaceful virtues of small shared participatory communities were replaced by a rule of law within, coupled by a warrior citizenship without. The outsider who did not pass under Rome’s yoke was enslaved. We should remember that Rome, like its Periclean predecessor, made slaves of those who did not belong.

The aptness of this model for the nation state in general, and the United States in particular, is evident. However, we are justified in asking what virtues it fosters. Certainly for citizens there is solidarity in commitment to a set of rules and procedures that give them all a say in their destiny. For them peace and security is possible. But only if power were devolved to local communities might a virtuous citizen like that Viroli envisages emerge: a being who is open, tolerant, settles for the best of all possible worlds, and is a realist in a world of difference and differing opinions (Viroli 1999, p. 83). Viroli makes much of the model of town government in the United States discussed by Tocqueville. Otherwise, the stress would be on defence of ‘what is ours’ against all comers.

But even in the better case, the virtue bred so far has been that of the petty bourgeois caught in the immediacy of his or her loyalty to a political ‘family’ or ‘home’. (There is thus much more of Aristotle in all this than any new republican author lets on.) This kind of citizen believes that while commitment to the community values are overriding, it is still possible to be decent towards the outsider. As Bobbio, the major thinker in this tradition and mentioned by no-one but Viroli, wrote: ‘… the debate on the question of morality in politics raises only the question of our duties towards others’ (Bobbio 1998, p. 122).

Not grasping how essential low-level democracy is to the idea of fostering peaceful civic virtues, neither Maynor nor Smith give Alexis de Tocqueville much space. They emphasise the rule of law, the separation of powers, and constitutionalism. There is an abiding sense in their work that the active, agonistic citizen is problematic and likely to spill over into the violent action abhorred by republicans because it denies the rule of law, and the privilege given to political compromise. In Pettit the stress is not on real participation but on the possibility of participating.

To apply Machiavelli today meant the fostering of petty bourgeois values.

Nevertheless, Maynor and Smith do recognise that in the end civic virtue—a belief in justice for all—rests on power coming from below to give all a sense of ownership of the polity. The problem is what that civic virtue amounts to. Again attention to the Italian tradition that goes back to Machiavelli would have repaid the effort. For Viroli, strong local participation in decision making can lead to ‘a civic patriotism dosed with a sense of measure and a lot of irony and doubt’ (1999 p. 83). We can call this the good lesson of Italian republicanism. But 19th century Italian liberals considering Machiavelli in this civic dimension simply stated that his message was that there can be no morality in politics since, when applying the methods of the lion and the fox, a ruler or state/citizens’ prime object is the survival of the polity (see, for example, Croce 1954, p. 165). Piero Gobetti wrote in the 1920s:

Historically, the experience of Machiavelli could be summed up as Signoria plus Comune … Far from the political harmony of Rome, the Comune opposed the Catholic hierarchy with a sharp sense of the particular; they fostered the agile variety of individual needs and for ideological reasons forgot the unitary habits inspired by the Church and by competing with ecclesiastical diplomacy laid claim to the rights of new classes against the superstitions of the feudal empire (Spriano 1960, p. 922–93).

In other words, Italian city states in fact saw the rise of a small merchant class and its values. These people were so politically myopic that they were unable to unite nationally and were fiercely hostile to all outsiders. This was leit-motif in Machiavelli’s work. ‘The republican prince dreamed of by Machiavelli [for which see Bonfantini 1958, p. 116] would have found in the sixteenth century the same elements and the same psychology that helped Mussolini make his petty bourgeois revolution’ (Spriano 1960, p. 924).

So, for Gobetti, to apply Machiavelli today meant the fostering of petty bourgeois values, of which the localism and lack of concern for the outside or wider world could lead to fascism. The cost of a system that had the ‘people’ at one end and the leader at the other in a mutually reinforcing unity against all those who threatened their heritage was clearly very high. Concern to defend the republic and its virtues leads in the mode of the fox to a search for the good of ‘our’ community and not that of all humanity (Bobbio 1998, p. 122).

A democratic tyranny is much worse than that of a tyrant because it enjoys popular support.

After all, who are the ‘others’ republican theory considers? They are always fellow citizens united by a shared patrimony. As such, republicans imply or take for granted that ‘free, undistorted communication’ is possible; a political debate in which a wise collective decision is made in the interest of all and that all abide by on pain of severe sanction. If it is believed that the state has overstepped its mandate then there are, supposedly, always mechanisms for contesting that excess of power. This may be possible when the Other (who is not a fellow citizen, united by a shared patrimony) is kept out or accepts the rules of the game of the host community. This was the case in all the Italian city states and in Rome, the preferred model of Anglo-Saxon theory (see, for example, Bonfantini 1958, p. 113). Proponents take the benefits of adherence to such a model to be obvious to all and to be symbolised by the Statue of Liberty.


Republicans claim to start from history. But bitter experience shows that the modern day equivalents of Rome, such as the United States and France, are in fact slaughtering imperial powers which exclude in the name of national community interest those outsiders who appeal to be admitted. Worse is true of closed systems like Australia. Republicans never take into account the different nature of the internal diversity created by global migration: the sort that has produced maybe a fifth of the world as people who do not belong and yet live inside a polity.

So where is the equal and free communication when the stranger, the other—the ‘pariah’ whom Hannah Arendt stated as early as 1946 is emblematic of our age—comes knocking at the republic’s door? As the Australian example shows, what happens is that the uncontestable rule of law, which is endorsed by its citizens and can only express justice as understood by reference to that community, is applied. Never is it the rule of law of the stranger. A people singing its national song gives double strength to its state and forgets ethics and morality based on anything else but itself. No finger can be pointed at a tyrant. Bush, Chirac and Howard are democratically elected national leaders whose treatment of the Other enjoys popular endorsement. The problem for millions of global workers is not the prince but the new republics. Today they are excluded from their benefits not because they do not belong to the natio but because of apparently highly worthy legal, political, and civic goals of caring for one’s own people first.

Smith and Maynor do not address this core problem for republicanism: that if they achieve their goal of more democracy in more places and foster a concern for the common good, they will reinforce the belief that some people are outsiders more and more. If we then apply their own principle that the wearer knows best where the shoe pinches, the outsider replies that their voices are never heard; that there is no open debate with everyone to decide the common good. In Australia asylum seekers are locked up incommunicado to popular approval. It is because they know that the state does not negotiate with the outsider that they prefer the liberal solution of rights extended to a universal level and not the charity of a fair go.

The problem for millions of global workers is not the prince but the new republics.

The new, kaleidoscopically different ethnic and religious immigrant minorities within all states simply continue the strategy of earlier excluded groups: workers, blacks, women. They oppose the state. This is true both in worlds with a memory of a ‘recent tyranny’ like that of republican-inspired revolutionaries in 1789 and of the rule of law instituted by those republicans and that enjoys community support. Human rights emerged in a struggle against rules of law that enjoyed a majority consensus, from that embodied, for example, in the Code noir of the French people that allowed blacks to be tortured to death by their masters, to the Nazi laws of the volk that legally imposed the murder of millions of Jews. The rule of law is not self-evidently a boon to the excluded.

Yet what most puzzles me about the modern republicans’ refusal to see that a democratic tyranny is much worse than that of a tyrant because it enjoys popular support, is their selectiveness, omission, and neglect of alternative views in the contemporary debate about whether free communication can enable consensus among all parties about any common good. That is, despite their genuflection to diversity, they do not consider views different from their own received truths about whether communication is possible and how far. Thus they select from Habermas his theory of undistorted communication and neglect Ackerman’s (1989) work on the limits to dialogue. They simply fail to consider the now extensive literature that starts from Lyotard’s theory of the différend—

a case of a différend between the parties takes place when the solution to the conflict that opposes them is made in the idiom of one of them while the wrong that the other suffers has no meaning in that idiom (1983, pp. 24–25)

—that makes nonsense of the notion that it is commonsense to submit to a rule of law. It may be that it made sense for the Dictator Manlius to submit his case to the rule of law, even though he might have ignored the charges, because he shared the idiom or language with all of the parties. It certainly does not make sense when a refugee who seeks free entry is met by republican claims that her admission would not do justice to the citizens of the republic, and who decide in their own cause not to admit her.

Finally, as someone who once put a great deal of trust in the idea of the open republic (although I never believed like Smith and Maynor that the United States should be the model for us all) and in an expansionary citizenship like that expressed in the European Union (and who still has Lorenzetti’s painting Good Government on his wall), I have changed my mind. Globalisation, and especially the forced migration of millions each year, poses problems that require much more than republicanism for their solution. Indeed, these problems show up the new republican model as perhaps worse than what exists because it provides or could provide popular support for unjust policies. The ‘displacement of entire populations’ who create the ‘ethnoscapes’ of today, and who do not or never again will ‘belong’ in only one place again, undermines the republican solution more every day.

If we wish to build a just polity we will have to learn to love the incomprehensible.

An ethical polity cannot be attained by simply rendering boundaries within the global society less hermetically closed to the outsiders, say, by making naturalisation easier. Rather, it must go beyond a notion of justice—be it ever so civic minded—that is decided by reference to the prior claims of a community of citizens. The new excluded can benefit only from rights divorced from belonging to any closed political community. Such people have made clear everywhere that they want universal rights before they belong anywhere, because this is the only way that they will be safe; they cannot depend on the goodwill or ‘fair go’ of those who do belong. They are certainly driven by the same desire to be free from anxiety and the arbitrary but they start from a world in which patriotism and love for the common good of a particular community have no meaning (Davidson 2003).

As Levinas (another thinker whose insights are ignored by these republicans) wrote: ‘Man is not a tree and humanity is not a forest’ (1976, p. 14). No longer is it ethically acceptable for our ‘roots’ to be most important, or that any decent national song can still be sung. Our paeans must be to a joint future in which, if there is any republic or common good, the ethical lesson will come not ‘from below’ but ‘from outside’. If we wish to build a just polity we will have to learn to love the incomprehensible, the human face before us with whom we cannot speak, and not to take for granted a world where we all can communicate with each other.


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Alastair Davidson is a Professorial Fellow in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong.