29 July 2014

The social is political -- or is it?

In a long career that has made him a dean of American historians, Gordon S. Wood has read a lot about the Declaration of Independence, so you take notice when he writes in The New York Review of Books that "no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like" Danielle Allen's Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Wood, the author of The Creation of the American Republic and the Review's resident reviewer on Revolutionary subjects, is impressed by Allen's close textual analysis of the Declaration, even as he disagrees with many of her conclusions. He disagrees with one conclusion in particular: Allen's opinion that Jefferson and the other drafters of the Declaration intended Americans and "all men" to "pursue happiness by means of politics." Allen is a kind of idealist, or else she infers a Founding idealism. She writes that "Nature has given us an instinct for politics [that is] evidence that nature is organized to provide for our flourishing." As Wood reads her, Allen concludes that we will flourish as nature intended once every is equally empowered to participate in politics.

Since Allen is a social scientist rather than a historian, Wood has cause to tsk-tsk her lack of reading in the historiography of the intellectual origins of the Declaration and the Revolution. He may suspect that Allen didn't realize that she was strolling into a 50 year old intellectual battlefield. Since the 1960s, historians have debated the extent to which the Founders were influenced by "classical republicanism" or by a form of liberalism conducive to or influenced by the rise of capitalism. Classical or "civic" republicanism virtually required that citizens play a role in public life, i.e. in political deliberations, if only to be vigilant against schemes by individuals or factions to usurp power. the liberals or proto-liberals believed that citizens should cultivate their gardens, as Voltaire might have said, rather than devoting so much attention and energy to politics. Wood tries to clarify things by drawing a distinction between "politics" and "society." He argues that "Jefferson and many other revolutionaries in 1776 always put society ahead of government," the latter being no more than a "necessary evil" in service to society. The Founders -- and Wood extends this argument even to the more radical Thomas Paine -- would never have said that citizens can find personal fulfillment (or "happiness") in politics. If Allen finds such a message in the Declaration, she must be misreading it, or misunderstanding the intellectual language of the 18th century.

Wood and Allen aren't quite as far apart as his criticism suggests. He closes his review by noting that "Jefferson and Allen agree on one central point: Democracy requires that at some basic level everyone in a society must be considered the same." Where Jefferson and Allen differ, apparently, is what that imperative requires. This is where Wood's distinction between "politics" and "society" actually obfuscates things, as might any distinction drawn by anyone. Wood ascribes to the Founders the opinion that "government was a plunderer." It's tempting to generalize ahistorically, to infer from this that politics is plunder, but people like Jefferson and Paine obviously were denouncing the forms of government they had known before the American Revolution. Before the Founding, most of the models the Founders had for describing governments were negative: tyrannies or representative governments that succumbed to tyranny. Yet men like Jefferson could not experiment with creating new forms of government if they thought that all government and all politics was plunder. Once you reject the premise that all politics is plunder, the distinction between politics and society begins to dissolve. What is "society," anyway, once you start drawing distinctions? Commerce, presumably, or, more broadly, the "civil society" of voluntary institutions and organizations. These do not require "politics" because they depend on a "natural feeling of affability and benevolence." Yet for Allen, presumably, those same natural feelings are the foundation of politics. This does not compute if you see politics only as plunder,but that clearly isn't how Allen sees it, and it isn't necessarily how Jefferson or Paine (neither of whom were Framers) saw politics when they weren't focused on denouncing monarchies of their present or past. Now that I think of it, Wood pulled off a neat trick by transmuting Allen's "politics" into the "government" despised by some radical Founders. I don't think he meant it as a trick, but it exposes some of his own intellectual (if not ideological) biases. One such bias may be to insist on the society-government distinction. Not to do so, some might say, tends to the totalitarian, but that shouldn't deter us from questioning the basis of any separation of the social and political once we accept that politics is not automatically plunder or coercion or whatever might frighten Wood or Jefferson before him. But if Wood thinks there is something essentially political that is essentially antithetical to the social, so that Allen's political idealism is dangerous to liberal society, he should speak for himself instead of hiding behind Jefferson and Paine, so we can know where to take the conversation next.

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