Failures of Political Philosophy

Adam Smith: the Invisible Hand only goes so far.

In a very crude sense, the western history of political philosophy can be divided into five phases: the city state Greek democracy, an oikonomia derived in Ancient Greece from a principle of agreed control; colonial empire, deriving first from the Greek colonies and extending into the military-bureaucratic structures of the Roman empire; federalist patrimonial states, an essentially feudalist structure allowing for larger domains to be managed through grace and favour; and modern variations on social democracy (including communism) since the French Revolution, based on concepts of individual equality and freedom. Max Weber, Francis Fukuyama and countless others have variations on these phases and structures, some more global (Fukuyama in particular considers Indo-Sino histories), and others more scientific (Weber’s forensic sociology in particular).

At each stage, theorists reasoned their way through what would be the most proper way to organise society. The word proper in this context changed its bearing depending on the times – the most secure, the most good (in a moral sense), the most productive or efficient, and the most economically properous. Each sought to address fundamental challenges of reach across scale, time and space. Once states became larger in population than small Greek cities, and regular daily interactions amongst all citizens became impossible, the distribution of power at scale became a critical object for the success of states. Hence federal and feudal systems enabled the management of wider areas. Patrimonial systems faced the challenge of time – retaining cohesion of the state after the death of a ruler. And as States spread control far beyond the geographic boundaries of the home of the ruler, as in the Roman Empire, the challenge of space needed to be confronted.

As empires and States rose and fell through the ages, their declines can invariably be associated with one of these three failures. The modern liberal state however has a curious additional element to it: transcendent scientism. What I mean by this is what I refer to as elevated universals, politico-scientific analyses of the human condition that cause states to be designed in a particular way. There are three that immediately come to mind that serve as useful examples: Rousseau’s General Will, the Rule of Law (which goes back to Aristotle – The Politics, 3.16), and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of the market – later extended in Hayek’s writing that formed the basis for late modern capitalism.

Each theory suggested that there lay a principle of human behaviour outside of the individual, elevated, as it were, above singular human interests that could be extrapolated to any human group. That these ideas were universal amounted to a new physics, with immutable and consistent laws. These were political theologies masquerading as science. The new dogma of science, unfettered and unromanticised reason, would govern almost unchallenged for two centuries.

The modern state is in jeopardy, however, as these shibboleths fade in both relevance and application. At the core of the failure of the modern state is a general inequality – of income, wealth and opportunity, where markets serve the strong and discriminate against the weak, and where laws serve to limit the majority and restrict their freedoms while cushioning the elite from the vicissitudes of social development and cycles. Only new ideas can save the state from its death spiral, as legitimacy continues to be redistributed to novel power: corporations, technology, and informal power.

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