The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 1. Machiavelli: History, Democracy & Human Nature

In January I submitted the final version of my intellectual biography of James Harrington to Oxford University Press. With any luck it will appear before the end of 2019. Consequently, at the start of this new year I have been reflecting on my pursuit of this project and what I have learned from it. One of the particular pleasures of the research has been re-reading not just Harrington's own writings, but also the works of those thinkers who influenced him. This is, then, the first of a series of posts on some of the thinkers who inspired Oceana. Where better to begin than with the great, though controversial, Italian Renaissance political theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Galgano Cipriani, Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527 Statesman and historiographer, National Galleries Scotland, Accession Number FP I 81.1  https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/34757/niccolo-machiavelli-1469-1527-statesman-and-historiographer

Galgano Cipriani, Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527 Statesman and historiographer, National Galleries Scotland, Accession Number FP I 81.1 https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/34757/niccolo-machiavelli-1469-1527-statesman-and-historiographer

Various things struck me as I re-read The Discourses after an interval of more than a decade. One of the first was how beautifully Machiavelli wrote. From the dedication I was immediately drawn into the text and looked forward to reading it. Part of the beauty lies in the fact that he is clear about his arguments, stating them openly even when they are controversial. But there is much in the substance, as well as the style, of Machiavelli's works that I found appealing. I want to highlight three aspects of his work here that certainly influenced Harrington and which, I believe, still have relevance today.

In the first place, Machiavelli - like Harrington - is explicit about the benefits of reading history to better understand present politics and make proposals for the future. Machiavelli laments the fact that in his own time people take pleasure in reading about historical events, but do not seem to learn from or imitate them (Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, p. 98). One purpose of his book is to encourage a new attitude to history, he aims to compare ancient and modern events so as to better understand them 'so that those who read what I have to say may the more easily draw those practical lessons which one should seek to obtain from the study of history' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 99). Machiavelli's historical methodology is vulnerable to criticism on account of his sense that the past and the present are fundamentally the same. It is obviously not appropriate to maintain this view today, and Harrington already went some way beyond Machiavelli in appreciating the nature and importance of change over time. But it would, I think, be wrong to dismiss too quickly Machiavelli's assertion that human nature remains much the same in all times and places: 

If the present be compared with the remote past, it is easily seen that in all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were. So that, if one examines with diligence the past, it is easy to foresee the future of any commonwealth, and to apply those remedies which were used of old; or if one does not find that remedies were used, to devise new ones owing to the similarity between events. (Machiavelli, The Discourses, pp. 207-8). 

It is, Machiavelli concludes, because people do not properly know or understand history that the same problems keep arising.

The author’s copy of the penguin edition of Machiavelli’s  Discourses .

The author’s copy of the penguin edition of Machiavelli’s Discourses.

One aspect of Machiavelli's understanding of his own past and present which might be of particular interest to us today is what he has to say about popular or democratic politics. As I have pointed out elsewhere, modern democracy is often assumed to be a twentieth-century phenomenon, or at least one that had its origins no earlier than the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Yet, important discussions on the nature and limitations of democracy took place in seventeenth-century England. Reading Machiavelli reminded me that even seventeenth-century thinkers were by no means the first after the fall of Rome to be interested in the advantages and disadvantages of democratic government. While Machiavelli makes little use of the term 'democracy' he is a strong advocate not just of republican, but of popular, government. As well as claiming that 'it is only in republics that the common good is looked to properly in that all that promotes it is carried out' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 275) he also goes so far as to suggest that 'government by the populace is better than government by princes' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 256). Of course, one has to be careful in interpreting this. The suggestion, put forward by John P. McCormick, that Machiavelli is better described as a democrat than a republican has been challenged on the grounds that he was pessimistic about the capacity of ordinary citizens to govern themselves and consequently insisted on the need for continuous elite intervention in politics (John P. McCormick, 'Machiavelli Against Republicanism On the Cambridge School's "Guicciardinian Moments", Political Theory, 31:5, 2003, pp. 615-43 and Ryan Balot and Stephen Trochimchuk, 'The Many and the Few: On Machiavelli's "Democratic Moment"', The Review of Politics, 74 (2012), pp. 559-88). But, I would argue, what is of most importance is that he engaged with the issues surrounding popular government. Indeed, part of the reason for Machiavelli's preference for popular government was his insistence that the populace can more easily be constrained by laws than a prince, and at the same time if they depart from the law they are less dangerous. Moreover, Machiavelli goes so far as to defend what he admits is an unpopular position. Where most writers at the time dismissed the masses as futile and inconstant, Machiavelli was more cautious: 'The nature of the masses, then, is not more reprehensible than is the nature of princes, for all do wrong and to the same extent when there is nothing to prevent them doing wrong.' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 254).

As this quotation suggests, while Machiavelli was less dismissive of the masses than some of his contemporaries this was based less on an elevated sense of their virtue than on his belief that all human beings are susceptible to corruption and that this must be recognised. He suggested that men cannot restrain their passions for very long and insisted that when constituting a commonwealth it is essential to assume that all men are wicked (Machiavelli, The Discourses, pp. 429 and 111). On this issue Harrington was in agreement with Machiavelli and his political model was grounded in Machiavelli's observation that: 'All legislators, whether in a republic or a kingdom' must be 'ready to restrain human appetites and to deprive them of all hope of doing wrong with impunity' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 217). For both thinkers this included rulers and politicians as much as ordinary citizens. Indeed, Machiavelli had some particularly useful suggestions as to how to treat politicians, and others in positions of authority, emphasising the need to assess them on account of their actions rather than simply their positions: 'For, to judge aright, one should esteem men because they are generous, not because they have the power to be generous; and, in like manner, should admire those who know how to govern a kingdom, not those who, without knowing how, actually govern one.' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 94). Reading statements like this in the midst of the current political chaos over Brexit one cannot help thinking that both understanding historical events and learning from past thinkers could still teach us much about politics that would be of practical value today.

Early Modern Political Thought and C21 Century Politics: A Workshop

earlymodernpoliticalthoughtworkshop.png

As part of my British Academy Fellowship I organised a workshop at Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society on Wednesday 16 May 2018, on the relationship between early-modern political thought and twenty-first-century politics. The Lit and Phil is an ideal place to host such a discussion, having been a vibrant centre for thought and learning in the heart of Newcastle for more than 200 years. Although its founders eschewed discussion of religion and politics, its forerunner - the Philosophical Society - debated such issues as 'Whether a National Religion, or a variety of Sects, is of greater advantage to the State?', 'Whether the Civil War in the reign of Charles I and the present conflict with America be similar?' and 'Which is the better form of government, a limited monarchy as in Great Britain, or a republic?' 

I invited four distinguished speakers to the workshop each to speak on a different theme. 

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution, talked about political organisation and mobilisation during the Civil War. He focused on the Putney Debates arguing that it was in that forum that some of the arguments deployed ever since for and against democratic change were laid down. Thomas Rainsborough set out his famous plea for the right to representative government and democratic accountability. He argued that: 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he' and therefore that 'every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government' (The Clarke Papers, ed. C. H. Firth, London: Royal Historical Society, 1992, p. 301). Against him General Henry Ireton asserted that only those with property should have the vote. Moreover, as Rees noted, the organisation of those debates themselves hinted towards a more direct notion of democracy, with ordinary soldiers acting as the voices of their regiments. Drawing on his own experiences in opposing the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Rees showed that these arguments retain relevance and resonance today.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ann Hughes, Emeritus Professor of History at Keele University, engaged with the question of religious liberty and toleration. The period of the mid seventeenth-century witnessed the articulation of arguments both for and against toleration. The Presbyterian Thomas Edwards rejected toleration, citing the dangers that full religious liberty would bring. By contrast, in Areopagitica, John Milton celebrated the acceptance and even encouragement of (moderate) division and variety. Hughes highlighted the fact that Edwards and Milton essentially had different conceptions of the truth. Edwards believed that he knew what the truth was and that the task was to enforce it. By contrast, Milton emphasised the need for openness in order to discover the truth. Once again, we can see how these two views remain in conflict among us today with figures on both sides of the secular-religious divide in danger of being closer to Edwards than to Milton.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ariel Hessayon, of Goldsmiths College, discussed environmental issues, noting that while we worry today about global warming and its implications for competition over scarce resources, people in the seventeenth century were anxious about the impact of a cooling climate in what has become known as the 'little ice age'. Building on Geoffrey Parker's important work on this topic, Hessayon considered the sources that seventeenth-century men and women used to make sense of what was going on, and their responses to environmental change and challenge.

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Finally, the historian and journalist Gaby Mahlberg opened with Berthold Brecht poem Thoughts on the Duration of Exile in order to address the issue of refugees and exile. She reminded us that exile is generally a matter of necessity rather than choice, and explored the ways in which seventeenth-century English republican exiles were affected by the people and ideas with which they came into contact in the nations that gave them shelter. She also spoke of the difficulties they faced in attempting to maintain and pursue their political activities abroad.

The four papers were linked in my mind by the fact that fear seems to have been a pervasive and constant presence in mid-seventeenth-century England. Ireton was afraid of the social anarchy he thought would inevitably arise from giving the poor and propertyless the vote (while those poor and propertyless were of course endlessly fearful of what the authorities would do to them). Edwards was fearful that tolerating certain religious positions would be a slippery slope that would again result in anarchy. The idea of the religious sects of the time as a canker eating away at society is a powerful image of the intensity of this fear. At the same time, members of those religious sects must have been constantly fearful of repression. Extreme weather events and other natural phenomena then, as now, bred fear as human beings grappled with the question of how to deal with what is beyond their control. Finally, exiles and refugees today, as in the past experience great fear for their lives and prospects, and at the same time have the potential to provoke a fearful reaction in others: their 'otherness' makes them suspect and a threat.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet  The World Turned Upside Down  (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet The World Turned Upside Down (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

It is perhaps not surprising that a period of great change and revolution was marked by fear. Thomas Hobbes commented that he and fear were twins (it was said that his mother went into labour on hearing news of the Spanish Armada) and fear certainly played a central role within his political thought. Similarly the title and frontispiece to the pamphlet The world turned upside down of 1645 reflects the sense of fear and strangeness that seems to have been palpable at the time. Historians typically focus on the changes that were introduced, the debates that were played out, and the ideas that emerged, but perhaps refocusing on the fear would prove fruitful. 

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

It is also important to remind ourselves that fear need not always provoke a violent, destructive or exclusive response. On this point I was struck by Ariel Hessayon's comment that Gerrard Winstanley's answer to the climactic problems of the seventeenth-century (and indeed to those of poverty and division too) was in essence peaceful, communal and constructive. He set about planting beans and turnips on St George's Hill in Surrey in a bid by himself and the members of his community to feed themselves.

Speaking of Winstanley brings me back to the poster I produced for the event and the image on it depicting a slightly quirky quartet of figures. Winstanley and Rainsborough are there joined by the nineteenth-century Chartist William Cuffay and the "King of the Hippies" Sid Rawle, under a banner stating 'This Land is your Land' 'Take it'. This mural can be found painted on to an artists' studio at the top end of the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. It would seem that I, and those attending the workshop, are not the only current residents of Newcastle who can see the relevance of seventeenth-century political ideas.

ouseburnmural.jpg

Ouseburn Valley mural with our four speakers: Gaby Mahlberg, Ann Hughes, John Rees and Ariel Hessayon.

You can find another blogpost on this event by Liam Temple, complete with audio recordings of the papers at:http://theosophicaltransactions.com/conference-report-early-modern-political-thought-and-twenty-first-century-politics-16th-may-2018/

The Advantages and Pitfalls of Referenda

Referenda have recently been in the news, with questions raised about their role in democracy. There is a tendency for their results to be treated as representing the will of the people, even when the outcome has been very close, as with the UK referendum on Brexit. There are also questions about who has the authority to call a referendum, as illustrated by events in Catalonia. In addition, there may be issues about the administration of referenda, for instance about the wording of the question to which an electorate is to respond, as was the case with the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum: the wording proposed by the Scottish National Party was judged by the Electoral Commission as likely to lead people to vote 'Yes'.

The use of referenda to decide political issues is not new, of course. As I argued in my previous blogpost, Harrington had insisted that the people had a right to the final say over whether legislative proposals were to be implemented. Indeed for him this was the crucial role of the people within the political system. Yet he did not accompany his call for popular initiative by advocating referenda. Instead he insisted that the popular acceptance or rejection of legislation should be delegated to a popular assembly.

A French translation of Harrington's aphoristic works from the revolutionary period. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 2 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A French translation of Harrington's aphoristic works from the revolutionary period. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 2 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

The cover of my book on the Cordeliers Club, which discusses their thought in detail. On the cover is the title page of the club's journal, with its open eye, designed to indicate constant popular surveillance of the government.

The cover of my book on the Cordeliers Club, which discusses their thought in detail. On the cover is the title page of the club's journal, with its open eye, designed to indicate constant popular surveillance of the government.

The provision of regular referenda was, however, appended to Harrington's constitutional model during the French Revolution by members of the Cordeliers Club. Jean-Jacques Rutledge first expressed his interest in Harrington in the 1780s. He urged the French to read Harrington's works since they provided a model by which legislators might 'raise the Edifice of the most equal and the most durable democratic constitution'. (Calypso ou les Babillards, Paris, 1785, p. 221.) Following the outbreak of revolution, Rutledge joined the Cordeliers where he found like-minded friends who shared his interest in democracy. 

In the early 1790s several Cordeliers called for the popular sanctioning of laws by means of regular referenda. As François Robert, who was club president during 1791, explained:

there is nothing easier than to make French citizens take part in the making of the         law, as they take part in the nomination of their representatives, and if they once         take part in making the laws, they are free, and France is happily transformed into a     republic. (François Robert, Républicanisme adapté à la France, Paris, 1790, p. 88.)

Another Cordelier, Louis De La Vicomterie, deemed as the first 'power' of the people: 'Ratification by them of projects of law given to them'. (Louis De La Vicomterie, Des Droits du peuple sur l'assemblée nationale, Paris 1791, p. 177.) The most detailed call for the popular ratification of laws was set out in a speech to the club by René Girardin, the executor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's will. That speech was endorsed by the club and published as a pamphlet. Girardin not only insisted on the benefits of the popular ratification of laws, but also offered a detailed proposal for how it could be implemented, by way of popular referenda organised at a local level. If this were enacted, Girardin insisted: 'each citizen without altering their condition, can take part personally in the law' and each law 'will be ratified by the people in person' consequently 'the law will be known by all' and 'truly sacred, respectable and respected by all, because it will be the work of all'. (René Girardin, Discours sur la nécessité de la ratification de la loi, par la volonté générale, Paris, 1791, p. 23.) 

A French translation of  The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other works . Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 4 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A French translation of The Oceana of James Harrington, and his other works. Brotherton Library, Leeds, Anglo-French 4 1795 HAR. Reproduced with permission.

A year later, following the establishment of the French Republic, a draft constitution was submitted to the National Convention on behalf of its author Rutledge. It bore a striking resemblance to Harrington's Oceana. Yet, it departed from that model on certain key points, one of which was the process for ratifying laws. Whereas in Oceana the whole legislative process was carried out at the national level, with the senate debating and putting forward legislative proposals and the popular assembly voting to accept or reject each one, Rutledge's constitution followed Girardin's model. The National Legislative Council had the task of debating the issues and putting forward proposals, but those proposals would then be accepted or rejected by the people gathered in their primary assemblies:

Final Ratification or sanction of the law, first proposed, then discussed and finally presented by the great national legislative council, belongs exclusively to the nation [represented legally in their local assemblies] where this sanction must be expressed on the presentation of the laws discussed, by yes for the affirmative, and by no, for the negative. (Idées sur l'espèce de gouvernement populaire, Paris, 1792, p. 23.)

Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Portrait of Camille Desmoulins. Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Not all revolutionaries embraced this idea. Jacques-Pierre Brissot, attacked both Camille Desmoulins and La Vicomterie for calling for the popular ratification of laws. Brissot described Desmoulins as carrying the sovereignty of the people to an extreme by wishing 'to make them ratify all the acts of the legislative power' and he accused La Vicomterie of advocating a confused and dangerous system: 'This ardent apostle of the people does not know that according to his system he is its most cruel enemy. Because if there is a means of having neither law, nor liberty, it is by wishing to have all the laws ratified by the six thousand primary assemblies'. (Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, Le Patriote français, nos, 586 and 670.) 

Brissot was not, however, an opponent of referenda per se. Indeed, he insisted that popular ratification of the constitution was crucial. But he drew a clear distinction between constitutive and legislative power, suggesting that only the former needed to be subject to a popular referendum. One of his objections was to do with the practical inconveniences of holding frequent referenda. 

Recent advances in technology have the potential to make regular referenda a less cumbersome activity (though issues around access to technology and rendering the system resistant to corruption remain). While I would hesitate to propose the popular ratification of laws by the entire citizen body, there does seem to be some value in discussing such ideas. They are, after all, one means of engaging citizens more directly with the political process and thereby overcoming the problems associated with the perception that politics in the UK is currently the preserve of an entrenched political elite.

 

What is Democracy?

Happy New Year! The first day of 2018 seemed a good day to post a blog that looks both backwards and forwards on a key topic of the moment: democracy. The concept of democracy is simultaneously central to our current political culture and at the same time the subject of debate. In a previous blogpost I noted Harrington's distinctive understanding of democracy and suggested that his thinking on this subject might provide some interesting answers to our current democratic crisis. I want to build on this suggestion in my next few posts by exploring three mechanisms that were proposed by Harrington, or his followers, which could be used to breathe new life into our democracy. As a preface to those explorations, this post will offer a brief history of the concept of democracy, focusing in particular on how it was understood in the seventeenth century.

Benjamin Constant, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Constant, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Democracy is a complex concept with a long and convoluted history. Today, of course, it is almost universally praised, but this was often not the case before the twentieth century. Its origins lie in ancient Greece, especially Athens. Yet not only was it much criticised at that time (not least by the two most renowned philosophers of the day, Plato and Aristotle), but the form democracy then took was very different from the political structures and values to which the term is applied today. These differences were emphasised by Benjamin Constant in the early nineteenth century. He drew a distinction between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. The first, which he described as involving the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community, involved the direct exercise of collective political power through: deliberation; the voting of laws; and the calling to account of magistrates. The second, by contrast, prioritises the rights of the individual. It encompasses: the right to freedom of speech, movement, association, religion and employment; the right to be governed by the rule of law and to dispose of one's property as one sees fit; and, in political terms, it requires simply 'the right to exercise some influence on the administration of government' whether by electing some or all officials, or via representations, petitions and demands. Constant's 'liberty of the moderns', then, is precisely what democracy in its modern guise is designed to protect, and the origins of this modern form of democracy are usually traced back to Constant's own time, and in particular, to the revolutions and reforms of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet democracy was also much discussed in the seventeenth century, not least in England during the mid-century Revolution, and there are grounds for tracing the origins of our modern understanding of the concept right back to that point. 

John Whitgift by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, NPG660. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Whitgift by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, NPG660. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

The term 'democratical' was first used in print in English in 1574: in a work published by the future Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, which responded to Puritan calls for further purification of the Church of England. Within this dispute the question was raised as to whether church and state government should take the same form. Whitgift's opponent, Thomas Cartwright, argued that the government of the state should be fitted to that of the church, a suggestion that Whitgift interpreted as suggesting 'that the government of the commonwealth, ought not to be monarchical, but either democratical or aristocratical, because (as you say) the government of the Church ought to be such'. (John Whitgift, The defense of the aunswere to the Admonition against the replie of T. C., London, 1574, p. 389). The term was also invoked in another religious debate, this time originating in the 1580s, concerning the method of election within the early church and its implications for the present.

Thomas Cartwright by an unknown artist, 1683. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D20948. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Thomas Cartwright by an unknown artist, 1683. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D20948. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Most of the references to democratic government in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries related to these debates, and they were relatively few in number. Moreover, at this time democracy was usually portrayed in negative terms. Between 1570 and 1600 fewer than ten works appeared each decade that included the word 'democratical'. By the 1640s, however, more than 100 works did so. Part of the reason for the increasing popularity of the term relates to the political upheavals of those years. Indeed, some commentators even began to use the term 'democracy' to describe the government of England itself. Initially democracy was simply used to designate one element of England's mixed constitution but, following the regicide, England was presented in several works as a pure democracy. Not only that, but some commentators actively embraced this idea. In a sermon preached before the Lord Mayor, aldermen, sheriffs and companies of London in October 1650, Nathanael Homes sought to distinguish a 'popular parity; a levelling Anarchie' from 'a regular Democracie'. The latter, he insisted, 'assisted with an occasional Aristocracie in Trust, is most safe; as some experience may be seen, in Switzerland, Venice, Low-countries, and New-England; and most anciently among the Jews, in the time of the Judges'. (Nathanael Homes, A sermon, preached before the Right Honourable..., London, 1650, p. 32). 

Title page to  The Prerogative of Popular Government  from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Title page to The Prerogative of Popular Government from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

James Harrington too sought to rehabilitate the concept of democracy on the basis of exactly the same distinction, but he went further, seeking at the same time to distance the concept of democracy from ancient Athens and the emphasis on free speech and debate among the citizenry that was central to government in that city. The so-called 'democracy' of Athens was, in Harrington's eyes, really anarchy because it allowed debate among the citizens, which tended to produce chaos. In contrast to this he celebrated what he described as the 'democracy' of Sparta which was instead grounded in popular sovereignty, which he understood as the right to accept or reject legislative proposals. In Oceana Harrington made the case for Sparta as a democracy on the grounds that in that system the senate was elected and the popular assembly had the right of veto over the propositions of the senate. In his subsequent work The Prerogative of Popular Government he repeated this point and offered further justification for the superiority of Spartan 'democracy' over Athenian 'anarchy': 'debate in the people maketh anarchy, and where they have the result and no more, the rest being managed by a good aristocracy, it maketh that which is properly and truly to be called democracy, or popular government'. (James Harrington, The Prerogative of Popular Government in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 308). In my last blogpost I noted how different the composition of Harrington's senate was both from other second chambers at the time and from the House of Lords today, and here we can see that Harrington's senate was also distinguished by its distinctive function. The role of the senate was to debate and propose legislation, but it was for the popular assembly to accept or reject those proposals.

Title page to second book of  The Prerogative of Popular Government  from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Title page to second book of The Prerogative of Popular Government from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this very brief account of seventeenth-century democracy. First, discussions of democracy originally arose not in the realm of politics narrowly defined, but rather with reference to religion and the relationship between church and state. Indeed this was still true of Harrington, who made much of the practice of democracy within the Hebrew commonwealth (as depicted in the Old Testament) and in the early church (as described in the New). Modern democracy, then, should not simply be seen as a secular concept, but one with firm religious foundations. Secondly, the history of democracy in the seventeenth century is a good example of a common tendency by which political concepts enter the lexicon as terms of abuse, but once there are available for adaptation, and even more positive adoption, by individuals or groups. Consequently, a proper understanding of the origins of political concepts must take into account not just positive depictions of them, but also negative ones. Moreover, both the initial negative understanding of democracy, and the relative flexibility of the concept in the seventeenth century, render exploration of that phase of its development of particular relevance today. The negative accounts of sixteenth and seventeenth-century thinkers can help us to identify and analyse some of the potential problems of democracy. At the same time, the flexibility of the concept - before it became inextricably intertwined with voting, elections and majority rule - might provide us with interesting hints at the paths not taken, alternative ways of thinking about democracy, and even potential solutions to current political problems.

This leads us back to Harrington. In one sense we might posit Harrington's analysis in Oceana and The Prerogative of Popular Government as marking the birth of modern democracy in enacting the shift away from its ancient Athenian form - where the emphasis was on political debate and direct political action - and towards a version grounded in popular sovereignty exercised via a representative assembly. Yet, at the same time, Harrington's constitutional model sets out a politics that is very different from our own democratic system. And while we might not want to adopt his idea that the popular assembly cannot debate, but only silently accept or reject legislative proposals, his appreciation of the fact that modern democracy raises the danger of rule by an entrenched political elite, and his proposals as to how that can be avoided, may well provide a stimulus to productive political thought in the twenty-first century.

 

Harrington and the origins of Modern Democratic Government

The Capitol Building, Washington DC. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Capitol Building, Washington DC. Image by Rachel Hammersley

I am writing this blogpost on my way to Washington DC to attend a conference at the Center for the History of British Political Thought at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Travelling to Washington less than a month after the election of Donald Trump as the next US President has inevitably got me thinking about the relationship between Harrington's ideas and contemporary politics. Moreover, the fact that the conference is on the theme of 'Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660' has also led me to think about the parallels with today. Of course, it is not just in the US that 2016 has been dominated by an air of political crisis. In Britain, the fallout from Brexit, the hurried appointment of a new Prime Minister, and the shambles surrounding the Labour leadership contest have vied for front-page status. Meanwhile, in Continental Europe mainstream parties are increasingly being challenged by radical groupings on both the Left and the Right, in the context of austerity economics and the flow of refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

John Adams by John Singleton Copley. Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/299877

John Adams by John Singleton Copley. Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/299877

The attitude of many people to these crises is fear and despair. This is an understandable response, but it is not the only one. Crises are also moments of opportunity, when new ways of thinking, new ideas, and new institutions can be invented, and experimented with. This was certainly true of those years in the seventeenth century that are the focus of the conference. There may be much to be learned from times of crisis in the past.

Civil War broke out in England in 1642 when James Harrington was thirty one years old. Four years of fighting followed and, after a brief period of peace in which attempts were made to come to a negotiated settlement with the captured king, hostilities broke out again in 1648. Early the following year, Charles I was tried and executed and the monarchy and House of Lords were subsequently abolished as 'dangerous' to the people. The decade that followed witnessed the introduction, failure, and collapse of a whole series of regimes, coupled with war abroad, and constant threats from royalists and religious radicals at home. Moreover, Harrington was fully conscious of living through a period of revolutionary crisis, seeking to understand how it had come about, and seizing the opportunity to provide innovative solutions to the problems it raised. For this reason, his ideas subsequently appealed to late eighteenth-century revolutionaries. John Adams was one of several Americans to be inspired by him, and the vestiges of Adams' reading of Harrington marked the Massachusetts State Constitution. In France various revolutionaries were fundamentally affected by their reading of Harrington's works. They alluded to him for rhetorical effect, and modelled their own constitutional proposals on The Commonwealth of Oceana.

Though we are living at a far greater temporal distance from Harrington, and though the situation in which he was writing may seem very different from our own, there are reasons why we too might learn from his ideas. In many ways, our current political situation marks a crisis of modern representative democracy. It would, therefore, perhaps be pertinent for us to look again at the debates surrounding the origins of the formation of that democratic system. Though those origins are often seen to lie in the revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century, both positive uses of the term 'democracy' and statements as to what that form of government entailed, surfaced during the English Revolution. Harrington was one of several political thinkers who embraced the term for his own ends - mainly to condemn his opponents as oligarchs. In 1659 he published A Proposition in Order to the Proposing of a Commonwealth or Democracy and some associates of his published a pamphlet entitled A Model of A Democraticall Government. That same year in his work Aphorisms Political Harrington provided some indication of the form that he believed democracy ought to take: 'That democracy, or equal government by the people, consist[ing] of an assembly of the people and a senate is that whereby art is altogether directed, limited and necessitated by the nature of her materials'. His original statement on this issue appeared in Oceana. There he questioned why Athens should have been labelled a 'democracy' and Lacedaemon (Sparta) an 'aristocracy' when both were governed by a senate and a popular assembly. The main difference between them, Harrington noted, was that in Athens the people could both debate and vote on legislation, whereas in Sparta they had no right of debate, but could only accept or reject proposals introduced by the Senate. Harrington went on:

But for my part, where the people have the election of the senate, not bound unto a     distinct order, and the result, which is the sovereign power, I hold  them to have that share in the government (the senate being not for life) whereof, with the safety of the commonwealth, they are capable in nature, and such a government for that cause to be democracy.

Evidently this model is rather different from how most democratic governments operate today. Perhaps the first lesson that Harrington can teach us, then, is that our model of democratic government is not the only one possible and that there may even be others that would fulfil our goals more effectively.

The Senate Building, Washington DC. The wording at the top reads 'The Senate is the Living Symbol of the Union of States'. Harrington would no doubt have approved. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The Senate Building, Washington DC. The wording at the top reads 'The Senate is the Living Symbol of the Union of States'. Harrington would no doubt have approved. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Some recent commentators have argued that one of the key problems with our democracy today is that the political class has become alienated from those it claims to represent. This fact has been used to explain the Brexit vote in the UK; the rise of extreme Left and Right Wing parties in Europe; and the recent success of Trump. As Moira Weigel argued earlier this week in a column in The Guardian, Donald Trump ran 'as a candidate whose primary qualification was that he was not a "politician"'. Harrington foresaw the danger that elected representatives could easily become too detached from the people they represent. His solution was to follow Aristotle's dictum of ensuring that those who made the laws would have to live under those laws. This could be done, he suggested, by having short terms and regular rotation of office. In his own constitutional model, members of both the senate and popular assembly would serve for just three years and having completed their term, they would then spend the same period out of office before being eligible for re-election. While something like this system operates in modern democracies, it is not true of MPs in the UK, who can spend a lifetime in Parliament. It is perhaps not surprising that long-term inhabitants of the Westminster bubble can become detached from the needs, concerns, hopes and fears of their constituents. The Labour Party is currently toying with the idea of mandatory de-selection, so perhaps this is one Harringtonian idea that may be employed to solve current problems.

Part of the reason for Harrington' insistence on short-terms and regular rotation of office was his belief that all human beings are equally inclined to corruption, particularly when holding a position of power. Consequently he argued against those who believed that political stability and success could be secured simply by choosing virtuous politicians. He argued instead for the development of a robust constitutional structure that would ensure that it was in the interests of those in power to behave virtuously. As noted above, in Harrington's system the senate would debate and propose legislation, but those proposals would only pass into law if they were accepted by the popular assembly. Harrington's belief was that the popular assembly would reject legislative proposals that favoured the interests of the Senate alone, thereby forcing Senators to think about the good of the nation as a whole. Perhaps in the aftermath of recent events, including the MPs expenses scandal of a few years ago, we too should be honest about human frailties and work to develop robust systems that will ensure that politicians act in the interests of those they represent rather than assuming their willingness or ability to do so. 

The Capitol Building at night. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The Capitol Building at night. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

There are no easy answers in politics and no historian of any worth will suggest that the past provides ready-made answers to our problems. But looking back to key moments of political crisis in the past may alert us to issues that have been obscured or present us with alternative options that we would not otherwise have considered. Moreover, returning to those times can remind us that crises are not just moments of despair, but also of hope and opportunity.