Thursday, August 31, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with commentary, Pt. 6

Collingwood in the 1930s
The plainest political fact of our times is the widespread collapse of what I shall call, using the word in its Continental sense, liberalism. [1]The essence of this conception is, or was, the idea of a community as governing itself by fostering the free expression of all political opinions that take shape within it, and finding some means of reducing this multiplicity of opinions to a unity. How this is the to be effected, is a secondary matter. [2] [The bracketed numbers refer to the comments numbered at the end of the Collingwood quotes.]
. . . . 

The one essential of liberalism is the dialectical solution of all political problems: that is their solution through the statement of opposing views and their free discussion until, beneath this opposition, their supporters have discovered some common ground on which to act. [3]            The outward characteristic of all liberalism is the fact that it permits the free expression of opinion, no matter what the opinion may be, on all political questions. This attitude is not toleration; it is not the acquiescence in an evil whose suppression would be a greater evil; it is not a mere permission but an active fostering of free speech, as the basis of all healthy political life. 
. . . . 

            There are certain conditions under which alone liberalism can flourish. It is not the best method of government for a people at war or in a state of emergency: for then silence and discipline are demanded of the subject, bold and resolute command of the ruler. It is not the best method for a people internally rotten with crime and violence: there, a strong executive is the first thing needed; force must be met by force. Therese restrictions, however, do not amount to criticisms of liberalism on its own ground. It professes to be a political method, that is, a method by which a community desiring a solution for its own political problems can find one. War is not a part of politics, but the negation of politics, a parasitic growth upon political life. [4]

. . . . 

Liberalism, then, requires for its success only one condition: namely that the civilization which adopts it shall as a whole and on the whole be resolved to live in peace and not at war, by honest labour and not by crime. [For, when it invites the free expression of all political views, it assumes that those who accept the invitation will use it as an opportunity for expressing political views, not as an opportunity for acts of violence.] [5]It might seem, therefore, that liberalism is a mere utopianism, based on a blindly optimistic view of human nature. But this is not the case. A liberal government is still a government, and like every government must enforce law and suppress crime. Because it set out of hear every political opinion, it is not committed to the dogma that every human being under its rule has such opinions. [318-320]


  1. This "continental" liberalism may also be called "classical liberalism." It is the liberalism that American political scientist Louis Hartz (The Liberal Tradition in America) believed underlay the entire American political landscape. Until recently, the Republican and Democrat parties were essentially two different branches of this one stream. Both were committed to the essential institutions of liberal democracy. Of course, the take-over (how hostile and unwanted I'm not so sure) of the Republican Party by Trumpism, this no longer is true. We now have a fundamentally anti-liberal party in power, although it can be very liberal with the plutocratic interests who fund its congressional wing. 
  2. Note the use of the term "community" here. One of the great conundrums of the Founders addressed in The Federalist Papers, and by Madison, in particular, is the extent to which a far-flung nation of great diversity can foster a sufficient community to make a republic work for the new nation. To what extent can we as a nation, when "bowling alone," maintain the necessary coherence of perspectives, interests, and aspirations to keep a functional political community. I'd argue (I think Collingwood might follow me here) is that without a sense of community, you cannot maintain a democracy. By the very nature of the growth of our nation: in geography, population, economics, size of government, and so on, we lose some measure of community. But even with all of these centrifugal forces, Americans have still found periods of intense political community, even at the national level. (Community is more easily visible at the local level, as we see with any trauma to a community.) 
  3. This implies that "common ground" can always be found, but this is not always so. But even in cases of disagreement, a losing party may still share common ground by recognizing the legitimacy of the procedures and abiding by the decision; i.e., by "playing by the rules." When this stops--and it's become increasingly problematic at the Congressional level. Congressional and legislative Republicans have moved the goalposts by gerrymandering, refusing the act on presidential appointments, and even by ending the filibuster.  (Ending the filibuster isn't such a bad thing in my book, but it's a change in the rule motivated by temporary partisan advantage, not an aim to make the process more democratic.)
  4. The flip side of this observation might be included in the dictator's handbook about how to end democracy. As Madison observed long ago, and as I've been preaching for a long time now, war and democracy don't mix. War will strangle democracy. The concluding sentence of this paragraph (in italics) foreshadows the arguments of Collingwood's younger contemporary, Hannah Arendt. Arendt argues that the essence of politics is speech (Collingwood's "discussion"?), and that contra Mao, political power doesn't emanate from the barrel of a gun; only force comes from there. War, then, is the antithesis of democracy. Instead, political power comes from the use of speech to persuade citizens to pursue a common course of action: 
"Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is "in power" we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name." 
Arendt, On Violence (1970, p. 44), quoted in Habermas, "Hannah Arendt's Communications Concept of Power, Social Research (1977).
5.  This bracketed sentence was deleted from Collingwood's manuscript, and the editors don't know why. But I decided to insert it because I agree with what he says in that sentence, and in light of the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, we need to consider what limits upon free speech and expression--if any--we should impose. I'm of the classical liberal bent such that I'd let go anything short of violence, even though I find a sentiment abhorrent. But I'm not sure that this is the best course, and we'd all better consider what alternatives we want to pursue.