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Oakeshott on Civil Association

Here are some extracts from Noel’s essay, the penultimate chapter (also check out two new pieces by Noel found here).

The distinctive achievement of Western political thought since the seventeenth century is the ideal of the limited state. Despite extensive theorizing about this ideal, however, there has always been profound disagreement about its precise nature and implications. The full extent of this disagreement has been especially evident during the decades since World War II, in the course of which sustained efforts have been made by a variety of thinkers to construct a coherent alternative to totalitarianism. In Friedrich Hayek’s view, for example, the limited state is principally characterized by a free market economy that facilitates human progress. For Karl Popper it is characterized by commitment to creating an open society that rejects absolute truth and asserts the conditionality of all knowledge. In the early writings of John Rawls, the limited state is characterized by commitment to rational principles of distributive justice. For Robert Nozick it means the minimal state. For Ernest Gellner it is the political structure appropriate to what he termed “modular man.” For Jürgen Habermas, echoing Rousseau, it refers to a political order based on rational will formation. For Václav Havel what characterizes the limited state is the promotion of spiritual integration instead of the spiritual fragmentation associated with totalitarian regimes. Still other interpretations of the ideal of the limited state are found among theorists of globalization and the European Union. In light of this disagreement, Michael Oakeshott’s interpretation of the limited state as civil association is of special interest, seeking as it does to give a degree of conceptual coherence to the ideal that is otherwise lacking. The principal obstacle to achieving this coherence, Oakeshott believes, is a deep division of opinion among modern political theorists about the nature of political science. To understand Oakeshott’s identification of the limited state with civil association, it is therefore necessary to begin by considering his understanding of political science.

Oakeshott rejects the view that an answer can be given simply by referring to specific “persons, places, or occasions” as was the case, for example, in ancient Greek political thought, where the concept of the public was tied to the agora (OHC, 165). Instead, he identifies what is public in the political sense with “a focus of attention and a subject of discourse” (165). What is public refers, more precisely, to the “public concern” of cives (citizens), for which Oakeshott adopts the Roman term respublica. Putting the same thing slightly differently, a respublica exists only when a state is “constituted in such a way that it can be considered as belonging to the governed, and not an alien power” (VMES, 104).

Without the existence of a public concern or respublica, then, a state lacks a moral basis and is consequently indistinguishable from power or domination. It can accordingly be dismissed, as it was in the ancient world by the Greek Sophist Thrasymachus, as embodying the interest of the stronger, or it can be described, as it has been by modern Marxists, as merely a committee of the bourgeois capitalist class. Exactly how the respublica necessary to rebut these charges is to be structured, however, has been a matter for intense disagreement among modern political thinkers. At one stage of his intellectual development, Oakeshott attributed this disagreement to a tension between individualist and collectivist ways of thought in modern politics. At another, he attributed it instead to a tension between rationalist and pragmatic politics. At yet another stage he theorized it in terms of a tension between the “politics of faith” and the “politics of skepticism.” In his mature presentation of the tension in On Human Conduct (1975), however, he finally identified it as lying between an essentially formal, nonpurposive concept of the respublica embodied in civil association, on the one hand, and what he described as an enterprise conception, on the other, which seeks to create a public concern by imposing a substantive vision of the social good on all members of society. It is this final statement of Oakeshott’s position that is the main focus of attention here. Before considering the civil form of respublica, it is illuminating to begin by considering Oakeshott’s analysis of the enterprise version, according to which what is public is identified with a shared purpose in which all citizens are compelled to participate

But why, it must be asked, does Oakeshott maintain that freedom is always incompatible with an enterprise conception of the state: surely freedom is possible provided that the enterprise is a worthwhile one like social justice? In reply Oakeshott gives several reasons for rejecting the enterprise conception of respublica as incompatible with a free society. The most fundamental is that enterprise association lacks the moral basis of a free society, which is recognition of others as ends in themselves. As Oakeshott puts it, subjects in an enterprise state are reduced to the status of objects, because they are understood by the enterprise state as merely “the property of the association, an item of its capital resources,” to be disposed of in whatever way the state believes best serves its purpose (OHC, 317). This remains true even if the enterprise state enjoys extensive popular support for such goals as economic growth or distributive justice, since the subjects who support them remain objects in the eyes of the state.

What links these thinkers is the recognition that civil association consists of a complex of “rules and rule-like prescriptions to be subscribed to in all the enterprises and adventures in which the self-chosen satisfactions of agents may be sought” (OHC, 148). Hobbes, above all, is praised by Oakeshott for exploring the ideal character of civil association most profoundly. Nevertheless, Oakeshott criticized Hobbes on several counts. Hobbes failed, in the first place, to explain how self-seeking individuals could regard it as rational to make a covenant according to which each surrenders to all the other participants (as Hobbes requires) his natural right to interpret and enforce the law of nature as he sees fit. As Hobbes admits, to be a first performer in the kind of covenant he envisaged is feasible only for a few “magnanimous natures” such as Sydney Godolphin, to whom Hobbes dedicated Leviathan— wholly exceptional individuals willing to honor their promises even when a sovereign has not as yet been created to enforce laws that provide redress if others fail to keep theirs.

The model of civil association, then, is intended by Oakeshott to provide the only conception of the public realm, or respublica, that can reconcile order and freedom in a modern Western society whose citizens want to live self-chosen lives and reject any state that wishes to impose an overall purpose on them. A variety of theoretical objections to the civil model have been raised, however, by critics who claim that Oakeshott’s theorization of civil association fails to make good his claims on its behalf. Some of the objections arise from confusion, but others are well-founded. An attempt must therefore now be made to distinguish the confused from the well-founded criticisms. The first step in this process of clarification is to note the confusion about the nature of civil association that has arisen during the past three decades as a result of attempts made by Eastern European intellectuals to underpin their opposition to Soviet despotism by adopting the concept of civil association to describe the alternative for which they were fighting. The meaning they gave to it, however, usually had little connection with Oakeshott’s version and was indeed incompatible with it in some crucial respects. Precisely how the Eastern European ideal differed from Oakeshott’s may be illustrated by considering the political writings of Václav Havel, who is generally regarded as one of the leading Eastern European defenders of civil association. The grandeur of Havel’s vision is unquestionable. The important point, however, is that he is committed to what Oakeshott terms an enterprise model of the state. Havel’s enterprise, to be precise, is to promote spiritual renewal in what he regards as an age of dehumanization. From this, Havel says, it is “beside the point” to discuss topics such as socialism and capitalism, since the real concern is nothing less than salvation—“the salvation of us all, of myself and my interlocutor equally”—above all in the alienated relation to nature that has been created by modern industrial societies. Elevated though Havel’s words may be, a vision of this kind is incompatible with the formal, nonpurpose concept of civil association favored by Oakeshott. The confusion caused by the Eastern European model of civil association, however, is only one of several that have resulted in the misinterpretation of Oakeshott’s position. Another consists of the identification of civil association with the minimal state. This is the identification made, for example, by libertarian theorists such as Robert Nozick. Civil association, however, is not committed to upholding the minimal state; its concern is to eliminate the arbitrary state. It is concerned, in other words, not with the quantity of government intervention but with the mode of intervention. Provided the mode of intervention does not conflict with the civil model, extensive government intervention is in principle not excluded by it. Precisely how much, however, and precisely which areas it occurs in, are matters for debate among citizens of civil association. They are not, that is, matters that can be determined by reflection on the civil ideal in the abstract.

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