BMCR 2003.06.04

Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government

, Mill on democracy : from the Athenian polis to representative government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xii, 293 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226842770. $37.50.

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The goal of Nadia Urbinati’s new book is intriguing: to illuminate certain difficulties within John Stuart Mill’s political theory by reference to his understanding of the classics. This mission is an important one, given that much of the political thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drew its inspiration from the study of ancient history, while the ancients were interpreted in terms of contemporary political thought. This double purpose is the reason for two reviewers here: to offer a dual perspective — that of a classicist, and that of a political theorist — on this project. The main question for the theorist is how U(rbinati) interprets Mill; for the classicist who is not a specialist on Mill, the question is the veracity of U.’s interpretation. This review will first describe the book by chapters, and then offer a wider criticism of U.’s treatment of Mill. Ultimately, this book does not adequately explicate Mill’s thought.

This book is a professional-level treatment of Mill’s political thought; it is not a work of classical studies. As revealed in the author’s Introduction, it is organized around two main themes: Mill’s conception of liberty, and his ideas of citizenship and democratic participation. In the first case, “Mill realized that a discursive approach to politics demands a kind of liberty whose foundation is interaction and cooperation without necessarily excluding interference” (p. 1). In U.’s view, Mill’s conception of liberty is captured neither by Isaiah Berlin’s positive and negative freedoms, nor by interpretations of liberty as freedom from domination. This interpretation of Mill is open to serious challenge. For the second of these themes, U. claims that Mill “viewed representative government as a regulated process of deliberation that ideally involved the largest possible number of citizens … He did not view representative government as a set of institutions devised to limit the democratic element” (3). Mill’s view of the Athenian assembly as agonistic rather than consensual is central to these arguments and to his understanding of representative government in his own day.

Chapter 1, “The Modernity of Athens” (14-41), establishes a historical context for Mill’s work. U. selects from 19th century scholarship, observing the construction of oligarchic Sparta and democratic Athens by conservatives eager “to oppose the democratic project of the utilitarians.” Mill and George Grote were “forced to defend Athens against Sparta,” accepting basic similarities between the ancients and the moderns (14). In doing so Mill attributed modernism to Athens based on its democratic political life, not just its social life, which took him closer to American conceptions of a Republic than to those of the French. Although Mill does not have a theory of deliberation, he stressed that Athens was unique because the “agonistic style gave popular decisions a deliberative tone”; the ancients thus “experienced political liberty and appreciated personal diversity” (16, 27). Mill’s On Liberty, then, “is an attempt to articulate in modern terms the ancient notion of eleutheria,” understood both as political liberty and freedom from social morality. U. sets Mill’s project within a larger battle, not just between Athens and Sparta, but between fundamentally opposing conceptions of freedom.

Chapter 2 turns to the more theoretical aspects of Mill’s thought. U. construes Mill’s answers to the conservatives, who denied his status as a democrat “because of the role he ascribed to competence in government” (40). The need for a correct outcome meant that the people could not be allowed to run the state. Mill was left searching for a compromise between oligarchy and the sovereignty of the many. The solution places Mill in a philosophy of social and moral improvement. Mill, according to U., uses Athens to illustrate two kinds of competence: deliberation and technical expertise. The people deliberated in the agora, while the few held offices and did the technical work. Meanwhile, the people attain competence through the process of deliberation; democracy results in constant improvement. The sovereignty of the many prevents the skilled few from becoming despots. This book is at its best when dealing with the relationship between citizenship and the liberal state. U. notes that Mill considered one of the virtues of democracy to be the fact that, “because democracy gives reasoned speech pride of place in politics, it has the power to form individuals who think in terms of self-revision and are committed to an ongoing process of learning in all domains of their lives” (12).

This is the starting point for U.’s examination of Mill’s alleged Platonism; if the people are able to judge the outcome of an expert’s performance (albeit not the performance itself), then Mill runs counter to Plato’s political philosophy, “which depicts ordinary people as unable to see and will what is good for themselves and their city” (49). This claim is founded, in part, on the Aristotelian idea that “the people … have the capacity for ‘reasoned speech'” (51). The art of techne politike“was rooted in the universal ability to make moral and political judgments and communicate through speech” (53). U. sets Mill’s views in context with his translation of Plato’s dialogues, especially the Protagoras, and with issues such as ” common interest and the common culture,” “good” and “pure” democracy, lawmakers versus the larger public, and deliberative republicanism versus rationalist republicanism. Mill’s debt to George Grote remains high: “In Mill’s representative democracy, the legislative commissions were meant to play the same supervisory role as the nomothetai in Grote’s reconstruction” (63). In the end, U. defines Mill’s “polis of the moderns” as “a government with two main protagonists: the lawmaking institutions … and the larger public formed by the individuals, the media, civil associations, and political movements” (74). His modern polis is a deliberative process of adaptation between institutions and culture, and it is through deliberation that political and moral eleutheria develops.

Chapter 3 explores this process, using an “agora model” in which “the representative had to have one foot in civil society, and the other in the state” (76). Here, as in many places, classicists will squirm; U. does not consider the difficulty in defining state and society in a Greek polis, nor does she clearly state how Mill interpreted them. She also speaks of “representatives” in an unproblematic way; this may reflect Mill’s view, but it does not help us to understand where Mill ends and the ancient polis begins. U. continues: for Mill, proportional representation solved the problem of allowing the citizens the right to be heard, while allowing a delegate the freedom he needed to act. This freedom is exercised in a modern assembly (considered as an agora) that adopts the open ballot. This is possible only in a democracy where people “are secure in their liberty and no longer need to conceal their will from others” (78).

The principle of individual expressiveness, which admits to individuals with ideas rather than holders of aggregate interests, is a basis for liberty. But individuals proclaim that liberty by exposing their votes to public scrutiny and accepting defeat if the vote goes against them. This is again anti-Platonic; it implies that “no one possesses the ‘right’ answer in political matters and that human knowledge is fallible” (83). But the decision is made not only by voting but through the process of deliberation and of exposing one’s own opinions and decisions in a public forum. The open ballot, U. maintains, “is the strongest evidence that he used this voting procedure to foster responsibility or responsible participation, rather than mere participation” (122).

Mill, breaking with utilitarians such as his father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, thought that a democratic society was held together by something more than convenience, calculus and threats. Chapter 4 explores this ethical substratum. In U.’s terms, Constitutional morality is composed of an ethical sentiment of sympathy and cooperation and of a juridical / legal freedom and equality. This morality entails an essentially Socratic habit of mind: “it viewed the subject as someone to be regarded and treated as not merely a bearer of ‘preferences,’ but as a person entitled to ask for interventions justified by reasons”; “the agonistic temperament of democratic individuals was the successful outcome of the civilizing force of political life under free institutions” (124-125). Mill’s idea of sovereign individual judgment is the unifying ethos of democracy. This, U. maintains, is neither an “isolationist” view of the individual, nor “rationalist” as divorced from constitutional morality, but rather requires individuals to develop their potentials and become autonomous moral subjects. This results in a new kind of coercion, “one that used moral means to induce behavioral conformity” (130). The role of the Socratic ethos was to counter the coercion of the public. Democracy’s procedural neutrality, a means to limit state power, does not need a moral philosophy of neutrality.

U. stresses that Mill developed these ideas from his life-long study of the Platonic dialogues and saw Socrates as a model for the moral life. Socrates made possible the self-inquiry needed for moral independence and political development. (U. does well to refute the claim that Socrates was a therapeutic device for Mill’s psychological problems; his veneration of Socrates predated the crisis and was shared by his father.) Mill’s distinction between “discussion ordered towards victory (Sophism) and discussion oriented towards conscious conviction (Socratism)” was a reaction to the “collision of opinions” that can affect an individual’s judgment and lead to new dogmas (135). As a true Socratic, U. maintains, Mill held a “conscious conviction that a politics of reform could succeed only if it taught people to recognize their own fallibility”; in this way they could break from these dogmas. “For Mill, dogmatism is the ethical and epistemological equivalent of tyranny” (149). U. is right to state a central point about On Liberty : Mill did not write it to oppose state coercion; it focused rather on public opinion and moral coercion, and attempted to arm the citizen to oppose the coercion of public opinion.

It is in Chapter 5 that U. reaches Mill’s theory of liberty, and here this review must offer a pointed criticism. U. claims that Mill’s theory does not fit within the “negative liberty” versus “positive liberty” distinction because he so strongly differentiates reasons from preference in making decisions. However, U.’s interpretation, that Mill’s liberty constitutes “freedom from subjection,” rather than negative versus positive liberty, is untenable where not unclear. Explanations such as “it requires a composite negative liberty, one that refers to the way individuals relate, not just to the solitary individual” do not help (156); discussions of political liberty assume a social context and relations with other people. U. spends much time trying to take Mill out of the negative versus positive liberty framework, but the account is far from convincing.

There is a core substantive error of interpretation of Mill’s definition of liberty here. Theories of liberty are commonly divided into those that consider the conditions of liberty to be satisfied when one is free from outside interference (so-called “negative liberty”), and those that hold that one is not free unless one possesses certain positive conditions necessary to acting as one wishes (so-called “positive liberty”). Positive liberty, in turn, comes in two flavors: what we may term “material conditions” positive libertarians hold that certain material conditions, such as food, clothing, and shelter, must be provided before one can be said to possess meaningful liberty, while “psychological conditions” positive libertarians hold that meaningful freedom requires the absence of such internal conditions as powerful compulsions or other neuroses.

Mill’s understanding of liberty has been traditionally treated as a version of negative liberty, in league with the theories of such classical liberals as Locke and Bentham. The trouble is that this interpretation seems to fly in the face of Mill’s words. A major goal of On Liberty is to expand the idea of liberty to encompass “the moral coercion of public opinion,” a type of “coercion” that, Mill says expressly, is imposed “by other means than civil penalties” ( On Liberty 1.5). Thus actions that would not have been regarded as liberty-violations by previous-generation liberals, actions such as boycotting and blacklisting, ideological discrimination and (arguably) hate speech, would be ruled out by Mill as forms of “social tyranny.” Is it the case, then, that Mill intended a notion of positive liberty?

Not exactly, says U. In her interpretation, John Stuart Mill means liberty in a third way, which overcomes the “duality” between the two sides of the standard taxonomy. Rather, she argues, Mill intends neither freedom from interference, nor freedom as access to resources, but a third idea: “Liberty as non-subjection.” U. does not clarify her use of crucial terms, but the distinctive feature of “liberty as non-subjection” seems to be that it can be violated, not by individual, overt acts, but by an overall atmosphere of lack of choice. Its antithesis is not tyranny, but “domination,” which U. describes as “a process that moves from external coercion by force to hegemonic domination over the inner life of the mind” (174). Examples U. provides are the conditions of women in the patriarchal family and of workers in a capitalist enterprise.

But the question is where, precisely, is the violation of liberty? If U. considers a woman to be under subjection because of the threat of physical violence should she disobey her husband, then “liberty as non-subjection” is really just garden-variety negative liberty. If, on the other hand, the wife lacks opportunities such as a job or an education, then U. is defending garden-variety material conditions positive liberty. If, on the other hand, the wife’s position is neither of these, but a cowed psychological state that results from both of them, then U. has uncovered nothing more than psychological-conditions positive liberty. This would not count as the discovery of a view of liberty that is neither positive liberty nor negative liberty.

Mill, however, makes it very clear that at root he shares the same negative-libertarianism as previous liberal thinkers. There are many ways in which Mill allows individuals to limit one another’s choices. If I believe Tom is behaving foolishly, I may offer, or even “obtrude” on him, “considerations to aid his judgment,” or “exhortations to strengthen his will” ( On Liberty 4.3). I may “warn others against him,” and “give others a preference over him in optional good offices” ( On Liberty 4.4). However, my actions become violations of Tom’s liberty, according to Mill, only when they are punitive — that is, only when I am inflicting harm on him.

U. is correct to note that the goal of Mill’s theory of liberty is to encourage autonomy, or “individual vigor and manifold diversity” ( On Liberty 3.2, Mill is quoting Wilhelm von Humboldt). However, there is a crucial difference to be maintained here. Suppose a woman who has never been subjected to any form of external compulsion, any threat of force or harm, nevertheless chooses the cozy, unthinking security of a patriarchal marriage. Mill would surely consider this a tragic error, but it would not constitute an absence of liberty as long as her subjection is of her own choosing. U.’s interpretation may be expanding the range of violations of liberty far beyond what Mill thought proper.

As a work of scholarship on John Stuart Mill’s political theory, Mill on Democracy must be read very cautiously. There are many points of imprecision. For example, the assertion that “Mill used the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ as a synonym for a degenerated form of democracy” is quite imprecise (199). The tyranny of the majority, for Mill, denotes one aspect of a degenerated democracy; it is not a synonym for democracy as such (degenerated or otherwise). Further, too many difficult and disputed points of interpretation are asserted as if uncontroversial. For instance, although Mill clearly values diversity of opinion, at least “in the existing state of human intellect,” ( On Liberty, 2.36), U. also refers obliquely to the increasing and “salutary … consolidation of opinion” as more is brought into the realm of the known, an idea that calls into question Mill’s supposed pluralism ( On Liberty 2.32). U. blows past this issue with the claim that Mill “did not expect freedom of discussion to overcome diversity of opinions” (128).

As a work dealing with the classical past, Mill on Democracy offers points of interest regarding Mill’s relationship with scholars such as George Grote. It reinforces how Mill saw the ancients and how he used them to create his own thought. It reminds us that nineteenth century thinkers had far different interpretations than we. But it is not a good resource for non-specialists to use in learning about Mill’s political thought. Classicists would do well to read Mill and Grote directly.