BMCR 2003.06.51

Response: Urbinati on Lewis and Garmong on Urbinati

Response to 2003.06.04

Response by

John Lewis and Robert Garmong have written a review of my book on Mill on Democracy. I thank them for the time they have spent reading my book. It is unusual that the author of a reviewed book to reply to the reviewer(s), but the dissemination of ideas by electronic means leads us to change this practice. Reviews that are published on the internet have a mass diffusion and reach readers who are not necessarily experts in the field. This may explain the decision of authors to change their normal practice and reply to their reviewers. This also explains my decision to respond to the reviewers of my book.

The reviewers (hereafter as Rs.) say that the “goal” of my book is “intriguing” but “ultimately” unachieved: “to illuminate certain difficulties within John Stuart Mill’s political theory by reference to his understanding of the classics.” It is unclear why the Rs. believe this is an “intriguing” goal. Whatever the reason, it is however the case that the goal of my book is not to “explicate Mill’s thought” nor “to illuminate certain difficulties” within Mill’s political thought. Rather, as I explain in the first two pages of the introduction, my goal is to redirect scholars’ attention to John Stuart Mill’s contribution to the theory of government, in particular modern democratic theory, and to provide an original critique of the dominant narrative of the “two liberties” that has shaped Mill scholarship over the last several decades. The book identifies Mill’s deliberative view of politics and analyzes it from the perspective of his extremely original decision to go back to the ancients (Athenian democracy) in order to construct an appropriate model of government for the moderns. Mill’s choice was original because in his time (first half of the nineteenth century) neither Athens nor democracy was deemed to be a model of good government for the moderns. This perspective allows me to include Mill in the democratic tradition and amend the canonical image of him as a liberal thinker who sought to restrict rather than foster democracy. Mill, and his friend George Grote, created the myth of Athens in the sense that they made it a political model for modern society, a model of “good” democracy.

Mill’s approach is important for a number of reasons: thanks to it democracy started to be associated with a regime that is able to control itself and thus not necessarily doomed to become despotic (mob rule). Moreover, it linked the word democracy not only to a form of government but also to a political practice — deliberation — that involved many participants in the decision-making process, and that was based on publicity and the reversibility of decisions. Finally, Mill’s approach makes clear that democracy is grounded on the authority of the individual judgment, which expresses itself not only in voting but also in the public expression of opinions. Beginning with this unprecedented image of Athens and democracy, Mill developed his political thought (there is important evidence that he and his friend Grote began their political and intellectual career with the study of ancient politics and philosophy in the early 1820s to oppose the negative view of Athens and democracy that the conservatives put forth). Democracy as a political model for modern society was born out of an ideological struggle against its enemies. Those who are familiar with the debates regarding the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns may understand the relevance of Mill’s move.

Rs. ask what’s the point of using the “agora model” for a society that is based on representation, not direct rule. Well, this is precisely what makes Mill’s project interesting. The originality of his reading consisted in arguing that ancient democracy had indirect forms of political action. The sections I dedicated to representation and advocacy, proportionality in the representation of ideas and interests (that is to say equal opportunity in representation) are the essential components in creating a modern agora. In modern democracy, voice takes the place of existential presence in recreating the deliberative setting and its relation to society. Hence, it is hard to understand Rs.’ assertion that “she speaks of ‘representatives’ in an unproblematic way.” Since my book is not about how Mill’s historiography or his historical interpretation of Athens but how Mill created and used the myth of Athens in order to envision representative government, it is hard to understand the meaning of Rs.’ allegation that I do “not consider the difficulties in defining states and society in a Greek polis.”

Rs. accuse me of making “a core substantial error of interpretation of Mill’s definition of liberty” in the last chapter of my book. It is not clear which “error” I have made, while it is clear that they read Mill as a negative-libertarian. The issue at stake is thus one of interpretation and disagreement, not right and wrong. I disagree with their libertarian reading of liberty as they do with my democratic reading of liberty. As scholars know, the dualism between negative and positive liberty started after the French Revolution, and in particular the Terror, as a way of distinguishing liberty as protection of individual rights and liberty as fulfillment of autonomy (moral and political), that is to say, self-legislation. Beginning with Benjamin Constant, and more systematically T.H. Green and Isaiah Berlin, these two opposed ideas of liberty have been taken to be representative of two different models of society. Liberty from (negative liberty) tells us whether our action is free to be performed, or there are obstacles, so that the law or state coercion becomes an obstacle to individual liberty. Liberty to (positive liberty) tells us whether we are truly following our reason when we make a decision, whether we are truly our own masters. The former interrogates the externality while the latter interrogates the inner autonomy of the actor. Negative liberty claims I am free if and when no one (and in particular the state) interferes with my decision to act. Positive liberty claims that to be free from state interference does not necessarily make me an autonomous individual. The former is a claim to be left alone while the latter is a claim to self-government.

From Berlin onward, Mill has been seen as the champion of negative liberty, although not immune from perfectionism or a positive view of liberty as autonomy. In my book I argue that this dualism has somehow prevented us from understanding Mill’s political thought in its entirety. I argue that the key to Mill’s theory of political liberty is neither perfectionist autonomy (self-legislation) nor freedom from interference (to be left alone), but instead freedom as “freedom from subjection,” a freedom that is supposed to be enjoyed along with others or in relation to others. I do not say that Mill holds only this view, as Rs. claim. I say that if we analyze Mill’s political writings we can identify a third conception of liberty. I define this third conception as “liberty as non-subjection,” a terminology that belongs to Mill’s works, in particular The Subjection of Women and the Chapters on Socialism. I discuss freedom from subjection in relation to issues of paternalism, infantilization, and despotism and establish a parallel between it and freedom as non-domination.

Rs. argue that freedom from “domination” is something obscure. Perhaps reading Quentin Skinner’s and Philip Pettit’s work would help them to dispel this obscurity. Liberty as non-subjection is, more or less like liberty as non-domination, a negative form of political liberty. Negative because it aims at the removal of obstacles to liberty and positive (or political) because of two reasons: it presumes that the subjected persons themselves act to free themselves from their subjection, and it claims that the law per se is not an obstacle but rather a law that is not legitimate or that is arbitrary. Thus, whereas according to Berlin’s rendering negative liberty can exist in a non democratic government, Mill would disagree and claim that in order for my negative liberty to be secure I need to live under a government whose laws are made with my consent. Liberty as non-subjection is a call for legitimacy and thus questions asymmetrical relations of power. In this sense it is an exquisitely political and democratic kind of liberty, and the necessary condition for any form of deliberative politics since it implies individuals who reason autonomously but exchange opinions and thus interfere with one another’s ideas and who are simultaneously in a reciprocal relation with one another.

Rs. write also that “there are many points of imprecision” in my book, and as an example of these “many” points they cite two cases. First they question the way I use the concept of “tyranny of the majority.” They say that my “assertion that ‘Mill used the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ as a synonym for a degenerated form of democracy’ is quite imprecise. 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)”. I frankly do not understand what Rs. are trying to say here and in what sense what they say is different from what I said in my book. It is false to say that I claim that Mill thought that the tyranny of the majority “is synonymous with democracy.” As a matter of fact, the entire book tries to show that Mill belongs to the democratic family.

The second case of “imprecision” seems to pertain to the way I interpret pluralism. Rs. claim that I refer “obliquely to the increasing and ‘salutary … consolidation of opinions,” an “idea that calls into question Mill’s supposed pluralism.” It is hard to know what Rs. mean by pluralism. It seems to me that their reading of Mill’s work is superficial and poor. Mill himself explains (both in his essay on Coleridge and On Liberty) that we need to share some basic beliefs (beliefs to be “placed beyond discussion”) in order to exercise our freedom of discussion or simply to hold diverse and even conflicting opinions. This is reminiscent of John Rawls’ overlapping consensus or what I call “constitutional morality.” Disagreement and pluralism presume the acceptance of some common views or rules or values without which no dialogue would be possible. Not even pluralism, which assumes that views are comparable or referable to some common denominator in relation to which they are and are recognized as different. Without this common denominator a free and open exchange of ideas is not possible.