Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jouvenel: Who Will Guard the Guards?

Awhile back, I recommended that my old blog comrade Mark Olson read Kenji Yoshino's Covering and Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism by Jody Armour (now permanent on BlackProf, fyi). In exchange, he suggested that I read Bertrand de Jouvenel: Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology, both by Daniel J. Mahoney.

I have checked both out from the library, though given the crunch of this term (LSATs, applications, and my senior thesis), I may not be able to read them as closely as I'd like. And since I can't even guarantee I'll have time to read both, I decided to start with the book on Jouvenel, on the simple grounds that if I read the book about him, I may stop confusing him with the Roman poet Juvenal whenever Mark mentions him (I've definitely done it several times now).

So, here are my thoughts about a third of the way through. But first, a preface. Though this book is about Jouvenel, it is written by Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College. Though it isn't slavish, Mahoney is definitely writing an apologia for Jouvenel, and from a relatively conservative slant. This can make it difficult to determine just how much of what I'm reading is "pure" Jouvenel and what is Mahoney's gloss. This isn't a knock on the professor--it'd be impossible to write a book like this and not provide such a sheen. But, for example, when Mahoney attempts to rebut critics by "softening" some of Jouvenel's positions, I have no way of evaluating whether the move is legitimate or not. Similarly, in any given position, I have no idea how much of my reaction is to what Jouvenel actually wrote, versus Mahoney's spin on it. So when I say I'm making a response to "Jouvenel", it's based on the assumption that Mahoney is perfectly mirroring what Jouvenel actually wrote or thought--an assumption that is not possible to make.

But anyway. Jouvenel certainly seems to be an intriguing thinker, and his work on power in the enlightenment state especially struck me as worthy of attention. However, at several key points he seems to make serious errors in assessing the dynamics of power in western democratic society. Jouvenel argues that the state always seeks to maximize its power, and as far as possible it does not tolerate other branches of society from exercising power. It wants to exercise a monopoly. This isn't unique to the modern state, but what is different is that the democratic process is said to give legitimacy to any state action, hence justifying the power grab and thus posing a fundamental threat to liberty. Conceding that the state has an important role to play in safeguarding our liberties, Jouvenel worries that the modern system has obliterated any natural restraint on the scope and power of the state. So, despite not being my lovely Roman poet, the large question Jouvenel asks is, in fact, that of Juvenal: Who will guard the guards?

Jouvenel's response advocates creating and nourishing alternative poles of power--"barons", in the book--who can serve as a check on the state. He does not think these institutions should supplant the state, and according to Mahoney recognizes that the state must act to restrain the barons as much as the reverse. But what Jouvenel worries about is a state, rationalized by its democratic legitimacy and shorn of any external constraint, riding roughshod over the liberty of its citizens.

Certainly, it is true that an unrestrained state is a scary thing, and I fully agree that society needs to develop both internal and external constraints to maintain its freedom. However, Jouvenel seems to assume that there is a marked separation between the interests of the state and the interest of the barons. Ironically enough, given that he argues that atomization is one of the ways the state breaks the influence of competing social institutions, Jouvenel himself assumes a complete and pre-existing split between the state and the elites. But as any observer can readily see, to a large extent the interest of these two parties are in accord--indeed, often times they construct each other. The military-industrial complex is one famous example of this; the lobbying "iron triangle" is another. This leads to a serious descriptive inaccuracy in Jouvenel's assessment--far from jealously guarding power from being exercised by any other party, democratic states often willing allow alternative bodies to exert significant power over the people. Ironically enough, it is Yoshino's Covering that explains why, noting how people are forced to significantly alter their public persona, behavior, and speech due to some external pressure (if that isn't power, what is?). Sometimes these are governmentally mandated, and sometimes they are "just" social norms, but often times they are the function of "private" entities like corporations, run by the very barons Jouvenel (descriptively) believes the state should be suppressing the power of, and (normatively) should be working to counter the power of the state. Yet, what we see instead is state organs explicitly sanctioning serious corporate restrictions on the activities and presentment of their employees. Some companies could fire me for writing this blog, others for wearing my hair in a certain ways. Even the supposedly liberal 9th Circuit has held that a women who is otherwise excellent at her job (as a bartender) can be fired for not wearing make-up. That these encroachments come in areas where the state has historically asserted its supremacy in determining the boundaries of restriction (speech, discrimination) makes it stand in even starker contrast to how Jouvenel says the world should be behaving. In a sense, the outsourcing of power from the states to the elites is what Jouvenel wants the state to do, unfortunately, this has proven to increase rather than decrease the total danger to liberty.

Another questionable move is how Jouvenel treats the masses versus the elite barons as potential checks against the state. The former is seen to be dangerous--the democratic legitimacy it grants is the threat Jouvenl is trying to diffuse. The latter is the potential savior, the counterbalance that preserves the liberty of all. I already noted how Jouvenel vastly overstates the degree of differentiation between the elite caste and the state. The simple fact that elites and states often work in tandem with each other cripples their potential as a check at the outset. He may be deceived by the democratic character of the states he is examining, but even here the elites tend to call the shots. As Rodney Peterson explains:
As political pressure groups from different segments of the citizenry assemble to negotiate, the result is often a compromise skewed in favor of those who were most successful at using their bargaining strengths. Success is often based on the amount of persons a bargainer represents and the property and wealth backing the bargainer. Those with most political influence are often those with most economic advantage. Once both have been acquired, they reciprocate and reinforce each other, especially if the property holders are active in the political arena, pressuring to get laws passed for their benefit, or to gain privileges, subsidies, and favors for themselves. [Rodney D. Peterson, Political Economy and American Capitalism, (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1991), 37]

Indeed, we can describe the core flaw in Jouvenel's reasoning as assuming that, in a democratic polity, the state is reflective of the interests of regular people, and that elites need to be brought in to counterbalance. But in reality, the state remains largely in thrall to the elites, and alternate voices struggle to break through to have their opinions heard.

The irony is that the non-elite, non-dominant groups which Jouvenel so fears actually are better suited to the checking task he envisions than are the elites he assigns to it. Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier's "Miner's Canary" argument is emblematic here--because they are more likely to feel the effects of it early, marginalized groups are the "miner's canary" that can warn of incipient threats to our liberty and give us time to head them off. Because the interests of these groups are likely to be at odds with the state's, there is the genuine clash of values and tension that creates social restraint. As a result, Jouvenel's worries would counsel towards dramatically increasing the weight and value we place on the perspective of these marginalized groups as a barrier against despotism.


Unknown said...

Rodney Peterson strikes again.

pacatrue said...

Having never read this work...

It seems like the thing to explore is why the elites sometimes have historically acted to limit the power of the state, and why they sometimes become one with it, as both have certainly occurred. The Magna Carta in England and possibly colonial America would be examples of the former. Modern corporate America and various European absolutist states, Louis XIV and Tzarist Russia perhaps, might be examples of the latter.

In short, I don't think we can immediately rule out the elites as a check on the state, because they have indeed functioned that way in the past.