Year XLIV, 2002, Number 3, Page 171

 

 

The Ethical Foundations of Politics
 
SALVATORE VECA
 
 
 
I first met Mario Albertini in 1981, at a symposium on Kant, Europe and peace, organised by the University of Pavia — Albertini’s own university and the one in which for many years he lectured in philosophy, occupying the chair to which, around ten years later, I had the honour of succeeding him. At the aforementioned meeting, I delivered a paper on local justice and global justice in Kant. I recall how, at the close of the proceedings, we discussed the topic at great length in the Aula Foscolo. And I also recall quite clearly that, as we took our leave of each other, Albertini said two things to me: first, that he would have liked to continue our discussion and second that, in his view, one needed to have two things in order to be a good political philosopher: a passion for politics and a mastery of the profession of philosophy, of the kind demonstrated by his friend Giulio Preti.
Our discussions continued for as long as it was possible: in his, and later my, study, at the Department of Philosophy, in Via Luino, and also at his home, thanks to the kind hospitality of his wife, Valeria. Ever since then, I have always sought to remain faithful to Albertini’s view of the profession of political philosophy and I have borne it very much in mind while developing my theory of international justice. It is a theory that centres on criteria of ethical judgement and on the bearing these have on things political, and it seeks (from a perspective of value that guides us as we work out, to quote Albertini, “what should ideally happen”) to treat seriously both descriptions of how things are and precepts relating to how they should be. Albertini is convinced that analysis of the present should bring to the fore its peculiar significance —i.e., the significance that derives from its “capacity to evolve into a new situation” — and that exploration of the realm of future possibilities should “take the form not of simple description, but rather the more specific form of new principles of action”. The art of the possible must go hand in hand with the art of making possible and endeavour in this sense must work on the tension or contradiction that exists between reality and values, a concept that, in the history of political theory, was dear and familiar to Mario Stoppino.
My observations here focus on several aspects of the area of political philosophy that is concerned with the idea of justice without frontiers, an idea to which I devoted my most recent book, La bellezza e gli oppressi.* These observations can, in the broad way that I have indicated, be attributed to Mario Albertini and are thus dedicated to the lesson — philosophical, political and human — that he imparted.
 
1. Uncertainty demands theory. In the three philosophical meditations contained in Dell’incertezza, I showed exactly how, and in what circumstances, the effects of significant uncertainty can invade different domains: the domain within which we wrestle with theories regarding that which is, the domain within which we seek to judge that which, in our view, matters, and finally, the domain within which we try to answer questions about who we are: in short, questions relating to truth, justice and identity of facts with values. At this point we can ask ourselves a question: what is the nature of the uncertainty that generates the demand for a theory of justice without frontiers, and induces us to take seriously exercises whose aim is to draft possible prolegomena of the same? We can, on a basic level, respond by pointing out that globalisation, regardless of the interpretation of this controversial term, upsets well ordered ideas relating to theories of justice.
Let us consider the following: our theories on political value have been developed within the framework, stable and immune to uncertainty, of closed, political communities with clearly defined boundaries. It is precisely this framework, within which we are able to recognise things that are familiar to us, that globalisation seems to have been altered and transformed. The whole topography of that which surrounds us, like the map of political space, has been thrown into question. As we try to feel our way in this altered setting, we endeavour to understand and explain, to connect familiar things with less familiar things, enduring features with changing features, distorted by the metamorphosis of a Heraclitean world that is constantly being deformed. A similar situation arises when our main aim is to assess, when our demand for a theory of justice encounters ethical criteria of justice regarding what matters, and what is just and unjust: in short, the ethical foundations of politics.
It is easy to see how, in these circumstances, our identity as observers or participants involved in the business of understanding, explaining and assessing what is, as the expression goes, a changing world, also finds itself subject to pressure generated by uncertainty.
At this point, therefore, the initial and basic answer, which is that globalisation upsets well ordered ideas relating to theories of justice, must expanded upon. We might say that globalisation upsets our ideas both of politics as it is, and of politics as it should be. As a result, both our descriptive and our normative endeavours are put to the test. Once again, we see at work the familiar tension between facts and values. And at the same time, we recognise that this tension affects the way in which we define and acknowledge our identities as observers of and actors on the great stage, or “great city of human kind”, that is today’s contested world or divided planet.
 
2. Let us consider the preliminary question of our identities. Our identities are made up of borrowed things, of loyalties and commitments, of undertakings and of ways of viewing and assessing things that inevitably derive from a contingent and local history as well as from a life history. If we do, indeed, possess some identity, it is because we are, essentially, heirs. It is a fact of life. Put another way: we are creatures of habit. When we attempt to make sense of a world that is changing, and that is changing us, when we become committed to political or moral judgement, to the search for new, or simply less familiar alternatives, we are inevitably doing this, in part at least, as heirs. But as heirs to what? To the legacy of our counterparts of the past, whose beliefs, attitudes, inclinations when appraising, and sense of justice were shaped in other times and in other social settings. How could it be otherwise? We are required, by a principle of Confucian wisdom, to be both loyal to ourselves and mindful of others.
This attention to, and focusing on others and on a changing world, are vital elements in our varying capacity to respond to change, and put to the test, quite literally, the body of our loyalties and political beliefs. Traditions of political belief can survive only if our capacity to respond manages to find a balance, which can be as unstable and provisional as you like, between inherited beliefs and exploration of the changing and uncertain social landscape that we are attempting to understand and assess. And here, we come up against a real brain-teaser: how can we prize, at once, both the coherence and oneness over time of a body of political beliefs and loyalties and also the capacity to respond to change that, in turn, requires us to make corrections, and introduce innovations and changes? It is natural to ask oneself: what is the point at which innovation and modification of beliefs alters and undermines relentlessly our political loyalty; what is the point at which our resources of loyalty and allegiance to a cause start to be eroded and dissipated? In other words, does there exist something that, if we wish to preserve (over time and through generations) a tradition of political judgement and belief, must be deemed irrevocable, non-negotiable? Something that allows us to go on seeing ourselves as those who share a particular conception of political value and, for this reason, are distinct from those who have other loyalties, beliefs and identities, born of other, different traditions? Just what is it, from within the body of distinct beliefs and political loyalties, that we have inherited?
It is to be remarked that this distinction, or possibility to distinguish, between different ways of understanding political value constitutes an important and familiar requisite in the order (based on fundamental institutions), and the political regime that we call democracy. As a result of the way it has, over time and through trial, error and conflict, taken shape, the architecture of a well ordered democratic regime makes provision for the liberal sphere of fundamental rights and of the sharing of essential constitutional elements and for the sphere of democratic competition between various interpretations of the long-term interests of a given community. It is within this second sphere, that of competition for the power to govern society, a given society, that this possibility to distinguish between views of political value, deriving from different bodies of inherited political tradition, plays a crucial role.
This is, after all, a realm we know well — the political sphere par excellence, a sphere that we have inherited and with which we are thus entirely familiar. Within this sphere, in the rich part (our part) of the world, there have, over the past century and a half, been collective movements and conflicts; considerable resources, in terms of political commitment and hope, have been invested and used up; political and social actors have emerged that specialise in interpreting, defining and promoting the interests and ideals of sections of the population, such as political parties and trade unions; the conditions have evolved that allow identification, participation and collective action; institutions have become consolidated. Here we have seen exercised the free art of association à la Tocqueville, and pluralistic constellations of polyarchic institutions have emerged. In short, what has been constructed within this sphere, more in a chain of effects and responses than in a long march of conquest, and in a range of processes in which varied and divergent projects have played crucial roles, is democratic citizenship, and this has been accompanied, over time, by a continuous defining and redefining of the fragile balance between politics and social powers.
Politics has responded, within this sphere, to social change. And it is through the formulation of distinct and different responses, regarding the government of a society that is changing, that the match between alternative political beliefs and allegiances, between right and left, has, where we are, been contested. Naturally, I do not wish to maintain that this is the whole story. Clearly, the periods in and paths followed by this process have been conditioned by their particular geopolitical context, that of a world for a long period, in the second half of the twentieth century, regimented by hostile imperial powers. What I do maintain is that political loyalties and beliefs have been established and lastingly transmitted on the basis of the promise that politics can govern societies, territorially defined by borders, according to an agenda dictated by distinct groups associated with distinct political views.
We might say, then, that the national constellation constitutes a prerequisite of democratic conflict, as we know it. In spite of instances of strong, collective identification at international level, sometimes carrying considerable motivational force, the national institutions and collective movements adhere to, or better, have adhered to, the following basic logic: institutions are the result, stable over time, of what have been successful responses to movements and conflicts in the past, and they find themselves cyclically challenged by movements wanting to see democratic citizenship embracing, universally, new rights and new interests. All this is tied up with the proud building of western pluralism. Within the national constellation, social contracts are, in this way, exposed to the effects of uncertainty and the result is the creation of more or less scope for (and the generation of conflicts of varying intensity over) the rewriting, negotiation and redefinition of their basic terms.
 
3. It can be remarked that it is always against this background, that is to say, from the familiar inside of constitutional democracies, that developments in the intellectual endeavour of political theorists can be identified. In the case of theories of justice, reference to the inside and to the political community that is defined by stable boundaries is, in the most important philosophical studies of the last decades of the twentieth century, implicitly or explicitly constant. Disputes over utilitarianism and contractarianism, libertarianism and pluralism, communitarianism, republicanism and the theory of deliberative democracy, concern the principles of justice that make a political community a just society for those who live within it. The criteria of just and unjust are applied to basic institutions and social practices that belong to a given society and they presuppose that the latter is understood as a unit that, having boundaries, is closed. This is the society whose requisites, in terms of justice, normative theory defines. If these requisites are met, then we can regard that society as a well ordered society.
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls, with great intellectual honesty, made it clear that these were the limits and this the scope of normative political theory and added that, were it successful, the theory could be extended: one extension of it coincided with the conception of international justice or ius gentium intra se. Rawls’ remarkable book, a work of philosophy that, completely faithful to the tradition of political belief of the liberal left, evokes the long season of political hope and of trust in the power of politics to govern society, reforming its institutions in favour of the rights of democratic citizenship and of social equality, established something of a paradigm.
A Theory of Justice provided the framework that was the background to a philosophical debate over a well ordered theory of justice. This framework, like the well ordered theory of justice, are as I have said, upset by globalisation. And this brings us back to the conditions of uncertainty that generate the demand for theory. We might say that the best political philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century did respond to the uncertainty generated at the level, now familiar to us, of conflict and democratic debate within the national constellation: the sphere of our distinct and conflicting political loyalties, beliefs and traditions. Now, at the turning point that is the start of this new century, uncertainty is generated as a result of the new traits characterising a new, post-national constellation that, moreover, is set within the broader one, less familiar to us, of a world whose political geography has changed: a contested world, a planet split between areas of wealth and immense areas of poverty, between the arrogance of welfare and the reality of oppression. From a wider perspective, it is, in fact, the injustice of the world with which we have to contend.
 
4. Now let us consider a list of impressionistic assertions: the economy is global in a way that politics is not. Communication is global; information is global, and so are science and technology. Distance and space constitute no barrier to financial transactions. Several elite groups are global. Multitudes of men and women live lives that are tied to local niches and settings. Decisions and choices made in some parts of the world have repercussions on the lives of people in other parts of the world, the same world. The oligarchic decisions taken by a few affect the quality of life, in terms of welfare, opportunities and rights, of many, sometimes very many human beings. The oligarchies are remote, ubiquitous and obfuscated; the oppressed are without a voice. The great international institutions, the United Nations first and foremost, are in general shaped according to the balances of power that emerged at the end of the Second World War (mid-way through the last century), and operate increasingly weakly, on a world stage that has been drastically modified by the collapse of the Soviet empire and by the emergence of the probably unstable but certainly unipolar equilibrium characterised by the domination of the United States. The sovereign states are seeing their degrees of freedom constantly eroded: the constraints and obligations, both internal and external, conditioning collective choices are multiplying. In our part of the world, we are able to witness the unfolding of the fascinating, ground-breaking and complicated process that is the building and start of the European Union. The aftershocks of the geopolitical earthquake that took place at the end of the last century continue to be felt, altering boundaries and generating new and fragile state structures. Ethnic and tribal wars, religious wars, and terrible wars linked to no law or faith, are becoming interwoven with one another all over the world.
In the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001, war against ubiquitous and global terrorism has, as a practical necessity, been placed firmly on the agenda of the twenty-first century. International law, the Westphalia model having run its course, is undergoing a profound transformation, a transformation that, while certainly dating back to the years immediately following the Second World War, now seems, in this new century and in the midst of flaws and inconsistencies, to be gathering speed. Before September 11th, 2001, NATO had endowed itself with the resources of legitimacy it needed to pass ethical judgement and to sanction wars on the grounds of their being “humanitarian”.
Before September 11th, 2001, the G8 performed its rites of apparent power in remote or besieged buildings. And now we have courts of international justice. International regimes, which strengthen balances of power based on cooperation, are consolidated. We witness a flourishing of the network of agencies, associations and non governmental organisations, whose aim is to promote and safeguard the basic human rights, and to promote cooperation for the development of populations existing in conditions of severe, sometimes inhumane disadvantage. The law of the market prevails. Stories of slaves in the world, women and children in particular, abound. Differences in population and poverty rates generate and sustain the phenomenon of migration. Globally, the uneven distribution of the resources men need, and of the right to exploit the same, is quite simply intolerable: whether considering the situation within or looking at the differences between the world’s societies, what emerges is that the rich continue to grow richer and the poor poorer. Considering that no one chose to be born and live in one part of the world rather than in another, we can now appreciate the injustice of the world in its most radical sense. And at the same time we can acknowledge that we are today able to say, with the undeserved wisdom of hindsight, that Kant was right, the Kant of the late eighteenth century, who shed light on federalism and cosmopolitan law through his assertion that the violation of a right in any part of the world amounts to a violation of that right in all the other parts of the world.
I have put together this list of impressionistic assertions in the hope of conveying something of the state of uncertainty that generates the demand for theory: I stress that this is a demand both for theory that explains and embraces, making connections between familiar and less familiar aspects of the landscape that has changed, and for theory that guides us in our judgement of what is just and what is unjust, pointing us in the direction that will enable us to go on working out the conditions in which, in these times of globalisation, there might emerge political possibilities for justice without frontiers. As I have said, globalisation upsets both our well ordered ideas on what politics is and what politics ought to be. But we must seek to consider more analytically this whole complex issue.
 
5. One way of crystallising our ideas might be to get into focus some of the ways in which our geographically altered landscape has affected that familiar sphere that we have identified as the sphere of democratic conflict — the sphere in which, for a long time, our different political loyalties and beliefs have been put to the test. The idea is this: removing ourselves from the situation in which we currently find ourselves, that in which I am writing and you are reading what I write, let us seek to identify and define the link between globalisation and democracy. Or, put another way, let us try to identify the salient transformations that the constitutional democracies have undergone within the geographical setting as altered by globalisation. De nobis, it is now easy to see, fabula narratur.
The first aspect that I wish to get into focus is the growing weakness of politics or, and this amounts to the same thing, the diminishing capacity of politics to govern society and, in particular, social powers. The weakness of politics is the weakness of the policies of national governments and parliaments. The external constraints now placed on public choice (the latter being something on which the distribution of the costs and benefits of social cooperation ought to depend) are increasing, as I mentioned in one of the impressionistic assertions in my above list. We might cite the case, familiar to us in our part of the world, of the European Union, to which I referred earlier: it is clear that the Union, a post-national reality, places constraints on the policies of the national governments. This is not to say of course that there do not persist, within these existing and increasing constraints, residual degrees of freedom of public choice that are reflected in different interpretations of the long-term interests of the national political community. It is just that the democratic sphere within which different interpretations are possible is essentially narrow and that the power to govern society is simply the power to do fewer things: in other words, a policy of factors is still possible, but only within narrow confines.
From the perspective of the logic of democratic choice, this also means that he who wishes to govern a national society can obtain the power to do this only by promising the people policies that are distinct from and alternative to those of the others involved in the democratic contest; however, when subsequently exercising his power of government, he will find himself answerable both to his constituency and to powers above the level of the state that are not bound in the same way by the logic of democratic choice. But let us consider now the effect of social forces and external constraints of a different and more threatening kind: an effect that, more directly linked to globalisation, we can broadly attribute to the anonymous power of companies and agencies operating on the global markets. In absolute accordance with our commitment to democracy, we must draw attention first to the democratic deficit presented by the European Union, and second, to the predatory and despotic character of social forces that, while they affect the lives of people, are subject to no restrictions, have no responsibilities or answerability and distort systematically, all over the world, the familiar framework that is the democratic exercising of authority. In the first case, the extension of a theory of justice, while difficult, would appear natural. In the second, we find ourselves on distinctly more uncertain ground, where exploration of the sphere of political possibilities is far more dangerous.
 
6. The second and third aspects that I would now like to bring into focus are just corollaries of the first (i.e., the increase in the external constraints that impede democratic choice and the relative weakness of political power vis-à-vis other social powers). The second aspect concerns the transformation of the fundamental institutions of the democratic orders that are also the political orders that exemplify the exercising of the sovereignty of the people. While the power of government grows progressively weaker, the power of third-party institutions, which are gaining authority but which do not answer to the people, is increasing: from the power of courts and judges, to that of control and guarantee bodies and authorities in a range of arenas and social spheres. This second aspect refers to the internal, not external, impediments to the supremacy of choice and democratic debate: collective questions, where social powers and rights of citizenship compete with one another, are being systematically removed from the sphere of rightful democratic debate and entrusted to the judiciary or brought under the arbitration of outside authorities.
The third aspect regards the changing nature of the collective actors who, within the national sphere, represent, interpret and safeguard the interests of sections of the population. And this brings us on to the transformation of political parties, those enduring organisations of collective action that have marked and characterised, where we are at least, our familiar landscape characterised by pluralistic political loyalties and allegiances and by democratic conflict. It can be argued that, above all in the early phases of democratic pluralism, the functions carried out by agencies, such as modern mass parties, which have a broad social basis, numbered three: the first was to select the people of government, the second to form distinct political programmes, and the third, to promote social integration and the generation of wealth, in terms of a sense of collective identity or belonging, for broad sections of populations enclosed, territorially, within the confines of a given political community. While the first of these functions, the selecting of the people of government, has clearly endured, the second, the formation of distinct political programmes, has been considerably weakened, although not — as some maintain — cancelled out by the growing pressure of the external constraints, and the third, the generation of a sense of identity, is clearly compromised by the erosion of allegiances associated with political ideology and by the considerable individualisation and fragmentation of society generally.
As a result, where we are, politics is starting to look like the business of solely of parties, parties that are becoming nothing other than organisations competing for the power of government. The weakness of the power of government is thus transferred to the political agencies that, in order to acquire that power in the national sphere, compete, enter into conflict and inevitably collude with one another. Thus, while on the one hand, the social powers that do, increasingly, affect and determine the quality of life, and sometimes even the life and death, of people all over the world, operate (free from constraints and subject to no boundaries) as shady, remote and anonymous forces, the party political system operating within the national sphere is seen as, and before sections of the population presented as, a system of actors who, through their obsession with their own visibility on the public stage, are apparently able to compensate for their limited powers and growing weakness. While our democratic decision-makers are engaged in endless talk shows, the real and serious decisions are being taken elsewhere, in places that are impenetrable and remote. And all this results in a loss of faith in politics and in collective action, apathy, insecurity, and disappointment in and cynicism towards the political community.
 
7. In order to get the fourth aspect into focus, let us consider more closely the nature of the various attitudes through which this loss of faith in politics is expressed: we know that they are attitudes that, in the last years of the twentieth century, took root in broad sections of the populations in the democracies of the wealthy world. These attitudes, which we can group under the umbrella term anti-politics, are also founded on the demand for a form of politics that is exercised, has effects on, and is judged within social and territorial ambits other than the ambit of the state, the ambit par excellence of democratic politics, where the latter, together with its movements and its institutions, was formed and became established. The point is that the state is, because of its size, being put under increasing pressure as a result of globalisation. After all — and this is certainly true in our part of the world — we are talking about territorial states that, through a long, tortuous and at times dramatic process, became democratic.
Now, as people are wont to say, the state seems to have become too large to do some things and too small to do other things. What emerges is an altered scheme of the places, methods and levels of government of distinct communities. The idea has been advanced of a possible three way division of ambits and levels that might make it possible to break down both the demand for government and for citizenship. The “great city of mankind” seems to require institutions, conventions and methods of government that can respond on a global level (and no longer a local one) to the global force of the unrestricted social powers to which I have referred. The state seems to require forms of regional federation over and above its porous boundaries (something new but akin to the process and projects of the European Union), and within its confines, decentralised forms of government answerable to the relevant peoples.
In order to assess and define the features of this altered landscape (the result of the emergence of new forms of politics and of distinct areas where there is an increasing call for government of a society that, in these times of globalisation, is changing), I feel that it is more useful intellectually to consider the virtues of processes by which institutions and practices emerge, rather than to focus on exercises in political constructivism. We can, however, conclude this examination of the four aspects that link globalisation and democracy by considering a hypothesis recently advanced by Alessandro Pizzorno. It can be maintained that the values that pluralistic and representative democracy represented during the era, now behind us, of the national sphere, appear in today’s altered framework to be realisable above all in the context of engagements in collective causes or collective ends that are, however, outside the sphere of the state: these are either local-populist causes (which, if they prevail, are potentially anti-democratic) or universalistic-planetary causes. In the first case, we see the effect of globalisation on collective identities that are, in a manner of speaking, threatened; in the second, the effect of globalisation on collective movements in which legislative efforts are supported, above all, by the idea of potential inclusion in a universal citizenship, and thus focus on the formation of a new form of collective identity, yet to be created, and of more inclusive circle of mutual acknowledgement. (Choices dictated by each of these two effects seem, in today’s precarious and unstable equilibrium, to provide the motivation for the collective protest of the galaxy of peoples who flocked to Seattle). Choices governed by the latter — by allegiance to universalistic causes — constitute, in Pizzorno’s view, a sign that people who share the sense of injustice over the many forms of oppression that affect the lives of others all over the world, act as though obeying a virtual normative system for mankind, a system that is yet to be created, rather as though anticipating the positive future value of some of its terms and already actively conforming to the same.
In precisely this sense, the prolegomena to a theory of justice without frontiers are linked to the anticipation of such possible future values. This, and nothing else, leads one to adopt the perspective of a reasonable utopia: a perspective that throws into relief the tension between reality and values that guides us as we seek to define principles of action that are governed by, in the words of Albertini, “what should ideally happen”. This perspective is consistent with an enduring faith in the universalistic values that the democracy we have inherited has, at least to an extent, expressed. The same democracy that, as we move forward, we must be able to respect, in forms and ways wrought by change, and in the context of the “construction sites” (where work is continually in progress) of what we call history: a history that, as Jean-Pierre Vernant has remarked, exists precisely because things are never the same as they have been or as they were expected to be.


* In the next seven paragraphs, I re-explore the arguments set out in the introduction to La bellezza e gli oppressi. Dieci lezioni sull’idea di giustizia, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2002.

Share with