One of the signal achievements of Bertrand de Jouvenel was establishing the existential status of power: “The Minotaur,” he called it, a metaphysical entity, nearly organic, with an instinct for both survival and expansion. If Mark Tushnet’s overeager call, predicated on a Hillary Clinton presidency, for judges to emerge from what he alleged to be their “defensive crouch liberal constitutionalism” and slay the foes of Progressivism demonstrated anything, it was that there is, miracle of miracles, such a creature as a judicial Minotaur. Randy Barnett’s much discussed and certainly much warranted reply at The Volokh Conspiracy confirms it. Yet the judicial Minotaur…
According to Livy’s History, the Roman consul Publius Decius Mus sacrificed himself to the gods by “leap[ing] upon his horse and dash[ing] into the middle of the enemy” in a ritual that secured victory for his embattled army. One hopes the polemicist using Decius as a pseudonym in a much discussed broadside against Never Trumpers, having anonymously expressed an opinion with which somewhere north of 40 percent of Americans agree, is safe. The republic almost certainly will be.
Joseph Schumpeter wrote that one cause of the demise of capitalism would be the steady conquest of the private by the public sphere. To judge by the most recent revelations about PRISM, that may be the demise of democracy too. For this is by far its most troubling aspect: not merely the snooping, from which most of us are probably exempt, but the coopting of the vast private space that once stood between individual and state, which means no one any longer is. The blurring of the border between state and society, not merely the loss of privacy itself, may prove to be PRISM’s most enduring legacy.
It was March 27, 1809, three weeks into his presidency, and James Madison stood astride the world when he posted a letter to his predecessor Thomas Jefferson to inquire as to one particular secret of the office: “I forget whether the time piece in the sitting room [needs to be wound] monthly or weekly?”
That was then. This being now, as recently as 1996 the White House employed a presidential attendant several days a week whose actual job—no, really—was winding clocks. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested that even Woodrow Wilson, champion of presidential government, might not recognize the office today:
A president who wrote and typed his own speeches is now at some removes succeeded by presidents who do not know the names of most of their speechwriters, much less of their lawyers, economists, statisticians, strategists, and yes, as of 1989 the White House demographer. First the president got staff, then the staff got staff. (On the Law of Nations, 107)
We have seen previously that individual liberty for Bertrand de Jouvenel involves saying “No.” If a life of civic liberty potentially involves resistance, then we should be careful lest we resist in vain. The point of departure for any robust and deep theory of liberty cannot be mere moral outrage or unreflective gainsaying; it must instead flow from a sustained commitment to understanding. We cannot effectively resist concepts or processes that we choose to ignore or misunderstand. It is one of the oldest of philosophical tropes: those who choose not to rule themselves by knowledge will in time come to be ruled by someone, or something, else.
What remains, thus, is to understand what is at once Jouvenel’s most renowned and most problematic idea—Power (Pouvoir).
On Power is Jouvenel’s most famous work. At the same time, it is perhaps the most difficult to understand; it is replete with fantastic images and sweeping speculations, and it purports to construct a “political metaphysic.” Understandably for so ambitious an effort, its reception was mixed. Thinkers of the caliber of Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin praised it highly, while others, such as Charles Merriam and Hans Morgenthau, rendered decidedly frostier judgments.
The problem begins with the subject matter. What is the book really about? At issue is the appropriate level of abstraction; at least half of the book concerns the rise of the French nation state, but it is important to ask whether the development of this concept is the point of the text or whether this is merely a case study, merely an exegetical prolegomenon for a larger, or at any rate, deeper theoretical concept.
A complete argument is beyond our scope. Here I can only assert rather than demonstrate that Jouvenel’s principal concern, perhaps surprisingly, is neither the French nation state nor the modern state taken more generally. As Dennis Hale has rightly remarked, “The ‘Power’ of the title is the force that creates the centralized state, but the force itself may be found in a number of settings, from a primitive village to the national offices of a modern trade union.” Jouvenel himself says this: “Rousseau meant by ‘prince’ the totality of the components of government; it is what in this book I have called Power” (On Power, 42 n37).
Bertrand de Jouvenel’s principal renown in circles devoted to liberty and learning is as one of the most profound anti-totalitarian political philosophers of the twentieth century. As Daniel Mahoney has rightly remarked, Jouvenel is “one of a small number of twentieth-century political thinkers who truly matter, who are worthy of our continuing respect and attention.”
Four of Jouvenel’s most important books are published by Liberty Fund: The Ethics of Redistribution, On Power, Sovereignty, and The Pure Theory of Politics. The Ethics was composed from a series of lectures that Jouvenel gave at Corpus Christi College in 1949. The other three were written over a period of some eighteen years and were intended to form a trilogy of sorts. This week I’m going to try to talk about all of them in one way or another, and I hope, if nothing else, to show that some of the problems Jouvenel raises in these books remain of abiding interest in our scattered political order.