Right, so, I’ve been on this Bagginslike quest recently for modern political theorists who can help me with my project of un-Enlightenment-political-theorizing my own brain. And I think I found another one.
There are some books that send you down the rabbit hole, and there are some books that make you realize that you’ve been down the freaking rabbit hole for most of your life, and it’s time to come back up. Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of Nations falls into this latter category. I’ve been reading it– mostly on the subway, for some reason– for the last couple of days, and what he’s doing is trying to reconstitute pre-Lockean traditions of political theory… for real. And as he does this, he makes you realize the degree to which the entire Enlightenment political project was basically one giant leap into political solipsism.
No, O’Donovan says, actually, since you mention it, there was no state of nature. Actually authority feels like it comes from outside us because… it does. O’Donovan’s the kid in the crowd who’s the one who dares to point out the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Except that as it turns out, the emperor (well, the king; very specifically not a world-emperor. I think.) actually has some pretty nice clothes, and it’s the General Will that’s been walking around nekkid for three hundred-ish years.
As soon as he says this, you realize how very weird social contract theory is. I mean, most versions of it constitute a denial of the political, and thus of authority and community, as really legitimate parts of life. We constitute our political structures only to pursue private nonpolitical ends; and that means that even if you still manage to hold on to the idea that individuals can have purposes which are good or bad, communities can’t, governments can’t, and above all, authority can’t. As O’Donovan says, “Individual agents had their ends, but objective structures only had their origins.”
And what bizarre origins they were, according to …well, let’s take Rousseau, why don’t we? We voluntarily alienated our self-ownership to the community and then (apparently) went out and, to celebrate, drank so heavily that we blacked out and forgot that we’d done so. This is the kind of thing that you have to resort to if you are a political philosopher who wants to locate authority in The People.
A heads up: I haven’t finished the book. OK, or even gotten all that far into it. That’ll take more subway time. So I can’t totally vouch for it, and what other stuff I’ve read about O’Donovan makes me think he may not be …like, a hundred percent reliable. I will keep you posted. Meanwhile, consider the — yeah, let’s call it liberating– possibility that political theory does not have to involve trying to twist yourself into some kind of metaphysical pretzel of bootstrap-liftage. And if you see me on the E train reading… say hi.