Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: POLLITICS AND TECHNIQUE - The Liberal Mind
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III.: POLLITICS AND TECHNIQUE - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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POLLITICS AND TECHNIQUE
Politics obviously arises when there is conflict, and often seems to cause or at least to heighten conflict. The ambition of those who seek harmony thus involves the elimination of political activity. But just as the solution of ultimate agreement is an illusion, so the attempt to eliminate politics from human affairs can only result in disguising it.
Everyone seems agreed that politics is an activity of some kind. But it is an activity whose characteristics are extraordinarily hard to pin down. For while there are many general descriptions of politics, most of them have an unconvincing flavor of prescription about them. When we define activities, we normally assume that they are rational: that is to say, we assign to them a general end, and perhaps make one or two remarks about the kinds of means appropriate to that end. This is what Locke does, for example, when he suggests that the end of the State is the protection of the natural rights of individuals, and that a certain organization of the executive and legislature is most appropriate to that end. The difficulty here is obvious: Locke is not, as he purports to be doing, describing politics, but making demands upon it. The end he suggests (it is, for Locke, one among a number of ends) is an external criterion intended to guide our approval or disapproval of any particular political act. Many such ends have been suggested: that politics should maintain peace, maximize happiness, enforce virtue, hinder the hindrances to self-realization, purify the race or unite the nation. Now some of these formulae have attained a considerable currency, and some of them have been accepted by politicians themselves. All of them imply an intellectual system in terms of which political decisions might be worked out. But all of them suffer from the crucial difficulty of describing one brand of politics far better than other kinds of which we have some knowledge. Clement Attlee and Gladstone may perhaps have had some interest in maximizing happiness (assuming that such a phrase means anything) but Genghis Khan and Bismarck are more difficult to fit within this formula.
Descriptions of politics in terms of the ends it must serve have long been current in political thinking. Such descriptions are ideological. Each formula supplies us with a general criterion by which we may estimate political policies. But the only possible criterion by which we may judge a policy is simply another, more general, policy.15
One sophisticated avenue out of this impasse is worthy of attention. It arises from distinguishing politics from government or administration. The description “politics” is denied to unconstitutional States and to revolutionary situations, each of which indicates that political skill has lapsed in favor of some cruder governing devices. This view of politics derives from Aristotle and has a more or less continuous history up to the present day. “Politics, then, can be simply defined as the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them a share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and the survival of the whole community.”16 Politics thus entails considerable skill of a special kind, a readiness to negotiate rather than impose a rule by force, an acceptance of the diversity and plurality of things within the State, and in more conservative formulations, a suspicion of far-reaching political plans of change.
I take it that the point of this selective meaning of “politics” is to distinguish the manner in which free States such as Athens, Great Britain in modern times, and the American Commonwealth have been governed from such régimes as Imperial Rome, Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany. Certainly most examples of “politics” are taken from these free States, and it never seems to make much of an appearance elsewhere. Now we need not doubt that what is isolated by this tradition of political thinking is both real and important; it is clearly possible to mark off a tyranny from a polity. But the distinction itself is always on the verge of being sustained by a preference, always struggling free from the notion of politics-as-a-good-thing. We may reject it on the ground that the facts it refers to are not political, but moral and social. For there are some interests which cannot be conciliated by giving them a share of power, some social incoherences which cannot be negotiated without force; and in these cases it is in the moral character of the interests rather than the absence of political skill, that the explanation is usually to be found. In spite of its sophistication, this view also treats politics as an activity having a certain general end—that of conciliating interests and adjusting conflict—and it fails in the same way that any teleological account of politics must fail.
We may escape from these difficulties by simply refusing to attribute any end at all to politics. For politics is a mode of behavior common to many kinds of social entities, and the ends which are found in politics are supplied by the social entity on whose behalf the politics is conducted. We never in fact encounter “pure politics”—and for this reason, any theory which takes power as the central conception of politics has merely entered a world of realistic-sounding fantasy. All that we ever do encounter is the politics of something. How we describe the various “somethings” which generate politics has always caused intellectual difficulties, but in ordinary discussion we normally find some way of expressing it. We talk of British politics, the politics of the Labor Party, of Arab nationalism, of the Presbyterian Church, or of capitalist societies. In highly general terms, we may say that politics is a mode of acting found in certain self-conscious complexes of thought and feeling which we may call movements; and the result of the emergence of politics is the creation and maintenance of institutions.
A politician may thus be regarded as a man who conducts the political business of some institution. But any actual politician is a complex human being with responsibilities17 to a number of institutions, some of them traditional and highly articulated, others mere shadows of possibility or nostalgia. The leader of a constitutional opposition, for example, is a politician of his country; simultaneously, he is responsible to his party, and in a vaguer way to a vision of what his country ought to be, the details of which are partly stated by the ideological beliefs to which he gives adherence. His political relationship to these various institutions may be seen in terms of interests and demands made upon him; and quite obviously they are likely to conflict. He may find forced upon him a choice between country or party, or between office or integrity.
This situation is further complicated by the fact that in political life we cannot always know the character of the acts (what the politics is of) before they have happened. Further, the politician himself does not always know; whatever policy he adopts will, in combination with events, go on revealing to him new facts about the social entity on whose behalf he acts. He may fall in or out of love with his party or his country; he may strive to change his followers at the risk of his office. All political acts have a moral character; and many may be seen as hypotheses which events may confirm or falsify. The act of a Brutus in assassinating Caesar only makes sense upon the hypothesis that the decline of the Republic could be averted by the removal of the bewitching presence of Caesar. The consequences—and probably only the consequences—revealed the presence of moral changes in the character of the Roman ruling classes such that, given those people at that time, a republic was unworkable. But it is only unworkable because of resulting decisions on the part of a great number of different people, who could not themselves have predicted with much certainty how they would behave in the event. Convinced believers can wobble, and those who doubt themselves have often found an unsuspected element of resolution.
On the view I am taking, then, politics is inextricably bound up with moral and social entities, and the content and issues which arise in politics cannot be explained without reference to them. In a quite empirical way, ethics and politics cannot be separated without distortion; though this certainly does not mean that there is any set of prescriptions which is uniquely appropriate to political activity. Indeed, the whole apparatus of prescription, justification and exhortation, whilst deriving its plausibility from its reference to moral characteristics, is properly one of the devices of politics, in so far as it is concerned with persuading people to act in required ways.
On this view, then, the vocabulary of politics will not include the traditional concepts of political philosophy—equality, rights, freedom, justice, nature, law, etc., for all of these notions are explicable only in terms of the social entities which generated special kinds of political activity. Politics can only be characterized in a highly general and abstract way, for it is a highly general and abstract field.
The most important political distinction is between what is external and what is internal. Each ruler is a Janus-like figure, facing both inwards to his subjects and outwards to other sovereign States. To his subjects, he is a protector; in his external relations he is a defender of his people and therefore a potential enemy. This is a point which was made most elaborately by Hobbes, and it is recognized in the liberal yearning for an institution—world government—which has nothing external to it. For this would seem to solve the problem of enmity; the world ruler would be an enemy to none. The difficulty of this dream is that what is physically internal to the institution may yet be politically external. Thus criminals, by definition, are people for whom the ruler is an enemy; and if, as in revolutions, the State is politically conceived in terms of allegiance to a set of ideas, entire classes of people may be externalized—Jews, Bantu, Kulaks, Aristocrats, oppositionists, to take only the most conspicuous examples.
In an admittedly whimsical sense, then, we may say that the distinction between internal and external may become a matter of life and death. How the distinction is actually conceived depends upon what the ruler is in fact responsible to. Stalin, for example, in becoming responsible to Communist Russia necessarily externalized huge classes of people—both nationalities and social groupings. The responsibility of politicians is in constant flux; they may become responsible to something very different from the institution they actually rule—as did James II in attempting to make England Catholic and absolutist; they may become responsible to something larger, as in the various national unifications which have occurred in the last two centuries. Institutions like the Holy Roman Empire may languish and decline as politicians withdraw their interest and allegiance, or they may develop and grow in the manner of the European Common Market. But the course of political activity keeps on redefining what is taken to be internal and external.
Externally, the politician seeks to maintain the security of the institution over which he presides. Internally, he generally seeks order and coherence. Politicians who accept the traditional constitution of the institution they govern are usually to be found working out kinds of accommodation between conflicting parts of the institution; between warring religious groups, struggling commercial interests, racial or linguistic elements or just people who do not like each other. This kind of activity is commonly found in European politics, and gives rise to the view of politics which we considered earlier, as the maintenance of order by adjustment of interests. Certainly this kind of activity requires considerable skill; for often there is only a limited range of formulae which will settle a dispute. Political antagonists are prone to falsify their demands, and mislead others about the nature and extent of support and opposition. The skilled politician facing a problem of this sort must discover the truth of the matter; but for much of the time he must use a kind of intuition, for the facts upon which he must base his solution will not exist until the solution has actually been attempted. Should he conciliate—and provoke a stiffening of demands? Should he use force—and provoke only desperation and disorder? He has to judge, and only his experience and understanding can help him.
But politics cannot be defined as the activity of adjusting interests. For we shall often find politicians seeking for various reasons to provoke disorder and to intensify differences. Instead of seeking to promote coherence and maintain order and security, they do just the opposite. To deny such people the description of politicians is to beg the intellectual question. We must attempt to explain their behavior; and it can, I would suggest, only be explained in terms of a shift in their political responsibilities. They have become politicians of something different, and in many cases, the best available definition of that something different is an idea. Thus communist politicians in Britain who often seek to intensify differences must be seen as politicians not of Britain, but of either the ideology of Communism, or of a shadowy institution called Communist Britain.
The distinction often made between practical politicians and ideological ones cannot be seriously sustained; but it does have the virtue of pointing to actual differences between say a Robespierre and a Talleyrand, a Charles II and a James II. It refers to variations in political behavior between an idealist at one end of the scale, and an opportunist at the other. We also find that opposition groups are prone to formulate political issues in ideological terms; that is, they tend to moralize these issues and present them as matters of right and of justice. Politicians in office, whilst prepared to meet moral argument with moral argument, will often reply with variations on the idea of political necessity. But the difference between politics and ideology is not one between “ideas” or the absence of ideas. A Lenin leading a proscribed political party, for example, is no doubt very much an ideologist in his relation to Russia; but in relation to his own followers, he is necessarily a politician.
We may next observe that politics is an area of force and coercion; it is rife with sanctions of various kinds. The reason for this is not that politicians are naturally disposed to force, but that human beings are complicated and often inconsistent. No institution is ever held together simply by force; there is always some element of consent, a preference for an existing situation over the costs of changing it. But equally no institution ever embodies a comprehensive common good. Britain at bay in 1940 was pretty nearly as cohesive as any such large and plural society ever has been; but even then, we find phenomena like defeatism, profiteering, grumbling, distrust of the competence of the leadership, not to mention such irrational but sometimes decisive factors as laziness or boredom. What social harmony exists is partly spontaneous; but in States it is never sufficiently so. The harmony—the common good or the national interest—must constantly be created by politicians. And where it cannot be created, it must be forced. If soldiers will not volunteer in sufficient numbers, they must be conscripted. If people will not pay their taxes, governments will force them to. And those acts which are permanently necessary to the maintenance of the institution will be described as duties.
Where a spontaneous common good exists, political activity is hardly necessary. And there are situations where we can perhaps discern what may accurately be called a common good. We find it at moments in sporting teams, or in any army with a high morale, or in a city under siege and united in a cause. But there are two major difficulties in basing a theory of politics on a common good. One is that it is virtually never exactly identical with the institution; most of the State may be united in a cause, but there are always some who are left out, or who are at least lukewarm. Or, alternatively, the common good may spill across institutions and threaten them, as often happened during the wars of religion. The second difficulty is the inconsistency of people. They may at one point be united; but it takes little—as Rousseau regretfully observed—to make them begin thinking of their own advantage, the good of their families, their comparative status, or the good of some other cause they support.
It is because anything genuinely recognizable as the common good so seldom occurs in political activity that politicians have to be calculators. They must quantify things which are qualitatively different, and terms like “better,” “worse,” and “on balance” turn up extensively in their discourse. They must give money to national sport and to national art; and as far as sport itself is concerned, the money given to art is lost and wasted; and vice versa. Appeals to the common good in competitive situations of this kind are appeals to the plurality of interest found in people. A sportsman may have no interest in art; but one may be able to appeal to his national feeling, his generosity, or his interest in social co-operation. In politics, nearly everything is done by some people for the wrong reasons.
Politics is an activity without values of its own, and things which are widely valued in various cultures—things like truth, or human life—are politically valued only for their usefulness, which is often unstable. Truth, for example, has its uses; no one can retreat too far into a fantasy world without becoming ineffective; but equally it is often highly inconvenient. The facts can alienate much needed support. When they don’t, when indeed they promote a following, then the truth may emerge. It would be reckless to attribute Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin to a concern for the accuracy of Russian historical ideas. The differences between régimes in the amount of lying, deceit, fraud and illusion must be attributed not to political variations, but to the moral character of the régime.18 Certain ways of life—notably those of Western Europe—are capable of generating institutions (such as the press, an opposition, free universities) which lessen the advantages of deceit. Politicians qua politicians are interested not in Truth, Beauty, Sanctity or human life, but in advantages, and there is nothing in the world which is consistently advantageous.
A good deal of deceit is essential to the proper working of any kind of institution. Antipathies must be suppressed so that antagonists may work together for various purposes; the extent of support for or opposition to some measure must be falsified, for this knowledge itself will change the situation; and very frequently a politician must disguise his intentions until the time is ripe for revealing them. For timing is often essential to the success or failure of a political move. For these reasons, politicians have elaborated the usages of a mellifluous and soggy form of discourse, justly famed for its vagueness and ambiguity. The use of this discourse, and the understanding of it, require enormous skill. Thus in diplomatic communications between powers, the wording of a phrase or the omission of a claim is all that may indicate a major shift in policy. By such devices, political discussion between leaders can go on with the minimum interruption from popular clamor. Political communications must say different things to different people, and preferably can be abandoned and denied if they should cause embarrassment.
This oblique and tortuous character of politics often provokes nothing more than exasperation from the common man; and that very exasperation will launch us into the illusion of ultimate agreement.19 We all want peace, don’t we? The diplomatic brouhaha can only seem like the possibly dangerous indulgence of politicians, playing for their own purposes a game that may do for us all. The liberal program which seeks to drown politics in the liberated goodwill of ordinary men has a compelling attraction. But on the argument we have presented, politics cannot be isolated in this way. For the content of political calculations is not itself political; it is moral and social. It is, in fact, the passions and desires of ordinary men—especially the things they are prepared to fight for. And men, at various times and places, have been prepared to fight for a bizarre collection of objectives; in many cases, they have been prepared to fight just for the sake of fighting.
I take it, then, that what we all recognize as politics is simply a manner of human behavior which has its own peculiar characteristics, but which can never be isolated from moral and social circumstances. Politics is always parasitic upon ends and purposes which exist independently.
Further, both in our account and also in common usage, we find politics everywhere in human affairs. We may talk not only of national politics, but of church or trade-union politics, or the politics of any institutions. The institutions which exist politically at any given time depend upon circumstances. “Italy” (having been, in Metternich’s phrase, “a geographical expression”) had very little in the way of politics until the end of the eighteenth century. The proletariat was not a political institution until Marx tried to make it so.
Perhaps the most interesting example of this point is to be found in the liberal invention of the individual. For liberalism has, since at least the seventeenth century, conceived of the individual as an autonomous political institution. It began by regarding him as complete in himself; fully formed without the intervention of social influences. It proceeded to work out the ways in which he might secure his external security—namely by entering into a social contract. It explored the consequences of this contract for the internal governance of his desires. It created a politics of the individual, and called it ethics—for many of its prudential principles happened to be identical with long-held ethical precepts. As the social contract theory declined, utilitarianism took up the task, associated in many cases with a terminology of rights, which is a common indication that new political structures are emerging. Whether the individual is at any time a self-contained autonomous institution, and whether he ought ever to act as if this were so, is one of the main issues dividing idealists and utilitarians.
Finally, we may make a few remarks upon the competing conception of politics which is found in liberalism—and which, like many things found in liberalism, is also the unreflective view of the common man. This view begins with a rational evaluation of our political situation. The rational evaluation seeks to clarify our objectives; to work out exactly what it is we want. We all want peace, happiness, security, freedom, and so on. Given agreement on these ends, only the technical problem remains of finding the means to them. For this reason we may call this competing view of politics a technical one.
We have already stated one objection to this view, namely that the ultimate agreement does not exist. It is a fake. The large words on which it is based are empty receptacles of meaning which will, in discussion, accommodate any desires or aspirations we may choose to put in them. A consistent pursuit of this line necessarily involves us in the implication that all human conflict has been the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding; if only the Carthaginians and the Romans had got together and talked things over in an atmosphere of goodwill and negotiation, those Punic wars would have been unnecessary. And this is absurd. Admittedly generic men have no fundamental conflicts to worry them, but this is only because generic men have been constructed out of what stands above the fights of ordinary men.
Secondly, technical politics inevitably makes a great play with terms like problem and solution; for this is the language of technique. In the propagandist uses of the doctrine, problems exist in a vacuum: they are simply problems, with nothing attached to them. Here we may repeat the point we made in discussing moral experience: Any given situation only presents a problem to people of a certain character. One man’s problem is another man’s solution, and many social problems only arise because in some way they are solutions. The problem of slavery, for example, was the solution to problems arising in a way of life notably different from ours. For liberals, apartheid is a problem; for the Afrikaner, it is a solution, and it would only cease to be so either under highly unlikely circumstances (such as the consistent docility of the Bantu) or if the Afrikaners ceased to be what they are.
The position is even more complicated than this, for it is perfectly possible to find situations which constitute both a problem and a solution to the same person at the same time. Hypochondria is one example of this, so are cases of masochism where the masochist both likes and fears the threatened pain. People do not have a single core of selfhood which steers them on a consistent course.
The question: What is it exactly that we want? is, in the circumstances of the present time, the only unassailable generator of evaluative responses. And its difficulty is that, strictly speaking, it is a question which we are not fully competent to answer for ourselves, much less for other people. This point can be exaggerated, providing only a camouflage for timidity. In actual life, we do plan years ahead, and make our dispositions with a fair confidence of success. But in a liberal atmosphere the point is far more likely to be forgotten. And it can be forgotten or ignored if we imagine that our failures are solely the result of carelessness and incompetence in the initial planning. This may be so; though even these failures are not casual; they too have a more complicated explanation than simple ignorance or incompetence. And politicians who also must plan and predict—quite unavoidably—are in an even more difficult situation, for they must be attempting to predict the responses of great numbers of people. For what in ordinary social life are slips of the tongue, casual revelations, or currents of sympathy, antipathy, fascination or impatience may become, on the grander political stage, portentous movements capable of crushing whatever gets in their path.
Technical politics, then, would only be possible on the assumption that all individuals were fixed, their characters fully known, and their society frozen in a single mould. Such characters would be incapable of development or change. If we are uncertain and afraid, security and stability have great charm. In this century, liberals have mostly been afraid, and for this reason, the salvationist current has been running more strongly than the libertarian. But quite apart from what we want, technical politics is an illusion—though it has been a very influential one.
Moral and Political Evasions
[15. ]The fact that politicians are at all times and in all places to be found betraying any given policy suggested to them must make us suspicious of this whole mode of thinking. It is puerile to explain such betrayals in terms of the peculiar wickedness of politicians. Such explanations can only be the sour fruit of disappointment and disillusion. It seems more likely that political thinkers have brought unrealistic expectations to their study of politics, and then saved their expectations by distorting their account of the world.
[16. ]B. R. Crick, In Defence of Politics, London, 1962, p. 16.
[17. ]The term “responsibility” in this section is used in a purely descriptive sense to indicate a relationship of involvement between a person’s acts and an institution. The term has strong prescriptive overtones, and is crucial in moral and political arguments where allegiance is at stake. In moral discussions, people are said to be “irresponsible” or “forgetting their responsibilities.” But these uses suppress (sometimes because it is obvious from the context) what the responsibility is to. If we refuse to look at the matter from a restricted point of view, people are never irresponsible; they simply cease to be responsible to some things, and become responsible to others.
[18. ]For a fascinating comment on this point see “That’s No Lie, Comrade” by Ronald Hingley, Problems of Communism, Vol. XI No. 2, March–April 1962. The strains of truth often come out in the conduct of American foreign policy, as exemplified in the U.2 incident and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
[19. ]It may also launch us into Fascism, as happened in the thirties when there was widespread impatience with parliaments as ineffiectual “talking shops.”