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Historicising Political Discourse

1 August 2012

Contemporary Western conceptions of political order are complex gestalts of a number of anthropological, moral, and prudential assumptions and assertions which are unique to the world in which they currently operate. This is hardly a shocking assertion but it is one the prima facie reasonableness of which is belied by the unflaggingly popular style of political discourse which seeks to legitimise existing political orders by asserting their continuity with or resemblance to older, idealised models or to delegitimise those same contemporary orders by comparing them unfavourably to past models. Obvious examples which come to mind include the self-conscious identification of the modern French Republic with the historic Roman Republic and the current trend in Canadian political discourse of criticising the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, by asserting his failure to live up to the heritage of the Westminster political system as typified in documents such as the English Bill of Rights or William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Not seeking to imply a position on either of those examples (I am dubious of the former and in sympathy with the latter) I would problematise the entire enterprise by asserting that it falls afoul of the fundamental conceptual and pre-conceptual disconnect which separates the modern and pre-modern worlds and the irrevocable and inescapable implications of that disconnect for political legitimacy.

In brief, between the Roman Republic and the Magna Carta and the world of today there took place a fundamental shift, often dated to the work of Hugo Grotius (though amongst my primary research interests is attempting to trace a more evolutionary and less revolutionary, Grotius-centered model of this shift), in the social imaginary, the pre-conceptual assumption of fundamental social order, which governs our understanding of human society. The primary modern Western social imaginary, which Charles Taylor terms that of ‘the order of mutual benefit,’ and which is characterised by a society of monadic individual banding together for mutual gain, is fundamentally incompatible with the social imaginaries which made sense of the pre-modern political orders. To take the example of the Westminster system and it’s oft-touted founding document, the Magna Carta, it is often asserted that the signing of Magna Carta represented the earliest recognition of the rights of subjects in opposition to those of the king, could not be further from the truth. Rather, what took place was an assertion not of subjective rights natural to human agents, but rights accordant to the holders of baronial office. The barons who forced the Magna Carta on King John were operating within the pre-modern social imaginary of the ordered hierarchy, which saw humans as holders of offices which entailed certain rights and obligations and whose existence precedes that of its holders. The rights being asserted depended not upon their status as subjects of natural liberties but their holding the rank and duties of barons within the early feudal hierarchy.

The marked distance between modern and pre-modern social imaginaries means that retrojecting modern political sensibilities into pre-modern political orders results in an unintelligible account of both. The actions of the barons makes no sense in light of modern notions of mutual benefit and universal equality: we read their actions either overly broadly  as the first codification of the rights of subjects, which they were not, or uncharitably as the actions of powerful men greedy for more power,  which they again were not. Only within their own fundamental worldview, whose concept of organic, hierarchical complementarity is completely at odds with own, and their actions intelligible and those actions do not legitimate or delegitimate any contemporary political order which operates within a fundamentally different social imaginary. The same might be said of the historical Roman Republic in relation to modern France. The authors of the French Revolution saw the Roman Republic, particularly in its overthrow of tyranny in the person of Tarquin the Proud, and establishment of a republican (broadly conceived) political order as both an ideal template for their actions and (eventual) achievements and, given the prevalent classicism of the age, a legitimating analogy for the new French Republic. Every French government since other than Vichy France has followed suit and borrowed images, structures, and language from Rome (though Napoleon preferred to source material from imperial, rather than republican, Rome). However the French revolutionary was amongst the earliest popular expressions of the then-new social  imaginary of the order of mutual benefit, whereas the Ancien Régime which it overthrew operated strictly within the same pre-modern social imaginaries as ancient Rome.

The recognition of the heritage of a political order cannot be extended into legitimising that order through association with its own past or a historical model. Historical antecedents to modern political orders must be understood on their own terms, as must the conceptual and pre-conceptual distance between the world in which they were conceived and the world in which we live, in cases where the antecedent predates the relevant penetration of the social imaginary of the order of mutual benefit, before they can be applied to contemporary political discourse. To do otherwise is to impose anachronistic misreadings upon history and generate discourse that would likely be meaningless were it not unintelligible.

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