The Problem of Power: a review of The Nature of Politics: Selected Essays of Bertrand de Jouvenel. Edited by Dennis Hale and Marc Landy (Mark C. Henrie, june/July 2003, First Things)

Jouvenal’s three major works are On Power, Sovereignty, and The Pure Theory of Politics. (Only Sovereignty remains in print.) While Jouvenel is more a “fox” than a “hedgehog,” the one phenomenon that dominates his thoughts is social mobilization. Elaborating on the critical reflections of such early-nineteenth-century thinkers as Louis de Bonald and Alexis de Tocqueville, he seeks to understand the nature of pouvoir, or power, at the heart of all politics. To Jouvenel, this “power” is a universal fact, a “thing”; its concrete expression in the modern world is the State, the apparatus which coalesced around monarchs in early-modern Europe. Jouvenel argues that the nature of power is such that it must always grow; it cannot do otherwise. Furthermore, power is jealous; it can only grow by eliminating competitors. If power fails to grow, it succumbs to stronger powers. Jouvenel believes this is the central dynamic of the modern world, the rise of the State to a position where it is not merely powerfully authoritative but sovereign, claiming a “legitimate” monopoly of “coercion” in a community. In its drive to sovereignty, the State has effectively disempowered competing authorities-the Church, the guilds, the family-either directly or indirectly. We are left without any significant intermediaries between the individual and the State.

Such an account is perhaps excessively one-sided, and Jouvenel takes pains to be balanced or “scientific” in his description of the phenomenon. Social power is, after all, the result of a transaction. Individuals extend “credit” to a power; their compliance is “voluntary.” To receive credit, a power must provide something in return. This reciprocity, Jouvenel believes, has resulted in the welfare state. Only such massive benefits could legitimize the demands that the State has made of its citizens in our century. For as Angelo Codevilla has recently suggested, with taxation in European countries standing at about 50 percent of income, the modern State’s exaction of tribute from its people is “comparable only to what the most rapacious empires of antiquity exacted from slaves.” It is because the State does so much for us that we do not think ourselves enslaved. But Jouvenel draws our attention to the fact that in these transactions, ultimately, someone commands and others obey. The more the commanding voice becomes unitary, the farther we stray from the promise of limited, constitutional government.

Of course we may object that in democratic regimes where “the people rule” we obey no one but ourselves, and thus we are free. Jouvenel, however, strongly objects to this notion of popular sovereignty. He states boldly, “To identify those who govern with the people is to confuse the issue, and no regime exists in which such an identification is possible. . . . Those who govern are neither the people nor the majority: they are the governors.” This is especially true of the modern State, with its standing army of civil servants-in Jouvenel’s coinage, “the Agentry”-in no direct way responsible to the people. The achievement of constitutional government was not to establish popular sovereignty; rather, it was to delegate representatives of the people, a parliament, to resist the power of the king. For Jouvenel, the parliamentary function is a negative one, best exemplified in the Roman Tribunate, which could only arrest the action of the Senate and the Consuls, in the name of the people: what was essential was that “the people were defended by those who did not aspire to become masters.”

In modern parliamentary systems, however, there is no longer a salutary struggle between the king and parliament. Indeed, what Americans would call the executive power is now exercised by the members of the representative chamber themselves. Here, the parliament serves as no resistance to power, but rather acts to mobilize the public behind the commands of these governors. Jouvenel’s ominous example of the structural failure of parliamentary systems to offer resistance is the National Socialist Party’s control of the Reichstag. He concludes that governors and representatives must be understood to play different roles. “Government cannot, without dereliction of duty, be itself representative; it is only the regime [as a whole], not the government, which can be representative.” The way to undermine constitutional government, then, is not “to deny representation, which the people would defend; it is to absorb representation in[to] government,” into power. This has occurred in the Western democracies in this century. In thus “achieving” popular sovereignty, Jouvenel believes we have eliminated any place to stand in order to resist power.

To Americans it may seem that the U.S. Constitution, which divides the powers of government among separately chosen branches, avoids Jouvenel’s critique. There is something to this, and Jouvenel himself nicely observes that L’Enfant designed the city of Washington in such a way as to locate the White House and the Capitol on rival hilltops, signifying the healthy rivalry between our “king” and our “parliament.” Yet America has not wholly avoided the dangers that exercise Jouvenel. For one of our greatest bulwarks against a monopoly of power at the center has been entirely eliminated: namely, the competing power of the sovereign states of the union. And the idea of refashioning the American regime into a disciplined parliamentary system-because we need to “get things done”- has been the goal of political scientists in the progressive tradition at least since Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, the notion that “divided government” (when one party controls the Presidency while the other controls Congress) constitutes a “problem” nicely demonstrates our misunderstanding of the preconditions of freedom in a constitutional republic. […]

[J]ouvenel argues, friends of liberty today have only two options open to them. They can acquiesce in the ever-growing power of the State, and attempt to structure it so that it cannot become an instrument of domination. This, however, is a difficult project, perhaps a futile one. Consider, for example, the attempt to formulate school voucher legislation that will foreclose the possibility of eventual State control of private and parochial schools. Nothing has yet eluded the control that comes with federal “help.” Jouvenel’s more practical alternative, therefore, is “to combat to the utmost the extension of state power.” This is best effected by “defend[ing] in principle every form of private power, whatever it may be . . . as a refuge. Whatever the vices of ‘the other Power,’ it has the virtue of being ‘other.'” Until the communitarians are willing to broach the question of the power or authority of social groups, they will not really have addressed the true nature of politics.


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