An ideal society, like an ideal world, is an impossibility, not only in practice but also in theory: there are as many “ideals” as there are philosophers, politicians or lawyers, not to mention different religions, cultures and civilisations. Schemes of ideal societies, such as John Rawls’ “justice as fairness” society, drawn up by people acting under “the veil of ignorance” (where the participants do not know whether they are men or women, black or white, Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists) or other contract theories of society, are at best suitable for the particular type of society on which the analysis is based, i.e. a western society. Moreover, as Amartya Sen has convincingly shown, only by comparing concrete societies and not building abstract models can we come to tentative conclusions about which society is more just and better responds to the various needs and interests of its members. Rawls’ Transcendental institutionalism, looking for a perfect society using abstract theorising, is not only theoretically weak, its application in practice concentrates attention on building perfect institutions without analysing what is feasible and whether these institutions work in varying contexts. There are no axioms or laws of nature waiting to be discovered from which to start measuring different societies. All the yardsticks human beings use to evaluate dissimilar societies are historical and comparative, even when theoretical. All the attempts at creating abstract axioms, universal in time and space, only reflect the particular preferences of their authors. In practice, all attempts to build an ideal society have led to tyranny. Since it is from such examples that at the end of the day we draw our theoretical conclusions, this is an additional argument in favour of our view that an ideal society is not only impractical it is also a theoretical impossibility.
However, this does not mean that there cannot be any blueprints of fairer and better societies that may serve as guidelines to be adapted to the particularities of various societies. Using such an historical and comparative approach it would seem, intuitively, that the holy trinity of the French Revolution – liberté, égalité et fraternité – are all essential qualities or characteristics of any modern society. Although in human history there have been societies where none of these qualities have flourished, today a society that completely or substantially lacks any of these characteristics is not a comfortable place in which to live and, in extreme cases, may even forfeit its right to be called society. Of course, these characteristics come in different proportions and combinations; moreover, they often clash and sometimes even attempt to cancel each other out. However, in today’s world no society worth its name can completely sacrifice them.
The end of the Cold War and the triumph of liberté over égalité
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist ideology happened when Thatcherism and Reaganomics, i.e. free market ideologies and practices, were prevalent in the West. This had not always been the case. Post-World War II Europe had for long periods and to a great extent been social-democratic, and had flourished as such. Even in the more individualistic United States, the Rooseveltian New Deal, John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'” and LBJ’s Great Society on the one hand, and the Reaganomics that were continued by Presidents Clinton and, especially, George W. Bush on the other, seemed to belong not only to different eras but to different continents. It has to be emphasised that both the US programmes to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, or those European social-democratic policies addressing medical and educational problems were not in any way steps towards communism, as their opponents claimed. On the contrary, they were, inter alia, pre-emptive anti-communist or anti-totalitarian measures. The opposite of unfettered markets has been state socialism and communism. The welfare state and the development of economic and social rights was a response of western European capitalism to the spectre of communism haunting Europe at a time when Russia’s fate was sealed by the communist response.
However, as the collapse of communism happened when the West was in one of its libertarian phases, most post-communist countries also embarked on this road, seeing in it not only the most promising but the only possible way to development. Moreover, when one extreme – in this case the state-dominated planned economy – fails, it is quite natural for many to seek refuge in another extreme, often as remote as possible from the previous one. Ignoring the fact the world is not flat, that even in an allegorical sense it is round and curvaceous where opposites may be closer to each other than some mid-way station, many post-communist societies chose Thatcherism or Reaganomics as their lodestars. To an extent, it may even have been necessary; if one wants to straighten something one often needs to bend it in the opposite direction far beyond the median line. What is wrong is the belief that this new situation is normal or the only correct one.
Unfortunately, this is what many politicians and social theorists believe: ideology replaces pragmatic approaches based on the study of facts. One year ago, The Economist warned what could happen in such a case when it wrote of Margaret Thatcher: “She was much more of a pragmatist than is often credited; it was when she ditched that approach to pursue the Platonic ideal of Thatcherism that she was undone.” Thatcherism failed when the British prime minister became a convinced Thatcherite and started to believe that Hayek’s theories – or her interpretation of Hayek – and Keith Joseph’s policies were, if not universally true, then at least what Britain needed now and forever.
Moreover, social recipes that are based on the analysis of some societies are not necessarily transferable to other societies. Speaking of the widening stratification of Estonian society, for example, Märt Väljataga writes that what makes the increasing inequality especially saddening is the fact that the principle of equality seems to have been historically programmed into our national idea. This view also rings true for many other societies that have borrowed successful recipes from very different contexts. It is important to note that most libertarian theories have their origins in Anglo-Saxon philosophical, political and legal thought. Raymond Plant has argued that neo-liberal theories and practices are
closely related to ideas about the spontaneous order, the private law, the common law, the negative liberty, the market order, the fragmented and dispersed nature of knowledge, etc. together with the claim that both common law and legislation should be guided more in the direction of the rule of law than has been the case under socialist and social democratic regimes.
The context in which such theories are elaborated means that they are not necessarily universal or even capable of becoming so: they are not fit to be applied in all societies irrespective of their history, religion and political, ethical or aesthetic background. Another British philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, has shown that ideas of liberty and individualism are not metaphysically grounded, are not universal like laws of nature, but are based on historical peculiarities of European development.
In this context, and because of the influence of neo-liberal ideas in many eastern and central European countries, it is of interest to note that the grand-fathers of neoliberal thought such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper and Peter Drucker were all of central European origin, three of them from Vienna, who found political refuge from totalitarianism in the Anglo-Saxon world. They also found their intellectual refuge in the generalisation and universalisation of Anglo-Saxon libertarian ideas, often making them more extreme, straightforward, less nuanced and balanced than the originals elaborated by, say, Adam Smith or John Stewart Mill. And those central Europeans were intellectual giants who sought a remedy to totalitarian serfdom in another extreme – libertarianism – without properly analysing whether these ideas could take root in societies with different histories, traditions and religions. The reaction of today’s eastern and central European Thatcherites and Reaganites to the totalitarian past of their countries has been much more reflexive and far less well-informed.
At the end of the 1990s, when the prevailing ideology was “the freer the market the merrier”, James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, former editor-in-chief of The Times, published The Sovereign Individual, a kind of neoliberal manifesto, in which they advocated the unfettered market. They saw it as inevitable, as a universal blessing. In the world the authors saw emerging, they welcomed the fact that there would be no citizens, only customers. Among those customers there was to be a small minority of “sovereign individuals” and other “rational individuals” who would flee jurisdictions that taxed them. The nation state, “the main parasite and predator upon the individual at the end of the twentieth century”, they predicted, “will become feeble”. The United Nations would be liquidated sometime soon after the turn of the millennium, and it would be a “winners take all world” where most people would be losers and only “sovereign individuals” winners. “[D]emocracy as it has been known in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is destined to disappear,” they prophesied. True, much of this reads as social science fiction. But as in many a “sci-fi” novel, Davidson and Rees-Mogg grasped some of the world’s potentially dangerous tendencies well, though quite grotesquely. One thing they didn’t mention, or didn’t want to notice, was that this very “paradise” was at that time being realized in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, where emerging “sovereign” individuals (the most sovereign of whom became “oligarchs”) transferred their billions of dollars to off-shore bank accounts and built themselves enclosures beyond the perimeters of which they were often gunned down. They were the small group of winners (quite within the percentages described by the authors) who took it all, while the majority of the population were the losers, many of whom lost everything. Most former KGB agents worked not for the government but for “sovereign” individuals. (Maybe it is not even ironic that it also took a former KGB officer to start straightening up the anarchy Russia was descending into and, in the process, quite predictably bent it to the opposite direction.) But the point is that these authors not only did not see any ethical or moral problems in welcoming their predicted paradise for “sovereign individuals” – obviously hell for the rest – they did not even imagine the possible responses of those who would not be lucky/clever/talented/ruthless/
unscrupulous enough to belong to the chosen. This is what happens when liberté, especially if understood as economic liberties, prevails over other components of the trinity.
Moreover, libertarians and neo-liberals understand liberty in its negative sense only as “freedom from”, freedom from outside interference, be it by the state or somebody else. This is also a typically Anglo-Saxon approach, though also mostly advanced by those to whom the Anglo-Saxon world gave political refuge, for example Isaiah Berlin. However, so-called “positive freedom” or “freedom to”, i.e. freedom to do whatever individuals chose to do with their lives, is no less important for individual autonomy. People are unfree not only when the state interferes with their choices, their lifestyles. They are also unfree when they are uneducated, unemployed or otherwise disenfranchised or incapacitated. A society that cares only about “freedom from” is therefore not only unequal, for the majority of the people it is also unfree.
Égalité as a sine qua non of democracy
The opposite of the totalitarian state that controls and attempts to regulate everything is not the liberal-democratic state but a situation where the life of men, according to Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. There was no contract between those nasty and brutish men to establish a commonwealth, as Hobbes called it; the general interests in the survival of all and the particular interests of those who were nastier and more brutish, forced the latter to develop more and more sophisticated institutions. In today’s world most societies have institutions that on this spectrum are somewhere between the totalitarian state and the Hobbesian anarchic bellum omnium contra omnes or “the war of all against all”. From time to time, some societies descend into pre-state anarchy while a few remain totalitarian. Many states are today liberal democracies while some may be called illiberal democracies or semi-democracies (semi-autocracies). An important point is that without the state there will be the Hobbesian original state of affairs. When the role and the power of the state descend below a certain level, society may find itself in free-fall. If the functions of the state are curbed beyond a certain point, those who are cleverer, luckier, stronger, nastier and more ruthless will gain the upper hand. We saw it in Yeltsin’s Russia, where the oligarchs, organized crime groups and privatized KGB men ruled the country; we have seen it recently in Kyrgyzstan, so recently the darling of the West in Central Asia; we saw it also, though of course in a different way, in George W. Bush’s de-regulated and privatized US, where investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, private military contractors and many others benefited from financial deregulation and from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the majority of Americans bore the brunt of the economic crisis as well as the human and financial costs of wars in far-away places.
The concepts, as well as practice, of democracy are closely, if not inherently, linked to the state. Therefore, weakening the state, undermining its ability to respond to different challenges, will also be the end of democracy. Davidson and Rees-Mogg are not wrong when they speak of the disappearance of democracy as we know it should their vision of the evolution of the world triumph; what the democracy we don’t yet know will be like belongs to Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”.
If liberté is the essence of liberalism, égalité is the essence of democracy. Emmanuel Wallerstein writes “that liberals give priority to liberty, meaning individual liberty, and that democrats (or socialists) give priority to equality. […] Liberals do not merely give priority to liberty; they are opposed to equality, because they are strongly opposed to any concept measured by outcome, which is the only way the concept of equality is meaningful.” Does this mean that the more democracy, the less liberties? Not necessarily, of course. Only by making the importance of equality or of liberty absolute can one come to the conclusion that one necessarily negates the other. Since égalité is a necessary component of democracy, a society that becomes too unequal endangers its democratic achievements. In a liberal-democratic state, liberty and equality have to be balanced.
The spread of market economy and democracy – concepts that are considered by many to be as obvious as God, motherhood and apple-pie – in practice often turns out to be a mixed blessing. The planned economy of the Soviet type left everybody and society as a whole poor, and market freedoms may indeed be one of the preconditions for political freedoms and personal liberties; nevertheless, the shock introduction of markets, especially unfettered markets, made a few extremely rich while many become even poorer than they had been under the previous system. If one of the central tenets of democracy (with some important qualifications of course) is that the voice of the many count more than that of the few, it should be clear that economic “shock therapy” and political democracy are incompatible: one either has a shock or one has democracy, they do not come together. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang goes even further, writing that, “free market and democracy are not natural partners”. One of the most persistent market-friendly advocates of political freedoms, Karl Popper, had already written incisively half a century ago:
Even if the state protects its citizens from being bullied by physical violence (as it does in principle, under the system of unrestrained capitalism), it may defeat our ends by its failure to protect them from the misuse of economic power. In such a state, the economically strong is still free to bully one who is economically weak, and to rob of his freedom. Under these circumstances, unlimited economic freedom can be just as self-defeating as unlimited physical freedom, and economic power may be nearly as dangerous as physical violence.
Indeed, unfettered economic freedoms are as damaging for individual liberties as is their absence in totalitarian states. Tony Judt’s remark that “the market, over time, is its own worst enemy” contains an important truth, though, as colourful remarks often do, it over-simplifies the matter. The truth is that the market, like many other institutions, may, under certain circumstances, indeed become its own worst enemy, its opposite.
It seems that free market capitalism and liberal democracy, phenomena that on the one hand assume each other, are at the same time also in constant rivalry or competition. The freer a market the greater the economic inequality, the greater the inequality the less democracy, and vice versa. Strong democracy attained by curbing inequality almost inevitably also bridles market freedoms. Economic inequality inevitably also increases political inequality, while political equality puts brakes on the widening economic inequality. Democracy tries to make a society more equal, while unbridled markets increase inequality. The result of this constant balancing act is that in western European liberal democracies these two spheres – political and economic – while supporting each other also constantly temper each other, soften each other’s impact. The US, in that respect too, differs considerably from Europe. Cambridge Professor John Dunn writes:
America today remains a society uncomfortable with every surviving vestige of explicit privilege, but remarkably blithe in face of the most vertiginous of economic gulfs, and comprehensively reconciled to the most obtrusive privileges of wealth as such. Behind this outcome lies the continuing vitality of its economy, the real source of the victory of the partisans of distinction, or the English school of economists.
There the market has prevailed over democracy while in Sweden, ruled for long periods by social democrats, there has been less room, as Dunn puts it, for “distinctions and opulence”, and democracy has exercised greater constraints on the market.
Dunn also observes that within the liberal democratic movement “the partisans of the order of egoism” – the capitalists – have defeated “the partisans of equality” – the democrats. One of the important causes of equality’s defeat at the hands of economic egoism has been that in the long run the uncompromising instruments for attempting to realize equality and the rigidities inherent in its pursuit have blunted equality’s appeal as a goal. Contrary to the American Revolution, the aim of the French, and especially the Russian revolutions, was not, as Hannah Arendt put it, the “freedom from oppression” but “freedom from want”, and one of the main requirements, therefore, was equality. Both these revolutions have contributed to such a balance (or imbalance) within today’s understanding of the balance between democracy and liberty. Arendt wrote:
The inescapable fact was that liberation from tyranny spelled freedom only for the few and was hardly felt by the many who remained loaded down by their misery. These had to be liberated once more, and compared to this liberation from the yoke of necessity, the original liberation from tyranny must have looked like child’s play.
The fact that radical attempts at liberation from “the yoke of necessity” and the creation of more equal societies have led to tyranny should in no way compromise these values in the eyes of thoughtful individuals. It is possible to abuse all values and norms but this doesn’t mean that we should reject them. What is needed is a critical mind able to distinguish between a value and its abuse. Today, advanced liberal democracies have in principle got rid of the “yoke of tyranny” and have alleviated the “yoke of necessity” for most of their people. Even so, one cannot be complacent, since not only are there too many poor people in rich societies but the “war on terror” is also attempting to bring back the “yoke of tyranny”. However, for many other societies both tasks still constitute formidable challenges and even mature democracies have constantly to find new balances between freedom and equality.
Fraternité and égalité supporting each other
It is politically correct and fashionable to refer to “classics”, though too often we use intellectual giants of the past selectively. In a way, it is understandable since even the most consistent thinkers have not always been at their best and not all of their ideas have withstood the test of time. However, our selectivity has to be principled and not opportunistic. Libertarians who often refer to John Stewart Mill to prove their point forget that this great liberal thinker also wrote: “The idea is especially repulsive of a society held together only by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interest.” Not only is such an idea repulsive for many, but if market relations were the only ones that connected people Margaret Thatcher would be right that there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and their families. However, it is not accidental that practically all governments, political elites and leaders of opinion in all countries are in search of a national idea that would consolidate society and strengthen or restore societal bonds damaged by individualistic practices. Tony Judt is right when he says, “If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity; and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself.”
If the contradictions and the need constantly to balance liberty and equality have received significant attention, the third component of the trinity, fraternité, has received much less consideration. However, in today’s societies this neglected characteristic plays a more important role than in yesterday’s world. In the past, countries may have been more heterogeneous in their external characteristics, but internally they were usually more homogenous than today, which is why they came to be called nation-states, a term that nowadays is becoming increasingly oxymoronic. They were also much more bonded. In today’s globalising world countries actively borrow from each other whatever works better and in some important respects, therefore, the world is becoming more homogeneous. Is this not neglect of the role of fraternity in our individualistic age partly due to the fact that it tends to support equality and somewhat counterbalance liberty? Be that as it may, the loosening of social bonds today concerns many societies, especially in the West.
However, political and intellectual leaders often look for the national idea not in the brotherhood of their people, not in efforts to overcome divisions between the affluent and the poor, city and country dwellers, black and white, heterosexuals and homosexuals, but in the opposition to the external and internal Other – immigrants, people of different religion, race or sexual orientation, neighbouring nations. Nationalism, xenophobia, religious extremism, homophobia and other such ideas and ideologies are used to bring people together. This is a brotherhood or friendship against someone else. Hatred and fear of the external or internal Other has deep historical and psychological roots. That is why it is easy to exploit these characteristics – as was done recently in Southern Kyrgyzstan where Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clashed violently – but difficult to overcome them. Today, when all societies are increasingly heterogeneous, the Other is more and more often not somebody in another country but in one’s own neighbourhood. The demonisation and stereotyping of people of a different religion or ethnic origin incites us not only against other countries but also against our immediate neighbours. Situations where ethnic or racial divides overlap divisions between more prosperous and less affluent people or regions within the same country are especially explosive.
This brings us to the issue of the union between economic (market) liberalism and social conservatism. Within the British Conservative Party this combination has been quite distinctive. So-called “one nation conservatives”, led, for example, by Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, who tried to combine a liberal economy with social programmes aimed at the eradication of poverty, the unity of citizens and harmony between social classes, were quite different from the Thatcherite conservatives. The emergence of the term “compassionate conservatism” and its doctrines was meant to overcome the one-sidedness of Thatcherite and Reaganite market liberalism and social conservatism; it indicates that traditional conservatism is not sufficiently attractive and leads to social divisions that damage the bonds that hold societies together.
Such a combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism, whether it exists within one political party or in a governing coalition, has its strains and limits. The policies of those for whom “only the money matters” make society less coherent and more divided, while those for whom the nation and historical traditions reign supreme impose limits on money-making abilities through restrictions on migration, restrictive citizenship and language legislation. Or they sacrifice beneficial economic cooperation on account of politically motivated hostility towards foreign countries against whom they have historical grievances or whose regimes they do not like. If, for liberals, the state has to be a nomocracy – a rule-governed order that is not devoted to the attainment of any particular social goals – social conservatives, who may be market liberals, are proponents of a telocratic order whose policies support certain social goals, purposes or ends. In this respect we see conservatives have something in common with social democrats though their goals are usually rather different.
Recently, there has been much debate about “the third way” between unfettered capitalism and state interventionism. Actually, over the years most liberal democracies have already developed a kind of third way as a result of the pendulum-style vacillation between the Scylla of unbridled markets and deregulation and the Charybdis of state interference and nationalisation. Whether it will be possible to steer a more sensible course instead of having things result principally from left-right and right-left vacillations is not clear. The nature of politics in liberal democracies, indeed the nature of politics in general, makes the implementation of any such third way problematic. At best, developed countries have moved so far like a sail boat tacking against the wind, navigating to the left from the direct line towards the point of destination and then as a counterbalance turning an equal degree to the right in order to straighten the course.
On the possibility of progressive liberalism
In post-World War II Europe, with the exception of strong communist parties in France and Italy, social democrats were the main advocates of equality. Being democrats, they didn’t deny the role of social, political and economic freedoms though they were ready to restrict economic liberties through the redistribution of wealth for the sake of various social goals and programmes. Social democratic policies have always faced two serious problems or accusations from both liberals and conservatives:
1. redistribution increases state bureaucracy and the state itself becomes paternalistic, interfering more and more in everyday life – the emergence of the so-called “nanny state”;
2. redistribution of wealth from the more affluent to the more needy means that there are fewer resources for investment which is a brake on economic growth.
While these traditional criticisms of social democracy have a grain of truth, they are not completely sincere. First, the state’s role and its interference in the life of the individual also grew on the watch of free-marketeers such as Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Tony Blair. In the case of the last two leaders, this may have been partly due to the specific circumstances of the “war on terror”, though these do not justify excesses such as “extraordinary rendition”, torture through “waterboarding” and other violations of human rights and unnecessary interference with liberties. Second, social-democratic Sweden or Germany at times had economic growth higher than those democracies governed by conservatives or market liberals. Moreover, as the experience of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and now China testifies, democracy is not at all necessary for economic growth. Martha Nussbaum, referring to concrete statistical studies, concludes: “Political liberty, health and education are all poorly correlated with growth.” However, there is a new and more serious problem for social democracy: globalisation.
The nation-state and national market economy, these cradles of human rights and democracy, are both in the process of radical change. The world market is no longer a sum-total of national markets; it is increasingly becoming a real common market. The state has lost not only its ability to control world financial markets but also its ability to protect its own population from the negative effects of fluctuations in the world market. The unfettered global market tends to drag down the protection of economic and social rights to the level of the lowest common denominator. For instance, cheap labour and longer working hours in many Asian societies are certainly affecting employment and social protection in OECD countries. Jack Donnelly writes: “The globalisation of production is weakening state-centric schemes for implementing economic, social and cultural rights, most dramatically in the wealthier countries of the northern hemisphere. It does not, however, seem to be creating viable alternative mechanisms”. Donnelly also correctly emphasises that economic growth due to globalisation and the new division of labour should not be confused with the growth of economic and social rights since “human rights are about assuring minimum distributions of goods, services and opportunities to all, something that is by no means assured by economic growth”. Nor are civil, and especially political rights, unaffected by the process of globalisation. The inability of democratically elected governments to protect their constituencies from negative global effects – from the crash of financial markets or the effect of cheap child labour in some Asian countries for instance – means that democracy has become less effective and political rights less important. The dilemma which globalisation has caused for social democrats has been well summarized by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a leading French socialist and former minister in the Mitterrand and Jospin governments:
The success of post-war democracy rests on the equilibrium between production and redistribution, regulated by the state. With globalization, this equilibrium is broken. Capital has become mobile: production has moved beyond national borders, and thus outside the remit of state redistribution. […] Growth would oppose redistribution; the virtuous circle would become the vicious circle.
The creation after World War One of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was the world’s – at this point the western world since that was the only one that mattered – response to two problems: the workers movements for their rights, in which many saw “the spectre of communism” haunting the West, and the need to level the playing field for competing national capital. The establishment of the ILO, the only specialised agency created by the League of Nations before World War II, had as its mandate the promotion of social and economic rights, long before human rights as a whole became an international issue with the creation of the UN in 1945, is significant. Given that these rights are considered to be second generation rights (if human rights at all) vis-à-vis the first generation of civil and political rights, it would seem that it was not so much human rights but other interests that guided the founders of the ILO. International concern for workers’ rights was not so much a result of unease about the welfare of the workers, though they naturally benefited from it. It was more for the sake of the survival of capitalism and to mitigate rivalry between employers from different western countries by creating more equal labour costs through approximately the same working hours and conditions, paid holidays, etc. Such an arrangement was possible between countries that were approximately at the same level of economic and social development. Could it be repeated worldwide today? The ILO is an organisation with universal membership but it is no secret that working conditions, pay and other labour factors differ hugely between countries and regions.
These negative effects of globalisation can be mitigated only through purposeful international efforts on the part of governments. Today it is not Orwell’s 1984 that, at least for the western world, presents the most realistic and immediate danger; in many parts of the world, as we are seeing today, the failure or total collapse of states, not their strength and stability, has been the main cause of massive human suffering. The clear and present danger is rather that the unfettered global market, without any democratic control, may become a “Big Brother” whose interference with individual liberties, though more anonymous and less direct than that of the state, may prove equally or even more nefarious. One of the most important tasks of the state is the management of global issues such as the globalised economy, the prevention of environmental degradation, the maintenance of national and international security, and qualified, contingent and contextual promotion of democracy and human rights. It is sometimes said that states are too big for small things and too small for big things. However, if there are entities ready to take over some of the smaller things, there is nothing yet available to resolve big things. The rise of China and other Asian countries, where the role of the state has been instrumental in guaranteeing this rise, is further evidence that it is too early to send the state into the dustbin of history as Marxists dreamed, or cut it down to the size of a mere night watchman as libertarians or neoliberals would like.
Instead of conclusions
John Ruggie, one of the most prominent political scientists and former UN Assistant Secretary-General, has written that “the strength of each approach is also the source of its major weakness”. The opposite may also be true: there may be strength in the weakness. Without a degree of one-sidedness a study may lack passion and depth. Andrei Makin, contemporary French writer of Russian origin, wrote about Freud, Marx and Lacan, that “they have very limited vision, which they develop to excess”. I do not want to judge the fairness of this comment on these very different thinkers, but the point can be appreciated: limited vision that is developed to excess has both positive and negative aspects. In a pianist it may cause the whole world to applaud, while in a politician it may lead to expensive mistakes or terrible tragedies. The study of social phenomena needs various theories and there can hardly be a single grand theory attempting to explain equally well all the aspects of the complex reality. Rather like a world-class tennis player who combines a strong serve with excellent returns and uses both backhand and forehand with equal skill, a social scientist, both as practitioner and academic, has to be ready to use different intellectual tools, that is to say, different theories and theoretical approaches. The latter are like the petals of a flower that each explain some aspects of the whole, while in the centre of the flower there is not a grand “theory of everything”, but only the capitulum on which most theories or theoretical approaches can agree. Bertrand Russell once observed:
No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Most of the great philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy that is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false. The most fruitful philosophies have contained glaring inconsistencies, but for that very reason have been partially true.
There may, of course, be objections to selective use of different theories. One may be accused of being eclectic. However, is eclecticism necessarily such a bad thing? If a choice of strong points from different theories is open, conscious and can theoretically be justified – if it can be shown that a phenomenon under study, or an aspect of it, can be better explained not by a single theory but by the use of various theories – eclecticism may become a principled approach to research. There is, however, a more serious problem with using eclectic approaches: not everybody is open-minded and flexible enough – some may call it unprincipled enough – to use them. James Rosenau and Mary Durfee ask: “Are we not so locked into our preferred theory that it is virtually impossible to shift back and forth between models as circumstances warrant and our interests change?” And they believe that, “Usually we are locked into the theory with which we are most comfortable. It gives meaning to any and all discrepancies. It infuses order into seemingly disparate developments, highlights the central actors, clarifies their motives, and explains their successes and failures.”
There is a good deal of truth in this comment. However, social theories are not philosophical or religious world-views that help the individual to distinguish between good and evil, moral and immoral, and that, in general terms, explain the world and our place in it. Our personal philosophies (be they subconscious or well articulated) are, indeed, rarely susceptible to sudden change (though this cannot be completely excluded either). Although social theories are dependent on our wider worldviews, this dependency is not absolute and rigid. It is not impossible, therefore, that a person can use different approaches to the explanation of social phenomena. What is important is that politicians avoid being locked into theoretical and ideological constructs, which, ignoring reality, they mindlessly use. Various liberal theories of society, such as social-democratic and conservative concepts, all have their strengths and weaknesses and none of them is capable of encapsulating the “eternal truths”. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses, their limits in time and space. Not only would it be wrong to judge Plato’s or Aristotle’s views with the yardstick of today’s morality and law, I would not advise serious discussion of liberal theories of society when trying to find solutions for situations in, say, Darfur or Helmand province in Afghanistan.
I am grateful to Märt Väljataga for valuable comments.