Having recently had reason to return to Jouvenel’s On Power in some detail a number of points drew more of my attention than they did before. One of the more significant ones is just how much of a classical liberal Jouvenel was and how his own specific conception of liberty functioned as a sought of blinder to the role of Power in its creation. For Jouvenel liberty can be split into two overall categories. One is a “real” liberty premised on the individual’s capability of defending with his own strength the liberty he enjoys. This is a liberty which he sees in the pirate traders of the early modern period and the nobles bringing low the kings. In contrast to this noble liberty is that of liberty granted by another, the liberty of the subject before the king. In this formulation of Jouvenel’s we can see his model beneath the surface. The liberty of the first kind is that of the intermediaries of society, or the middle if you will, while the liberty of the second kind is that of Power, the high and the low.
The conception of liberty which Jouvenel is drawn to is that of the first kind. He frequently speaks glowingly of the Greek and Roman republics, but combined with this is an obvious uneasiness. Jouvenel is under no illusion that the liberty of these nobles is itself premised on their being elements of society who must be devoid of such liberty to sustain this state of affairs. For the Greeks and Romans these were slaves and the plebeians. This mass that is cut off from this liberty represents a problem as it is from this mass that Power obtains its recruits and resources. To undermine such a threat Jouvenel saw that two broad options were available for the noble who obtained control of the state. The first option was to simply retain this liberty and not extend it because it is dangerous to grant the rights and liberties of the nobles to the lower classes, such an option obviously left open the door to Power which would need to be controlled by other means. The second option, and one he claims the English nobility took, was to generalize it and admit all to this liberty.
The extension of liberty to all is not in Jouvenel’s eyes a good thing, and on this he is surprisingly provided with significant support by Rousseau who he interprets in a very atypical way. One finds that with all Enlightenment thinkers it is possible to go back and read them directly and so get a reading which is directly contradictory to modern interpretations and with Rousseau, if Jouvenel is correct, this is no different. For Rousseau, the idea of extending liberty to those not fit for it was ridiculous. There is also the case of his reference to the necessity of small polities to ensure good governance due to the ability to immediately observe results, and his rejection of rule of law being a solved problem.[i]
A result of this admission to law of all, including those not suited to it, is a result which is very rarely raised as a problem with equality, but one which is as central to it as it gets. Declaring all equal and treating them as such results in a situation in which those who are strong in society as given an extraordinary advantage. It’s like placing Mike Tyson in his prime in a cage with a grandmother and declaring that as they are both humans it would be a fair fight. So it is with the absurd nature of modern law that the employee contracts on an equal basis with a company, or that a financial service provider contracts on an equal basis with an investor. The libertarian can argue until they are blue in the face that somehow this is ethically fair and claim survival of the fittest, but such idiocies, and they are only fit to be dismissed as idiocies, only open more problems which Power is required to resolve.[ii] It also reveals in full glory the underlying utopianism of a supposedly realistic political prescription.
In addition to the casting of the weak in society to the vicissitudes of a society in which they are declared equal, those in positions of power and authority obtain a near total removal of responsibility. As in the case of the company that is supposedly an equal of the employee, the leader of the company is now no longer a lord in a real sense, with the lives of the employees in his hands, but is now a mere contracting equal. This is an aspect of Jouvenel’s criticism which receives tragically short treatment in the book, but it is one which is quite explosive. The capitalist order which is so celebrated really represents a total blanket disconnection of power and responsibility under the guise of equality. Those who should have their own code of ethics aligned with the greater order reject this order and claim to be operating in a private sphere as equals. The usual response is hysterical screams that impeding on the profit motive will result in us all starving or something, but this is pure bullshit and you can usually trace this sort of discourse to some form of funding from business (usually via foundations as per the creation of libertarianism with Hayek and Mises) or/ and some political conflict based polemics such as the crass anti-communism (hello again Hayek and Mises) of the liberal order which set up a false dichotomy between communism and capitalism that still shuffles about like a brainless zombie.
Obviously as is the nature of our brainless liberal order it did not take long for the blanket excusing of this private sphere from any sort of ethical constraints and the militant dogmatic assertions that it is some mystical black box beyond human understanding for it to be utilized in the expansion of Power. Foundations, NGOs, Woke Coporations, the media and the like represent arms of government which we must not admit are government.
[i] “But until you have solved it, be sure that, instead of enthroning laws, as you imagine, you are really enthroning man” p373
[ii] On the creation of industrial law “Anyone studying the case law and legislation relating to industrial accidents will think himself in a madhouse as he contemplates the legal fictions to which recourse has had to be had to justify the responsibility of the employer, a responsibility which should, on the contrary, have flowed naturally from the positive recognition of the duties inherent in an economic overlordship carrying with it all the obligations of protection and help.” see notes on page 410