Unkept Republics

I named my online persona after Gaius Acilius, a man who lived in 155 BC, in part because the history Acilius wrote of Rome seems to have reflected some of the concerns that would define what scholars like Quentin Skinner call the “Republican Tradition” in political thought.  Professor Skinner has labeled such thinkers as Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thomas More “neo-Roman” because of their preoccupation with themes that Romans like Acilius developed.  For example, all of these thinkers ask how a person can be called free when that person is dependent on the favor of others, and all of them answer with various schemes for creating compartments of social life within which people can be independent.  A couple of years ago, I suggested in this space that a way of developing this idea in a highly bureaucratized world like that of the twenty-first century might be to develop three conceptions of liberty in tandem with each other, as freedom from bureaucracy, freedom within bureaucracy, and freedom as a product of bureaucracy.  I called this suggestion “The Three Freedoms.”  So far as I can see, it is an idea which has had no influence on anyone.  I shouldn’t be surprised; I haven’t been trying very hard to draw anyone’s attention to it.  Gaius Acilius would probably be disappointed in me.

What brings all this to mind is a piece in the current issue of The Nation magazineYascha Mounk reviews Maurizio Viroli‘s The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy.  According to Mr Mounk, Professor Viroli accounts for Silvio Berlusconi’s long tenure at the forefront of affairs in Italy by arguing that “Berlusconi was able to stay in power because he transformed Italy from a republic into a kind of royal court.”  Not simply a monarchy, but a court.  Mr Mounk explains Professor Viroli’s terminology thus:

For him, a court system, far from being defined by the traditional trappings of royalty, is any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals—his courtiers—who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore. Even if it weren’t for the uncanny association with the droit du seigneur, it is clear why the label fits Berlusconi. Viroli is hardly exaggerating when he states that over the past few decades, “all of Italy’s political life has rotated around Silvio Berlusconi: all eyes turn to him, all thoughts, hopes, and fears.” He quickly became such a polarizing figure that the gulf between Italy’s left and right, which had been huge and vicious during much of Italy’s postwar history, has shrunk. What mattered most for Italians during his reign was whether one was for or against Berlusconi. In the summer of 2010, for example, several politicians on the left were prepared to fawn over Gianfranco Fini, a longtime fascist with center-right views, simply because he had broken with Berlusconi and spoken in public about his opposition to the prime minister.

Berlusconi not only made himself the Sun King of Italian politics; he acted like a Mafia don. At his word, pretty teenage girls became TV presenters, TV presenters ascended to the rank of government ministers and government ministers were offered lucrative jobs in various industries once they left office.

Mr Mounk goes on the explain the relationship between Professor Viroli’s views and those of the school associated with Professor Skinner:

For Viroli, Berlusconiland was more than a corrupt court. Drawing on republicanism, a long-neglected tradition of political thought that has recently been revived by intellectual historians and political theorists like John Pocock, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, Viroli argues that Berlusconi’s corrosive influence has deprived Italians of their liberty. On Viroli’s account, philosophers who stand in the liberal tradition worry only about actual interference with a person’s actions. “A Free-Man,” wrote Thomas Hobbes with his characteristic crispness, “is he that, in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to.” The subjects of a benevolent despot remain perfectly free so long as he does not inhibit their actions. Viroli argues that according to such a liberal conception of freedom, Berlusconi’s Italy remained a free country: “If we can rightly point to violations of liberty only in cases where fundamental civil and political rights are suppressed by force, then we Italians are, generally speaking, a free people.”

Yet for Viroli, the liberal definition of freedom, with its exclusive emphasis on freedom from interference, is too anemic. He worries that a ruler with vast, arbitrary power would have a chilling effect on the freedoms of his subjects even if he never chose to exercise his power. To emphasize this point, republicans such as Viroli like to cite the example of Tranio, the protagonist of a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus. Tranio is a slave. But because his master is often absent, and because he is so wily, no one ever interferes with his actions. As long as he continues to flatter and manipulate his master, he is free to do as he pleases. And yet, the republicans point out, a slave is surely the very opposite of a “free man.”

While slavery is now officially banned throughout the world, Viroli argues that the most salient characteristic of slavery—the relation of domination and dependence between master and slave—persists in a milder form in our societies. “Citizens who can be tossed into prison arbitrarily by the police,” for example, stand in just such a relation of dependence to an oppressive, dominating power. Even if, for now, they nominally remain at liberty, they lack real freedom. In the case of Italy, though Berlusconi never used his vast power to interfere with the lives of Italian citizens, they knew that he could, at any moment, choose to do so. This lack of real freedom, Viroli argues, limited the things Italians dared to do as well as the words they dared to say.

Mr Mounk suspects that Professor Viroli’s model takes him at once too far and not far enough in his assessment of the damage that Mr Berlusconi did to Italy:

Viroli’s account of the theory of republican liberty is attractive, but his argument that Italians were, in his own sense, unfree is not convincing. Some Italians did find themselves in a true position of dependence on Berlusconi’s whims. Journalists at the networks and newspapers he controlled knew that one honest sentence could make the difference between a lucrative job and the dole. In a country where even many junior positions in business, government and academia have long been reserved for insiders and their children, many young people knew that their career prospects depended as much on their willingness to flatter Berlusconi or his cronies as on their ability to get the job done.

Nevertheless, even on a republican conception of liberty, most Italians remained free during Berlusconi’s rule. The reason is not just that Berlusconi never chose to interfere with the lives of his adversaries by, say, throwing a member of the opposition in jail for a rude op-ed; it’s that Italians knew perfectly well that Berlusconi had no more power to do such a thing than does Barack Obama. The price that opponents of Berlusconi were afraid of paying was not, as Viroli thinks, that Berlusconi might decide to interfere in their lives in an arbitrary manner but rather that he would choose not to tempt them with favors. For all the signore’s power and influence, ordinary Italians hardly lived in fear of his wrath.

One wonders exactly when these paragraphs were written; on 31 December 2011, Barack Obama signed into law a bill which grants him the power to throw anyone in jail on any grounds whatever.  So he is a rather poorly chosen example of an official with limited power to interfere with the lives of his adversaries.  Nonetheless, no such law seems to be on the books in Italy, and no Italian leader since Mussolini has behaved as if one did.

As Mr Mounk thinks that Professor Viroli’s model drives him too far when it implies that Italians have been reduced to slavery, so he claims that it prevents him going far enough in his analysis of aspects of the Berlusconi regime that liberalism also indicts:

The weakness of Viroli’s central assumption, that only the language of liberty can adequately express the horrors of Berlusconi’s rule, may explain why his account of Berlusconiland is not fully persuasive. Other critics of Berlusconi have written damning accounts of his reign, but instead of going so far as to claim that Berlusconi made Italians unfree, they have demonstrated that his government violated the equal treatment of citizens before the law, neglected the government’s duties to further the economic interests of its citizens and condoned corruption (failings that liberals as well as republicans condemn). In The Sack of Rome (2006), for example, Alexander Stille explains that Berlusconi’s business empire was, from its first days, built on political favors and rent-seeking. A true modernization of Italy’s economy would have given his companies unwanted competition and deprived them of crucial state subsidies. Berlusconi chose instead to preserve arcane rules and bureaucratic roadblocks, or even to create new ones, to protect his business interests. He sacrificed the country’s economic well-being for his own.

Berlusconi’s influence on the judicial system was equally disastrous. Whereas in many countries the statute of limitations cannot expire after a defendant has been indicted, in Italy defendants go free if the highest court of appeals has not upheld their convictions within the allotted time. Knowing this, Berlusconi’s attorneys, whom, in a rare instance of efficiency, he made members of Parliament, shortened the statute of limitations for the most troublesome white-collar crimes and devised rules to strengthen legal tactics for delaying trials. This change had the desired effect of aiding Berlusconi’s defense in his trials for false accounting and embezzlement. It also had the unintended effect of making it more difficult to jail members of the Mafia.

Even with these strictures, Mr Mounk’s final assessment of Professor Viroli’s book is strongly favorable:

Stille and others have described the disastrous economic and legal fallout of Berlusconi’s rule in much greater detail than Viroli. But Viroli, in his own way, paints an even more memorable portrait of Italy’s new ruling class. His description of Berlusconi as a signore is on the money. And while the servility of Berlusconi’s hangers-on may have been self-imposed, it still raises the central paradox of Berlusconiland. Absolute monarchs are able to cow their courtiers into submission by wielding the implicit threat of pain, imprisonment or execution. Berlusconi never had such tyrannical powers. Even so, his underlings acted as if they were mere courtiers—apparently, the hope of getting rich was quite enough to keep them in line. This makes the Italian case all the more relevant at a time when the superrich and their political enablers seek to wield ever more influence over democracies in a climate of austerity. It seems that to achieve their purposes, our would-be masters need not impede our rights or liberties: the promise of a farthing of their vast riches might be quite enough to turn many of us into docile servants.

Elsewhere in the issue, David Sarasohn contributes a piece with the resoundingly neo-Roman title “The Treason of the Senate,” in which he looks back to a series of essays published in 1906 and concludes that all the forms of corruption that marked the US Senate in the Gilded Age have reemerged and been joined by new evils.  Sarah Wildman’s “Israel’s New Left Goes Online” promoted a webzine called +972, which presents itself above all else as independent of ideological and institutional constraints characteristic of the Israel/ Palestine conflict.  Someone like old Gaius Acilius would certainly have been alarmed at a process that empowers extremist minorities and reduces citizens to dependence on increasingly professionalized security forces, so he likely would have understood +972s goals, whatever conclusion he might ultimately have reached regarding their politics.  Chris Savage writes of “The Scandal of Michigan’s Emergency Managers,” officials appointed by that state’s governor to replace elected municipal governments of whom he disapproves.  I think that someone in the republican tradition would say that the true scandal of this system is that there is no citizenry jealous of its rights that rises up in revolt when the governor pulls this stunt.  That same governor, incidentally, is the topic of Patricia J. Williams’ column in this issue; though he is a member of something called the Republican Party, he could hardly be called an heir of the republican tradition.

I’ll mention just one other piece, a review essay by Paula Findlen called “Galileo’s Credo.”  At various points in the development of the republican tradition, Galileo has been a powerful symbol of the autonomous individual maintaining his honor by refusing to knuckle under to the overweening power of a court.  Professor Findlen notes that as a young man, Galileo and his friends laughed at literal-minded neo-Romans who favored Latin over the vernacular and went about wearing togas.  Yet in his resistance to the demands of the Vatican, surely Galileo lived as the stubbornly independent noblemen of the old Res Publica would have recommended.

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1 Comment

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