Friday, March 23, 2007

Claims of Rights

Today I attended a conference-type gathering at the Maison Francaise as part of an inter-disciplinary workshop on re-thinking democracy 1750-1850. It was a rather exploratory look at the way rights language was used - pro- and anti-democracy - in Britain and France during these periods.

Not being a historian, I found some of it not particularly interesting - partly no doubt because the significance of minor details about a period where you don't know the context can easily be missed. Also a few French delegates spoke mainly in French - I was surprised I could still follow the gist of some of it, but in the end decided it wasn't worth the effort of trying to follow.

There were several comments that did interest me though, and it was somewhat frustrating that with people only giving 10 minute talks - often about what they hoped to look at rather than had found - there wasn't always opportunity to follow this up. The most immediately relevant for me, however, was Robert Poole, who was talking about calls for reform in northern England 1816-7. He said some had called for universal manhood suffrage, based on militia lists, rather than restricting the vote to tax-payers.

Just last week, I made the following conjecture in my thesis:

Perhaps one reason for thinking it ‘natural’, or even ‘necessary’, that the majority get their way is to move from the physical force of greater numbers to their moral force. Of course, it is often said to be illegitimate to move simply from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’[1]; however it is plausible to think that majority rule might have arisen out of peaceful conflict resolution. While Clausewitz famously said “war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse”[2], the more likely truth is that politics (in the form of civilised debate and voting) is a continuation of war, by other means. Disagreements were resolved by physical conflict long before they were resolved by what we would regard as civilised politics and, although it is somewhat fanciful, it is all too easy to imagine generals of opposing sides were often able to realize who was better placed to win the battle, and where the outcome was predictable in advance it would make sense for the one on the likely losing side to defer without battle – to surrender without bloodshed, rather than fight to defeat or death.

This interpretation was certainly endorsed by Henry Thoreau, who claimed “the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest”[3]. It also explains why the extent of the franchise was often somehow related to military service. This would be why the vote as restricted to men (rather than women), and even sometimes the rich – who could afford their own armour, and hence made better soldiers[4]. The vote was granted, at first, only to those who could contribute to military victory. Even in the modern world, the role of women in aiding the war effort – albeit in the factories, rather than the frontline – was, I think, significant in winning female suffrage. Of course, the relationship would only be contingent – majorities do not always win battles, especially if their opponents are better trained or equipped. More significantly, if majority rule originated on the battlefield – with ‘who has the larger army’ a proxy for ‘who is more likely to win anyway, if it comes to fighting’ – then its normative status is less clear. We do not normally suppose ‘might makes right’, or that the strong should get their way simply because they are stronger, so why should we accept majorities simply for this reason?[5]

The footnotes aren't finished, but I have some cases cited by Aristotle for number four - where those who fought for Athens were granted citizenship, not to mention the widely-held view that democracy owed its development to the need for manpower in the navy compared to states like Sparta that relied on few well-trained and equipped troops (e.g. 300). If I can find references for these demands, then I think that will help back up my case significantly.

[1] Hume
[2] C. von Clausewitz On War VIII vi. Wordworth Classics edition (trans J. J. Graham, revised F. N. Maude) p.357. C.f. I i 24, 26 (Wordsworth pp.22-3)
[3] H. D. Thoreau (1993 [1849]) ‘Civil Disobedience’ in P. Smith (ed.) Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover) p.2.
[4] I have some Greek examples mentioned in Aristotle.
[5] Rawls (1999 [1971]) p.116 “it is to avoid the appeal to force and cunning that the principles of right and justice are accepted. Thus I assume that to each according to his threat advantage is not a conception of justice”. [See Rob's sub-heading]

UPDATE: Follow up to this here.

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At 1:30 pm, Blogger Nick said...

A few thoughts:

The scenario you mention, the acceptence of force majeure, is well known in international relations theory as it is argued to be a rational strategy in game-theoretic models of conflict.

I think Foucault argues that politics is an extension of war by other means. His comments are in 'Society must be defended' IIRC. But, it being Foucault, any interesting point he makes will be surrounded by a sea of dross.

About democracy and seapower in Athens, Tom Holland says much the same in Persian Fire, recounting the opposition of the aristocratic hoplites to building a navy to repulse the Persians. I might have a look to see if I can find some cholarly references for this.

At 1:33 pm, Blogger Nick said...

Here's a Foucault link in support of my previous comment:


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