Society as a Civil Association or an Enterprise Association

What, then, does Oakshott have to say about the character of moral and political life in the modern world? Oakshott's third major statement, his book On Human Conduct, seeks to delineate positively the forms of moral and political practice that distinguish the modern European state. Oakeshott begins by characterizing morality - at least in the terms in which we know it--as a noninstrumental practice. This is to say that moral life has no end, goal or telos outside itself, and it does not stand in need of any external justification. Further, Oakeshott avers, there is not a single or ideal form of ethical life of which the variety of forms of life of which the variety of forms of life that we find among us are approximations. Rather, moralities are akin to vernacular languages, in that it is the nature of them to be several and divers. If moral life is in this way non instrumental, and so in one sense purposeless, so also are law and the form of civil association that is created by the union of law with morality independent of any specific purpose.

We come here to one of the key concepts in Oakeshott's later work - the conception, which he finds prefigured in the thought of Hobbes and Hegel, of society as a civil association - an association of persons who having no ends or purposes held necessarily in common, nevertheless coexist in peace under the rule of law. On this account, the office of law is not typically to impose any particular duty or goal on men, but instead it seeks simply to facilitate their dealings with one another. Oakeshott goes so far as to claim that law does not restrict freedom at all, since it merely stipulates conditions and actions but does not enjoin or prohibit them. We need not endorse this perhaps exaggerated claim to find an important insight in Oakeshott's argument that the rule of law in a civil society is not that of promoting general welfare or any other similar abstraction, but rather of securing the conditions in which persons may contract mutually chosen activities. Thus, law seeks not to impose on society any preferred pattern of ends, but simply to facilitate individuals in their pursuit of their own ends. Law itself has, for this reason, no purpose.

In modern societies, a powerful rival has emerged to this conception of civil associations as association under independent general rules--the conception of society as an enterprise association. In this latter conception, which is perhaps coeval with that of civil association, the state is understood as an organization for the attainment of a definite end, or hierarchy of ends. It is so understood by Bacon (who saw the end of government in the exploitation of the earth's resources), by the mercantilists (who affirmed it to be the increase of national wealth), and by sundry positivists and their disciples such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb. This collectivist conception of society and government, while it has never completely extirpated the inheritance of civil association, has been dominant in our times - most clearly and widely in Soviet communism and National Socialism, but also in the New Deal, the mixed or managed economy, corporatism, and "welfare capitalism." The idea of the state as an enterprise association, whether it be the idea of the Fabians or of Mussolini, of Bacon or of Auguste Comte, is an idea inimical to any notion of a civil association among persons linked only by their common subscription to a noninstrumental rule of law. The idea of the state as an enterprise association is therefore inimical to the European achievement of individuality, whose political embodiment is in civil association.

The idea of enterprise association has been given practical reinforcement, according to Oakeshott, by a widespread revulsion from the ordeal of individuality that has accompanied civil association almost form its inception. This revulsion is expressed in the character Oakeshott calls the anti individual or individual manqué, who (unwilling or unable to shoulder the burden of freedom, still less to celebrate it) aims to create a compulsory community of others like himself in which the voice of individuality has been silenced. As Oakeshott has said, " The circumstances of early modern Europe bred, not a single character, but tow obliquely opposed characters, that of the individual and that of the individual manqué: and in one idiom or other they have been with us ever since those times." For Oakshott, the individual manqué of early modern Europe was the prelude to the modern anti-individual.

From the character of the individual manqué (was) evoked the character of the determined "anti individual," one intolerant not only of superiority but of difference, disposed to allow in others only a replica of himself, and united with his fellows in a revulsion from distinctness. And they (the leaders of the individual manqué) urged him to seek his release in a state from which the last vestiges of civil association had been removed, a solidarite commune in which there was no distinction of persons and from which no one was to be exempt; a therapeutic corporation devoted to remedying the so-called alienation with which they had infused their followers.

The slow transformation of civil into enterprise associations--the decline of individuality and the near-triumph of the collectivist mentality--was then supported throughout the emerging character of the anti-individual. It may be worth point out that much of our decadence may be understood in these terms. The Children's Crusades of the late sixties, the domination of social and personal life by a succession of psychotherapeutic fads, and the deeps admiration of much of Western opinion for the Soviet totalitarian order may be accounted for by the dislocated and anomic experience of the individual manqué and the limitless resentment of his successor, the anti-individual. It is valuable insight of Oakeshott's that, if these characters have never fully succeeded in repressing the experience of individuality, they have nevertheless been successful in shaping much in the policy and character of the modern state.

Need for a Transformation of Beliefs

What then, is the alternative to collectivism? For this, we turn to two of Oakeshott's most explicit essays, "On Being Conservative" and "The Political Economy of Freedom," which he collected in Rationalism in Politics. What is needed, for Oakeshott, is in the first place a return to a tradition of limited government, in which we expect of the state no more than it can give. Fir this to be achieved, however, we must acquire a conservative conception of government, one which we are far from holding in any other area of life. And a conservative outlook on government has its spring in the acceptance of the current conditions of human circumstances…, the propensity to make our own choices and to find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued, with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, nor to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, nor to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

It is Oakshott's paradoxical contention--and like, all true paradoxes, it contain a vital truth--that this conservative conception of government as a limited activity involving the making and enforcing of general rules is, in and an epoch that is prone to restless individualism in virtually every aspect of its life. Oakeshott is not blind to the fact that the adoption of such a limited conception of the tasks of government would entail a transformation of current beliefs and expectations that is little short of revolutionary. But this change, however radical, can come about only if we can regain our understanding of what it was that made England, for example, a free society for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For, as Oakshott writes, the freedom which the English libertarian knows and values lies in a coherence of mutually supporting liberties, each of which amplifies the whole and none of which stands alone. It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor form parliamentary government, nor from the independence of the judiciary, nor from any one of the thousand devices and arrangements characteristic of our society, but from what each signifies and represents, namely, the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power. This is the most general condition of our freedom, so general that all other conditions may be seen to be comprised within it.

The indispensable contribution to freedom of avoiding a great concentration of power in any institution, which is the essence of English liberty, was well understood by the American authors of The Federalist Papers. But, along with many another traditional understanding, it has been lost or corrupted in recent times. So it is that, as freedom has wanted aboard with the rise and expansion of totalitarian regimes, it has been weakened in the domestic life of formerly free peoples, as powerful forces strive for control of a state that, because it is overextended, cannot avoid being weak. We have in that way fallen into a condition more desperate than any even Hobbes could have imagined--a condition in which a lawless leviathan and a political state of nature are intertwined.

Oakeshott's account of the corrosion of traditional understandings by rationalist error is profound and arresting. He has diagnosed one major source of our current malaise in the domination of our discourse by the harsh and monotonous voice of abstract reason. He ahs also shown us that the origins of modern decadence go back a long way - to the very beginnings of our cultural tradition. If this, is so, then we can hardly hope for any easy or swift release error has now produced a comprehensive loss of confidence in many areas of practical life, it his hard to see how a return to practice can help us, since practice is itself sick. Oakeshott tells us that, in our current decadence, we have no alternative to relying on our own resources: "In the end, the cure depends upon the strength of the patient: it depends upon the unimpaired relics of his knowledge of how to behave."

It may reasonably be doubted that such relics of practical knowledge are to be found to any considerable extent in any twentieth-century modern society (except, perhaps, Japan), and for that reason, it may be an illusion to look to them for a recovery from decadence or a corresponding restoration of individual freedom. Furthermore, it is surely likely that, if we abandon the ruling rationalist illusions of our epoch, much of our practical life is bound to be transformed. For with us, practice is not an autonomous activity to which theory comes as an afterthought. Instead, by now, false theory and decadent practice are complementary and mutually supportive, and it may be doubted if there is in modern societies any enclave or practice innocent of corruption by rationalist theorizing.

Oakeshott has suggested that the decadence of modern moral and political life has origins that are as old as our cultural tradition itself. Perhaps for that very reason, he has no sympathy with the conservative critics of modernity. In the end, it may be that. Oakeshott's thought points not backward but forward--to a condition of post modernity in which what is left of traditional life is preserved in the context of a new self-understanding. Of such a condition, Oakshott is wise enough to way nothing, since it comes about, it will be as alternation in our mode of life and not in virtue of an advance in philosophical inquiry.

It may be that the upshot of Oakeshott's though is to teach us humility about the degree to which even true philosophy can illuminate practice. Even if this be so, Oakeshott's though has inestimable value for those who can profit from it, a South Africa prophylactic against the disorders or practice generated by false philosophy.


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