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  • Néstor de Buen

Neo-Firenze: Antique ideas for an accelerating present and an ever closer future

In a colloquial sense, the word “republic” seems to mean very little, except perhaps, a State where there is no royalty. There is a reason for that, but that is not the topic at hand. The fact is that, in this day and age, both Syria and Ireland (to mention just two) have the term “Republic” as part of their official names, but the former is a near-totalitarian dictatorship, while the latter is a liberal multi-party democracy. This makes it seem as though presenting republicanism as an ideal worth pursuing is anachronistic at best and useless at worst. After all, many States like the Scandinavian monarchies seem to be doing fine as monarchies, and surely there are more pressing issues. One can point, for example, at the levels of wealth and income inequality in so many societies, the looming threat of automation, and the rising sectarianism of politics, so frequently tied to competing claims of national and ethnic identity.


I think it is fair to say that, presently, these three are among the most pressing issues if not the most pressing issues (along with climate change) currently facing us. But it is no accident that I chose those three in particular. The reason is that I believe that the ancient philosophy of classical republicanism has essential features that are uniquely adept at dealing with these pressing matters. It must be said that this is not a list of policy recommendations. It is nothing more than philosophy, or if you will, purideology™.


To fully explain why this is the case, we should first have a more precise understanding of what republicanism means, and why it is not merely the lack of royalty. The first thing one should note is that centuries before dialectical materialism came around, republicanism was already dealing with the concept of class struggle and trying to build a political system around this notion. Unlike Marxism, however, the goal of republicanism was never to achieve a classless society, but rather, to build a political system around the principle of liberty understood as non-domination so that no class would be able to rule over and exploit the other. While this may already be too much a concession to make for some on the left, I believe there are good reasons for even the hardest leftists to consider this anyway. For one, unless we think of the abolition of class as an end in itself, rather than just a means to prevent exploitation, then a system that provides each class with the political power necessary to protect itself from the buses of the other. Furthermore, there are other post-capitalist ideologies such as utopian socialism and some forms of “revisionist” Marxism such as that of Edouard Bernstein, who explicitly defined democracy as a system in which no class has power over another.


Republicanism, however, cannot work in a context of extreme inequality, despite functioning under the assumption that some material inequality will always exist. Machiavelli explains this very clearly in chapter III of his Discourses on Livy, which he wrote as his native Florence experienced a strong resurgence of republican sentiment. For him, the rights secured by the plebians of Rome, such as the creation of the Tribunes of the Plebs, were what made Rome great and what helped the republic preserve its liberty. This of course required taking away some of the formal privileges that the patricians had, therefore reducing formal inequality. But he goes further than that when describing the republics of Germany of his own time in chapter LV of the same work. There, he says, no one is permitted to live “in the manner of a gentleman”, and those who do are killed. By this he means those who live idly by extracting income off their possessions, without producing anything. This therefore does not mean that there are no rich citizens, simply that a certain minimal equality is to be kept in the lifestyle that citizens were expected to have. Reforms to our society based on republican principles should first and foremost seek to curb the inordinate amount of political power that wealth affords. This may very well require a move towards greater material equality, but also institutional reforms that seek to counteract the effects of material inequality in political domination, not unlike the creation of the Tribunes of the Plebs in the Roman Republic.


It should be noted that the examples above do not mean that certain lifestyles are unacceptable. Rome, which is Machiavelli’s chief example in his Discourses, did allow its citizens to live off passive rents. Interestingly, this leads to the next of the threats mentioned in the introduction, namely, automation. This issue brings together many of the features and paradoxes of republicanism, and presents us with novel ways in which both classical ideas can help us deal with this problem, and how can it, in turn, deal with some of the paradoxes of republicanism. The central tenet of republican ideology, as already mentioned, is the principle of liberty as non-domination. But as Alex Gourevitch discusses, the paradox of this principle in classical antiquity, and this is clear in Rome, is that the freedom from domination of some, was predicated on the domination of many others, held in slavery. This institution allowed, of course, for some citizens to live in a manner that the German republics found unacceptable. How does all of this relate to automation?


The answer, in my view, comes from none other than Stephen Hawking, whom in his final post on Reddit, touched on the subject of automation. His position was that automation could be a vehicle to the creation of immense wealth, but that whether this leads to widespread misery will depend on how this wealth is shared. We can then interpret this in the light of Roman Republican liberty. Slavery is, without question, an abhorrent practice, and clearly inconsistent with the principle of non-domination. But what if slavery was replaced with machine ownership? That is, instead of having a society in which the classical idea of liberty is sustained by the oppression of thousands, it will be sustained by a distributed ownership of machines. It does not even need to be an equal distribution (though this is left open for discussion), but simply a distribution such that it allows everyone the minimum amount of autonomy consistent with freedom from domination. This would then allow future technological innovation to finally realise the republican ideal of a citizenry free to engage in public life because of the lack of other pressures.


Finally, there is the issue of sectarianism, which today is increasingly driven by identity. The problem with identity is that it is often predicated on mostly unchangeable features of an individual such as ethnicity, or skin colour, or gender. This implies that, even if identity is being used to pursue goals such as fighting against oppression, it still creates a fundamental divide impossible to bridge. Now, republicanism, in a sense, is built around the very idea of sectarianism. In Rome, it even had a specific name, the Conflict of the Orders, which resulted in many of the political gains made by the plebians. One could even say that the fundamental organizing principle of republicanism (as opposed to an ethical principle, which would be freedom as non-domination) is trying to channel the sectarianism of class conflict into a political organization that would allow all to be free. Machiavelli again makes this clear in the first few chapters of the Discourses as he recounts how the struggles driven by class in Rome created the institutions needed for a more perfect republic. But there is a further sense in which we can look to republicanism for solutions to conflict of identity. The current state of sectarianism, which rests increasingly on ethnicity and similar factors inevitably leads to calls for ethnostates and other measures leading to ever-increasing division. But the sectarianism on which republicanism rests bypasses issues of identity. It is no accident that citizenship in Rome was automatically and fully extended across conquered territories more than once, and that people of different origins, even former slaves, could acquire this status. Yet, there is another relevant feature. As already mentioned, republicanism places a strong emphasis on the role of the citizens in protecting their liberty. In this way, it provides citizen with an overarching purpose and shared goal which not only creates a sense of community, but also something which, through a higher objective, can moderate the ugliest effects of sectarianism.


Of course, even if everything just mentioned is accepted, it does not follow that we should simply adopt the Roman constitution as our own. It simply means that, in these ancient ideas we can find ethical and institutional principles that can provide us with guidelines that seem to be uniquely apt at dealing with some of the most pressing threats facing us currently and in the near future.

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