Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Polybius, Carthaginian Terror and The Roman Mixed Constitution.

In classical antiquity political theory was often organized around typological analysis of constitutions. Representative of this tradition, Aristotle delineated three types of “straight constitutions”: Kingship, Aristocracy and Polity. That is, rule by one, rule by the few and rule by the majority of citizens. These neat classifications of straight constitutions, considered inherently unstable, had their corresponding deviant forms. For some political philosophers, the threat of decay and decline innate in straight constitutions necessitated mitigating elements. In the classic Aristotelian argument, virtue is a mean between two extremes, and therefore when a state approached goodness in its constitution it was a compromise between two diametrical opposites. Expressed in practical terms, Aristotle’s concept of good governance lay in a compromise between rule by the one and the many, resulting not in a strict aristocratic regime but one tempered by a virtuous demos. Historically, the constitution of the Roman Republic could not easily fit into the typology of straight constitutions. To address this problem, Polybius, a Greek statesman and Historian with connections to the Scipiones, popularized a theory of mixed constitution. He held that Rome’s constitution was a unique blend of monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements combined to form a particularly resilient structure of government. However, given the highly volatile and fluid nature of the Roman constitution, and moreover Rome’s ardent distrust of monarchic government, Polybius’s thesis is susceptible to numerous criticisms.

Polybius commenced his treatment of Rome’s constitution by rearticulating Hellenistic conceptions of governmental forms and their internal evolutions. Moreover, he asserted as fundamental the notion that states, like biological organisms undergo an evolution from one life-stage to another in a natural cycle. Like Aristotle, Polybius conceived that straight constitutions were particularly disposed towards deformation and therefore good constitutions required a distribution of power which created constitutional balance and canceled out excesses. For Aristotle, this was achieved by the dominance of a middle stratum of society over those who controlled vast amounts of wealth and those who had little, guarding against the respective vices of “hubris” and “rascality”. Constitutional balance, according to Polybius, was not necessarily achieved by the dominance of a particular social class, but attained by composite governmental structure. Whereby, one branch of government counterbalances the power of another, allowing for both stability and adaptability in times of crisis.

Rome’s longevity and increasing dominance over the Mediterranean world was taken by Polybius as evidence of its institutional strength. The growth of Rome’s constitution was counterpoised with the development of Sparta’s constitution, the supposed brainchild of Lycurgus, by Polybius because Rome developed in a haphazard manner through a process of trail and error. Polybius neglected to outline the evolution of the Roman constitution, vaguely commenting that from the time that Xerxes’ traversed the Hellespont into Greece until the Hannibalic war, Rome’s government passed through “satisfactory modifications” achieving a level of perfection. Given both Polybius’s didactic purpose - the examination of causation in order to determine “the best policy to follow” - and furthermore the stress he lay upon cycles of political change, it appears odd that he would neglect an assessment of such vital material.

The origins and development of the Roman political system, especially from the aristocratic revolution of 509 BC onwards, are indispensable antecedents in a study of the mid-republican constitution which Polybius idealized. While elements of the constitution pre-dated 509 BC, this year marked the foundation of the Roman Republic and ipso facto was a –if not the- key turning point in the development of Rome’s constitution. By ousting the last king Tarquin the Proud, Lucius Brutus had ended the Monarchy, but this resulted in the problem of how to establish constitutional mechanisms that ensured tyranny and despotism could not be reasserted over the people of Rome. The immediate solution to the problem of governance was the formation of the consulship. Adorned in the insignia of the Etruscan kings, the consuls were the element of the constitution which Polybius defined as monarchal in nature. Initially, the first consuls (Brutus being one of the two) had the powers attributed to monarchs, but they held office for one year which ensured a temporal limitation upon their power.

Brutus’s first acts as consul were to provide later generations of Romans with a paradigm for virtuous behavior. Perhaps the most important of his constitutional reforms was his strengthening of the Senate. By replenishing its numbers with members of the equestrian rank he fostered unity between the orders and established a tradition of collective rule. Before the Republican revolution and Brutus’s consulship, the Senate had been a mere advisory body to the Kings. Polybius appropriately argues that the Senate represented an aristocratic component in the political system of Rome. However, there is equivocation on the importance and power of this assembly in his treatment of the constitution. Whilst Polybius considered that the consuls exercised “supreme authority over all public affairs” when not on campaign away from Rome, he neglected to stipulate how exactly the consuls counterbalanced the power of the Senate..

In fact, during the early republican period consuls were strictly members of the patrician order and ergo members of the inner aristocracy. Sallust comments, that even by the late republic, when the patrician monopoly upon high office had been broken, Novus homo (new man, non-patrician and the first in their family to attain a consulship) were only begrudgingly accepted into the high office. Even though Cicero, the new man to whom Sallust referred in his comment, was himself a supporter of the senatorial party. This example underpins the conservatism and in-group exclusivity of the patrician political mentality and moreover the extent to which the consulship was not a monarchal counterbalance to the Senate, but rather a functional mechanism used by the aristocracy for political expediency. On the power of the Senate to offset the power of the consulship Polybius describes numerous means, both formal and informal, by which the Senate asserted its power.

While the Senate was not technically a legislative body it controlled much of the civil administration and its members held all magistrate offices. Members could only hold office at legally determined intervals, if elected, ensuring that individual were dependent upon and responsive to the concerns of the collective assembly. Consuls were thus bound to the concerns of the Senate. Furthermore the Senate decided if a consul’s term could be extended for special circumstances or that new leadership was required, moreover after a campaign was concluded the Senate determined if the commander was worthy of a triumph. The prestige of individual politicians was therefore not only a question of proficiency in office, but of their deference toward the Senate. Further evidence that while the Senate was correctly identified as aristocratic, the consuls were not counterbalanced to but an arm of the aristocratic senate. Polybius acknowledged the aforementioned senatorial means of controlling the consulship, but he considered most important of all the power of the Senate through control of the treasury. This allowed the Senate to stymie any rough magistrates (with the exception of a Consul based in Rome) and more insidiously argues Polybius, to influence the tribal assemblies the legislative and so-called democratic branch of government.

Theoretically, the legislative power of the Roman Republic remained within the hands of the people through the tribal assemblies. In the early republic the notion of a democratic element to the state is farcical, because the combined patrician and equestrian votes could pass a measure. By the mid-republic, there had been a general trend increasing the legal authority of the Plebian order and therefore of the tribal assemblies. Motions past by the concilium plebis (council of the plebs) gained the force of law without respect any other assembly in 287 BC. Polybius argues that this power was limited by a lack of legislative initiative on behalf of the general public, though the Tribute of the Plebs could introduce legalisation. Despite its legal decline though, de facto the Senate actually increased its powers. The expansion of the Roman Empire throughout the Mediterranean increasingly required that Consuls be away from Rome, and therefore the Senate took on more and more of the civil administration into their own hands.

The power of the Senate was for Polybius the defining advantage of the Roman Republic in its war with Hannibal. He postulated that Carthage itself had a mixed constitution, but was undergoing decline, while Rome was increasing its power and constitutional strength. This decline was precipitated by the increasing influence of democratic elements in the constitution. The result of which, according to Polybius, meant that Rome’s policy derived from the considerations of the best men and was therefore superior to the Carthaginian’s overall strategy - despite setbacks in the field. In concluding his analysis of the Roman constitution, Polybius suggests that it was these setbacks in the field which best demonstrate the strength of Rome’s constitution.

Polybius argued that the mixed constitution of Rome functioned like a gestalt when faced with an external threat. Rome’s response to the battle of Cannae, the greatest single defeat suffered by Rome up until the time of the Second Punic war, was taken by him to typify the constitutional strength of the Roman republic. Roman casualties in this battle exceeded 70,000 by Polybius’s own account, one consul was killed and many allies deserted Rome. Despite this, the Senate maintained control and organized Rome’s defenses to face Hannibal, eventually defeating the Carthaginian general and reasserting their control over Italy and gaining hegemony over the wider Mediterranean basis. This, of course, was an example of the Roman Republic under threat from outside forces. The constitution and branches of government did not function so well, when faced with an internal crisis.

A few years after the destruction of Carthage in the third Punic war, Rome was faced with an internal crisis when the Tribute of the Plebs Tiberius Gracchus had announced an agrarian reform bill. For his trouble he was murdered by members of the Senate, Appian in his account of the civil wars which destroy the Republic starts his narrative with this incident. Tiberius Gracchus was said by Appian to be the first man murdered in civil strife in Rome’s long history despite merely trying to reinforce a lapsed law. Sallust later wrote after the death of Julius Caesar, that the Gracchi had been too extreme in their methods. Though, in actuality the Gracchi had been following the constitutional rout to pass a law. It merely contrived the interests of the wealth land owners among the Senate and therefore the Gracchi were murdered by members of the Senate. This aberration is hard to explain given it happened not soon after the period which Polybius had declared the Roman constitution to be near perfect. An explanation to this can be seen in Rome’s relationship to Carthage. The different elements of the government, both aristocratic and democratic, functioned well together when faced with an external threat, but Polybius’s idealized balanced constitution became unstuck when left to its own devices.

The theory of mixed constitutions which Polybius offered to explain the success of Rome is only a partly accurate picture of Rome’s government. Commencing his treatment of Rome’s constitution from the assumptions of largely platonic Greek philosophy he applied abstract concepts to explain political dynamics with a high degree of irregularity. He misconstrues the nature of the consulship by denoting it as monarchal counterbalance to the senate. The consulship was not a counterbalance to the Senate, it was an office always held by individuals from the Senate and accountable to it. The Senate’s power increased with the expansion of Rome, a fact not captured by the process of legislation. But Polybius, while he gives lip service to the power of the Roman people identifies the dominance of the Senate as curial for Rome’s success against Carthage. Carthage was also an important influence upon Rome’s good government. Fear of it forced cooperation between different sections of the elite and between the orders. Once Carthage had been defeated, that external pressure was alleviated and there was no force to ensure a tightly ordered government. Rome proved unable to moderately govern itself through internal upheavals and this ultimately led to the death of the Republic and its constitution.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Aristotle, The Politics, Trans T.A. Sinclair, (Suffolk, 1976).

Appian, The Civil Wars, Trans John Carter (London, 1996).

Crawford , Michel, The Roman Republic, (London, 1992).

Fritz, Kurt Von, The Theory of Mixed Constitution in Antiquity: A Critical Analysis of Polybius Ideas, (New York, 1954.

Livy, The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome From its Foundation, (London, 2002.

Polybius, The Rise Of The Roman Empire, Trans Ian Scott-Kilvert (St Ives, 1979).

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Catiline, Trans S.A. Handford, (London, 1963.

Vishnia, Rachel Feig, State, Society and Popular Leaders in Mid-Republican Rome 241-167 BC,(London, 1996).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On the dead and buried: Marx, Structure and Agency.

In The Rebel, Albert Camus locates Karl Marx within a 19th century tradition which attempted to “substitute, everywhere, the relative for the absolute”. For Camus, Marxism represents a revision and re-articulation of Auguste Comte’s evolutionary theory of society. This assessment of Marx characterized his philosophical disposition as an inverted bourgeois positivism. However, Camus’s general interpretation is not without competitors from both Marxists and Non-Marxists alike. There are a myriad of works, which attempt to explain Marx’s social thought and establish his exact position on countless points of controversy. Historical Materialism or the materialist conception of history has been one such point of controversy, especially with regards to the relationship between human agency and social structures implicit within the theory. Within the Marxian tradition itself, two broad perspectives on the structure-agency debate emerged after the suppression of the Budapest uprising in 1956 and the subsequent disillusionment with Stalinism. Marxist humanism sought to emphasize the human actor, whilst Structuralist Marxism laid stress upon the determining nature of social structures. Both intellectual movements asserted their fidelity to the thought of Marx and sought to legitimate their theoretical formulations in reference to Marx’s oeuvre.

There is no direct attempt to form a coherent theory on the relationship between structure and agency within the works of Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels. Neither of the two were theoretical theoreticians, or pedantic academics, but developed theories to underpin their practical engagements. It was in this vain that Marx declared his aim the: “relentless criticism of all existing conditions”. This spirited endeavor led Marx to a critical engagement with British political economy, French socialism and German philosophy, resulting in a ‘relentless’ critique of the bourgeois mode of production and its class dynamics. The scope of Marx’s intellectual scheme invariably impinged upon issues of structure and agency.

However, Marx’s never formulated the problem of structure and agency in those exact terms. Structure and Agency are terms used in contemporary sociological debate to identify dimensions of social life which at first glance seem paradoxical and diametrically opposed. Agency, defined by Anthony Giddens, is the ability of individuals to intervene into the flow of events with the possibility of affecting the direction of “events-in-the-world”. Structure is often used to denote recurrent patterns of social relations, which seem to mold the individual and their social activity. The paradox can be exemplified in this quote from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Thus at once, human subjects are the authors of society and subjected to conditions independent of their will, not least “the traditions of all the dead generations”. Despite this statement, which acknowledges both structure and agency in the human condition, there is considerable debate over how exactly to situate Marx with regard to human action and social structure. Two divergent and opposed interpretations of Marx’s materialist conception of history and the place of philosophical anthropology within this conception have developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Louis Althusser developed a theoretical position often labeled ‘Structuralist Marxism’, which attributed a pre-eminence to social structure in the thought of Marx. The other interpretation, ‘Marxist humanism’, sought to ascertain the continuity between Marx’s early and later works and establish a conception of Marx’s humanist philosophical anthropology. To avoid the implications of Marx’s early works, Althusser characterized them as non-Marxist and applied the Gaston Bachelard’s concept of “epistemological break” to Marx’s intellectual development.

The thesis of epistemological break, advanced by Althusser, conceived of a shift from Marx’s early philosophical anthropology and humanism to mature works that ceased to be grounded in humanist and idealist notions of “human nature” and “the essence of man”. In place of philosophical anthropology, Marx is said to have made a “scientific discovery” in developing the concepts of the concepts of “social formation, productive forces, relations of production, superstructure, ideologies” and so forth. It is impossible to deny that Marx developed new concept to analyses the nature of society, but these concepts are not incompatible with Marx’s humanism. In fact, Marx’s never repudiated the idea of human nature, though he did stipulate that it was both socially and historically conditioned. Towards the end of Capital volume one, Marx criticizes Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utility for offering an ahistorical and tendentious standard of utility to judge all human endeavors. To correctly apply the principle of utility, Marx argues, one would need to: “first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch”. This reference to human nature is situated after the period Althusser defined as the Marx’s youth, well beyond both the “works of the break” and his “transitional work”, but rather, in the period characterized by Althusser as Marx’s mature period. Given this, Althusser’s thesis of epistemological break is placed in a precarious position, if not completely invalidated.

Marx’s early works and the philosophical anthropology developed therein are therefore legitimate sources for understanding Marx’s intellectual scheme and in particular the relationship between human agents and social structures. In the works of Althusser, human agency is completely eclipsed by structure. The humanist interpretation of Marx, attempted to reintroduce the human agent into the materialist conception of history and therefore defend it against various forms of reductionism and determinism. For many, Marxism constitutes a vulgar economic reductionism: the belief that all of human interaction is fundamentally economic phenomenon. On these grounds Bertrand Russell attacked the application of Marx’s materialist conception of history to the history of philosophy because he felt it reduced all philosophical schools to the given economic conditions. Lord Russell considered this position untenable on several grounds, not least of which is that economic analysis couldn’t adequately contend with the technical content of a philosophical argument. In his later years, Engels acknowledged that both Marx and he neglected to explain the production of ideas, from the perspective of the individual thinkers themselves.

Elsewhere, Engels confessed that he and Marx were partially to blame for the notion that historical Materialism is a form of economic reductionism. Since, Engels says, they had to over-emphasize the importance of economic determinates “vis-à-vis” their intellectual opponents who denied the significance of economic factors in history. This is a central problem in any attempt to interpret Marx’s materialist conception of history and the relative importance he placed upon structure and agency. In combing through Marx and Engels’ collected works, there are numerous exaggerated and overstated claims which are qualified at different points, but nevertheless provide the basis for misinterpretation. Althusser was not unaware of textual criticisms made of his reading of Marx, but dismissed them as vestiges of immaturity that survived after Marx’s epistemological break towards a scientific outlook.

Marx’s work is fertile ground for textual contortions; nevertheless he does form definite ideas about the nature of history, society and invariably the relationship between structure and agency. In contrast to the philosophy of Hegel, and the post-Hegelian philosophers of his time, Marx sought to ground his conception of society in the material existence of individual human beings. Not as abstract entities, but rather as they expressed themselves through their productive activities which constitute a definitive mode of life. Marx’s individual was not defined a priori, like the autonomous Kantian subject, but enmeshed within actual social relations.

In an argument reminiscent of Aristotelian sentiments, Marx asserted that: “the creation of society – is the actual nature of man”. This creative nature is itself a process of self-creation, the expression of humanity’s species essence. Marx’s reasoning led him to the conclusion that: “world history is only the creation of man through human labour and the development of nature for man”. Human life is therefore a product of human agency situated within a given set of material conditions. The interaction of human productive capacities and the prevailing conditions constitutes a definitive mode of life. Material condition are a determining element in social systems, the form of productive activity and therefore the form mode of life that individual engage in is dependent upon the given set of material conditions. The mode of life an individual lives has a definite bearing upon their form of consciousness because as Marx argues: “consciousness can never be anything other than conscious existence”. This point that consciousness is always conscious existence seems self-evident, but Marx takes the argument one step further and claims that all form of ideological expression (morality, religion, metaphysics, and etcetera…) has no history independent of the material conditions of life.

The base-superstructure model is often the juncture point that Marx is declared to be an economic determinist and therefore highly weighted in favour of structural determinates over human agency. But this interpretation neglects the subtle difference between necessary and sufficient causes. The production of literature within the capitalist mode of production is not necessarily the production and expression of bourgeois ideology, but it does presuppose a level of economic surplus which allows individuals the time and means to pursue activities that don’t directly pertain to the production of the means of subsistence. In was this distinction between necessary and sufficient causation that lead Joseph A. Schumpeter to argue that the whole of Max Webber’s arguments about the elective affinity of Protestantism with Capitalism could be subsumed under Marx’s broader paradigm.

The problem of interpreting Marx’s general paradigm has itself become a perennial problem within sociological theory. Michel Foucault has called Marx (along with Freud) a founder of “discursivity”. Discursivity is characterized by the establishment of “an endless possibility of discourse”, whereby the legitimacy of theoretical postulates are derived from the foundational text of the discourse. Both Marxist Humanism and Structural Marxism exhibit a tendency towards discursivity. The humanist interpretation of Marx is more successful in defending his works against several forms of reductionism and determinism. However, Humanist reliance upon early philosophical works for the mainstay of their interpretation is contested by more ‘orthodox’ forms of Marxism.

Despite disagreement over interpretations, thorough textual analysis of Marx’s body of work is not completely futile. He provides the contemporary sociologist with several conceptual tools and a general guideline for the analysis of social and historical dynamics. Marx did not address the structure and agency debate directly and for its own sake, but he did address issues of human nature and necessity in social structures. Human nature however adaptable to historical specifics was for Marx: intrinsically productive, creative and active. The material conditions which prevail constitute a key determinate in mode of life that individuals could take on. This does not mean that all forms of human expression and creativity are reducible to economic causation, but rather that economic development is a constraint or means that enables or disables rather than causes human expression. For contemporary sociology then, it is important to recognize the subtly in Marx’s analyses of society, but also its limitation in addressing contemporary theoretical debates. Marx never put forth a total theory of historical causation; in fact he argued different historical event need to be studied in themselves to understand the key to their development, the supreme virtue of a “grand historico-philosophical theory” Marx said would be its “supra historical” character. Though demonstrably antithetical to the views of Marx, it is important not to fall into the trap of discursivity, an endless self-referential discourse with no chance of a last word. As Marx would have it: “let the dead bury their dead”.

Written by Mathew Toll.


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