Preferences vs Principles

I’m slogged up in the middle of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt, and by slogged up I mean I got bored of reading a very famous book about Nazi and Communist totalitarianism and went back to playing AdventureQuest.

It’s so hard to read or the ideas in it are so original that I feel like my mind is twisting trying to really get what she’s saying and I just go on hoping that as I read more of it I’ll get a better picture. The most interesting thing has been how often she, as a liberal, references the famous conservative philosopher Edmund Burke – and how one of the things she quotes him on is directly relevant to views on the democratic legitimacy of a multiparty coalition in Canada.

At around page 320, Arendt is speaking of the difference between party and movement – that the fascist and communist “parties” in Europe and Russia were completely different from the regular political parties and that they were outside of and opposed to the democratic party systems they overthrew. The particularily relevant argument is her explanation of the fact that European multiparty systems were deligitimized and overthrown but Great Britian’s two party parliamentary system retained legitimacy. On page 321 she says:

And when it came to pass that movements began successfully to compete with the nation-state’s party system, it was also seen that they could undermine only countries with a multiparty system, that mere imperalist tradition was not sufficient to give them mass appeal, and that Great Britain, the classic country of two-party rule, did not produce a movement of either Fascist or Communist orientation of any consequence outside her party system.

Up to this point in the second part of the book which is called ‘Imperialism’, Arendt is arguing that imperialism was an idea that allowed its proponents to claim as rising above particular party or class interests and representing the interests of an entire country. The entire country benefited and so imperialists could claim to represent the nation as a whole while traditional parties represented only people who shared principles or particular interests. The experience of imperial countries was of having to manage groups of native populations without any experience of self-government and this led to a breakdown of the rule of law in these places – such as of men ruling case by case in India of whom Arendt quotes Burke as calling “the breakers of the Law in India”. On page 240 the reference is of this quote:

The power of the House of Commons… is indeed great; and long may it be able to preserve its greatness… and it will do so, as long as it can keep the breaker of the law in India from becoming the maker of the law for England.

It is very plausible to see Italian fascism in particular as having some roots in the examples of effective government of European colonies by one man as opposed to democracy and the rule of law – and as an aside it fits disturbingly well to think of Nazi continental imperialism as simply a version of French or British imperialism without ports. You almost wonder if the Nazis would have come off pretty well in western opinion if they had confined their imperialism to duskier people and I say this as someone who agrees with Stephen Harper’s description of British imperialism as “relatively benign” and even positive. 

Coming from this Arendt must explain why very imperialist England was not seriously threatened by a communist or fascist movement claiming greater effectivness and mass support than the democratic party system and her argument is fascinatingly relevant to the current dispute in Canada. This is how she puts the question:

Faced with the stability of political institutions in the British Isles and the simultaneous decline of all nation-states on the Continent, one can hardly avoid concluding that the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental party system must be an important factor. For the merely material differences between a greatly impoverished England and an undestroyed France were not great after the close of this war; unemployment, the greatest revolutionizing factor in prewar Europe, had hit England even harder than many Continental countries… (page 232)

She makes two main distinctions as to why Britian’s parliament held legitimacy so strongly. Starting with the one that I get, she says that the British parties were based on principles as opposed to the Continental parties which frankly represented interests, noting that the German conservative party was actually developed out of the “Association to protect the interests of big landed property” (pg 325 in the notes)  Because of this, movements which claimed to represent the nation as a whole had traction in Europe they couldn’t get in Britian. In the Canadian context I would argue that groups claiming to represent regions in particular have traction when parties become collating groups of interests instead of nationally representative and based on principle.

Arendt’s other main point seems more important and is hard to understand clearly – that British style parties become the government and state while coalitional parties are always below the state which then represents the nation as a whole and is out of the reach of the ordinary citizens who join the parties. At this point I can only quote from the book, starting at page 323:

Behind the external difference between the Anglo-Saxon two-party and the Continental multiparty system lies a fundamental distinction between the party’s function within the body politic, which has great consequences for the party’s attitude to power, and the citizen’s position in his state. In the two-party system one party always represents the government and actually rules the country, so that, temporarily, the party in power becomes identical with the state. The state, as a permanent guarantee of the country’s unity, is represented only in the permanence of the office of the King… (*read the Governor General for us*) As the two parties are planned and organized for alternate rule, all branches of the administration are planned and organized for alternation. Since the rule of each party is limited in time, the opposition party exerts a control whose efficiency is strengthened by the certainty that it is the rule of tomorrow. In fact, it is the opposition rather than the symbolic position of the King that guarantees the integrity of the whole against one-party dictatorship. The obvious advantages of this system are that there is no essential difference between government and state, that power as well as as the state remain within the grasp of the citizens organized in the party, which represents the power and the state either of today or of tomorrow, and that consequently there is no occasion [to see Power and State as though they are beyond human reach or independent of the will and action of the citizens.]

At this point I offer that this seems to be pointing directly at why a British style parliament had a much more essential democratic legitimacy and that while it seems almost esoteric, these quotes from Arendt’s references  are powerful practical confirmation of what she is saying:

In Russia, the Pan-Slavs needed only to pretend to be nothing more than popular support for the government, in order to be removed from all competition with parties; for the government as “the Supreme Power in action… cannot be understood as related to parties” (reference 74 on page 321)

[Similarily the Pan-German League said] “Standing outside of all organized political parties, we may go our purely national way…” (ref 75 on page 321)

Carl Schmitt, Staat, Bewegung, Volk (1934), speaks of the “monopoly of politics which the state had acquired during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” (ref. 76 on page 321)

The best account of the essence of the Continental party system is given by the Swiss jurist Johann Caspar Buntschli… He states: “It is true that a party is only part of a greater whole, never this whole itself…. It must never identify itself with the whole, the people or the state…” (ref. 83 on page 324)

“The distinguishing characteristic of German parties is… that all parliamentary groups are resigned not to represent the volonté générale. … That is why the parties were so embarrassed when the November Revolution brought them to power. Each of them was so organized that it could only make a relative claim, i.e., it always reckoned with the existence of other parties representing other parital interests and thus naturally limited its own ambitions” (ref. 85 on page 325)

(*and a last one before I go back to quoting Arendt’s own book*)

For the Central European concept of citizen… as opposed to party member, see Bluntschli… “Parties are not state institutions, … not members of the state organism…” The difference between state and party interest is stressed time and again… Burke, on the contrary, argues against the concept according to which party interests or party membership make a man a worse citizen. “Commonwealths are made of families, free commonwealths of parties also; and we may as well affirm that our natural regards and ties of blood tend inevitably to make men bad citizens, as that the bonds of our party weaken those by which we are held to our country”

If you are thinking that the legitimacy of Europe’s party system is hardly in question now, point taken. As I pointed out in my last post, I don’t think that applies to our country and not only because of the significant matter of culture and tradition. Back to Arendt’s book itself…

The Continental party system supposes that each party defines itself conciously as part of the whole, which in turn is represented by a state above parties… Governments formed by alliances between party leaders are always only party governments, clearly distinguished from the state which rests above and beyond them. One of the minor shortcomings of this system is that cabinet members cannot be chosen according to competence, for too many parties are represented, and ministers are necessarily chosen according to pary alliances; the British system, on the other hand, permits a choice from the large ranks of one party…

(*This is clearly not true for Canada, where cabinet posts are chosen according to regional representation and this is actually an even stronger argument for the democratic legitimacy of a national party system here and against the proposed coalition for with miles of vastness between so many Canadians and the seats of power the only thing that can create a true sense of participation in the national government is the feeling of there being a “me” in those seats – of a national party in government with representation of Canada’s regions*)

Much more relevant, however, is the fact that the multiparty system never allows any one man or any one party to assume full responsibility, with the natural consequence that no government, formed by party alliances, ever feels fully responsible. Even if the improbable happens and an absolute majority of one party dominates Parliament and results in one-party rule, this can only end either in dictatorship, because the system is not prepared for such government, or in the bad conscience of a still truly democratic leadership which, accustomed to thinking of itself only as part of the whole, will naturally be afraid of using its power…

Since the rise of the party systems it has been a matter of course to identify parties with particular interest, economic or others, and all Continental parties, not only the labor groups, have been very frank in admitting this as long as they could be sure that a state above parties exerts its power more or less in the interest of all. The Anglo-Saxon party, on the contrary, founded on some “particular principle” for the service of the “national interest,” is itself the actual or future state of the country; particular interests are represented in the party itself (*emphasis mine*), as its right and left wing, and held in check by the very necessities of government. … (from pages 323 to 326 of The Origins of Totalitarianism)

From there Arendt goes on about the weakness of the governing legitimacy of the Continental european parties and it continues to be relevant to our situation. Where she talks about the much greater need for a kind of “deformed” nationalism to glue those countries together because the parties were not national I would substitute that for Canada a multiparty system would destroy the national loyalty that the main parties embody or represent and leave only regional loyaties and interests.

We’re not talking about fascism or communism in Canada but what is at stake is the democratic legitimacy of our traditional two party system vs. multiparty coalitions. In a country so seemingly fragile, and with good reason for that, we need to be very careful with what we do. For me there isn’t much need to go beyond the fact that the coalition makes both Western and Quebec separatists happy. What I am arguing with this post and the one I’m working on is that only a system of only national parties based on principles can maintain Canada’s national unity. The coalition is damaging to the democratic legitimacy of our national government in that, incredibly, it throws national representation out the window and claims to rule by bare majority regardless of its normal function as a vehicle of national representation and that by temporarily merging two distinct parties with the signed support of a third which rejects any claim to even being a national party of principles it damages the legitimacy of these parties in presenting a clear choice of principles to Canadian voters. As Arendt references Burke on parliamentary parties:

Party is a body of men united for promoting, by their joint endeavor, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed. (pg 325)

It is the difference between preferences and principles that has been blurred and that is very serious – although Canada’s contradiction is that the near destruction of the representation of regional principles and interests in our national government as well would have been even more damaging.

A country so far flung must have regions with different interests, and so it must be governed by a national party that represents those regions, seeking internal consensus among people who share principles but not always preferences. The Conservatives have not done well at this, but the coalition is, or was, the very opposite of that.


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