A Democratic Oakeshott?

By Gerencser, Steven Anthony | Political Research Quarterly, December 1999 | Go to article overview

A Democratic Oakeshott?


Gerencser, Steven Anthony, Political Research Quarterly


This study explores features of Michael Oakeshott's political thought that have attracted interest from an unexpected source, those who are advocates of radical democratic theory and practice. I examine aspects of this interest in Oakeshott's concepts of civil and enterprise association, and his preference of the former over the latter. I suggest that the primary difference between these concepts is based in the relationship between power and freedom in the modern state. When conceived as the state, enterprise association cannot maintain the freedom it offers, whereas civil association can. I argue, however, that Oakeshott, who is skeptical of the notion that a common good could serve as the basis of state as enterprise association, is himself not skeptical about the consensus required for the acknowledgment of the authority of civil association. Nonetheless, even in his removal of issues of authority from politics, Oakeshott ironically highlights a site for engagement for the democratic citizen.

Michael Oakeshott's place as one of the English speaking world's most significant conservative political theorists in the twentieth century is well secured. Admirers praised him for his "distinctly contemporary contribution to conservative thought" and detractors such as Perry Anderson, have happily agreed to place Oakeshott among "The Intransigent Right" (Quinton 1978: 292; Anderson 1992: 80). Oakeshott's uniquely English conservatism, with its attachment to tradition and his curious predilection for Hegel, has set him at a distance from American conservatives, with their more liberal temperament. However, Paul Franco has developed an interpretation of Oakeshott that allows him to fit more comfortably in the American conservative framework by identifying his thought as "the most sophisticated and satisfying statement of liberalism to date" (Franco 1990: 2). Yet, while much of the interpretative debate about Oakeshott has been over what type of conservative he was, there has been a minor and alternate theme: through the years a handful of those committed to democratic, even radical, political theory and practice have been tempted by opportunities in Oakeshott's work. Now, given that there is a broad menagerie of democratic and radical theorists to draw upon, why would, for instance, Chantal Mouffe, an avowed advocate of "a radicalization of democracy," look to Oakeshott? Or why would David Mapel bother to suggest that "Participatory democrats should therefore recognize [Oakeshott's] view of authority as their own" (Mouffe 1992: 225: Mapel 1990: 405)? Perhaps these overtures are mere rhetorical flourishes to suggest that an idea or commitment is not just from the radical left, but, instead, even Oakeshott the conservative holds similar views. But the attraction is not just rhetorical, for each of these, among others, finds theoretical potential in Oakeshott's work.1

I argue below that Oakeshott's account does offer the view of authority that Mapel identifies in it, and Oakeshott's conception of civil association does posses the opportunities that Mouffe claims for it. I do, though, suggest that there are some significant limits to Oakeshott's thought for those interested in democracy, and Oakeshott is not only aware of these limits, he explicitly advocates for them. Yet, ironically, in doing so, he helpfully reveals a boundary, sometimes explicit sometimes implicit, of liberal democratic theory and practice that must be crossed if a more full-if more unruly-democracy is desired. Of course, I realize not all desire such-, my concern here, though, is to explore the possibilities and limitations of Oakeshott for those who do. Following first Mouffe and then Mapel, I will focus upon Oakeshott's conception of authority, for there both the opportunities and limits for democracy in Oakeshott's thought are clear.

Mouffe is attracted to Oakeshott's elaboration of the concept of societas, his term for the historical instantiation of civil association, because With it Oakeshott has portrayed a strong conception of political community, where members are united, but not by a substantive notion of common good. …

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