April 12, 2012

Oakeshott and the state

Reading Michael Oakeshott's essay on political education, something struck me. The classic notion of the state- developed by Bentham and others- is that the state is a coercive power which is managed by a group of individuals. The state is defined by them as the actor who possesses the power or action of sovereignty: its how most political scientists and historians would define the state. Michael Oakeshott, in his essay on Political Education, defines the state rather differently and the difference is important for the essay and his conception of politics itself. Oakeshott says

Politics I take to be the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together. In this sense families, clubs and learned societies have their 'politics'. But the communities in which this manner of activity is pre-eminent are the hereditary co-operative groups, many of them of ancient lineage, which we call states.
That definition is very very different from the conventional definition. What Oakeshott doesn't do is define the state by its powers- he instead defines the state as a community of individuals who participate in a political tradition. There is an obvious problem with this: how does he distinguish between a state and one of the earlier named groups- however we can leave that issue aside for the moment.

This is important because one of major issues running through Oakeshott's discussion of political education is his insistence on a national conversation, in which political action, consciously or not, forms an inevitable part. That understanding is dependent on the fact that the major actor in Oakeshott's work here within politics is the state, conceptualised as the community. To conceptualise the state as the bearer of power would be to empty politics of that communitarian component: in that sense, Oakeshott's redefinition of the state is the key move within the essay. It does something else though- because not only does his definition shape his conception of politics, it shapes his perception of national politics. Oakeshott can argue that all states are different because they are bearers of different conversations, the agency is the same but defining the state by its political tradition enables the philosopher to hypothesise that each state is unique and hence- as we can see from the quotation above, the politics of each state is unique. Oakeshott's redefinition of the state in this essay is therefore key to his conceptualisation of politics as a linguistic rather than an empirical arena.

If the study of the state is truly the matter of politics, and Oakeshott thinks it is, then the only way he can say that the citizen is not scientist but anthropologist and historian is if he redefines the state. Redefining it so that every state is the individual subject of an anthropologists scrutiny, rather than an interchangeable function which experiments with interchangeable individuals.


edmund said...

Interesting I don't think it's quite as far from the conventional understanding though-or a in sense it's a more extreme version of it . I think the key way he puts it like this is part of his crusade against the idea that the state exists for some primary purpose, rather than as an association for people to follow their own purposes or 'conversation'(i think the former is called an enterprise ceremony from faulty memory)