What Is Republicanism? A Conversation With Philip Pettit

What Is Republicanism? A Conversation With Philip Pettit


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What Is Republicanism? A Conversation With Philip Pettit

In Western societies people tend to think that being free means not being stopped from doing what one wants to do, and not being forced to do what one does not want to do. Freedom, in one word, is absence of interference in one’s choices. Does this definition satisfy you?

No, it does not. Isaiah Berlin argued that in order to enjoy freedom in any choice, each option has to be an open door that the agent can chose to enter or not, according to their own wishes; in that sense, the agent must enjoy the absence of interference. I add a further condition and, building on Berlin’s metaphor, require that not only should each door be open; it should also be the case that no one is positioned to close it, should they wish, against the agent. There should be no doorkeeper on whose goodwill the agent has to depend for permission to pick any particular door. In other words, there should be no one with the power of a master or dominus over how the choice is exercised. In order to be free in that choice, not only should no one else interfere with its exercise, no one should even have the power of interfering in that way. The agent should enjoy the absence of domination, whether or not the domination leads to interference.  

Thus, to take a particular example, to enjoy freedom of speech in any society it is not enough that while there are some who have the power to interfere and inhibit you from speaking as you wish, say on government policy, they choose not to do so. If an employer or a creditor or a public official has that power of interference, then you will be able to speak as you wish only thanks to their forbearance: only by grace of their permission; it is their will that is ultimately in charge. You will lack the independent, undominated status that would give you true freedom of speech. You will have good reason to watch your words and avoid upsetting the powerful in your life. 

You have discussed two notions of freedom, liberal and republican. The rebirth of the latter is a fairly recent phenomenon: could you sketch its history? When and why was it displaced by the liberal conception of freedom?

The conception of freedom as non-domination goes back to classical Rome, where it was recognised that the slave who was lucky enough not to suffer much interference by their master would still be unfree. Just by virtue of having a master, on this view—even a non-interfering master—the slave would have to endure dominatio or subjection, which the Romans took to be the antonym of freedom. The idea that Roman republicans defended was that by contrast with a slave, the citizen is secured by the law against domination in choices central to human life and thereby counts as a liber or free person. That ideal of the free, undominated citizen became the centerpiece of later thinking in the northern cities of medieval Italy, in the Dutch and English republics of the 17th century. And, embraced by figures as different as Machiavelli and Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau, this notion of freedom played a central role in the American and French revolutions. There is now a rich history of republican thought over that long period, which emerged under the impetus of John Pocock and in particular, Quentin Skinner, who is a close collaborator and friend. 

The republican view of freedom was explicitly displaced in favor of the liberal conception by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century, although Hobbes had foreshadowed his move. Bentham distinguished between freedom and security, and equated freedom with the absence of interference, however insecure its absence might be. He was himself a reformer but his notion of freedom was soon taken up by classical liberals who used it to argue against an expansive state and for an expansive market. They held that even when the state operates well in restricting the private interference of some in the lives of others, it does so by imposing public interference and should be limited as far as possible in its role. And they argued by contrast that however badly employees or consumers fare within the market, they do so under contracts to which they agree, so that allegedly there is no interference. Thus, they were able to use the ideal of freedom as non-interference to support a nightwatchman, minimal state and a maximal, unregulated market. 

Classical liberalism corresponds quite well today with neoliberalism, as it is known. But center-left liberalism—liberalism in the American sense—has a very different character. It generally equates freedom with the absence of interference but unlike neoliberalism, it does not make such freedom into the main ideal in politics but takes one or another version of distributive equality to be equally important. For that reason, center-left liberalism often defends similar policies to those that republicanism would support, and contrasts almost as sharply with neo-liberalism. 

Is it fair to ascribe freedom as non-interference to liberals and freedom as non-domination to republicans, given that the match-up between those ideals and those traditions is not perfect? I think it is. The idea of freedom as non-interference is more or less saliently embraced by liberals of all stripes, so that it counts as a natural identifying feature. And while the idea of freedom as non-domination may have been endorsed among many non-republican thinkers down to the eighteenth century, still it is the conception that mobilized all the historically important republican movements and revolutions. 

Could you give us one or two contemporary examples of domination? And could you tell us how the liberal and the republican responses to your examples differ?

A good example of domination that would bother a republican but not a a neoliberal takes us back to the workplace. Republicans would certainly complain if the employment relationship gave such power to managers that they could treat a worker in a variety of unwelcome ways without the employee being able to push back against that treatment. The employee might lack that power because there is no union to back a complaint, because the law offers no recourse against the employer, because leaving the job voluntarily would be hazardous, or whatever. But where republicans would say that the worker’s freedom is curtailed in that situation, liberals would likely argue that there is no interference with someone who consents, and that if managers are granted the sort of power illustrated under the contract of employment, then nothing they do in exercise of that power compromises the worker’s freedom. Republicans would deny that contracts can make that sort of difference, pointing out that to the extent that a contract allows domination, it will reduce the freedom of the dominated party. Thus, it is hardly surprising that even Roman republicans condemned the slave contract: the contract whereby foreigners sometimes persuaded elite Roman figures to take them back to Rome in return for their willingness to serve as slaves. 

Your answers suggest that liberal theory, unlike republican thought, is largely indifferent to asymmetries of power. Why is that so?

I suspect that someone like Bentham was motivated mainly by a wish for exactitude in distinguishing liberty as non-interference from security, and in rejecting the republican idea that freedom required the secure absence of interference, which non-domination would ensure. But it is striking that most of those who adopted his view of freedom as non-interference had an interest in justifying asymmetries of power: presenting them as consistent with freedom. This was surely true of the classical liberals who wished to justify the asymmetry of power in the relationship between employers and employees, and at the same time to put the regulation of that relationship beyond the reach of law. But that was not the only way in which the new way of thinking could be used to justify an asymmetry of power. In Bentham’s own lifetime, and initially without any objection on his part, it was invoked to defend British colonial power in America. Defenders argued that the Americans had no special complaint against the imposition of laws by Westminster since people in Britain were also subject to Westminister’s laws; on that count both peoples suffered interference and neither was worse off than the other. Republican thinkers at the time were quick to point out, of course, that while the Americans were subject to the laws of a foreign interfering power, people in Britain where subject to their own laws, or at least to laws framed by their own government. The Americans were subject to a foreign dominus, in other words, and were unfree in the republican sense, while the British did not suffer a similar form of domination. 

Most people who value freedom and democracy see them as inextricably linked.  Could you compare the manner in which liberal and republican theory approach this question?

Neoliberals say little about democracy, concentrating on the case for a minimal state and ignoring the issue of whether or not the state should give the demosor people control over what government does in its name. This is not surprising since, as Berlin himself admits, freedom as non-interference might be enjoyed in a greater measure by the subjects of a benevolent, restrained despot, even perhaps a colonial power, than by the citizens of a democratic regime. The despot might be more effective in reducing the level of private interference, after all, and might impose laws that interfered less with subjects than the laws of a democratic power. Berlin himself was a supporter of democracy, of course, but he did not think that this support could be grounded in a concern for promoting freedom in his sense; other values were needed to do that job.  

When freedom is equated with non-domination, as in the republican conception, things look very different. People will only be able to enjoy non-domination in relation to other private parties and bodies, when there is a suitable regime of law that identifies the choices important in human life and provides the protection and resourcing—the security—needed to allow people equally to exercise those choices without domination by private parties, individual or corporate. How much security is needed against a power of interference by such parties? And how equal should it be? Drawing on republican images of the free citizen, I think that all we can say is this: the security should be substantive and equal enough to enable everyone to look others in the eye—even others who are richer and more influential than they—without reason for fear or deference. 

Suppose we agree, then, that private freedom as non-domination is possible only under the public power of law. That then raises a crucial question for republicans. How to guard against the domination of ordinary people, or of this or that group within the people, by the government authorities who administer that public power? How to ensure that the power is not used to impose on citizens the dominating will of an autocrat or of an elite whom the autocrat serves? The answer in the republican tradition is: by establishing a system of popular control, accessible equally to all citizens, that helps force the government to rule on terms dictated by the people, and not at its own own discretion; in other words, by establishing the state under a broadly democratic constitution.

In one of your books, On the People’s Terms, you lay down the institutional implications of the republican vision of democracy. One of your suggestions is that a satisfactory democracy needs a ‘contestatory citizenry’. Could you explain this idea? How could it help our representative democracies overcome the widespread perception that public policies are often unresponsive to society’s needs and aspirations, and political elites are often unaccountable?

If I may step back a little from this question, let me comment on the traditional republican model of how ordinary people ought to exercise control over how they are governed. That model, which derived from Rome and was reaffirmed among medieval, renaissance, and early modern republicans, holds that the best, perhaps the only way, of controlling those in power and guarding against their domination over the people they govern is by having many centers of power to check and balance each other: by having a polycentric system of government. The constitution should be mixed, as Polybius argued when he held up Rome as a paradigm. In the Rome he celebrated only a senatorial elite could stand for office, but all the people elected to office; only a member of that elite could propose law, but all the people voted on the law proposed; independent officers at each level of administration had to compete with one another in deciding on any action to take; the courts operated independently of other bodies; and the people were always positioned and poised to protest, often successfully, at the doings of the authorities. There are many versions of the mixed or polycentric constitution, of course—few of us would want to see the Roman system adopted—but the idea present in all is that while power should be disciplined enough to sustain a coherent system of law, it has to be shared among many, potentially competing hands, including crucially the hands of ordinary people; otherwise it is liable to be used in a dominating manner.

I think that we make a bad mistake in taking democracy, as neopopulists take it, to be focused exclusively on electoral institutions. Election is vital for helping to ensure that the people play an active role in controlling how the government acts. But, as in Rome, it is only one among the many institutions that can help to advance popular control. Other channels of popular, polycentric control include the accountability ensured by public bodies that are designed to check one another, by the independence of the courts from other arms of government, and by the imposition on those in power of constitutional constraints. And they include, perhaps most saliently, the opportunity provided for people individually, in social movements or in non-governmental organizations to monitor the proposals and actions of government and to contest them publicly, whether in the courts, in the media or on the streets. It is because I identify broadly with the tradition of the mixed constitution, the polycentric system, that I have emphasized this contestatory way in which the people can help to keep government in check.

I cannot pass on without mentioning that Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced a different, monocentric model of how popular control should be implemented. He embraced the republican ideal of freedom as non-domination, as Jean-Fabien Spitz has shown, but he took the idea of government under a mixed constitution to be infeasible, reflecting the critique that had been developed in earlier centuries by absolutists like Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes. He introduced instead the idea of a general or popular will and argued, as we all know, that this would ideally materialize in a suitably organized assembly of the whole citizenry. I think that the idea of a citizen assembly is unworkable, and that in any case it would not necessarily reflect a single popular will. And I fear that the Rousseuvian proposal can be used to a neopopulist purpose that he would have decried. According to neopopulists, the people speak only in how they vote; those they elect—and often the leader among the elected party—embody the popular will; and elected authorities should be allowed to rule without the constitutionally licensed constraints that might be imposed, for example, by an independent judiciary or by a contestatory people.

Contemporary liberal theory seems to find it difficult to distance itself from the ‘extremes’ of neoliberalism, especially in the field of economic policy, and to fight inequality. This seems true not just in the United States but also in Europe. Would you agree with this analysis? How could republican theory help European societies find a fairer politico-economic equilibrium?

Once freedom is equated with non-interference, it is natural to think that state interference ought to be reduced to the minimum required for public order. And once it is assumed that actions allowed under a prior contract do not constitute interference, however unbalanced the contract may be, it is natural to take the market to be perfectly in line with the ideal of non-interference: to hold that there can be no complaint, for example, about actions taken on the basis of contracts between employers and employees, producers and consumers, corporations and communities. Hence the ideal of freedom as non-interference coheres well with the neoliberal policy of a minimal state and a maximal market. Liberalism assumes a left-of-center profile only if an ideal of distributive equality is taken to moderate freedom in the liberal sense. 

The republican ideal of freedom as non-domination leads in a very different direction. It is supportive of state interference when it is a non-dominating form of interference: that is, when it is effectively controlled under a polycentric democracy. And it is supportive of contractual, market relationships when they are regulated by law to reduce the domination of the weaker by the stronger, and when the law enables those in a weaker position to deal as social equals with those in the stronger. 

Taking these observations to a more concrete level, the difference between neoliberalism and neorepublicanism shows up in their view of the struggles between corporations and states: the titans of contemporary social and political life. Republicanism is happy to support the legal rights of corporations but only when they are constrained under law to deal properly with the communities where they operate, to respect the rights of employees to unionize and exert union power, to satisfy transparency and safety guidelines in their relationship with consumers, to meet the needs of the natural environment, and to accept fully their legal duty to pay corporate tax.

Thus far the background to our discussion was the theory of justice that you, and other neorepublicans, draw from the conception of freedom as non-domination. But your latest book, The State, lays down a markedly realist theory of the ‘functional’ state, not of the ‘just’ state. How does it relate to your republican project?   

Political philosophy ceases to play the role it ought to have in political life when it invokes ideals that do not have a resonance in human sentiments or when it looks for other-worldly institutions that have little prospect of being realized.  I think that neorepublicanism is realistic on the first count, since everyone knows what it is to be dominated: what it is to live under the power of another. But I have come to think that before we explore the requirements of freedom as non-domination, or indeed the requirements of any similar ideal, we should look at what the institutions of the state—institutions needed for the promotion of any political ideal—require in themselves, if they are to serve their function effectively. I try to do that in The State. 

I argue there that the function of any regime that deserves the name of state—any regime, however unjust in other ways, that is not just a reign of terror—is to set up a system of law that gives some rights, however limited, to those who count as full citizens, however restricted that group may be.  And I argue that while there must be a sovereign in a functional state, the sovereign may be a polycentrically organized citizenry; that in order to be functional, the state would have to establish a rule of law, reining in rogue agencies; and that consistently with being functional, it need not be restricted to a nightwatchman role or to similar disabling constraints. The plan is to follow up this book on the functional requirements of the state with a companion volume identifying the shape that state institutions ought to assume in a republic that is devoted to the promotion of freedom as non-domination for all. 

Finally, I would like to turn to politics. The Spanish Socialist party won two elections, in 2004 and in 2008, upon manifestos that were explicitly inspired by republican theory, and by your writings in particular. Under what conditions do you think that republican theory could play a larger role in public debate, especially in Europe? 

President Zapatero adopted republican principles as his guidelines in government and used the ideals of the tradition very effectively in the 2004-08 period; in the later period the great financial crisis tended to dominate policy making. He invited me to give a lecture in Madrid in 2004, after the election, and responded to my comment that he would find it difficult under the pressures of politics to stay faithful to his ideals by inviting me publicly to review his government before the next election for how faithful it had been. I accepted, with some reluctance, and after an intense three years’ work, presented my report in a public lecture in Madrid in later 2007. 

I was deeply impressed at what Zapatero achieved, always under the catchcry of ‘No dominacion’. Just to mention a handful of changes, his government persuaded parliament to introduce gay marriage, established a range of laws designed to improve the position of women, gave legal recognition to more than half a million illegal immigrants, made the national broadcaster independent of the executive branch, ensured that Spain could not go to war without parliamentary discussion and agreement, and opened up new channels of transparency and publicity in governance. In all of these initiatives he led his party and the Spanish people from in front, bringing them along with his ideas; he had no patience with polls-driven policy-making. I got to know him a little over those years and became a great admirer of his commitment to democracy and his fundamental decency as a person. Josep Lluis Marti and I collaborated on a book, subtitled ‘Civic republicanism in Zapatero’s Spain’, which was published by Princeton University Press in 2010. 

In the same vein, it is somewhat unfortunate that republican theory shares this august adjective with the political party that gave us Donald Trump. This might be an obstacle to any attempt to disseminate this theory more widely: how could it be overcome?

I wrote my first book on republicanism in Australia in 1997, before I had begun to teach in the United States. I do believe that the American revolution was directly inspired by republican ideas, but I am dismayed by the policies adopted by the party of that name in the United States today. And of course I often have to explain in non-academic contexts in the U.S. that republicanism in the sense in which I have tried to articulate the tradition is a far cry from that party’s general policies, and even a further cry from the policies with which Mr Trump has chosen to identify. But of course the same sort of problem arises with a term like ‘liberalism’, as we saw, or with any term that figures simultaneously in political theory and political practice. 

Perhaps the best way of avoiding this labeling problem is by use of the ‘neo’ prefix. The term ‘neoliberalism’ is used to identify the version of liberalism that privileges freedom as non-interference alone, ignoring other values like equality. And the term ‘neopopulism’ is used—certainly I use it—to identify the view that democracy requires giving ultimate power to the elected autocrat, making that power independent of other constitutional constraints. I think the term ‘neorepublicanism’ can serve equally to identify the version of republicanism that takes the ideal of freedom as non-domination to be the supreme political value and takes a polycentric rather than a monocentric form of democracy to be required for for furthering that value institutionally. 

There are hopes, and perhaps an opening, for further progress in European integration. The debate on the scale of democracies, or their optimum or maximum demographic size, might therefore become relevant again. What suggestions could one draw from republican theory on the appropriate scale of democracy, and what guidelines for the institutional structure of a hypothetical closer political union in Europe?

There are other neorepublican thinkers, such as Richard Bellamy and Cecile Laborde, who have more developed ideas than me on the issues in this area. My own view is that we should see the European Union as a union of states and not an organization that could ever become a federal state like the USA. The member states have committed themselves to the expatriation of their power in certain areas, which is not just democratically legitimate but also likely to be democratically productive. The formation of the union has given those states a collective power in dealing with multi-national corporations, digital technologies of communication, and environmental problems that none of them would have enjoyed on their own. It has enabled them to serve their peoples better via European institutions than they could ever have done acting alone.

Is the European Union reasonably democratic as an organization? I would say that it is, on three grounds. First, the proposals of the European Commission, an unelected body, have to be supported by the Council of Ministers, all of them representative of national democracies. Second, those proposals are subject to interrogation and invigilation by a democratically elected European parliament. Third, and perhaps most important, the authorities who act for the EU, be they elected or not, do so under a democratically formed treaty that is interpreted by the European Court of Justice; under a regime of checks and balances that enforces their accountability to the system as a whole; and under a discipline of surveillance by the national and international media, by governmental and non-governmental organization, and by European citizens at large. 

I said earlier that a good test of whether people enjoy private non-domination is to ask whether, under the law, they are individually able to look others in the eye without reason for fear or deference. How to test whether people enjoy public non-domination: that is, freedom in relation to those who form and impose laws upon them? Certainly not by reference to the vapid neopopulist test of whether the popular will rules. Rather, by reference to what I call the tough-luck test. Are those who are unhappy with any law or regulation, as some will always be, in a position to think that it may just have been tough luck that the decision went against their tastes or their principles? Do they have grounds for thinking that the measure did not reflect the power and will of a group that is hostile to their interests or opinions; that it was generated, rather, by the impartial operation of democratically supported procedures? To the extent that they have reasons to think this, they will be living under a democratically appealing regime. 

This test is very stringent and is unlikely to be fully satisfied within any state or any political organization. But it is worth reflecting on how the decisions of the European Union compare with the decisions of national governments in relation to the tough-luck test. Although I am an Irish citizen, I do not currently live in Ireland, or in any other EU polity.  And so I must be content to end with a question for you, Andrea, and for our readers, rather than a statement in my own name. Do you think that the EU does worse than your nation state by the standard of this tough-luck test? I would be surprised if the answer were generally, yes, but of course I may be wrong.

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Andrea Capussela, What Is Republicanism? A Conversation With Philip Pettit, Jun 2024,

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