Thursday, May 29, 2008

Michael Oakeshott, "Rationalism in Politics"

Characteristics of rationalist politics: (1) politics of felt needs, of crises (2) certainty, perfection (3) uniformity.

Custom, tradition, and established patterns worth nothing for rationalism.

Two kinds of knowledge - mechanical and practical. Rationalism substitutes the former for the whole. Mechanical can be formalized in rules, practical knowledge must be learned from working contact with a carrier of a tradition. (What about what is learned by doing, irrespective of tutleage by a mentor -- isn't "hands on" knowledge the key part of practical knowledge?)

Rationalism is a pervasive intellectual tendency which also affected politics (and affected it earlier than most fields).

Identifies rationalism with idealistic projects and movements. This seems strange, perhaps because the discussion is made in a vacuum of any context in modern bureaucracies.

22: "Rationalist politics, I have said, is the politics of felt need, the felt need not qualified by a genuine, concrete knowledge of the permanent interests and direction of movement of a society, but interpreted by 'reason' and satisfied according to the technique of an ideology: they are the politics of the book." (This hints at what Oakeshott thinks politics should be.)

Oakeshott sees Rationalist politics as a consequence of the rise of politically inexperienced people and classes to power. He takes Machiavelli's writings as an exemplary case; Oakeshott sees his work as an advice book for the novice ruler. This really makes no sense in light of the longstanding existence of self-governing communes in Renaissance Italy; political experience had long been a fairly widely distributed good.

In general, Oakeshott moves casually from Rationalism as a style of governing to Rationalism as propaganda and a form of political mobilization. This is a significant confusion. Although the ultimate disposition of who rules in a modern state may be in the hands of an ever broader array of people and classes, it is the politicians who rule, not the social classes. Within the political elite, the discontinuities do not seem strong enough to bear the explanatory burden that Oakeshott wishes to put on them. Long before the supposed end of absolute monarchies, ministers ruled as much or more than kings, and there was no hereditary requirement for those ministers. Today, voters choose their rulers from competing parties composed mainly of lawyer-politicians, many of whom come from political dynasties. The political "new man" is neither as recent nor as pervasive as Oakeshott makes out, so this will not do as the explanation for any decline of governing as a kind of traditional craft.

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