Freedom before liberalism

Image: Rubem Grilo (Jornal de Resenhas)


Commentary on the book by English historian Quentin Skinner

In these dark times, when people wrap themselves in the national flag, trumpeting hymns to freedom and, at the same moment, without seeing any contradiction in this, demand a coup against democratic institutions and in favor of the military dictatorship, threateningly advancing against all those who do not participate in the same furious impetus, the reading of Freedom before liberalism (Unesp), by Quentin Skinner (

It is a set of texts by the English historian whose core is the master class he taught in 1997 at the University of Cambridge, England. Explanatory, I said, of course, for those who still see the point in reading and studying, obviously not for those who worship patriotic symbols, or even worse, that vomiting Myth that rehearses them with half a dozen crude commands, because they no longer need anything but of that very thing: watchwords to obey, repeat and freak out.

Let us concentrate, therefore, on Skinner's book. It basically deals with the ideas conveyed by a group of English authors, in the XNUMXth century, who formulated the theses of a political theory that became known historically as “neo-Roman”. It was called that because the authors who advocated it were inspired by speeches by Latin authors, such as Sallust, Livy, Seneca and Tacitus, mainly. Of course, their readings also fueled their contemporary discussions and interests, which makes their commentaries much more than glosses on ancient writings.

To enter at once the fundamental question formulated by authors such as James Harrington and Marchamond Nedham, it is about understanding that it is only possible to be free in a free State. The thesis, at the time, was heavily criticized, among others, by Thomas Hobbes. I leave aside, however, this important debate of the period to concentrate on the basic points of the neo-Roman program, much less known than those of the Roman period. Leviathan.

According to Skinner, the central inspiration of the theory came from Sallust, when he states, for example, that “for kings, good citizens are objects of greater suspicion than bad ones, and the virtus from others it always seems alarming” (p.57). Applying the theory to the history they lived, the defenders of the neo-Roman theory identified Oliver Cromwell – especially after the conquests of Scotland and Ireland, and even more after the dissolution of Parliament, in 1653 – as the perfect image of the tyrant Sulla, as she was sketched in Bellum Catilinae.

The next step was to deduce that the merit of republican regimes would not reside in their ability to obtain greatness or wealth, but in their ability to ensure and promote the freedom of their citizens. The maximum value of “free communities” would derive from the fact that their laws were modeled “by every private man” to protect the freedom of “every private man”, a formula that would identify the decisive concept of “freedom of the community”. Therefore, from this perspective, a citizen could only enjoy full civil liberty when living under a free State.

Still according to this basic reasoning, there would be two ways in which freedom could be lost. The first of these would occur when the power of the State, or of a government that answers for it, is used to coerce the citizen to do some action not prescribed by law, which would clearly characterize abuse or tyranny.

The second would occur when, even without suffering open coercion, the citizen remained in a condition of subjection or political dependence, being exposed to the danger of being deprived of his life and freedom. In the latter case, the fact that a ruler chooses to exercise coercion or not would not change the tyrannical risk at all, since the mere fact that this option exists for the ruler would already imply subjecting civil liberty to his good will: a situation paradoxical already equivalent to “living in servitude”.

Marchamond Nedham, for example, fully asserts that any system of power in which the right of one man is deposited in the will of another already implies tyranny, with all its potential for the enslavement of wills. Algernon Sidney also opines that the possibility of subjection to arbitrary coercion is sufficient to fulfill its logical consequence, that is, the loss of freedom of the citizen.

The discretionary powers of the rulers are, in themselves, even if they are not exercised, a constant threat to the subjects. In other words, the citizen only admits obedience to laws, never to governments or men; otherwise, he will inevitably end up living as a “slave”.

By considering that the condition of dependence is a “source” and “form” of constant constraint, neo-Roman theorists are led to frontally repudiate the formulation of classical liberalism that force is the only form of interference in individual freedom. “Being a slave” is not just a condition of those who work without pay or those who suffer some kind of brutal coercion, but, above all, it is to be dependent on the will of another. The dependent condition, by itself, already implies a drastic limitation of the notion of citizenship.

For Sidney, when this condition of dependency is installed in civil society, the main “art” of this diminished citizen (which perhaps we could translate more correctly as trickery, impudence or malandragem) starts to operate within a paradigm of subservience and submission. The conclusion is that, in a State of this type, all “preferences” are given “to those most prone to slavery”, since everything depends on the mood or the advantage attributed to someone by the man in power.

And that is exactly where, in my opinion, the most interesting step of these neo-Roman theories is, that is, when they articulate a theory of the State to a form of temperament or individual psychology, so that the supporters of despotic or authoritarian power are basically people of “obnoxious” character. Let us dwell for a moment on this magnificent term, which Portuguese, like English, perfectly accepts.

In its Latin origin, the term obnoxius it was used to refer to those who lived at the mercy of others, who were “subjected”, or, finally, “those who had no will of their own”. Reread by English neo-Romans, the term “obnoxious” came to describe “the servile conduct expected of those who live under the rule of ruling princes and oligarchies” (p. 78). That is, the word refers not only to private weakness, but to the combination of this with the structural expectation generated by a State that fosters and produces the condition of dependence of its citizens in relation to it, exercising or not, by arbitrary and strange will. to the law, explicit coercion.

Thus, “minions” and “obnoxious parasites”; sycophants and servile people are not just an unlucky contingency of life in authoritarian governments. Quite the contrary, they are the true model of citizens prescribed by societies that do not identify state freedom or free community with the “self-government” of citizens. Instead of promoting “bravery”, says Sidney, explaining the moral consequences of political choices, such governments promote those who are “flattering, abject and lacking in manliness” (p. 80).

Skinner concludes his book by considering that, after these debates raised by the neo-Romans, with the “rise of classical utilitarianism in the eighteenth century, and with the use of utilitarian principles to sustain much of the liberal state in the following century, the theory of free states it fell more and more into disrepute, until at last it slipped almost entirely out of sight” (p. 80).

That is to say, by making the idea prevail in modern societies that individual freedom could only be considered threatened when situations of open coercion or physical confinement were characterized, liberal utilitarianism sacrificed precisely the most beautiful idea of ​​freedom, degrading it to live with the subservience of the obnoxious.

The ethical imperative they defended, namely that it is the intrinsic duty of an honest man to fight authoritarian governments, came to be seen as a defect of stubbornness or insensitivity. There was the turning point of no return at which the history of modern liberalism came to terms with the victory of the obnoxious over the free character. The historical perspective here is highly disappointing, but perhaps it will help us to understand why the most ordinary people, servile to power, today find themselves entitled to pose as guardians of freedom.

*Alcir Pécora is a professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of gender machine (Edusp).

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