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Events at the beginning of the twenty-first century have served to demonstrate to us the truth of the insight at the heart of the recent renewed interest in realist political theory that politics is characterized by inevitable and endemic disagreement and conflict. Yet much contemporary liberal political theory has taken place against the backdrop of an assumed widespread consensus on liberal values and principles. A central theoretical question for our day is therefore whether liberalism is a theory of politics consonant with the modern world or whether it is grounded in untenable theoretical presumptions and foundations.
This monograph offers the first comprehensive overview of the resurgence of interest in realist political theory and develops a unique and urgent defense of liberal politics in realist terms. Through explorations of the work of a diverse range of thinkers, including Bernard Williams, John Rawls, Raymond Geuss, Judith Shklar, John Gray, Carl Schmitt and Max Weber, the author advances a theory of liberal realism that is consistent with the realist emphasis on disagreement and conflict yet still recognizably liberal in its concern with respecting individuals’ freedom and constraining political power. The result is a unique contribution to the ongoing debates surrounding realism and an original and timely re-imagining of liberal theory for the twenty-first century. This provocative work will be of interest to students and all concerned with the possibility of realizing liberalism and its moral aspirations in today’s world.
This chapter examines the recent resurgence of interest in realist political theory, discusses the relationship between political realism and classical realism in ideal theory, and the relationship between realism and the ideal/non-ideal theory debate. It concludes by setting out the structure of the argument of the monograph.
This chapter sets out the liberal ‘vision of the political’. Focusing specifically on contemporary theories of political liberalism, it brings to the surface assumptions about politics and the nature of the political that is often left unexamined or implicit in much contemporary liberal thought. This ‘vision’ essentially assumes that politics takes place against the backdrop of a set of principles or values on which all persons can or can reasonably be expected to accept. It also seeks to highlight how this consensus vision of the political is underpinned by a particular normative concern with respecting individuals’ freedom by constraining political power via a series of normative and institutional mechanisms.
This chapter sets out the realist ‘vision of the political’. Bringing together contemporary realist thinkers (e.g. Bernard Williams, Raymond Geuss, Jeremy Waldron, John Gray, Glen Newey), realist figures from the history of political theory (e.g. Hobbes, Weber and Schmitt), and classical realists from the international relations tradition (e.g. Morgenthau, Carr and Niebuhr), the chapter pieces together a coherent realist account of politics in which politics both takes place in conditions of disagreement and conflict and is a response to that. It also establishes the importance of legitimacy to realist thought, the role of coercion and the autonomy of the political.
This chapter brings together the previous two by setting up the ‘realist challenge’ to liberal theory. It argues that realism’s emphasis on disagreement and conflict makes untenable liberalism’s consensus vision of the political, and sets out and counters three possible liberal defences of their position. The final section then discusses the difficulties in developing a realist theory of liberal realism if we abandon the consensus vision of the political, in particular for realising liberalism’s central normative value of respecting the freedom of those over whom political power is employed.
This chapter examines two possible alternative liberal theories that prima facie have the possibility to overcome the realist challenge to liberal theory without having to abandon the consensus vision of the political: the liberalism of fear and modus vivendi. The strategy of both approaches would be to reduce the content of the consensus required to maintain the liberal vision of the political to very minimal and hence universal commitments such as the avoidance of fear and the desire for peace. Both approaches are explored in detail but ultimately rejected as still being vulnerable to the realist challenge insofar as they rely upon notions of consensus that are inconsistent with political realism.
The aim of this chapter is to contrast two realist accounts of the relationship between politics and successful domination. The work of Bernard Williams exemplifies a way of conceptualising this relationship, ‘politics as distinct from successful domination’, which is explored in detail but ultimately rejected as unsustainable on its own terms and with other aspects of realist thought. An account of politics in which ‘politics cannot be merely successful domination’ is then advocated as more consistent with realist thought. This is crucial for helping clarify a crucial normative question for a theory of liberal realism that will be addressed in the following two chapters: how does liberal realism respect the freedom of those who reject liberal values and principles?
This chapter explores the ramifications for liberal theory of taking seriously the fact of political pluralism that incorporating the realist vision of politics demands. It begins by offering an account of the reasonableness of political disagreement, even radical political conflict such as the rejection of liberal values, which employs Rawls’ concept of the burdens of judgement. The following second develops this by discussing how liberal theory needs to explicitly accept that liberalism is a controversial and contested account of politics, over which persons can reasonably disagree, and, in doing so, come to recognise the deeply partisan nature of its own normative foundations. The third section then, given the accusation made of liberalism by realists that they seek to avoid, abandon or overcome politics, explores the manner in which a theory of liberal realism that accepts its own partisanship can be said to ‘affirm the political’. Finally, the chapter brings the discussion of the previous three sections together and examine the way in which liberals should conceptualise their relationship with those who endorse non-liberal political frameworks, adapting the Schmittian/agonism inspired categories of friends, adversaries and enemies.
How can liberal realism justifies its claim to being a legitimate form of political authority once it has abandoned the consensus vision of the political? What distinguishes liberal realism as a form of political rule rather than mere domination? This question is particularly pertinent and problematic for a theory of liberal realism because it both accepts that it will need to coerce those that reject liberal values and principles yet is committed to respecting the freedom of all persons’ by constraining political power. So on what grounds is it legitimate for the state to coerce its non-liberal internal enemies? This chapter answers this question by developing Stephen Macedo’s notion of liberalism as a ‘moderate hegemony’. While in a liberal state liberals will necessarily be masters, they will be ‘restrained masters’ and this chapter sets out some of the normative and institutional restraints that liberals place on themselves. Crucially it is through this restraint that liberal realism not only respects the freedom of non-liberals but does so in such a way that distinguishes liberalism as a form of political rule, even though it does necessarily dominate or have mastery over those persons.