Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
Rationalism is the politics of the ‘inexperienced’. Oakeshott uses the term
‘experience’ in a philosophical sense, meaning contact with tradition – certainly,
politicians who have held office are experienced in the everyday sense of the word,
but it is experience in problem-solving rather than the recognition of the importance
of tradition. Oakeshott argues that the history of Europe from the fifteenth century
onwards has suffered from the incursion of three types of political inexperience:
the new ruler, the new ruling class and the new political society. If a person does
not belong to a family with a tradition of ruling then he requires a ‘book’ – a ‘crib’

  • to tell him what to do. Machiavelli provided an early example, with The Prince.
    Later ‘books’ include Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, but in the
    history of rationalism nothing compares with the work of Marx and Engels, who
    wrote for a class ‘less politically educated... than any other that has ever come
    to have the illusion of exercising political power’ (Oakeshott, 1962: 26). This is a
    crude caricature of Marx and Engels, and indeed of their readership, although it
    does contain an element of truth: the recitation of doctrine can relieve people of
    the effort of thought.
    Interesting in the light of Burke’s support for American independence is
    Oakeshott’s critique of the American political tradition. The newly independent
    United States had the advantage of a tradition of European thought to draw upon,
    but unfortunately the ‘intellectual gifts’ of Europe largely consisted of rationalist
    ideas. This, combined with the mentality of a ‘pioneer people’ creating political
    society from scratch, has given rise to a highly rationalist political system with,
    unsurprisingly, a powerful emphasis on legal documents, such as the Constitution.
    Somewhat ambivalently, Oakeshott suggests that this gave the United States an
    advantage; he does not develop this thought, but he might mean that the United
    States was eminently suited to the increasing rationalisation of domestic and world
    politics, and so on track to become a superpower.
    Oakeshott’s critique is radical. Indeed, it is difficult from a reading of ‘Rationalism
    in Politics’ to see what political order could reconcile technical and practical
    knowledge. The attack on the ‘new class’ of politicians is so comprehensive as to
    imply that even Burke was insufficiently conservative. Oakeshott’s argument would
    suggest a rejection of democracy. Since any return to a non-rationalist political
    project would itself be rationalist – for that non-rationalist order would have to be
    set out in a programme – Oakeshott’s argument appears purely negative, and its
    negativity creates a contradiction: is not rationalism itself a tradition? This is a
    standard problem with conservative thought: if what matters is what exists, and if
    what exists is an apparently rationalist political order, then on what grounds can
    a conservative criticise it? The restoration of the ‘old order’ is not, and cannot be,
    a conservative project. Oakeshott’s distinction between technical and practical
    knowledge, and the idea of an increasing predominance of the former over the latter,
    are interesting ideas, but they are not necessarily conservative ones.
    In his book On Human ConductOakeshott presents a more ‘positive’ conception
    of politics. In that book he makes an important distinction between a civil
    association and an enterprise association. An enterprise association exists for, and
    justifies its existence in terms of, a particular end, or relatively coherent set of ends
    (Oakeshott, 1975: 108–18). These ends may be abstract, such as the maximisation
    of utility, or more concrete, such as the desire to maintain a particular cultural
    community. The enterprise association may not have a fully comprehensive set of

204 Part 2 Classical ideologies

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