The Politics may be the most influential study of political theory and political practice ever written.
Aristotle put the book together while investigating different regimes in the Greek world and elsewhere. The philosopher denies the existence of an ideal government applicable to all societies; instead, he looks at various governments that are appropriate for different peoples in different situations.
Monarchies and mixed regimes that combine democratic and oligarchic features are said to offer stability for most Greek societies, but Aristotle also believes the Greek world can aim at aristocracy (literally rule by the most capable) and the polis, a regime in which those who are governed also govern their fellow-citizens. In Books Seven and Eight we learn about a hypothetical ideal regime and about how the young would be educated to uphold it. This construction too derives from the Greek ideal of self-rule.
In The Politics there is a detailed discussion of the excellence (arete) that is essential for holding political office. In Book One, for example, Aristotle focuses on the household (oikonomia), as the smallest governing unit. The male head of the household should exhibit virtues and strengths related to his custodial tasks, which are directing his slaves “despotically,” and guiding his wife and children in a “benevolent kingly manner.” Each role requires a skill or “disposition,” while the overall supervisory work should be conducive to human fulfillment within a community, according to our inborn qualities.
According to Aristotle, we become more fully human by participating in fellowship with others, although the philosopher does not discount what seem natural inequalities among humans, for example, between genders and diverse cultures. Not all people therefore should be allowed to hold the same positions in political societies or even in the household.
As to the question of whether Aristotle was politically correct, the answer is an unequivocal “no.” He thought Greeks were inherently different from Persians and other barbarians, as seen partly in their differing capacities to determine their forms of government. Moreover, in Book One, Aristotle stresses the “imperfections” of women, which require them to happily accept the moral guidance of their husbands.
Although some modern interpreters have tried to reconcile Aristotle with contemporary democratic values, it is hard to find convincing evidence that Aristotle really believed in gender equality or was a harsh critic of slavery (even if he criticized the practice by which Greeks took other Greeks as slaves in battle).
What makes Aristotle’s view of political life so remarkable is its total differentness from current political attitudes. Not surprisingly, it furnished the template for medieval and early modern European defenses of monarchical authority and was embedded in the corporate view of society found in thinkers from Thomas Aquinas to the 17th-century defender of royal prerogative, Robert Filmer.
Although there have been various attempts to “democratize” Aristotle, it may be necessary to understand the very circumscribed form in which Aristotle understood self-rule. It was an exercise in political autonomy practiced by a culturally homogeneous group made up of male-dominated households. Remnants of this Aristotelian model can still be found in early American society and in the traditional Swiss Republic. But trying to relate Aristotle’s concept of a viable democracy to current political preferences would be a bit of a stretch.
Of particular use to us, however, is Aristotle’s insistence that the same form of rule is not applicable to all peoples. Efforts to export regimes to different cultures was, from Aristotle’s perspective, an invitation to disaster.
Also instructive is Aristotle’s treatment of the derailing of governments (parekbaseis ton politeion), a problem that comes up in the middle books of The Politics. While monarchy, aristocracy, and a qualified democracy (as seen in the polis or in a mixed regime) can all furnish stability and contribute to human development, regimes necessarily deteriorate. They move gradually but ineluctably toward tyranny.
The question then arises about how to reverse this process of derailment so that one can move back toward a more tolerable political organization. Not surprisingly, this problem for Aristotle was almost peculiarly Greek, since he thought non-Greeks would live, with few exceptions, in despotic conditions. This would be “natural” for these peoples, just as self-rule or wise monarchical governments was for the Greeks an attainable ideal.
First published in 1936 as the nation was still reeling from the Great Depression, Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence remains a classic of American political thought and rhetoric.
A collection of 21 essays, edited by the Fugitive-Agrarian Allen Tate and historian Herbert Agar, it was intended in part as a sequel to the better-known I’ll Take My Stand, which preceded it by six years. The earlier collection had focused exclusively on the South and its agrarian traditions, but the Tate-Agar collection expands the polemical range to include the whole of America.
Moreover, while the emphasis on the Jeffersonian vision of a decentralized union of states and communities rooted in agriculture and small proprietorships is still given pointed emphasis, the central thrust of the key essays in this volume is directed at what the Agrarians and their collaborators had come to regard as the primary antagonist of the Jeffersonian vision: corporate or “monopoly” capitalism.
The argument, reduced to a single thread, runs something like this: Prior to the late 19th-century, America was a republic in the Jeffersonian mold: a republic of small farmers and small businesses, mainly sole proprietorships of various kinds. The ownership of property was widely distributed and it was generally understood that liberty was meaningless outside the context of such ownership, which guaranteed its possessor a degree of social and political autonomy that could not otherwise be achieved.
Without such a widespread dispersal of property, the virile republican ideal which motivated virtually all of the Founding Fathers would not have been possible. Yet this property ideal must be of a particular kind, as one of the book’s essayists, the scholar, poet, and literary critic John Crowe Ransom, argues: “…it must be property which the owner administers, not a paper ownership which does not entail any part in the management.”
It is this mode of ownership which is assumed by the principles written into the Constitution; the “inviolability of the person” rests upon the “inviolability of property.” In the old republic, organic and vigorous communities grew to maturity in their shared understanding of this inviolability.
In the 19th century, the serpent entered the garden in the form of charters of incorporation wedded to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Incorporation in itself, understood as a legal and social concept, is benign, and has a lineage dating back to the Middle Ages. But in the U.S., with the shift from an economy of production toward an economy of consumption, the very character of “free enterprise” was transformed.
Large companies under the ownership of individuals or families began to adopt the corporate form for a number of reasons, among them, as Richard B. Ransom notes, the “possibility of indefinite expansion, the absence of personal responsibility on the part of the owners, [and] flexibility in the sale, division or aggregation of shares in the enterprise.”
Moreover, as Lyle Lanier argues, the Supreme Court licensed the proliferation of these powerful corporations by its “narrow construction of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution,” effectively robbing the states (or, for that matter, the federal government) of any significant control over capitalist expansion. By way of monopolies or semi-monopolies, trade associations, holding companies, and various price-fixing combinations, the largest corporations were able to eliminate or absorb smaller, independent enterprises—including family farms.
Of course, in the 84 years since Who Owns America? was published, capitalism has undergone yet another metamorphosis. The authors do not appear to have anticipated the complete globalization of the economy or the transformation of the American middle classes into dependent shareholders, by way of pension plans, 401(k)s and the like.
Yet, most of their diagnosis remains germane. Their proposed solutions, however, are sometimes questionable. Calls for nationalization of essential industries in the name of the public good conjure up the specter of socialism, however conservative the intent. More interesting is the support given in the book’s essays to locally owned and controlled “cooperative” enterprises—small factories, for example, of “not more than a hundred people” owned and administered by employees but in conjunction with the states in which they are chartered.
One thing is certain: We cannot afford, as conservatives, to imagine that corporate capitalism has anything to do with “free enterprise.” For those who wish to sever themselves from that illusion, Who Owns America? is a fine place to begin.