An Introduction to Modern Political Theory

Norman P. Barry

Macmillan 1989

Everyday Politics in the Philippines:
Class and Status Relations in a Central Luzon Village

Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet

New Day 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 1992
An Introduction to Modern Political Theory is just that. Unlike most books on political theory it doesn't start with Plato and work its way through Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, etc., but rather discusses the work of such philosophers as Rawls, Hayek, and Hart.

The first part of the book deals with the methodology and status of political philosophy, the second discusses particular aspects of political theory. The approach Barry advocates is described as "rational-individualism", and most of the book discusses things from that viewpoint. (Alternative collectivist/Marxist views are typically relegated to the last section in each chapter.)

Basically I consider the whole rational-individualist approach, at least as presented by Barry, inherently flawed.

The regularities revealed by social science are not historical or social 'facts' but are properties of human nature which can be assumed to be unchanging.

If this were true, and there were such a thing as "human nature", it would presumably be biological in origin, and a matter for empirical (population genetics/psychology/anthropology) study. Yet Barry makes no use of any of these disciplines in his book! (And if he has some perfect way of separating historical regularities from historical contingencies, then he's doing better than the historians.)

Collective words such as 'class', 'state' or 'society' do not describe observable entities, and statements containing them only have meaning when translated into statements about individual action.

This is reductionism carried to absurdity. It makes just as much sense to say that organisms do not describe observable entities and that statements about them only have meaning when translated into statements about individual cells. States have clearly defined borders and there are many well defined properties which differ consistently from state to state. An external (alien) observer with no understanding of "human nature" might split the planet up into different states simply by analysis of such things as railway gauges, road signs, clothing styles and language use.

It is simply a truism in ecology that populations cannot be understood simply by extrapolation from knowledge of individuals. It would seem likely that for Homo sapiens, with our far greater capability for transmission and storage of information outside individuals, this would be even more true.

Furthermore, the social theorist does not have to 'observe' primitive societies of this kind because he can imagine - that is, mentally reconstruct - what a society would be like without secondary rules and without the institution of money, in order to appreciate their importance.

So rational-individualism is not just ahistorical and asocial, but also anempirical! I confess to having a distaste for philosophers who construct their world-systems with their unaided reason.

The second part of An Introduction to Modern Political Theory is a discussion of the meaning of such concepts as liberty, justice, democracy and rights. Some of this is interesting, but everything is viewed from the point of view of the methodology espoused in the first part, making the whole lot just a bit dubious.

The evidence suggests that an incentives-based market system does raise the well-being of the worst off, at least in comparison with all known and practised alternatives.
Which just about sums up this book. Barry knows a priori that Western capitalist democracy is the ideal political structure, so he's set out to prove it — if necessary by ignoring any evidence that might indicate otherwise!

There is a place for abstract political theory, but, especially given the lack of consensus among political philosophers, its conclusions must always be compared with reality. And in the event of disagreement the philosophers would do well to reconsider their logic or their premises rather than burying their heads in the sand. Trying to do political philosophy without using the results of empirical disciplines such as anthropology, economics, history and geography is a completely pointless endeavour.

Everyday Politics in the Philippines approaches politics from completely the opposite direction. It is a detailed study of San Ricardo, a rice-farming village in Central Luzon, which most people would probably classify it as anthropology rather than politics, since it deals with everyday life rather than with the paraphernalia of elections, parties, and the political process. The main subject is the distribution of resources and the consequent status groups, and the different ways of making a living and the corresponding classes. Particular attention is paid to the effect of class and status on relationships between people.

The most common forms of class struggle are shown to be furtive and below the surface — the infrequency of overt demonstrations of disaffection is the result of the power inequalities. Networking along factional, cross-class and cross-status lines is also shown to be significant, especially during such events as elections. However it is not as significant as indicated by studies that examine only explicitly political activities.

The people of San Ricardo have certain feelings towards and expectations of one another, and justify these in different ways. It is clear that they have their own ideas about justice, rights, liberty, etc., and that the market, democracy, etc. have particular roles within the village. I suspect a political philosopher who criticised the villagers use of such terms on purely abstract grounds would be looked at rather askance!

July 1992

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%T An Introduction to Modern Political Theory
%A Barry, Norman P.
%I Macmillan
%D 1989
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 033349797X
%P xviii,309pp