Monday, December 1, 2014

A Revised Definition of the Political System

A political system is generally characterized by its laws and institutions, in the broadest sense of these terms. However, this definition does not directly address the individual, who ought to be at the centre of politics.[1] To remedy this, the concept of "political system" could be extended to include also the impact of these laws and institutions on the individual, and more generally, on the entire society.[2]

Seen in this way, different political systems are different from each other not only because they have different laws and institutions, but also because they have a different influence on the individual. This way of defining a political system seems justified if one assumes that society existed before the State, and that, in principle, the State exists to serve society. Furthermore, this notion of the impact of the laws and institutions on the individual is particularly important because it is difficult for the individual to change them, even in a so-called democracy.[3]

Obviously, the individual is not only influenced by the political system in which he lives; there are many other factors. Technological progress, for example, has a direct impact on the individual, through the appearance of innovations, but also an indirect impact, through its economic, political and social consequences. It is therefore necessary to see the political system of a society as only one factor, though arguably the most important, that influences the life of the individual in this society.

The definition proposed here is particularly suited to contemporary political systems. Before the advent of the modern world, the concept of the impact of the political system on the individual was less important; the existing laws and institutions had a relatively small impact on a largely poor and rural population. With the establishment of the modern nation-state, this impact has become much more important, largely because of the expansion of the role and responsibilities of the State. The study not only of laws and institutions, but also their influence on the individual, therefore allows not only the "qualitative" aspect of these laws and institutions to be taken into account, but also their "quantitative" aspect that has become so important.

The political system defined here thus contains the idea, already mentioned by J.S. Mill, that individual freedom not only depends on the type of political system but also on the size and scope of government in society.[4] It is Isaiah Berlin's question related to negative liberty that is posed here, namely: "How much shall I be governed?"[5], that is to say, to what extent should the State intervene in the life of the individual. Furthermore, the important role traditionally played by ideology (belonging to the "qualitative" part) is thus automatically reduced, which is desirable when analysing contemporary political systems.

This "qualitative" concept of laws and institutions is also important because it implies a particular distinction between different laws and institutions. Indeed, all laws and institutions obviously do not all have the same kind of impact on the individual, but some certainly have more impact than others. There is an important difference here regarding the laws and institutions that would impact the individual if they did not exist, and those that impact the individual when they do exist.[6] The first category consists of laws and institutions of a constitutional character, and the second category consists of laws and institutions of an administrative character. With this notion of the political system presented here, the administrative laws and institutions therefore receive more attention than they get in the conventional perception of the political system. The administrative aspect of the modern political system is arguably also far more important than the constitutional aspect of this system since the latter has already been fixed for a long time and hardly changes any longer, while the former is changing constantly.

The individual, subjected to the impact of the political system in which he lives, generally takes this impact of laws and institutions into account. Indeed, there is inevitably some adjustment on the part of the individual to the political system. This adaptation of the individual is obviously as complex as the impact itself, but it might be said that this adaptation may be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. In general, this adaptation to the political system is usually economic, but it can also be political and cultural.

The analysis of modern political systems can be made using the model briefly reviewed above. It is important to note, however, that it is not only the term "political system" that should be broadened to include the impact on the individual, but the entire political thought that should keep the individual as a reference. In politics, it is always advisable to follow the recommendation of Aristotle, according to which man is the measure of all things.


[1] After all, etymologically, politics directly implies the relation with the citizens.

[2] The term "impact on the individual" is used here as a general term that includes, of course, not only the impact on a particular individual, but also, by extension, on a specific group of individuals, on a portion of the population, or even on the whole society.

[3] This is of course connected to electoral apathy and the widespread disappointment in politicians. As Theodor Adorno said: “The most compelling reason for apathy is the by no means unjustified feeling of the masses that political participation within the sphere society grants them, and this holds true for all political systems in the world today, can alter their existence only minimally.” Free Time, The Culture Industry, p192. (Routledge, 1991)

[4] J.S. Mill famously said in this respect: “there is an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable.” J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p16. (Everyman’s Library, 1992)

[5] See I. Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, Introduction, page xlvii. (Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969).

[6] This nuance shows that the concept of “negative liberty” is important also in this context.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Reality of the MBA

The Master of Business Administration, or MBA, is often a prerequisite in order to reach the top strata of corporations, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world. However, MBA studies cannot be said to make much demand on the mind. The MBA is merely a clever substitute for experience, so that motivated young men and women can reach the upper layers of private corporations without first having to slowly gather experience for decades at the lower ones.

Paradoxically, the MBA curriculum is both intensive and relaxed; it is heavy in workload, but intellectually light. It prepares well for the working life in that it proposes little actual substance to students; most of what is taught is common sense. The MBA hones those inherent attitudes and attributes that are needed for success in the business world. Thus, the quality and scope of the learning content usually does not have the highest priority in the selection of an MBA programme. Rather, the most important criteria are often the location of the school and its renommée, the fame of its teachers, job perspectives at graduation, the average salary of past alumni, as well as the social life and the old boys’ network that it offers. These are the parameters that set the often hefty price of the MBA.

A large part of the MBA programme focuses on “soft” skills such as management, marketing, cultural awareness and team work, as well as on gaining experience rapidly and artificially through the now famous corporate case studies. The more in-depth courses in economics and finance are often optional; for many students the teaching in these subjects is limited to basic accounting and cost control. Extracurricular activities such as networking, team building, business forums, parties, and meetings with prospective employers is expected to take up much time. Such activities enable the student to develop those innate socialisation skills that he should already possess and that are so fundamental for a successful corporate career.

The MBA bakes individual minds in a single mould called the "corporate manager". It is a process that starts with the general education system but that is sometimes undone by some university educations. The MBA churns out high-level executers who all understand and use the same tools, processes, and modes of communication. The MBA is thus both a reflection of the modern business environment as well as one of its generators.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Two Meanings of the Good Life - Part III

It should be clear from the previous posts, that the classical “good life” is preferable to the modern “good life”. This is not only because of the intrinsically higher value of the classical “good life", but also because of the shortcomings of the modern definition. Man cannot live the “good life” if the main purpose of such a life is an ever-increasing accumulation of external and bodily goods. There might conceivably be an upper limit to the amount of wealth that can be generated for individual consumption, but more importantly, the lack of attendance to spiritual goods can eventually lead to a sense of despondency, not only for the individual but also for society as a whole. “Happiness” in the modern sense cannot be entirely satisfactory in the end, as many people often regretfully find out.

Though the classical definition of the “good life” is over two thousand years old, it is more sophisticated than the modern one. The modern definition of the “good life", which pervades today's Western societies, seems primitive and superficial in comparison. This observation is yet a confirmation that though materially rich, the modern world suffers from a certain spiritual and moral poverty. A society cannot possibly value the goods of the soul if it does not define the “good life” in the classical sense. What to say, then, about Western society that has largely forgotten the classical definition of the “good life”?

In the past, religion filled part of the gap that exists between the classical and the modern view of the “good life”. Societies in which most people prayed to God and read the Bible were societies which, to some extent, still valued spiritual goods. The legacy of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for many centuries upheld the Aristotelian definition of the “good life”. As the influence of the Church and the need for religion declined with the advent of modernity, this legacy was largely abandoned. As a result, the secular and materialistic modern societies have much weaker links with the spiritual goods than previous ones.

Yet, there are reasons to think that the classical definition of the “good life” could gain currency today. After all, the classical “good life” is secular, individualistic and hedonistic (though in a sophisticated sense) since it is concerned with reaching “happiness” for the self (in the form of eudaimonia). These are precisely the values that are cherished in the modern world. Further, the material conditions of modern societies seem far more suitable for the classical “good life” than the societies of the ancient world. Indeed, most people in the West today already have fulfilled the necessary external and bodily goods, and some attention could now be brought to spiritual goods. There are small signs that this might be the case, for instance in the popularity of Buddhism and spiritual self-help books.

But though the soil may be fertile in some areas, the seeds must also be planted and watered. The question is thus how modern society can be reminded of the existence of the classical “good life”. In order to change the perception of something as fundamental as the definitions of certain terms that are commonly used in society, the focus should be on early education. As Aristotle emphasised at the end of his Ethics, the principles of the “good life” should be taught already to schoolchildren.[1] They should become aware of what is the “chief good” of man, because, as Aristotle suggested, “will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life?”[2] An important civic task of teachers should therefore be to substitute the classical definition of the “good life” for the modern one in the minds of the young. Some of those seeds would then undoubtedly burgeon.

A successful rediscovery of the classical definition of the “good life” could have interesting political consequences. A wider recognition of the concept of the classical “good life” in the Western welfare society would mean putting the state's arrogated responsibility for the “happiness” of the people in some perspective. The state can claim an important role in providing “happiness” to the people when “happiness” is only thought to be the result of external and bodily goods. After all, modern nations all practice forms of state-capitalism: they have governments and public sectors that are deeply involved in providing a large array of such goods to the public; e.g. security, rule of law, infrastructure, utilities, environment, healthcare, banking, education, pensions, child and elderly care, etc. However, if the “good life", instead, were defined in the classical sense, where the “chief good” is eudaimonia, then the state would be unable to provide “happiness” to the people. The role of the state would be perceived very differently if it were confined merely to contributing to the necessary and basic requirements for the classical “good life”. The most important goods would then be spiritual goods, which could not come from the state since these goods can only be acquired by the individual, often in relationships with other individuals. The reintroduction of the concept of the classical “good life” in society would probably, therefore, raise questions about the size and role of the state in society and increase the acceptance of an open and competitive market in many sectors.

It follows that the modern Western state, therefore, has an inherent interest in preventing the classical view of the “good life” from become too widespread in society (or at least not encouraging it), as this would tend to undermine it. The legitimacy of the modern state rests not on providing internal and external security, for which just a fraction of its current size and budget are needed, but on being perceived by the people as indispensable for the provision all the goods (including services) that lead to “happiness” in the modern sense. Indeed, this perception of the role of the modern state has contributed to its continuous expansion since at least the end of the 19th century, at a local, national and supranational level. An even more chilling conclusion is that the modern state cannot have a strong interest in the moral and spiritual development of the people; quite the contrary. It might then not be so surprising that national education systems do not follow Aristotle's advice of including the classical “good life” to their curricula. It is well-known that the general education system is an effective instrument of social control; as John Stuart Mill said, it is a “mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.[3] The objective is, of course, to obtain productive young citizens who will question as little as possible the dominant value system.[4] An important such value that should not be questioned is the modern concept of the “good life”.

However, even if the dire reality described above could be remedied, the “good life” in the classical sense is not likely to ever become widespread. Such a life requires a dedication that cannot be expected of most people, regardless of the external conditions. What might be hoped for, however, is that the classical definition of the “good life” would become better known throughout modern society. Thus, the question should not be how people decide to live, but what is the highest ethical standard of society. To live up to a high standard is, by definition, rare; what is important is the existence of such a standard. In order to for such an ethical standard to slowly spread in society, it is necessary to become aware that the modern definition of the “good life” is incomplete and should progressively be replaced with the classical meaning of this expression.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics, Book 1, chap. 2.

[3] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p68. (Everyman’s Library, 1992.) In the same vein, H. L. Mencken also once said that the role for the education system was; “To make good citizens. And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps.” (see “H.L. Mencken at Full Throttle”, by Michael Dirda in his review of Mencken’s “Prejudices”, The Sunday Times, 29 November 2010).

[4] See for instance, N. Chomsky, Lecture at the Istanbul Conference on Freedom of Speech, 20 October 2010 (available on