Bertrand de Jouvenel’s Theory of Political Entrepreneurship

Bertrand de Jouvenel’s principal renown in circles devoted to liberty and learning is as one of the most profound anti-totalitarian political philosophers of the twentieth century.  As Daniel Mahoney has rightly remarked, Jouvenel is “one of a small number of twentieth-century political thinkers who truly matter, who are worthy of our continuing respect and attention.”

Four of Jouvenel’s most important books are published by Liberty Fund: The Ethics of Redistribution, On Power, Sovereignty, and The Pure Theory of Politics. The Ethics was composed from a series of lectures that Jouvenel gave at Corpus Christi College in 1949.  The other three were written over a period of some eighteen years and were intended to form a trilogy of sorts.  This week I’m going to try to talk about all of them in one way or another, and I hope, if nothing else, to show that some of the problems Jouvenel raises in these books remain of abiding interest in our scattered political order.


I’m going to start off with Sovereignty, since it is often considered, rightly or wrongly, as the one with the most philosophical teeth.  But things with teeth often bite back, and this book is one that does so.  It is difficult upon beginning it to figure out what Jouvenel is doing: he starts with a given topic, meanders to another, and seems to work in no clearly discernible way to any real resolution.  To be fair, Jouvenel warns that the book is composed of the “exploratory workings of a questing spirit” and that it is arranged in a disorderly form.  And yet he insists that he is considering “the very heart of the problem of politics.”   One might be forgiven at the outset for thinking that Jouvenel is suggesting that politics is at root disorderly rather than suffused with what he calls in Pure Theory the “manners of politics.”

Luckily, Jouvenel provides a “key” which might help a confused reader understand the book:

The author’s essential concern is with the benefits which men confer on one another by social cooperation.  Therefore, he is concerned too with what maintains and enriches this cooperation…The cause of this enrichment he finds in the unfailing supply of fresh initiatives taken independently: these are the seeds which cannot, however, come to flower except under certain conditions of stability.

I should stress that the tension between social cooperation and individual initiative is not an immediately obvious concern for a political philosopher, especially one raised against the twentieth-century backdrop of bombs and bullets.  Indeed, it is this very focus that seems to distinguish Jouvenel from some of his contemporaries.  This is not Carl Schmitt’s world of friends and enemies; this is not Hannah Arendt’s quasi-Aristotelian distinction between the public and the private.  It is not Leo Strauss’ gigantomachy between the ancients and the moderns or Eric Voegelin’s gnomic and oracular proclamation about derailments and egophanic revolts.  The primary political problem for Jouvenel is not an analysis of a state of crisis;.  One might say that Jouvenel is not concerned with political pathology but rather with political health.

So there are two components of political health that manifest themselves forcefully in Sovereignty: enrichment of individual initiative, which leads to social cooperation; and maintenance of the system.  The latter is what he calls “the fixity of the frame,” and I’ll try to address what helps and hinders it later in the week.  Today I want to focus on Jouvenel’s conception of individual initiative or what he interestingly calls elsewhere “political enterprise” or “political entrepreneurship.”


We may define an entrepreneur broadly as someone who begins an initiative and who is willing to bear the risk of carrying that initiative through.  What would a political entrepreneur look like?  “Political” for Jouvenel, at least in Sovereignty, concerns the increase of resources at one’s disposal.  An “economical” use of resources would be the employment, and ideally the good employment, of resources on the spot; Robinson Crusoe, Jouvenel notes, could not be said to have acted on wise political principles but on wise economical ones.  Politics begins when a project requires the wills of others; it is a technique for “increasing the human energies” at hand.  A political entrepreneur is thus someone who begins an individual initiative that requires the wills of others—with the result that he must now seek to enlist those others.  It is not so different from what Michael Oakeshott, in a similarly suggestive way, calls “enterprise association.”

Political technique is at its lowest required threshold when passions run high and when the project is a “once for all” action; such action requires the least amount of political skill.  Rallying bigots to a lynching is not difficult; neither is bringing neighbors together to fight a fire.  In both cases, passions—which are the data of politics for Jouvenel,—are sufficiently high that one does not need to do much to spark action.  Instigating these actions means putting together what Jouvenel calls later a “political team,” which is an “elementary political force” and which should thus be of major concern to political scientists and political philosophers.  In Pure Theory, one of Jouvenel’s examples of these forces is the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar.  This example brings two crucial facts to the fore: a political enterprise, like an economic one, is subject to failure; and, though it is “eminently desirable” that enterprises move within the law, “history testifies that often they do not.”  Political science, Jouvenel says, needs to move from a study of legality to reality—from analyses of constitutions to what political actors really do.


However heinous or extralegal, though, these actions are what we called above “once for all” actions; they are not lasting and are not meant to be lasting.  They are what Jouvenel calls “additive” actions, and most political actions are of this kind.  The more interesting case, and the case where the political technique is at its highest, is where the intention of the political entrepreneur is to found a lasting project.  This is what Jouvenel calls the formation of an “aggregate.”  These are more grandiose political projects because they are intended to remain and continue over time; the wills of human beings are woven together for some lasting purpose and not merely for a brief aim.

It may be, however, that that the purpose of a political action is the very action itself.  In other words, political action is not necessarily instrumental in relation to a chosen end but can be the end itself.  This analysis is analogous to what Carroll Quigley, in The Evolution of Civilizations (also published by Liberty Fund), would call the transformation of an instrument of expansion into an institution; the aggregrate has taken on a life of its own.  When political action has no other end in view but the formation of a group, we have entered the realm of what Jouvenel calls “pure politics.”

“Pure” means here “for its own sake” and not “simple” or “refined.”  And this is not just an idealization or hypothesis; Jouvenel thinks that pure politics actually occur.  In France, for instance, men who are concerned with expanding or consolidating aggregates are called “grands politiques.”  But in times of strife the all-important task is often just to keep the aggregate together; this is in a way the Hobbesian concern with the extreme case, and these men are called “politiques.”

Aggregates, pure or otherwise, need to be durable in order to be functional, and political durability requires a strong internal cohesion. (I am intentionally for now leaving vague this notion of “internal cohesion” but I hope to explore it further throughout the week.)  The interesting thing is that now additive actions take on a new significance.  However immediately effective, beneficial, or harmful, additive actions in an aggregative context may actually become disaggregators.  Yelling “Retreat!” is an additive action, for instance, which could have decidedly disaggregative effects.  As we’ll see later in the week, Jouvenel places an enormous emphasis on the role of the individual in general.  The individual who founds an aggregate is obviously important, but Jouvenel’s interesting insight is that any individual within an aggregate can issue his own instigation, can become a political entrepreneur in his own right.

Note that this is similar to the classical problem of factions and in fact helps to illuminate that problem.  On Jouvenel’s account, factions arise because men choose to follow a second instigator over the first; their wills are bent away from the polity toward a sectional interest.  But of course the polity itself is indistinguishable from a sectional interest when originally founded.  It is interesting, Jouvenel notes, that political philosophers as varied as Rousseau and Hobbes have deplored factions; this is tantamount to deploring individual initiative.  Of all the great thinkers in the tradition, only Machiavelli, Jouvenel says, has praised tumults as being healthy for a political body.  To what extent Jouvenel is following in the footsteps of Machiavelli is thus an important question, though one I cannot take up here.  But there is more than a passing family resemblance between Machiavelli’s notion of an innovator and Jouvenel’s notion of a political entrepreneur.


This account has been brief but it could be expanded to further illustrate several Jouvenelian concepts: the nature of a political achievement, which is the formation of a closely-knit aggregate; the nature of a political operation, which is the formation and unending rehabilition of such an aggregate; and the danger of disaggregative actions, which, like any political actions, are the result of individual initiative.  I will also treat more extensively Jouvenel’s account of individual initiative, which interestingly requires a second agent (what he calls a “responder”) and which we will need to contrast with Hayek’s account of spontaneous order.  I’ll also treat various other forces of disaggregation, including the state, and talk about how civil society importantly bears on the aforementioned problem of “internal cohesion.”

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