Modus Vivendi Beyond the Social Contract: Peace, Justice, and Survival in Realist Political Theory

In John Horton, Manon Westphal & Ulrich Willems (eds.), The Political Theory of Modus Vivendi. Cham: Springer Verlag. pp. 111-127 (2018)
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This essay examines the promise of the notion of modus vivendi for realist political theory. I interpret recent theories of modus vivendi as affirming the priority of peace over justice, and explore several ways of making sense of this idea. I proceed to identify two key problems for modus vivendi theory, so conceived. Normatively speaking, it remains unclear how this approach can sustain a realist critique of Rawlsian theorizing about justice while avoiding a Hobbesian endorsement of absolutism. And conceptually, the theory remains wedded to a key feature of social contract theory: political order is conceived as based on agreement. This construes the horizontal tensions among individual or group agents in society as prior to the vertical, authoritative relations between authorities and their subjects. Political authority thereby appears from the start as a solution to societal conflict, rather than a problem in itself. I argue that this way of framing the issue abstracts from political experience. Instead I attempt to rethink the notion of modus vivendi from within the lived experience of political conflict, as oriented not primarily toward peace, but political survival. With this shift of perspective, the idea of modus vivendi shows us, pace Bernard Williams, that the “first political question” is not how to achieve order and stability, but rather: what can I live with?

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Thomas Fossen
Leiden University


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