It would seem that even the most zealous advocate of democracy today finds himself in the awkward position of having to justify a regime which until only recently he was able in excellent good conscience to take utterly for granted. Whether such an advocate belongs to the progressive camp or to that of the classical liberals – whether he is, so to speak, on the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ of democratic advocacy – today he has almost certainly, at the very least, become aware of the increasingly frequent announcements of a ‘crisis in democracy’; and whatever he might think about the nature of that crisis, he, too, must in some way respond to it. Democracy is, for the first time since the close of the World Wars, felt to be really at danger in an immediate sense – threatened, not by any outward enemy, but rather by tendencies, discontents and developments within it.
Interestingly enough, the rise in populism, which in any other day would have been hailed as a prime example of ‘democracy at work’, has today formed the catalyst for this growing sense of the unease with democracy. Populism, and in particular the recent phenomenon of a ‘populism of the right’, has brought a great many individuals from both sides of the ‘political spectrum’ to revisit the question of democracy and to attempt to understand why it is not ‘working’ in our day as democratic theory proposes it should. The appearance of such consciousness is especially noteworthy in the United States, that home of modern democracy par excellence; before Trump’s accession to the presidency, it would have been unthinkable to encounter an article critical of democratic institutions in any of the major American newspapers; one’s very professing of doubts regarding any primary aspect of democracy would have been regarded with amazement not to say revulsion. Now it is a fairly rare occurrence to see headlines expressing precisely such doubts springing up even and especially in those ‘media outlets’ which regard themselves, justly or unjustly, as the defenders of democracy – though it goes without saying that almost all of their authors take the stance, which we will subsequently consider, that democracy is simply, as every other possible ‘system of government’, in need of a number ‘fixes’ to keep certain of its ‘systemic flaws’ under hand; but that despite this, despite the fact that democracy must, as it were, be saved from itself, it is nonetheless the best form of government available to us.
Whatever one might believe about this proposition, the increasingly acute crisis of democracy, emergence of which comes as a surprise only to those individuals who have been utterly blinded to its true nature by the dogmas of the day, forces us to a reconsideration of democratic rule as such; it forces us to reopen the ‘question of democracy’ in a way that would have been dangerous seventy years ago, irresponsible fifty, and unpopular thirty. This last point especially bears careful consideration: we stand at a historical moment in which the people itself, the very demos which is supposed to be the centre of gravity in any democracy, has come to look askance at that form of government which literally bears its name. One sometimes even hears on the lips of this same ‘demos’ heretic suspicions that democracy might not at all be a workable or feasible form of government in the end, that it might not be the best form of government after all…
This, more strongly than anything, indicates that democracy might truly be approaching its inevitable twilight, and that a deep and in many ways brazenly honest appraisal of the modern democratic regime is thus warranted and indeed urgently required.
Given this as our premise, it is no longer permitted to patronize the nice ingenuity of certain academic theoreticians on this score. The progressivist ‘liberals’ view the situation somewhat as follows: liberalism, which is to say the modern form of government, since the close of World War II and until the very recent past followed a continually upward arc, has risen to success after success in its movement toward the final goal of a universal and homogeneous state, which alone will guarantee the realm of human freedom.1 These successes, despite a number of small and inevitable setbacks (including above all Soviet Communism), encompass ever more entrenched liberal institutions, views and laws in countries which are already democratic on the one hand, and on the other the establishment of increasingly liberal regimes in those countries which are not. But in late years this progress has been co-opted by a number of forces, the primary of which are so-called ‘neo-liberalism’ on the one hand, and ‘right-wing populism’ on the other. Neo-liberalism bears the same or a similar relation to liberalism as neo-conservatism does to conservatism; it represents an insidious mutation of liberalism toward ends which liberalism itself never would have espoused, such as: the enriching of the wealthy at the expense of the poor; the manipulation of democratic institutions by economically motivated ‘interest groups’ or ‘lobbies’; the subjugation of poor nations to a new kind of ‘capitalistic imperialism’; the abuse of institutional safeguards by men who stand outside of them; the wanton destruction of the ‘environment’ for the purposes of profit alone; and, most centrally, the rise of a new super-affluent ‘elite’ which increasingly tampers with the workings of individual democratic states from its international or cosmopolitan offices.
It is furthermore understood by many of these academics that the ‘populism’ that so troubles them is somehow in the thrall of the ‘neo-liberalism’ that so bewilders them; they are fully capable, for instance, of ascribing the rise of a Trump or a Salvini or an Orbán to secret multinational-corporate powers. This represents the point at which their otherwise capable analysis veers into error if not paranoia. Most of these academicians, particularly in the United States, fail to perceive that at least vis-à-vis the new super-affluent ‘elite’, both the true ‘left’ and the New Right are fighting the same forces. Their primary error, which blinds them to the true situation, is in believing the present state of affairs to spring from some theoretical foundation other than that which they have provided. They believe that neo-liberalism really has nothing to do with liberalism, but comes from some secondary and hidden root.
The best cure that can be offered them in their delusion is identical to that comprehension we would offer ourselves: we must come to an adequate understanding of how the ‘corruption’ of modern democracy might be nothing other than the natural outcome of the very principles of the same.
Speaking politically, in our day nothing in all of the West stands nearly so near to us as democracy. Leaving aside immigrants and those who lived beneath the last stages of Soviet Communism in the Eastern European countries, no one today in the West has ever known anything but democracy; democracy is to all practical purposes the unique political form, the sole morally acceptable society, of which we are aware. The alternatives to democracy are simply not alternatives; and those who aim for them, it is immediately suspected, are surely either in some fundamental way deluded or else infirm of mind. To put the matter into contemporary terms, they are either ‘bigots’ or else they suffer from ‘psychological problems’. It is understood – it is rarely so much as called into question – that democracy is either the ideal form of human society, desirable in itself, or else the practically best form. By this latter understanding, which one might call the pragmatic theory of democracy, no form of government can be taken as ideal, insofar as all are flawed and more or less susceptible to corruption, but democracy is the ‘least of all evils’, the lesser devil of the human political pandemonium. As Churchill so famously put it, ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms which have been tried from time to time.’
But be one’s stance what it may, no matter what one’s reasons might be for defending democracy, it is taken for granted that one ought to defend it; to wish for or to strive for any other kind of government today, is to indulge in a species of heresy against the dogmas of Modernism. All licit critiques of the present system amount to suggestions for its perfection or its correction, never for its substitution.
It is to be presumed then that we are all of us more or less informed as to the principles of this most desirable system – else we should not know its points of superiority over all other possible regimes. Such understanding can derive only from a profound and comprehensive analysis of democracy as a regime, together with a thorough comparative analysis of democracy with respect to the other possible regimes. It is most suggestive that such analysis can be found almost exclusively in antiquity, in the work of the classic philosophers – the same philosophers who to a one rejected democracy as one of the worst of all possible regimes.
Some time ago it was still possible to find competent critics of contemporary democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville and Joseph de Maistre and the young Thomas Mann. In contemporary times, meanwhile, one looks in vain for such a study from any mainstream academic, scholar or philosopher (supposing there are any such remaining in our lowly day). The decisive change would seem to have been brought about by the disaster of World War II and the Cold War, which delegitimized all non-democratic forms (by associating all alternative regimes with the taint of an amoral totalitarianism founded on the principles of propaganda and terrorism) and on the other hand suggested to thinking men that the democratic form of government is the best that can be had here and now. Men have been made afraid, for both good and bad reasons, of speaking or thinking well of non-democratic regimes. This historical question cannot be fully addressed lacking a competent and objective critique of ‘totalitarianism’ broadly understood, and the specific forms it took in the first half of the twentieth century in particular – a critique, that is to say, which is capable at once of understanding the differences and the commonalities of the specifically modern non-democratic regimes. But such a critique would have to resist the temptation of demonizing those forms so as to keep faith with our contemporary ideology on the one hand, and the corresponding temptation of glorifying those forms in order to spite the same on the other. It would have to be, that is to say, a critique which neither flatters the present rulers nor seeks as its primary aim to reactively vilify them. We may hope for such a critique, but it would be prudent to refrain from hoping too much.
Returning to the present, there is no doubt that there have been, in late years, dedicated analyses of democratic forms, but they have almost none of them been really super partes in the fundamental sense; they almost always take as their point of departure the presumed superiority of one special form of democratic regime or another. They depart on a note of advocacy and triumphalism, and this presupposition vectors all their subsequent investigations. One can to some extent exclude certain anarchists and communists from this critique – though it would remain to be seen to what extent they offer something other than the mere extremification of the democratic principle. There have also been as of late competent works from the point of view of Traditionalism and the New Right which have better taken democracy to task, and even sought to re-evaluate certain ‘outdated’ historical forms. One thinks of course of Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World, but also the more contemporary work of Alain de Benoist and Tomislav Sunic. The present work, it is needless to say, is to be located squarely in that latter tradition; it is anything but an apologia on behalf of democracy. It proposes on the contrary a radical thesis: modern democracy does not exist.
This of course appears prima facie absurd, insofar as we speak daily of ‘our democracy’ and in countless ways reference it and presuppose it, even in commonplace events like ‘voting’ or ‘watching the news’ or ‘protesting’ or ‘writing to our senators’, etc. Let us then be more specific.
It is surely true that a regime exists and has existed which goes by the name ‘democracy’, and which arises in its own distinctive forms, with articulable qualities, in various epochs of our history. It is equally true that contemporary regimes take this epithet upon themselves almost exclusively, and refuse to be known by any other moniker. These contemporary regimes appear in many ways derivative of the older democratic regime; they are a special case of the older regime. As such, they, too, have their special characteristics, which either derive from democracy as it was originally understood, or which stand alone as special and specially modern developments of the same.
Yet upon careful review, it appears that one of the most distinctive of those latter qualities is the enormous distance really standing between the beliefs of the citizens of modern democracy as to its modes of rule and its mechanisms of power, and its true modes of rule and mechanisms of power. Modern democracy is not at all what it is taken to be by most of those who live beneath its sway. It does indeed exist – but it does not exist as it is thought to exist. Most of what is commonly believed about it is contradicted by its reality, and is thus revealed either as a lie or a delusion. To that extent, modern democracy, the regime of the contemporary era, is nothing better than a figment. Its figmentary quality generally remains hidden from all viewers, but comes to the fore when its true nature comes into outward conflict with its believed nature.
The foremost example of this in our day has already been indicated: I mean the blatant contradiction standing at the heart of the principle of populism. Populism, which is clearly nothing but an expression of democracy as it is believed to be, strikes hard against democracy as it is; the people attempt to express their will, but their will stands against the will of the plutocratic ‘elites’ who manipulate the democratic order for their own ends. The ‘elites’ must then attempt to neutralize the will of the people through equally ‘democratic’ mechanisms, so as not to reveal the sham for what it is. They thereby preserve at once their interests and their legitimacy. But the more they engage in this kind of suppression, the more they bottle up the desires and resentments of the people, who increasingly feel that they are being had, or else who increasingly become frustrated with the gap standing between their attempts to change matters electorally and the palpable immovability of the ‘system’. Sooner or later, unless way is found of dampening those desires and resentments, the ‘people’ will seek the nearest outlet and will begin to foment chaos if not rebellion in society, at which point the true fragility of the ‘democratic system’ will become apparent. The most striking recent example of this phenomenon is to be found in the gilets jaunes in France, which have spread to several other areas, and the increasingly frequent clashes between various conservative or ‘right-wing’ groups and the so-called Antifa throughout the United States and Europe. These are but previews, however, of what very well might come from this central dynamic in the development of modern democracy.
Only as we are able to look our situation in the face, can we possibly hope to withstand the pressure of coming times, or prepare ourselves for what might come after them.
Let us begin then, as is fit, with the forest which surrounds us: let us begin with the conventional understanding of the government beneath which we live. Democracy in this or any time is the rule of the many, be this many understood as a unified people or an atomized mass. In our own day this basic conception of democracy is elaborated together with parallel conceptions of laws or institutions, but it is clear that the political kernel at the bottom of all democracies everywhere is and must be some concept of popular will. There can be legitimate or illegitimate restraints on this will; all legitimate restraints are such benefit ‘the people’; all illegitimate such as curb or frustrate the people’s will in order to benefit that of some ulterior power.
We have thus already uncovered the first theoretical tension standing within modern democratic regime. For what is the nature of these legitimate restraints on the popular will? An example of this would be, for instance, the constitution of a nation that established the fundamental law of the land, which no determination of the people, no matter how unanimous, should be permitted to overthrow or ignore; or else the verdict of a court case, which no mob should be allowed to circumvent. The justification of all such restraints from a democratic point of view is certainly that a structure of over-arching law is necessary for the right functioning of democratic institutions – and few democrats, no matter how thoroughgoing they might be, would dispute this. Yet this is tantamount to admitting a fundamental defect of democracy qua democracy, so endemic to it that it makes the pure realization of democracy equivalent to the clear and present endangerment of the same. Democracy evidently cannot be permitted to exist as democracy, but must be tempered by as many non-democratic means. And this should already make us wonder – is democracy really so desirable as it is made out to be in the contemporary epoch?2
But let that be as it may. Let us for the moment accept the regime here offered up by the defender of modern democracy, which might be called limited or representative democracy, and proceed whither it might lead us.
There are two essential pieces which must be analysed in any study of representative democracy: the democratic popular will, which is the basis of its legitimacy, and the representatives of that will, which are the agents of its realization. Both of these powers are constrained within the boundaries premised by the law, which exists (as is generally claimed nowadays and as we presently will allow) toward the perfection of the democratic principle.
With this in mind, we shall commence our investigation with an analysis of the representatives of indirect democracy.
On the Modern Democratic ‘Politician’
Much is made of the ‘civic sense’ which might lead a citizen to become a politician. It is presumed – one really has to presume here, if one is to be a sensible proponent of democracy – that democratic leaders in the main are actuated by genuine feeling for the commonweal. Anyone must acknowledge, of course – it is even in its way the central motif of the very republican form of government which we are here considering – that some among the politicians will be actuated by rank ambitions, selfish interest, or even deeply asocial motivations; one cannot neglect the presence in the political arena of social climbers or tyrannically inclined souls. The famous institutional strength of republican government arises here: it contains, through ‘checks and balances’, precisely these excesses of human weakness or spiritedness. Nonetheless it is clear that institutional safeguards have limits to their efficacy within the individual citizens of a state. Not the most wisely arrayed institutions can long survive if they are manned exclusively of the worst kind of human beings; not the most sophisticated checks and balances will long have power if the better part of the men beneath them are corrupted. Kant’s notorious boast that he could build a just society even for a race of devils, only supposing they were clever, is ingenuous in the extreme;3 quite the contrary is true. Such devils should have to be all of them thoroughly mediocre in mind and spirit – and that is little enough to be hoped from the true nature of the infernal regions.
The disproof of Kant’s happy (and wholly Enlightenment) idea can be articulated as follows. All institutional and legal remedies to the problem of human corruption will fail unless the individuals who dwell beneath them either desire to obey these remedies, or are forced to obey them. From a nation of devils one can surely not hope for the desire; one must expect from the outset that they will do whatever they can to co-opt the institutions and laws which bind them. Then they must be made to obey these institutions and laws quite against their will, or else these laws must channel their will into directions which are favourable to the right functioning of democracies. But lacking the basic reverence of law without which any democracy is as boneless as a jellyfish, it is only a matter of time before these devils will find the way of bursting their institutional caging by ‘transcending’ it, either through subtle malice or through open alliances with like-minded devils, or through the slow unification of the ruling classes contra the ruled. Since the ‘rules of the game’ do not favour them, they will, to quote precisely such a devil, become ‘particularly interested in changes in the rules of the game’.
The last best hope for binding such devils is then to produce a system which mimics as much as is possible the laws of nature itself; a system, that is to say, in which these ‘institutions’ simply cannot be gotten around, because they either permeate or perfectly encapsulate society. One wants, that is to say, either a technocracy, or else a single world government. (I have elsewhere noted the logical necessity of a final goal of single world government for the ‘success’ of Enlightenment schema.)4 Lacking these conditions (and perhaps precisely given these conditions, as is suggested in the aforementioned essay) no self-respecting devil will be constrained by mere institutions to behave as if he were anything other than what he is.
Given all of this, it is accurate to say that limited democracy is premised on awareness of human vice, folly, and meanness; but it is premised much more deeply on the belief that the rulers, owing to the difficulty of their arrival in the vertices of power, will generally be malleable by publicly minded moral standards, or else that they can be forced to act according to such standards through their dependence on the power vested in the people. The fact that the people as ‘constituency’ has the power of the vote, and can hold this like a guillotine over the necks of its politicians (together with various institutional mechanisms like checks and balances, the division of powers, and the free press), will persuade even the least savoury of those politicians to bend his selfish instincts for the most part precisely toward the perpetuation of democratic forms and the good of the people. Institutions, and not the people who fill them, are therefore the fundamental political fact. Kant, in the same section of the essay cited above, went so far as to turn the truth directly on her head by claiming that ‘A good constitution is not to be expected from morality, but, conversely, a good moral condition of a people is to be expected only under a good constitution’.
Such is the necessary presumption of modern democratic politics. Let us see if it bears water.
Laying aside for a moment a society which has newly become a democracy – in which, one can suppose, an older morality and an older sense of duty still hold sway with the majority of the upper classes, and will to some extent govern their aims and ambitions – what will be the motivation of any man who seeks out a high office in a mature modern democracy? In general, what sort of character can one reasonably expect from one’s politicians, here and now? It is clear enough that only three passions might be strong enough to propel a man to seek by his own initiative the burden of public governance: ambition (meaning the desire to attain as universal a fame or power as possible), greed, and idealism (taken here in the restricted sense of the desire to better one’s society or to do good by one’s people).
We may lay aside greed at present, as it can to some extent be subsumed under ambition, and also because it can be with greater ease regulated institutionally, since it moves in the medium of money, a regulable material medium.5 The remaining two qualities, idealism and ambition, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary, we may state generally that idealism without ambition is insufficient spur to enter political life. In the first place, idealists are often loath to soil their fingers in the sometimes sordid business of state, and so many of them tend to keep clear of public office, save as they are goaded on by some other passion. Moreover, there are countless clashes in any political activity between practice and ideal, and the ideal must sometimes cede, for example, in compromises with the popular will, with other powers or politicians, or with the limits of reality and actual conditions themselves. One must have the will to navigate these labyrinths and the realistic pragmatism to squeeze what good one can from them. That is more to be expected from an ambitious man than an idealistic one. The candid soul of the pure idealist is liable to many things in this world; but the dirty rough-and-tumble arena of democratic politics is not the native environment for such a delicate soul.
On the other hand, ambition is perfectly able to exist in the absence of idealism. That politician who, in order to get to the top, is willing to throw any and every moral precept overboard and to betray even those human beings nearest to him, is a possibility in any day and time. Ambition, we may say, is more politically self-reliant than idealism; it is at once the necessary and sufficient condition of the democratic politician.
That is not all. Both the purely ambitious and the mostly idealistic alike will see clear and unambiguous benefit in appearing as completely idealistic as possible, for the people will interpret raw ambition, and but seldom altogether erroneously, as the sign of a mercenary and meretricious attitude, which is easily corruptible and all too likely to sell out the people for an increase or entrenchment of power. Every politician will then strive to appear more interested in the public welfare and the public mandate than he in fact is; every politician will be a kind of actor. Some will be better actors than others; but the poorer actors will be weeded out at the lower levels by the natural mechanism of the vote, for the higher they ascend in the ranks of power, the less they will be able to convince ever larger segments of the public of their authenticity. This is true in any time and any clime, but today it is absolutely inescapable on account of the ubiquity of video.
Before the advent of the television, a prospective politician had the better part of his contact with his constituency through word of mouth and writing; for he could not go to every town in the nation, nor look every voter in the eye. Speechifying before comparatively small crowds was the closest he could come to pure demagoguery in those days, and so the size of a given nation was to some extent a counterbalance to the worst tendencies of the politicasters, as indeed the writers and readers of the Federalist Papers well know.6 Even in pre-modern democracies, it was not uncommon to associate democracy with a degree of histrionics; and since it was commonplace even then for a politician to rise to power from the comparatively local levels of government in relatively unpopulated areas up to the more federal, or national, the point of departure of most political careers certainly gave a strong push to the thespians of the nation. This effect, however, was somewhat dampened at the higher levels, at which skill at navigating complicated political relationships and persuading on a one-to-one basis were more important than the ability to widely manipulate the minds of the voters. More: because these politicians generally began at a more local level, one could also count to some extent on the mere acquaintance that the locals had with any given politician to counterbalance the worst forms of ambition; the personal knowledge of the politician’s character which was the inevitable result of having grown up with that politician or seen him grow up permitted a kind of local-level selection.
These saving graces of the large republic have been utterly abolished by the advent of universal technology, which has led to the most unhappy result that each politician now has the insidious power of ‘speaking directly to every citizen’; this cannot help but reduce every politician to the role of a performer standing perpetually in the limelight.7 One recalls the American presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy, which featured the first televised debate. Nixon, whose personal nemesis might even be said to have been his honourable if not noble lack of the demagogic instinct, refused make-up and insisted on appearing as he was; Kennedy had no such scruples. Though radio listeners largely felt that Nixon had won, the television viewers overwhelmingly gave the day to Kennedy. He won the game of democracy, which is essentially the game not of substance, but of appearance; and it is precisely to the perfection of appearances that our ‘technology’ in all its forms most fundamentally applies itself.
Such was the character of the medium at its dawn; and watching old footage of all such events, one cannot help but feel that those participating were but children compared with the masters of today. It would be unforgivable naïveté to suppose that our politicos have not been hard at work in ‘improving’ their exploitation of television, video, and internet toward the manipulation of the masses. Even the most virtuous of them must hone these skills if they are to survive and ascend in the jungle life of contemporary politics. And thus the mechanism by which politicians are gradually sifted out for certain of their qualities cannot help now but lead to the selection first and foremost of the slyly deceptive, if not of outright liars. In precisely the contrary mechanism which preserved republics in an older time, this unwholesome process of selection is stronger, the larger the nation is; for the larger the nation, the more likely it is that the citizens will know their politicians primarily or even exclusively through the media of television, internet, news, etc.
We have said that ambition must be the predominant passion to incite politicians to their politicking; it is likely then that men of a more or less corruptible ambition will be more common to democratic government than will politicians of a generally idealistic bent. But let us for a moment once more grant our democracies the benefit of the doubt; let us suppose that these two groups are more or less equally represented. It would appear that there are then two unofficial factions constituting the rank of the ruling class today: the corrupt or corruptible political climbers on the one hand, and the relatively civic-minded or socially conscientious on the other. And this would in its way be a hopeful or at least not hopeless scenario. But let us dig the little deeper before we rest at even so qualified an optimism.
Ambition can be craving for the admiration of the people (as in the desire for fame or for a vulgar kind of glory) or it can be craving for influence and control (as in the desire for power and pleasure). The first is a species of monstrous vanity, and it is especially prevalent in democracies, whose defining vice may even be said to be vanity. Both the one and the other are connected necessarily to a love of the people8 and a passion for money – in the first case, for the envy that money incites, in the second, for the utility of money in expanding one’s ‘domain’. Both kinds of ambitious men have need of money toward the end of propelling themselves toward the highest positions they can reach. But to dedicate oneself to the political life is simultaneously to limit one’s time and means to amass a personal fortune. One needs money, as much as can be got, but one is not in any position to get it by one’s own acts and light; for fundamentally, one seeks something else, and has been blinded by a kind of monomania into believing that what one desires is to be had through political avenues alone.
This is an error: lasting and universal fame (insofar as this is not a contradiction in terms in democratic times especially) is much better won in, for example, the cinema or the so-called ‘entertainment industry’, and power, as we shall see, is necessarily clandestine in this day and age. This error reveals on the part of the fame-craving politician either a fundamental and troubling lack of perspicacity, or else a lack of ability in the true arena of power, or else an extraordinarily petty vainglory. The true state of affairs is revealed immediately by the fact that these politicians, in order to nourish their presumed gains, must turn to the wealthy to do so; for they have need of money which they themselves generally have not the time and perhaps not even the capacity to secure. They must turn, that is to say, from the political domain to the economic domain, and they must transform themselves into the creatures of super-affluent patrons. Thus, even should they contain within themselves genuine will to ‘do good by the people’ or to improve their society or their state, there is an absolute boundary set upon those good intentions by the nature, desires, intentions etc. of their patrons.
In past and undemocratic eras, great wealth and great political power tended to coincide in the rulers. Contrary what we tend to believe from our fundamentally skewed and vulgar point of view, wealth in past times was infused with its dignity and power by its connection to noble blood, rather than being given power intrinsically and for itself, as is the case today. He who ‘made money’ – the merchant, the burgher, the vendor, to say nothing of the usurer and moneylender – was held in contempt or at least in aloof indifference by the ruling orders, and could not hope to buy power through a lucre which was conceived of as essentially ill-gotten (for in nobler epochs all riches stamped with the mark of avarice or work were held to be ill-gotten). Be he ever so much wealthier than this or that nobleman, yet his rank and influence remained limited to his station. The noble classes meanwhile were constrained from seeking wealth themselves by an invincible aristocratic scorn for the low business of wealth-getting. The dynamic during the decay and corruption of such a society is portrayed excellently by Tomaso de Lampedusa in The Leopard; for our purposes, it suffices to say that the monster avarice in past ages was bound with golden chains.
In such a society, the influence of money and of the money-seeking was essentially restricted to a minimum, as much as this influence can be restricted, given the velleities and the weaknesses of the human heart. The political class, the ruling class, far from seeking patronage, were themselves patrons: patrons of artists, of scientists, of promising but poor youths. Power was as it were perfectly visible, perfectly ‘transparent’, as we are wont to say, in the sense of being for the most part patently and unambiguously invested in certain universally known personages. This was indeed so common that it became the immediate object of rumour when it seemed that the visible rulers were being unduly influenced by some ‘power behind the throne’. The existence and degree of such influences could almost even be taken as an index of the extent to which the ruling powers had grown weak and unstable.9
In our day, not so. Democracy is essentially tied to capitalism – the latter being nothing more than democracy in the field of ‘economics’ – and capitalism, despite the rhetoric which is often spent on obscure and poorly defined notions of ‘meritocracy’, works toward the economic favouring of a certain kind of man. This kind of man, who may at the apex be described as the super-affluent, is none other than the patron of our contemporary politicians. But it is needless to say that the super-affluent, as opposed to our politicians, have absolutely no need to stand in the limelight. On the contrary, they are generally aided by a degree of anonymity; they, like the solifugid, thrive in the shade. The very structure of the establishment, both psychologically and practically, forces our politicians to seek the support of men whose names we do not know, whose faces are invisible, and whose agendas are opaque, standing as they do behind the evidently broader figures of our more public figures. We often do not even have the benefit of being able to guess at their identities – for often enough we literally do not suspect their existence, and have access even to their international meetings through hearsay and guesswork.10 The power they exert over the ruling class, the influence which they enjoy, is like that exerted by some dark star upon the planet.
And because the influence of such men is likely to strongly effect if not utterly determine the balance of power between the ambitious and the idealistic politicians in a democracy, it would behoove us then to attempt to develop some idea of what kind of man, what kind of domain, these must be.
1I have written about this ideal elsewhere: see my ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’.
2 Now, this objection to ‘pure democracy’ is really the motive force of what might be called the classic Enlightenment form of government, which – if its prime theoreticians, practitioners, and founders are to be taken at their word – was never supposed to be democracy, but rather republic, meaning that regime by which the basic flaw of democracy (its tendency to dissolve through the factional or demagogic use or misuse of the popular will) should be tempered, constrained, and controlled through institutional obstructions to the unrestricted will of the demos. That is to say – to the degree to which republican government presently rules our societies, pure democracy does not. It might be responded that we are in truth living under ‘indirect’ or ‘constitutional’ democracies, which are nothing other than the institutional perfection of democracy. Indeed, to prove the basic democratic justice of such institutions, one might even bring forth that fantastic modern tall-tale known as the ‘social compact’, which is nothing other than a complicated sophistication on every natural origin of human society – a theory invented toward the tendentious end of justifying an Enlightenment scheme of government, when that scheme was still tender in its revolutionary infancy. But even supposing that this ‘social compact’ is something other than a heady liberal illusion, it can do nothing to belie the basic problem: democracy is supposed to be perfected by means of ‘indirect’ democracy, which represents nothing but a limitation of the basic democratic principle. Against all of this one must surely rejoin that the ‘institutional perfection’ of any given regime surely cannot come through contradiction of that regime’s defining characteristic – that one treats here, not of perfecting democracy, so much as domesticating it. And as any beast tamer will tell, the domestication of wild animals always means also their denaturing. It would seem then that insofar as one agrees with the basic Enlightenment or classical liberal premise, one must stand, as indeed the better part of that premise’s purveyors stood, against unbridled democracy, and for republicanism and the rule of law that it represented.
3See Immanuel Kant, ‘First Supplement of the Guarantee for Perpetual Peace’, § 1.
4See John Bruce Leonard, ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’.
5As we shall see, however, even all of this is not quite so clear as it appears. Moreover, there are efforts even now underway to change the very character of money in our societies, transforming it from a material medium to a fluid digital one. This epoch-making change would revolutionize the forces we discuss in the present essay, and, there is good reason to fear, none for the better. It suffices to mention but a single major considerations: it would abolish the possibility of the ‘shadow economy’, which would bring an unprecedented degree of bureaucratic control into all human transactions, even of the smallest sort, causing unpredictable but necessarily deep ramifications in all sectors of human life.
6 See, for instance, Federalist Nos. 9 and 10, ‘The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection’.
7Given the advent of the internet, this situation could be aggravated yet further in the near future by the possibility of universal direct voting on specific legislation or governmental proposals – a situation which was thought to be impossible in prior times (see Federalist No. 10, for example), and which was thought to be one of the primary limiting factors on the possibility and desirability of democracy.
8See Plato’s Gorgias, 481d and 513c, and Xenophon’s Hiero, 8, §7–8; cf. 3, §8–9 and 10, §1.
9 Consider for instance the great to-do made of Rasputin in the latter days of Tsarist Russia, or the remarkable reputation that Talleyrand was able to cultivate for himself around the Revolutionary Period in France.
10Consider the meetings of the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission, to name only two of the primary. It is no accident that the last published a document entitled ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ already in 1975, which advocated remedies to what they termed an ‘excess of democracy’.
John, this is a fascinating article and I look forward to parts 2 and 3. However, I would take issue with your linking of populism and democracy. The most common definition of populism is where an individual or party claims to speak on behalf of the people as its definitive voice. But this means that an opposition to this position is illegitimate – who could possibly be against ‘the people’? This though is the very opposite of democracy as it is most commonly described, namely as a deliberative process whereby distinctly different and competing opinions seek a mutually acceptable consensus. It might be possible to squeeze this definition of populism into a Schmittian decisionist view of democracy, but this position is only likely to be found at the margins of left and right and not as a mainstream position.
My point here does not, of course, negate the threat of populism, but it is not, properly speaking, a contradictory feature of modern democracy.
Peter, thank you as always for a thought-provoking response. I hope you will not mind if I respond to you at some length; as always, I find that you bring up extremely important points which merit careful consideration, and I do not believe I would do them justice by simply brusquely stating the counterpoints. I will begin from the definition you have furnished of democracy:
While I am of course aware that this is the contemporary construction put upon democratic rule, I think it sensibly inadequate for a number of reasons. I limit myself here to what seem to me the most decisive of these.
In the first place, the definition you have provided, while it can indeed be applied to a well-functioning democracy, is not the special preserve of such a democracy. It can with equal, and perhaps more, justice be applied to well-functioning republics, mixed regimes, aristocracies and monarchies, and if anything would seem to be most characteristic of the first two.
In the second place, the description you have given is not a necessary condition for democracy. A democracy in which ninety-five percent of the citizens unite to disenfranchise the remaining 5% without any recourse to discussion or compromise would still be a democracy by the analysis of practically every political philosopher up to the last century.
It may be replied that our contemporary understanding differs from the classical or traditional, that the sense that we give to the word ‘democracy’ is not theirs, and that by our understanding, the situation I have just described does not pertain to a democracy, but to a ‘mass state’ or a ‘populist dictatorship’ or even to ‘fascism’. Granting this, one must further ask why our language has so jarringly changed that a given term, as we use it today, might contradict the same term as it was used by our forefathers. We would have to provide justification for our innovation on the language, and that task is certainly rendered more difficult by the fact that our special use of these words forces us to resort to neologisms (such as ‘populism’ and ‘fascism’) where past generations could confidently use the vocabulary provided by the tradition (such as democracy, demagoguery, tyranny etc.).
Our justification of our concept of democracy will inevitably hinge on the uniqueness of our historical situation. In particular, our understanding of democracy, by the definition you have indicated, is informed by our consideration that democracy is the single functional alternative in our day and age to fascism (broadly understood) on the one hand and communism on the other – or, taking these two forms together, to ‘totalitarianism’. Granting this, it is surely true that democracy is better characterized by the traits you have suggested than are the alternative forms. But any historically contingent comprehension of the possible human regimes is bound to change historically, and it may well be that what characterized ‘democracy’ after the close of World War II or the Cold War no longer characterizes ‘democracy’ today; in other words, the definition you have provided is at best transient and cannot be counted on. Given that today we are confronting a ‘crisis of democracy’ we are forced to try to transcend the local and contingent understanding of democracy, and to attempt to grasp a non-local and non-contingent understanding. The classical philosophers provided such. It might be that their ideas must be reconsidered in the light of modern developments (most especially, the emergence of technology and mass forms of communication or propaganda), but we cannot see this with any clarity until we have adequately understood their view of this question.
One possible first step in perceiving this necessity is to express in full force the crisis of democracy, and the consequent inadequacy of our current understanding, which is founded on the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment and is channelled through the contemporary liberalism of academic or intellectual progressives. I attempt to make some gesture toward this in the present essay. I would say provisionally, however, that democracy as a regime cannot be understood if it is divorced from the idea of the rule of the many, and that this rule has no necessary connection to a consensus of distinct opinions, nor even to deliberation, properly understood.
Turning now to the question of populism, I agree that populism often appears in the guise you have indicated, but I do not believe it does so exclusively. The ‘populism’ for instance which brought the Lega and the Five Star Movement to power in Italy gained most of its force from an awareness that the contemporary Italian political situation existed to favour the few at the expense of the many. Both parties thus claimed to speak for the ‘people’ as against the ‘elite’. Both parties were however prohibited from claiming to speak exclusively for the people by the fact that they were forced into an uneasy alliance with one another which could neither be forged into a unity nor ignored in their specific differences to one another. It might be that in the near future this situation will change, and one or the other (almost certainly the Lega) will gain the upper hand, thus potentially transforming in to the kind of populism you have described, but at present the populism of these parties is better described as an appeal to the desires or the dissatisfactions of as large a swath of the mass of Italians as possible. This is, however, the common modus operandi of democracy as such, and the only reason it is today described with the unpleasant term ‘populism’ is to attempt to discredit it in the eyes of the same masses by suggesting that it is somehow illegitimate here, where elsewhere it would be accepted without qualm. The concept of populism thus seems to me to mark a point of inner contradiction within modern democracy, which is why I dwell on it at such length.
I apologize again for the length of this response, Peter; I hope it is clear that I am not attempting to drown you out with words, but rather to reply in a cogent manner to your very worthy objections, which seemed to me to deserve no less.
John, I have no difficulty with a long answer. It should be who apologises for forcing you into such efforts. The definition of democracy I have given you is indeed one nested in a particular context, yet it does not presume any particular outcome or indeed what might constitute a consensus in any particular case. What matters is the process involved. Indeed, I think this is the really important distinction: is democracy about the process that leads to an outcome, or the outcome itself? My view is that should be the former. Hence there is a process that led to a US president being elected in 2016 with a minority of the popular vote. Likewise, no UK government has obtained 50% of the popular vote since the early 1950s and that includes the large majorities of the Thatcher and Blair governments. In each country what matters is the process by which an election obtained an outcome, not the outcome itself.
On the issue of populism, there also needs to be a distinction drawn between the claim and the actuality of speaking on behalf the people. Of course, no populist ever does, in reality, speak on behalf of all the people. The issue is that they claim to do so and that this allows them then to delegitimise their opponents as being against the people.
I appreciate the bearing of the distinction you make, but I am not sure it is alone sufficient. It seems to me that a great deal is concealed by that word ‘process’ which would have to be brought into the light before the question of its relative value could be assessed.
But a question for you. Do you believe it is possible for a process to be ostensibly legitimate but secretly compromised, such that, for instance, a popular vote might be held for a given public office, while through a combination of money power, media influence, ‘nepotistic’ hierarchies, blackmail and extortion, etc., all the viable candidates for this office were really puppets of ulterior powers, and the vote itself nothing but a sophisticated theatre-piece to persuade the people of the process’ validity? Put into colloquial language, do you think it is possible for the system to be rigged? Or do you believe that the mere presence of specific democratic institutional structures suffices to legitimate the process of which you are speaking?
On the question of populism, I entirely agree with your points. But in point of fact, I do not know what the ‘people’ could possibly mean in our present-day democratic and multicultural societies. The populist, as every democratic politician, always speaks to a segment of society. The fact that he has lately become so persuasive, however, is at least evidence that the kind of ‘mutually acceptable consensus’ which modern democracies claim to seek has not been reached. This has obvious connections to the purported conflict between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’, and also between various ethnic groups within our contemporary ‘multiculturalism’. The question thus emerges as to whether the grievances of that portion of the population which tends to vote ‘populist’ are real grievances, or contrived grievances.
John, I am indeed expecting the concept of ‘process’ to do a lot of work here. But, then, that seems to me to be precisely the point. To answer your question, it is indeed possible for a process to be compromised and to be secretly serving a different master. There are plenty of examples of this occurring in the past – the UK prior to 1832, for example – as well as contemporary examples, such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe. One might even argue that there is a ‘natural’ tendency towards oligarchy or worse. However, in better functioning democratic systems there are institutions that act as a counterweight to the tendency towards corruption. Such institutions as a diverse and free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law are such counterweights. As I have argued before, what matters is the corrigibility of a process. In other words, it is much harder to be corrupt in some countries than in others.
Going off on a slight tangent, I would also suggest that there is a ‘natural’ tendency to presume that secret forces are at play behind the scenes. In some ways this sort of thinking is necessary to explain why the ‘people’ are not being listened to and why ‘elites’ can apparently act without compunction. We can see sort of thinking in the current convenient fantasy of the ‘deep state’ shared by both left and right.