Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Democratic Tendency

“But here I must beg leave to advance a conjecture, which seems probable, but which posterity alone can fully judge of. I am apt to think, that, in monarchical governments there is a source of improvement, and in popular governments a source of degeneracy . . .” [1]

Thus wrote David Hume. It should of course be appreciated that the source of degeneracy in the democratic-republican era does not lie in democracy alone: the liberal-technocratic idea of progress, a component of modern democracy, gives it force and direction, whilst the dehumanising effects of technology allow men to substitute inhuman indifference for human care or cruelty. Together they form modernism as a state of mind: a confident barbarism which not only feels no reverence or awe for the state of culture and civility, but which actually hates it.
.....An historical consciousness of what was produced before this era and of what has come to pass since its inception brings an awareness of the profound degeneracy of our own times — and thereby an advantage over those men of former times who could only hope or dread one way or the other.

“[P]opular government will put an end to, and prevent the revival of, all that is elegant, voluptuous and artistic in life, these things being essentially aristocratic.” [2]

The democratic ideal is well defended, however, almost impregnable in the minds of most. If no good reason can be found in those minds as to why they hold to it despite everything, the redoubt can still be secured by the long-touted saying, serving in lieu of thought, that whatever its faults, it is still better than other forms of government. Whatever its faults! No matter how degraded or oppressive life becomes under popular government — or “democracy” — the belief still dumbly remains that it is the best.

“So sacred, however, is the flame of democracy that it purifies the grossest breaches of decency and justice.” [3]

The sight of the power that the democratic ideal now holds over the minds of men is to me greatly disturbing. Whilst once it was widely dismissed as too dangerous an ideal, the dream of totalitarian utopians, it is now widely accepted as the safest. The most disturbing aspect, however, is that the more strongly the power of democracy comes into effect, and the more it destroys or oppresses the independent spirit, the more a man can be persuaded that he is not living under a democracy at all. He gives to it another name — “our so-called democracy” — whilst that of democracy remains inviolate in his mind. For he has fundamentally misunderstood the spirit of democracy, which is not that of freedom, but of total domination.

“Democracy, to repeat, is not merely a political term: it is a universal idea, whose entertainment determines conduct in every one of the spheres of human activity. It will not prove itself established until its principles have permeated society in every part.” [4]

Since the democrat is an advocate of a total and all-embracing ideology — the triumphant commonality of which serves to obscure from him its extremism — he is prone to suffer from that defect of mind shared by all universalist-ideologues: only everything is enough. Furthermore, as with all such ideologues, the closer his ideal approaches its perfect realisation, the more he notices and becomes jealous of exceptions to it.

“Democracy, sure enough, has no sense for the exceptional, and where it cannot deny or remove it, hates it from the bottom of its heart.” [5]

It is now common, therefore, at the height of democracy’s power in Britain, to hear the lament that it is lacking. A man who says so cannot point to another time in its modern history when it was so strong as it is now: not 1600, at which time monarchy was still dominant; not 1800 or even 1900, when aristocracy still held much power; not even 1997, when there were still the pathetic remnants of aristocratic power in the House of Lords.

He notices that:
(1) Good government is lacking (in whatever way he might define it: fostering liberty, benevolence, lollipops for all, etc.)
He assumes that:
(2) Democracy is good government
He infers that:
(3) Democracy is lacking
And, having furthermore assumed that all good government is democratic, and wishing for more good government, he concludes that:
(4) We need more democracy.
In the perfect democracy as an ideal, governmental opinion is the perfect expression of popular opinion; for therein, by perfect definition of the ideal, popular opinion and governmental opinion are two expressions in an equation with one another. No such perfect equation is possible, but insofar as this ideal is approached, popular opinion under a democracy will be manipulated to an extent not found under other forms of government; for, although a democrat might like to think that the direction of manipulation should be from popular opinion to governmental opinion, that is to say, that a change in popular opinion should require a change in governmental opinion to keep the equation and thus preserve democracy [6], the keen mathematicians of power quite rationally see no reason why it should not be otherwise: the equation is solved and democracy preserved just as well by manipulating the other side of the equation: that is to say, by manipulating popular opinion to keep it in balance with governmental opinion. From the sense of the pure ideal, it matters not which expression is first manipulated, so long as the equation is preserved. In this way, the exigencies of political power co-opt and corrupt the people for the purpose of that power.
.....Yet, of actual governments, one may speak only of tendencies to ideal forms. In actuality, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy. Interests other than those of the people will come into play in a democracy, just as in a monarchy or an aristocracy interests other than those of the monarch or the aristocracy will do likewise. That the interests of individuals, unelected groups, bodies, committees, civil servants, and parliamentary parties do not always conform to popular opinion, or even act against it, does not strike against the idea of what effects democracy will have.

“[B]ut do not run away from your own doctrine, O democrat! as soon as the consequences become startling.” [7]

Regarding the great source of power that democracy invests in government, one ought not to be surprised that men will harness that power for their own ends and indeed use that power to change majority opinion towards those ends.

“[A] government entirely dependent on opinion looks for some security what that opinion shall be, strives for the control of the forces that shape it, and is fearful of suffering the people to be educated in sentiments hostile to its institutions.” [8]

If government becomes the business of public opinion, then public opinion becomes the business of government. But if a man does not like government messing in his affairs, why does he become a democrat?
.....Democracy, in order to appeal, must whisper to every man a fundamentally undemocratic falsehood: that he can choose his government. Therein lies a confusion of democratic thought: the confusion of the power of the people with the liberty of the person. When a man says he is free under a democracy because he can choose his government, already the falsehood is fully grown. He cannot do any such thing. He is given a say in how his country is to be governed, but this degree of power is so tiny as to be almost non-existent; and yet for this, he is willing to give up his fate to an overwhelming power, and he calls his subjection to this power — freedom!
.....He fancies that under this power he will be permitted to govern his own affairs. No form of government yet conceived has made so great a boast about so basic a matter as individual self-governance, and yet no form of government is so at odds with the very idea of it. Democracy, in its historical form hitherto tied to liberalism, has permitted individual dissipation — which is not the same thing as self-governance at all.

“[A]ll that is to be valued, or indeed can be enjoyed by individuals, is private liberty. Political liberty is good only so far as it produces private liberty.” [9]

The positive connotation of the word “liberty”, a connotation which takes coolness from thought and gives warmth to feeling, may act to obscure the meaning of political liberty. Democracy brings such liberty to the fore: unrestricted political power; and it may even bring the crowning liberty: the liberty of every man to vote for his subjection to it.
.....To hear the word “liberty” on the lips of democrats is to hear a perverse joke that has grown in the telling; and be they sincere in its utterance, they speak for that which by their allegiance they destroy. Prospectors after wooden iron [10], who have found and sold nothing but the common elements of chaos and tyranny, they will continue to search until they have uprooted every tree and toppled every tower of private liberty.

Totalitarianism is the perfect democratic ideal, as it first welled up in Rousseau, who let it dribble forth into all the currents of modern democratic-republicanism to greater and lesser degrees.

“The totalitarian state is the exact opposite of the authoritarian state, and the latter certainly bears no democratic stigmata, but rather hierarchical ones.” [11]

Of the totalitarian state, it must be said to its practitioners: if it is not overwhelmingly popular, then you are not doing it right. The ideal bids all to join. It praises total participation and abhors any discrimination. It sings of liberty, of equality, of fraternity, and sneers at authority and at hierarchy and at all things that keep men apart. Totalitarianism must repudiate the very idea of authority; for authority is something apart from that to which it stands as such.
.....Totalitarianism remains always just a tendency, and never a full realisation; yet as a process towards the ideal, it must continue to rid itself of those elements, particularities, and independent authorities which it has determined to be inconducive to the health and progress of the whole. The longer it goes on, the more things become jaded, colourless, sapped of life, except for that power itself.
.....Nevertheless the process can deliver great power to a few men who can divert it to the establishment of their own authority — but it is a brutal and sickly authority; for even when it bears the marks of reaction against the democratic process, it cannot appear as an authority without acknowledging and placating its true sovereign power: the great and many-headed beast itself, that semi-mythical creature otherwise known as the people.
.....Worse than the cessation of the democratic process is that it should continue. To be free of free government is my earnest wish. Like Mr Hume, “I should rather wish to see an absolute monarch than a republic in this island.” [12]
[1] David Hume, “Of Civil Liberty”, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed., E.F. Miller, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1987), I.XII.13, online at The Library of Economics and Liberty.
[2] Emile Faguet, Politicians and Moralists of the Nineteenth Century (n.d.), quoted by Robert Beum, “Ultra-Royalism Revisited: An Annotated Bibliography”, Modern Age, Vol.39:3, Summer 1997, p.304.
[3] R. Plumer Ward, An Historical Essay on The Real Character and Amount of the Precedent of The Revolution of 1688, Vol. I, (London: John Murray, 1838), p.46, online at The Internet Archive.
[4] Oscar Lovell Triggs, The Changing Order: A Study of Democracy (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1908), p.15, online at The Internet Archive.
[5] [“Für das Seltene hat denn freilich die Demokratie keinen Sinn und, wo sie es nicht leugnen oder entfernen kann, haßt sie es von Herzen.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 17. März 1888, Briefe, p.517.
[6] Why he thinks government in accord with popular opinion must be good government, I cannot fathom, except by the gauge of that strange belief that popular opinion is always good.
[7] Anonymous, “The Aristocracy of England”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine,Vol. 54:333, July 1843, p.66, online at the Internet Library of Early Journals.
[8] J.E.E Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton), Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe, in the Quarterly Review 145, January 1878, reprinted in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Vol.1: Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J.R. Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), p. 57.
[9] Samuel Johnson, as quoted by James Boswell, May 1768, Life of Johnson, ed., R.W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.396.
[10] I.e., free society. (Schopenhauer used the term sideroxylon to mean an oxymoron; Nietzsche used the term hölzernes Eisen specifically to refer to a free society.)
[11] [“Der totalitäre Staat ist das genaue Gegenteil des autoritären Staates, und diesem freilich haften keine demokratischen Stigmen an, sondern hierarchische.] Ernst von Salomon, Der Fragebogen (Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1951), p.345
[12] David Hume, “Whether the British Government Inclines More to Absolute Monarchy, or to a Republic”, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed., E.F. Miller, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1987), I.VII.7, online at The Library of Economics and Liberty.


Peter Horne said...

Bertrand De Jouvenel on where it's going:
"Where will it end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone-that of the state.In each man's absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state.In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their equal abasement before the power of their absolute master-the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie between man and man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was there predestined course."

Deogolwulf said...

Ah, that's a great quote, Mr Horne. (I used it here:

Peter Horne said...

Indeed. The book is a veritable treasure-trove of quotable quotes. Not having much spare time it's taking me months just to read it as I keep having to take notes or mark passages of interest. Not something I would normally do! Great stuff and jam-packed with sticks with which to beat the hand-wringers and whimperers.

Deogolwulf said...

"[I]t's taking me months just to read it as I keep having to take notes or mark passages of interest."

I know the experience.

James Higham said...

But if a man does not like government messing in his affairs, why does he become a democrat?

Does he "become" a democrat?

Pietr said...

Apparently there are all sorts of creatures, disguised as people, that act as though they are my commanders.
Funny isn't it.
I'm really not interested in them, their 'governments', their criminals, their police or their ideas.
Obviously they don't possess any products in which I might be interested.

The Scylding said...

This is an extraordinary piece of writing. I'll have to mull over it for a bit. But your analysis is exquisite.

dearieme said...

What would the great man make of the USA? On the face of it, it is a Republic of Laws, governed by an elected monarch. It claims to be a democracy. It seems to be an oligarchical kleptocracy, moderated by a judicial whim of iron. Its people are generous and hospitable, its policemen violent buffoons and its lawyers an affront to decency.

Mencius Moldbug said...

The fallacies of democracy are legion. But perhaps the keystone of the whole foul arch is the way in which the public mind, the sovereign, the surrogate king, is always cause, never effect.

As befits a sovereign, of course. But this in a world of "education," a vast machine made to shape that mind from cradle to grave. La educación es la revolución! The man behind the curtain is not even a man, but something far greater and more grim - an institution.

A church, even. And if we acknowledge this cause behind the cause, we see democracy as what it is - theocracy. With or without gods or God. Tocqueville's phrase was "tutelary despotism." Indeed, we serve Jesuits without robes.

The irony is that, raised as good democrats, we see this equation as a QED indictment, sealed and delivered, of democracy. And if contradiction suffice, so it is. Condemning theocracy, democracy condemns itself.

But contradiction is small vice in a king. And consider the virtues of theocracy - especially our modern brand, centerless, godless and Popeless, Protestant to a fault. (What is atheism, but the ultimate Protestantism?)

Stability, pace Metternich, is the great virtue - and democracy has it. The public mind, great beast though it is, is a tremendous anchor, a vast lead ballast, fatally deluded but not mercurial, foolish but not fickle. Democracy is, or at least appears to be, the great remedy for revolution - and if we fail to praise it on this ground, we are less than honest.

But for me the fatal flaw is that the anchor drags. In the short term, democracy is remarkably stable. In the long it cannot save itself. Like the "autocracies" it so despises, our theocracy has no fixed center. Our democratic great-grandfathers would be slack-jawed at the Satanic inventions of folly to which their young have fallen prey. But they themselves had great-grandfathers, and of better mettle still. Lucifer's parachute is almost perfect.

The lassitude of our great drifting decent, even the rare transient reversal (consider how New York City has retreated from the brink), seems to the reader of history, all the more terrible and inexorable. It is almost enough to wish for some quicker degringolade. For the great direction is clear, and the suspense is brutal.

Perhaps there is no better guide than Froude, who a century ago wrote: "The race of men who now inhabit this island of ours show no sign of degeneracy. The bow of Ulysses is as sound as ever; moths and worms have not injured either cord or horn; but it is unstrung, and the arrows which are shot from it drop feebly to the ground." Alas, the moths and worms have had their way. Ulysses needs a new bow. At least. And his sail seems further every year from Ithaca.

Sean Jeating said...

As almost always, an interesting read. Thank you.
I see your points, and I tend to agree to most of them, but* I find myself confronted with the question I am seemingly not able to find a reasonable answer for: What is/can be a/the alternative?

Do you, or anyone of your esteemed readers, have it?

* ah, I 'love' yes-but constructions ... not. :)

Ilíon said...

Dearieme "What would the great man make of the USA? On the face of it, it is a Republic of Laws, governed by an elected monarch. It claims to be a democracy. It seems to be an oligarchical kleptocracy, moderated by a judicial whim of iron. Its people are generous and hospitable, its policemen violent buffoons and its lawyers an affront to decency."

*gasp* ;)

Deogolwulf said...

Thanks for the comments, upon which I in my turn have been too busy and too lazy to comment. On the matter of alternatives to democracy, Mr Jeating, I am not sure what you mean.

Sean Jeating said...

Dear Mr. Deogowulf,
at least, now you will know why I would not often comment on your site: It's 'cause of my ability to not properly articulate myself in English. :)

Even more seriously. [Trying to explain]
Reading your post I started to think of this scenario:
80 million Germans shouting 'Ah, Sean, you are so marvellous when it comes to criticise, mock, being ironic or even sarcastic; come on, make it better!
To cut it short: I'd have 'a problem'.
And that is why I asked the question above.

And now - with thanks to the Monty Pythons :) - for something completely different: Would you, trusting on that I am no spammer, give me your email-adress?
Mine is:
seanjeating at gmail dot com

The peace of the night.

What about, though, if : 'Se

Deogolwulf said...

Dearieme, on the matter of the oligarchic element in modern popular governments, I hope soonish to give my blog's-worth. I imagine that Mr Hume, at the sight of this strong growth out of democratic soil, would ask to be put back in his grave. Fortunately in his lifetime, he was not able to imagine anything quite so ugly.

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Jeating, my email address is on my profile.