Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Popular Election

It is true that popular election is in principle a competition open to all. No shyster or mountebank is precluded even on the grounds of decency. Yet, as I have just foreshadowed, it is not true that popular election is in practice a competition open to all; for, whether by control of the selection of candidates by political parties or by the unsuitable character of some men, there are many who are unable to stand for popular election. Naturally, for instance, a man of honour is precluded on the very grounds of his honour from becoming a demagogue.
He who, in the consciousness of duty, is capable of disinterested service of the community does not descend to the soliciting of votes, or the crying of his own praise at election meetings in loud and vulgar phrases. Such men manifest their strength in their own work, in a small circle of congenial friends, and scorn to seek popularity in the noisy market-place. If they approach the crowd, it is not to flatter it, or to pander to its basest instincts and tendencies, but to condemn its follies and expose its depravity. To men of duty and honour the procedure of elections is repellent; the only men who regard it without abhorrence are selfish, egoistic natures, which wish thereby to attain their personal ends. To acquire popularity such men have little scruple in assuming the mask of ardour for the public good. They cannot and must not be modest, for with modesty they would not be noticed or spoken of. By their positions, and by the parts which they have chosen, they are forced to be hypocrites and liars; they must cultivate, fraternise with, and be amiable to their opponents to gain their suffrages; they must lavish promises, knowing that they cannot fulfil them; and they must pander to the basest tendencies and prejudices of the masses to acquire majorities for themselves. What honourable nature would accept such a role? Describe it in a novel, the reader would be repelled, but in elections the same reader gives his vote to the living artiste in the same role. [1]
Popular election certainly does not measure anything so airy as a spontaneous and indivisible will of the people; indeed it rarely measures the will of the majority of people even on the simple and manufactured matter of choosing one rather than another of the presented candidates. It serves only as a rather effective mechanism for the selection of bad governors, whose oligarchy is nevertheless seen as rightful for its having been the answer delivered by the greater part of those who do not understand the question.
.....It is always well to be reminded of that delusion whereby the empowerment of the governors through the mechanism of popular election is interpreted to mean the empowerment of the governed. Even some of the governors believe it.

[1] K.P. Pobyedonostseff, Reflections of a Russian Statesman, tr. R.C. Long (London: Grant Richards, 1898), pp.37-8. (I suppose we must count it to the success of the democratic ideal that few men of honour, but many men of keen participation, can now be found.)
.....

18 comments:

Malcolm Pollack said...

But what, then, is to be done?

Deogolwulf said...

Malcolm, if you wish for my "crackpot" opinion on the best means not only for limiting governmental power, not only for preventing power-seekers and demagogues of all kinds gaining the heights of power, but also for the prevention of the suffusion of society by corrosive political mendacity, then I offer to you the prospect of the hereditary principle of government, the benefits of which were well understood until recent times. It is now generally regarded as a ludicrous suggestion, of course, mostly because it is not likely to be realised. As you may appreciate, I am off the charts, politically speaking, but I have no desire to sail back into home-waters for the sake of participation. My "practical" or "realistic" opinions on the improvement of our public governments run to nothing. Such governments are morbid.

I should add that of course the hereditary principle never arose for the sake of liberty. It was simply the expression of the matter of rulers wishing to pass on their property to their offspring –- an occurrence which has another happy accident: rulers are less likely to undermine and more likely to uphold the principle of private property when it forms the very basis of their rule.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Ah. Well, there is that matter of liberty, which is quite dear to some.

Deogolwulf said...

To all.

addofio said...

It all reminds me of the famous quote by Churchill that "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." Probably the best form would be some kind of benign dictatorship; the kicker there is the word "benign". Two kickers, really: 1) how to maintain its benignness (benignity?), and 2) benign in the eyes and experience of whom?

It's hard for me to see how the history of hereditary ruling classes could commend that as a system/principle to the majority of humanity. It didn't even work all that well or consistently for many members of the ruling elite, let alone the rest of us (I tend to assume that if reincarnation is real, I was a peasant in all my past lives.) Although I suppose you might be able to point to a couple of modern cases where it's currently working reasonably well, I'm not sure that would be enough to make your case.

Modern representative democracy has at least the potential within it to correct its own political abuses. Economic abuses are another question altogether. Part of the question of how we might best govern ourselves (an abstract question here, at the level of the species) has to do with access to and distribution of resources. I'm not sure we understand our own psyches well enough to design a system that could be reasonably and consistently fair, or even come up with some definition of what "fair" might mean or look like in action. At least, not one we could all agree on. Many people aren't interested in a fair system, but only in one that maximizes their own access to whatever resources they most value. We all seem to feel entitled to everything we have, plus some of what other people have.

So if you are interested in a discussion of what might be the best political system--let me add to the mix the question of what would constitute the best economic system. And what would we mean by "best" in either case, anyway?
What are our criteria?

Deogolwulf said...

“It’s hard for me to see how the history of hereditary ruling classes could commend that as a system/principle to the majority of humanity.”

Too bad for the majority of humanity. (We are of course not going back in time.)

“It didn’t even work all that well or consistently for many members of the ruling elite, let alone the rest of us”

Not sure what you mean. Working well? In respect of what? Compared to what?

“Modern representative democracy has at least the potential within it to correct its own political abuses.”

We are evidently on different planets, Addofio. What potential corrective mechanism is this? I have neither seen nor heard of it. Modern representative democracy, i.e., the vast managerial-bureaucratic state, is one giant abuse.

addofio said...

Do you perhaps identify with the elite, and assume that if we had a hereditary ruling class, you would be in it? If so, your liking for the system is understandable.

In response to :

“It didn’t even work all that well or consistently for many members of the ruling elite, let alone the rest of us”

you inquire:

Not sure what you mean. Working well? In respect of what? Compared to what?

"Working well" in terms of preservation of life and limb. Assassinations and beheadings were not uncommon events among the hereditary rulers of Europe and Asia. If one were actually a monarch, one's odds of dying of natural causes were not all that good for hundreds if not thousands of years. And if a member of the elite nonetheless differed with the monarch, one risked considerably more than loss of a job.

I live on the same planet as you do, I just have a different point of view. Happens, you know. From my perspective, the possibility for correcting abuses lies in the whole political process, even with all its repellant features. If enough people work hard enough, positive changes can be made, sometimes. That possibility--not the assurance of it, just the possibility--is built into a democratic system. No such corrective measure is built into any kind of dictatorship, especially a hereditary one. Unless assassination counts, I suppose, but somehow I don't think it should.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Addofio,

I'd go with "benignancy", if only for symmetry's sake.

(In your corner on this one, by the way, though I will say that D. does not understate the problem.)

Malcolm Pollack said...

To clarify: at least under our system we get to have a new jackass every four years. I'd hate to always have to kill the old one to get a new one.

The Dandy Highwayman said...

Mr Pollack,

To clarify: at least under our system we get to have a new jackass every four years.

I wish that we did not get a new jackass every four years. I wish that our rulers would think beyond the next election. I wish that our rulers need not concern themselves with lies and promises and short-term solutions that lead to long-term disasters. I wish that our rulers ruled for life.


I'd hate to always have to kill the old one to get a new one.

You do not have to kill a man in order that he may die. Men are capable of dying without the intervention of others.

Your assumption that you would have to resort to assassination reveals an impatience that plagues modern society.

Alright, I realise you were being flippant. Nevertheless, I do not think that a democracy's ability to hold a political circus once every four or five years means that it has the ability to correct its own abuses.

The same unaccountable and dishonourable oligarchs govern, with no sense of duty or obligation, only a different demagogue to placate the governed.

Deogolwulf said...

“Do you perhaps identify with the elite, and assume that if we had a hereditary ruling class, you would be in it? If so, your liking for the system is understandable.”

You seem therefore not to understand my liking for it. I have no wish to be part of any governing class, the present one included. (Are you in the present one?) If power was my burning aim, then determined entry into present government would be the way to go: entry into a system that has far greater power over all manner of aspects of life than any hereditary government has ever had or ever could have. (Besides all, I am not remotely suited by character to be a governor.) Your imputation that I must identify with a governing class in order to be in favour of it shows the signs of this age. Yet, quite to the contrary, and against the ideology of the age, I do not wish to identify with any governing class. I wish for myself and for my fellow members of the governed to be outside of the political interests of the governors as far as that is conducive to the maintenance of the necessary order for the society over which the latter stand as such. That is not possible when the government is not just absolute – which all governments are - but unlimited and conducted putatively in the interests of the people. (Identification of the governed with the governors of the state -- could there be a more telling reminder of the kind of age we have entered?)

“‘Working well’ in terms of preservation of life and limb. Assassinations and beheadings were not uncommon events among the hereditary rulers of Europe and Asia.”

You’d have to be a little more specific. Dark ages, oriental despotism? O tempores, O mores, and so on. Has this anything to do with the mere fact of hereditary succession, or does the observation of the legal process of hereditary succession make such things less likely?

“If enough people work hard enough, positive changes can be made, sometimes."

Trivially true. The same goes for any system.

“That possibility--not the assurance of it, just the possibility--is built into a democratic system. No such corrective measure is built into any kind of dictatorship, especially a hereditary one.”

Again, it is trivially true to say that such possibility is “built into” the democratic system or any other for that matter. (You are inconsistent in maintaining that dictatorship has no possibility of allowing people to make positive changes to it and your entertaining the possibility of benign dictatorship.) But anyway, we are not interested in what is merely possible. (It is logically possible that the permanent civil service comprises a race of super-benevolent aliens who just happen to be hiding the fact very well.) We are interested in a rational assessment of likely effects of the mode of access to government.
Your characterisation of traditional hereditary government as dictatorship whilst maintaining that parliamentary or popular oligarchy remains free of such a mode of government also blithely skates over (i) the historical position of dictatorship vis-à-vis public government, (ii) the traditional binds of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy to the common laws and customs of the land and their restriction by rival authorities, and (iii) the mode of operation of parliamentary government, suffering few such restrictions, since it has destroyed them, a government whereby some people have been elected by some other people, and the former tell the latter what to do. Just because the governed are deluded as to their relation to their governors – typically calling them their servants! -- does not change this fact. But if parliamentary government takes the name of “the best kind of government of all time”, and hereditary-monarchical government takes the name of “dictatorship”, then I am happy to say that I stand against “the best kind of government of all time” in favour of “dictatorship”, because, despite names, the latter is the better form of government than the former.

Politics is a dirty business of which I would prefer to have no part, but it is now a very public business. I wish, however, to be somewhat freer from the interests of the governing class – from their dirty business – but this is not to be found under public-representative governments. I wish also for society at large to be freer from these gigantic and morbid governments which destroy rival social authorities and independent associations. I do not wish society to be sucked dry of life. I do not wish it to become a perpetual battle-ground for the political interests of the governors of the state. And I wish for culture and civility rather than barbarism to be preserved.
I am all for strong government that strictly enforces and preserves law and order. I am all against the unlimited tyranny of the managerial state which promotes the disorder and the antipathy to authority necessary for its own growth.

We have a problem: the destruction, unprecedented before the democratic-republican era, except by barbarian invasion, of the quality of society and culture, with the growth of barbarian irreverence and its elevation to the highest level. Mass-society is the modern-barbarian mode of existence. Perhaps you do not see it that way. Perhaps, for instance, on the matter of culture, you think that Liverpool 2008 can be compared to Vienna 1788 without provoking laughter. Perhaps, on the matter of society, you think a collective and barely differentiated mass bound together by the vast anonymous power of like-minded mass-men can fit under the description of civil society. (If I were to mention the refinement of courtly manners, or of honour amongst a gentlemanly class, you would perhaps laugh in mockery, and quite rightly: such things are utterly absurd in the modern-barbarian context.) But this problem is deep and does not begin with modern public government. The causes of this barbarian age lie deep in the philosophical past. Modern public government is at first a symptom of this barbarism, but it is now also a continuing cause of it.

addofio said...

deogolwulf: You've gotten way too serious here for me. But I will venture to ask--as you asked of me--by what criteria are you judging your governing systems? You aver that monarchy is better than democracy, but you offer no basis for the claim, other than perhaps that a courtly class has better manners than we of the unwashed masses. (I'm really of neither class, being pretty thoroughly middle class, which barely existed prior to the modern era for which you sem to have such distaste, but my roots are far closer to peasant than to courtly, so given the dichotomy, I'll include myself with the unwashed masses.)

Deogolwulf said...

"[Y]ou offer no basis for the claim, other than perhaps that a courtly class has better manners than we of the unwashed masses."

Plainly you are not being serious.

Bruno said...

Such question cannot be answered accordingly in a comment box. I strongly recommend Ortega y Gasset's "The Rebellion of the Masses", an essay which is not quite a monarchist pamphlet - being Ortega y Gasset himself a liberal - but first made me aware of the perils of modern times. It should have an online edition.

jaded said...

“I am all against the unlimited tyranny of the managerial state which promotes the disorder and the antipathy to authority necessary for its own growth.”

I am at one with you here, deogolwulf, managerialism now colonising every corner of life, not just a working one, to the point where the formulation of an independent judgment or thought is a rare thing. Best practice will shortly kill off culture entirely. One puzzle intrigues me – why are we shelling out loads of dosh for our children’s university education when we know that they will never be allowed to exercise their brains in the world of work?

While I’m at it, what might the limits of a hereditary monarch be? Might he or she be able to abolish the human-resources-manager caste, for example? If such powers come into his or her remit, then I could feel myself warming to your suggestions.

jaded said...

Mind you, I should add that I lived in a far-away kingdom for some years and the monarchy did not seem to act as a corrective to corruption, mismanagement, police brutality and barbarianism. But then it was in the ‘Third World’, so I suppose the “rival authorities” that might act as a limit didn’t add up to much. And for the most part the monarch busied himself with the acquisition of wives, the siring of children and the pocketing of much of the country’s wealth, leaving the running of the country to a cohort of western-educated relatives. I think the latter followed the NGOs best practice procedures which made the bribing of officials a little more difficult, although not much.

Underground Dude said...

This addofio character sounds like an Obamaniac hound.

Ptui.

Rusty Mason said...

Democracy is a degenerate form of government for all but the smallest of provinces or townships. A republic or a constitutional monarchy, balanced by a another estate such as the Church, is ideal. However, no form is perfect and all will eventually degenerate into democracy (mob rule) and dictatorship; periodic revolutions become necessary to start over.