Saturday, 31 January 2009

Gleichschaltung

In that famous slogan that fell from the demagogic lips of Abraham Lincoln — “government of the people, by the people, for the people” [1] — the democratic ideal is best expressed. It appears to mean that government of the people should be held by the whole of that people solely in its own interests; but then not only is it an ideal not fulfilled, but one that is impossible to fulfil, at least as regards individual-sentient persons, to whom it is furthermore a great threat. So as to be fulfilled, firstly, the people must be an entity of one mind such that its interests are individual on all matters; and secondly, the whole of the people must constitute the government itself. Yet doubtless it is the case, that, firstly, even persons who are long subject to popular government have not yet all been brought to have the same thoughts or trained to have the same interests; and, secondly, that government is composed of very few persons in relation to those governed by it. If, however, the slogan were meant to express merely that government of the people is to be held by a few persons upon whose entry into government are placed no restrictions of birth, that is to say, that it is in principle open to any of the people, and that such government, though ostensibly performed in the public interest, is in fact performed for all manner of diverse interests, not least for the interests of those in government and of those who have the power to petition it, then it may very well be said that it describes our governments to some extent, but then it is not the democratic ideal — and surely that is not what anyone means by it. When the slogan is taken literally, without twisting the words to fit reality, it describes an ideal that one might call mystical, the perfect fulfilment of which is, as I say, impossible, though I make no such claim as to its near-fulfilment by technological means. It is the occultured ideal of pure and total democracy.
.....Popular government has taken the democratic ideal as the integral strength of its foundation, and, since all popular governors know that their power depends upon its spirit, they are little willing to weaken it. If they try to appease it, by praising it, so they encourage it, and its spirit becomes more a vital element of their governments: concessions and sacrifices must be made to it. Some governors earnestly reckon themselves true servants of this spirit, but naturally they cannot be entirely, at least not unless and insofar as they renounce their personhood to become passive media; for their very personhood and their status as governors of the people — all beliefs and deceptions of being servants thereof aside — means that their own personal and oligarchic interests are immediate. To strengthen their rule, to make it safe, whether or not by an earnest desire to make it safe for democracy, the governors must temper their oligarchy with the democratic spirit. So it is that they become more democratic.
.....For him who doubts the power of the spirit of this ideal, let him contemplate the ghastly aspect under which all political matters must appear; let him think of a political party that does not proclaim itself democratic. Whilst the democratic spirit predominates, oligarchy cannot stand without also being the herald of that opposing spirit.
To-day, all the factors of public life speak and struggle in the name of the people, of the community at large. The government and rebels against the government, kings and party-leaders, tyrants by the grace of God and usurpers, rabid idealists and calculating self-seekers, all are ‘the people’, and all declare that in their actions they merely fulfil the will of the nation. [2]
Under the jealous eye of a people spoiled by the ideal of democracy — a people, that is to say, made jealous of inequalities of power and antipathetic to authority — governors must become “ordinary” men, embodiments of an abstraction by which they might appear no different from the governed who are likewise becoming embodiments thereof. They’re just like you and me — if you and me happen to be just like them. This process — the governors and the governed each becoming like the other — is the process of democratisation. It is the melding-together of popular and governmental interests which occurs even as an oligarchic process against the ideal of democracy. The governors know that a tremour in the foundation can cast them down, they understand that their edifice is built also of other substances from that of its foundation, and they understand, even if only dimly, that democracy is ultimately the enemy of all such edifices, that it would shake everything to its foundation; and that is why, of course, the governors of the modern state seek to secure that foundation by a melding of the substances of edifice and foundation, a measure which, if perfectly realized, would make foundation and edifice one and the same. Thus the ideal of democracy can work itself out by means opposed to it, by the very means designed to stabilise and control it. In other words, the actions that secure the edifice from the instability of the foundations are the very actions that change the substantial character of both until they tend to become one. [3]
.....Purely and strictly conceived, democracy is not, never has been, and never will be a form of government, though we may loosely speak of such. [4] Insofar as it is expressed in government, it is one side of a relation between public opinion and government, the latter of which is oligarchic by its very nature. If, however, the essential ideal of pure democracy — total equality of political influence — were ever to be expressed utterly, democracy thus conceived would entail no government at all, as Marx rightly understood. It is nothing more than the commune.
.....The Marxist claims that, with the victory of his democratic-libertarian ideal [5], not only will the government of the state wither away, but democracy too. In this latter point, however, there is a misunderstanding which is part of the Marxist’s failure to envisage the democratic ideal in its purest form. [6] Under the condition of the ideal, democracy does not wither away; on the contrary, it stands as total fulfilment. Only the politicking and striving of democracy, along with the government of the state, become logically superfluous; for, in the total victory of pure democracy, each unit of the whole is exactly equal in influence to every other: there are no governors and governed, and no striving after equality, and thus no need for democratic politics. If this utopia is to be fulfilled for all time, and not just for five seconds, there must be no individual differences from which any advantage or domination can arise. There must be pure selflessness, and the whole must be of one mind. In other words, pure democracy is the death of the person. It strikes me, however, that in the very strictest sense, this ideal is not only nomologically impossible, according to the iron-law of oligarchy, but logically impossible too; for it seems that a world in which all individuals are exactly the same in political influence must be a world in which they are exactly the same in terms of spatial and causal relations too, which means that they cannot exist as separate, individual bodies at all. Still, the tendency thereto is most destructive.
.....The logical consequences of the pure democratic ideal were envisaged only dimly by Marx. One need not be a Marxist, however, to be a pure democrat. Marxism is but one historical means towards the ideal, a means that was once remarkably successful in gaining acceptance as the truest path, especially amongst intellectuals, even such that those who now speak against it often do so on its terms without realising it; but Marxism now bears a bad name, associated in most people’s minds with the opposite of democracy. As things stand, therefore, Marxism is an unpopular host for the ideal. Indeed it seems that empty heads are the best repository, wherein stands no clear vision of an end, but rather the thoughtless echo of the call for more democracy. A freer, less doctrinaire approach is now being taken in striving after the destruction of personhood.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 19th November 1863. (See the first chapter of W.H. Mallock, The Limits of Pure Democracy (London: Chapman & Hall, 1918) for a discussion of this and other democratic slogans.)
[2] Robert Michels, Political Parties, tr. E. & C. Paul (New York: Hearst’s International Library Co., 1915), p.15. (Professor Michels himself began as a social-democrat, then became a revolutionary socialist, and ended up a Fascist, which latter form he believed to be the most democratic.)
[3] The evolution of the idea that leadership is not oligarchic and therefore not at odds with democracy can be witnessed in the development of the various social-democratic parties and unions of Europe. It runs as follows: (i) leadership is oligarchic and undemocratic and we eschew it; (ii) leadership is necessary to effect democracy; (iii) it is ridiculous to suggest that leadership is undemocratic and that we should eschew it. (For more on such parties and their evolution, see Roberts Michels, ibid., and W.H. Mallock, op.cit.)
[4] “[A]ll current definitions of democracy err, even before they are stated, by reason of a false assumption which underlies the formulation of all of them. They all assume that democracy is a system of government of some kind. This is precisely what, except in primitive and minute communities, pure democracy is not, nor ever has been, nor ever can be. It is not and never can be a system of government of any kind. It is simply one principle out of two, the other being that of oligarchy, which two may indeed be combined in very various proportions, but neither of which alone will produce what is meant by a government”. W.H. Mallock, ibid.
[5] “The first problem of all democracy is to define ‘the people’ who are to be the sovereign body. Sooner or later, this always means some sort of purge of anti-social or non-national elements.” Lord Percy of Newcastle, The Heresy of Democracy (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954), p.40. The Marxist defines the people as the proletarian class. The bourgeois class — which is a broad category in the Marxian scheme — is not of the people and is indeed the enemy thereof.
[6] For example: “Communism alone is capable of giving really complete democracy, and the more complete it is the more quickly will it become unnecessary and wither away of itself.” V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), p.107.

18 comments:

Fisher Ames said...

Indeed, the central problem with "democracy" properly understood is that "the people" is the most wild of abstractions. There are persons, and interests, and groups but never has there been a "people" who have a set will that can be manifested in government -this of course is people in the sense of "demos." We can only even begin to conceive what is meant by "the people" when we define the people either territorially, or ethnically, or by their loyalties, etc. -that is, when we are conceiving of them as a historical fact, not a political presence.

As for the phrase, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," it is masterful rhetoric, but unfortunately contradictory. Government by "the people," ending so often in the tyranny of one or the tyranny of the many, is often opposed to government for "the people," which would be one based on the commonwealth, the Republic.

The pure meaning of democracy has been altered so much as to become nearly meaningless.

Cheers,
F. Ames

Underground Dude said...

Seminal essay.

The ultimate end of egalitarian democracy is indeed the utter annihilation of the individual; the process of grinding all individuals into a uniform whole. Those who defend this "ideal" extol the virtues of self-effacement; they exult in being part of something they deem bigger than themselves.

Round, fair, and considerate are they to one another, as grains of sand are round, fair, and considerate to grains of sand.
— Thus spake Zarathustra, The Bedwarfing Virtue


I would add that Marxism wasn't as influential in the foundation of modern democracy as the French revolutionary ideals which fluctuated in and out throughout the nineteenth century before finally becoming the example followed even by the Brazilian rabble that kicked out the royal family in 1889.

A peculiar example of these ideals can be found in the Memoirs of the Prince de Joinville, a recommendable work:


Of politics, my pet aversion, I will not speak. I had sufficient curiosity, before writing these lines, to look through the back numbers of the Moniteur for that period, and started in horror at the terrible accumulation of useless chatter I came upon. In contrast to these torrents of fairly inoffensive eloquence, the unofficial press indulged in a large amount of intemperate writing, far more dangerous, seeing that it flattered more passions, and that the calumnies thus spread were much farther reaching. The Government, honest, useful, and enlightened as it was, consistently patriotic and far-seeing, was able as yet to thread its way amongst the obstacles cast in its path. Six more years were to elapse before it was to be completely hemmed in, and the deluded mob to dance wildly round the throne it had overturned singing the democratic creed, the chorus of every revolution we have had the last hundred years.

Demolissons
Tant que nous pourrons!
Après, nous verrons
Ce que nous ferons.

dearieme said...

It's a knotty problem, how best we should be governed. I was amused to see, some time ago, someone arguing that the IQ of US Presidents had trended down as the franchise was extended, because people like to vote for candidates only a little more intelligent than themselves. But perhaps only Americans are really happy to attribute IQs to people for whom they have no measurements.

Fisher Ames said...

"Demolissons
Tant que nous pourrons!
Après, nous verrons
Ce que nous ferons."

What a brilliant quote! It should be inscribed at the entrance-way of every modern university, to replace the antiquated "Veritas" and such.

Underground Dude said...

Yeah, too bad they wouldn't actually demolish anything.

dearieme said...

"that famous slogan that fell from the demagogic lips of Abraham Lincoln": I saw a blog discussion recently where someone reported having found the origin of that slogan - pre-Lincoln, of course. Is anyone here good enough at Google to find it again?

Deogolwulf said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, fellas. Mr Dude, I have now downloaded de Joinville's book, and shall have a good read of it. Dearieme, regarding the origin of Lincoln's slogan, I have just found a little information on it at wikipedia: here.

dearieme said...

"of abolitionist minister Theodore Parker": thanks, Mr D. That rings a bell, though I have a notion that someone had found an even earlier use - and not by an American.

dearieme said...

Got it. The thing I saw was at

http://volokh.com/posts/1231883593.shtml

and the source was found to be Wycliffe's Bible.

dearieme said...

Darn it, that link's not much use. May I suggest that anyone who's interested visit The Volokh Conspiracy and looks at the posts of Jan 13? A commenter wrote:-

"The prologue to John Wycliffe's English translation of the Bible, dated 1384, includes this observation:


The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.



Lincoln was most likely quoting Wycliffe."

Deogolwulf said...

Dearieme, Wycliffe's translation can be found here. I made a quick search of "puple", but could find no fitting result. I then visited The Volokh Conspiracy, and found this post. It seems no one else has had any luck finding the source of the slogan in Wycliffe's prologue.

dearieme said...

Oh dear. Thanks for the warning/tip/correction/spank. Perhaps it was Jan Huss, then?

Deogolwulf said...

It was plausible, and who knows if the slogan goes back to Huss? On a topic somewhat related, I wonder if you have read Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. If not, I can recommend it.

dearieme said...

Before or after I attempt War & Peace?

dearieme said...

The Roman version - Government of the Purple, by the Purple, for the Purple. At last, we return to your point.

Deogolwulf said...

Surely before. I hear that Tolstoy's book contains digressions in which a man can loose himself for days. You could always satisfy yourself with Woody Allen's speed-read synopsis: It's about Russia.

Power to the Purple!

Honorius Monkeymember said...

the people are shit, but they are the only people we have. the real problem of democracy is not bad government, it is consciousness of bad government, and the immanent even if illusory possibility of change. There is something grotesquely hegelian about it. a kind of uberconsciousness that swallows all our hopes. hence blogs and ugly pieces of modern paraphernalia.

Honorius Monkeymember said...

"...and other pieces..."