September 17, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Mirage, Part I
IT IS A PRINCIPLE as well known as it is rarely plumbed, that what stands nearest to us is for that reason hardest to perceive with clarity and perspective. It appears to our eyes large, too large to comprehend the whole form of it, and too real and immediate to conceive of its true temporality and transience. And so we rest complacent with our awareness of but bits and pieces of it, here and there. In some cases—as that which we will here consider—it does not even suffice to say that “one does not see the forest for the trees,” for in a very real and pertinent sense, one does not know of the existence of the forest at all. But it is equally true that without grasping the whole, without apprehending the form, one sees everywhere and always only—skin.
Speaking practically, in our day nothing in all of the West stands nearly so “near” to us as democracy. Leaving aside those who lived beneath the last (and mildest) manifestations of Soviet Communism, no one today in the West has ever known anything but; democracy is to all practical purposes the only alternative, 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 are surely either in some fundamental way ill of mind or spirit. It is understood—it is never so much as called into question—that democracy is the best possible kind of government, either in the sense of being the ideal form of human society, desirable in itself, or else in the sense of being the practically best form. By this latter understanding, which one might call the pragmatic argument in favor 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. Or, 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. All licit critiques of the present system amount to suggestions for its perfection, 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 come only from a profound and comprehensive analysis of democracy as a system, together with a thorough comparative analysis of democracy with respect to the other possible forms of government. It is most suggestive that such analysis can be most surely found in antiquity in the classic philosophers—the same philosophers who to a one rejected democracy as one of if not the worst of all possible regimes. Some centuries ago it was still possible to find competent critics of contemporary democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville and Joseph de Maistre. In contemporary times, meanwhile, one looks in vain for such a study. 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 desirability of one 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 are something other than the mere extremification of democratic principle. There have also been as of late competent works from the point of view of the Right which have better taken democracy to task, and even sought to reevaluate certain “outdated” historical forms. One thinks for instance of Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World, and in a more qualified way the work of Alain de Benoist. 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: democracy does not exist.
This of course appears on the face of it absurd, insofar as we speak daily of “our democracy” and in countless ways reference it, even in commonplace events like “voting” or “watching the news” or “protesting,” etc. Let us then be more specific. It is surely true that a system of government exists and has existed which goes by the name “democracy,” and which arises in its own distinctive forms and qualities in various epochs of our human history. Yet upon careful review, it appears that one of the most distinctive of those qualities, from an objective standpoint, is the enormous distance really standing between the beliefs of its citizens as to its modes of rule and its mechanisms of power, and its true modes of rule and mechanisms of power. 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 at all as it is thought to exist. Everything which is commonly believed about it is contradicted by its reality, and is thus revealed either as a lie or a delusion. To that extent, democracy is nothing better than a figment.
Only as we see the truth of our situation, can we possibly hope to withstand the pressure of coming times, or prepare ourselves for what might come after.
Let us begin then with the conventional understanding. Democracy in this or any time must be taken to mean 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 with other 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 more or less limited popular will. There can be legitimate or illegitimate restraints on this will; all legitimate restraints are such as preserve or purify it in order to benefit “the people”; all illegitimate such as curb or frustrate it in order to benefit some ulterior power.
It would be well for us to pause here, for we have already made a statement which ought make us wonder. For what is the nature of these legitimate limits 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. The justification of such a system 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 endangerment of the same. This is indeed so fundamental a problem that democracy evidently cannot be permitted to exist as democracy, but must be tempered by so many non-democratic means. And this should already make us wonder—is democracy really so desirable as it is made out to be?
Indeed, this is really the force of what might be called the classic Enlightenment form of government, which—if its prime theoreticians, practitioners, and founders are to be given credence—was never supposed to be democracy, but rather republic, meaning that system by which the basic flaw of democracy (its tendency to dissolve through the factional 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, democracy does not.
Well might it be responded here 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 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 an inebriated 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 respond that the “institutional perfection” of any given system surely cannot come through contradiction of that system’s defining principles—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 denaturaing.
But let that be as it may. Let us for the moment accept the premise here proffered by the defender of democracy and proceed whither it might lead us.
There are two essential pieces which must be analyzed in any study of representative government: the 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 and as we are presently allowing) 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.